Soon after reaching Mexico in the 16th century, the Spanish recognized the value of the vast Bahía de Banderas as a safe harbor where sailors could stock up on fresh water and firewood, and where naos (galleons) returning from the Philippines could seek refuge from pirates. However, this stretch of coast played second fiddle to the main regional port of San Blas, and it was only in the 1800s that the bay’s main settlement, Las Peñas, began to flourish as a supply center for the silver mining towns further inland.
In 1918, Las Peñas was renamed Puerto Vallarta (in honor of Jalisco governor Ignacio Vallarta) and a new economy grew up around agriculture and small-scale tourism. The pace of development accelerated in 1954, when Mexicana planes filled with tourists started landing on the town’s dirt airstrip. A decade later, director John Huston chose the nearby deserted cove of Mismaloya as a location for the film of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. Hollywood paparazzi descended on the town to report on the tempestuous romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Vallarta suddenly became world-famous, with an aura of steamy tropical romance. Travelers have been pouring in ever since.