We recently re-visited one of our favorite boutique hotels, Hacienda San Angel, on Mexico’s beautiful Pacific coast in Puerto Vallarta and it remains one of the best luxury options for travelers with an eye for colonial art and an ache for romance.
The hotel is an iconic part of the town’s history. Puerta Vallarta, while not as young as some of Mexico’s beach towns (Cancun and Los Cabos were developed only about 50 years old), doesn’t have a particularly long and illustrious history either. One hundred years ago it was a simple supply port for San Sebastián del Oeste, a mining town about an hour and a half inland. Ships would arrive and supplies would be hauled up the river by horse – at the time the only transportation route through the tropical landscape. When the San Sebastián mine closed families slowly trickled out from the inland and started building houses along the coast, but PV was mostly a fishing village until the 1960s. The town didn’t really hit it big until John Huston was convinced by a Mexican developer that he should come and scout the location for shooting one of his films. Houston fell in love with then-still-tiny Puerto Vallarta, at a time when the town wasn’t even listed on most Mexican maps.
When Huston brought his Night of the Iguana stars to Puerto Vallarta, the sexy, young Richard Burton thought it would be the ideal location for hiding his blossoming romance with actress Elizabeth Taylor from prying eyes – no paparazzi would ever find them here. But as the affair was discovered, so was Puerto Vallarta and their legendary romance brought a generation of tourists to this coastal town bewitched by the turquoise waters and mellow, seaside ambiance. The area of town where Hacienda San Angel is located is often referred to as “Gringo Gulch” according to San Angel’s manager Juana, because it was the only place U. S. ex-pats wanted to build and buy houses – it had the best ocean views in town.
The house weaves neatly into the town’s history – it was a Valentine Day gift from Burton to his third wife Susan Hunt, whom he married only a few months after his second divorce from Taylor. Hacienda San Angel right around the corner from Casa Kimberly (the hotel’s sister property, the Taylor/Burton two-house complex connected by a bridge that spans the narrow street between them).
Janice Chatterton, the owner of both properties bought the original Hacienda San Angel villa directly from Burton’s widow to serve as her summer home. The hotel’s current central patio was the pool and its kitchen the pool bar. There were only two bedrooms then on the top floor: Celestial – Burton and Hunt’s bedroom that looked out over the sea with its palapa-topped patio and breeze-catching windows on every side – and their guest room, cozier and darker with a view to the sea but without the expansiveness of the Burton bedroom.
Over the next several years Chatterton started purchasing the houses around her; the back house for its patio for her German Shepherd and Dalmatian (now suites, the hotel’s restaurant patio and two swimming pools); then the house next door because it was up for sale; and suddenly she had 9 rooms and people started asking, “Why don’t you just start a hotel?” That eventually came to be, with today’s Hacienda San Angel consisting of a total of four houses and 20 rooms.
Because Chatterton wasn’t intending the property to be recommissioned as a hotel she decorated it to suite her own preferences, filling the courtyards, rooms and niches with colonial art, tapestries, antique furniture, romantically draped bed linens and ethereal curtains. A Venetian chandelier circa 1850 hangs in the Celestial suite, a nude sketch by famed Mexican artist Ernest Muñoz Acosta in the Garden of Angels Suite, and a Renaissance Revival armoire in the Crown View suite. Each guest is provided with a list of the unique objets d art in their room, their history and importance. The vibe is decidedly NOT beachy. The rooms feel more like the cool, contemplative tranquility of a colonial monastery than a rowdy all-inclusive or chic beach boutique, but it does what it does well and the romantic luxury is addictive.
The hotel’s restaurant, Hacienda San Angel Gourmet, is directed by chef Eduardo Michaga Lucero, with a wide variety of international and Mexican cuisine options – everything from ceviche to roasted chicken topped with huitlacoche. Gourmet is so popular during the high season that non-guests have to make a reservation at least two weeks in advance. This restaurant, along with the new The Iguana at Casa Kimberly next door, draw local, retired ex-pats like flies to honey and make up part of PV’s senior social scene.
One of the biggest advantages in our eyes is that San Angel is in the heart of downtown Puerto Vallarta, and the town has lots to do besides beaches – food tours, a trip to Iglesia de Guadalupe and its massive crown cupola, craft beer, a stroll down the malecon in the evening, late-night boozing in some of Burton’s old haunts – all can be enjoyed if you’re looking for a more authentic, local Mexican experience. Then again the aquatic delights are always available and near-by snorkeling, waterfall jumping, sunset boat rides and island-hopping can all be arranged just minutes from downtown and Hacienda San Angel.