Two Home Fronts

Maybe it was the quaint pueblo homes dotting the crooked hillside streets, the way villagers gathered on their front porches on warm evenings, or the lilting peal of the town’s church bells, but somehow, when David Schwartz’s parents took him to Puerto Vallarta on vacation in the late 1960s, he knew he would own a home there one day. 

“I was hooked on the place right then and there,” the Belvedere resident and Coldwell Banker realty agent says. “It struck me as an incredible place, an old city with a soul. It was only later that I realized what a seductive place it was, and that feeling has stayed with me all these years.”

Belvedere is special to Schwartz, too. As a child, he spent time there at his grandmother’s weekend retreat, one of the original cottages built by the Belvedere Land Company. 

Back then, he says, “Belvedere was a sleepy little place without the stature it has today. Our family spent a lot of time here. The lagoon was just a quiet pond, and we’d go fishing off the dock, play ‘pirates’ in boats or conquer vacant lots, of which there were many in those days. It was a real playground.”

Five years ago, Schwartz bought a similar home, also built by the Belvedere Land Company, and had it remodeled and re-landscaped. The two-bedroom, two-bath house has two full kitchens; it’s in the outdoor one under a heated, open-sided pavilion, that he typically entertains friends. There Schwartz has everything he needs for a relaxed evening: sink and stove, refrigerator and dishwasher, a long stainless steel counter and a center island, cable TV. “It’s great for cooking and sitting around and talking all night.”

His house is near town, close to everything he needs, and he likes “that most of the year I get sun all day long.”

He might say the same about Puerto Vallarta, where he owns a vintage one-bedroom casa in the hills above town and recently invested in an ultramodern condominium on the beach. “Both Belvedere and P.V. are hillside communities with access to the waterfront, but Belvedere is very quiet and residential and P.V. is anything but that,” he notes. “It’s exciting and busy and the nightlife doesn’t get started until midnight.”

That might surprise those who recall Puerto Vallarta from its days as a drowsy fishing village, but the city is indeed now a thriving mix of five-star restaurants and world-class hotels, glamorous high-rises and old-world architecture.

Dining out is Schwartz’s favorite activity, both here and south of the border, though he’s always ready to suggest other activities for guests. In the Bay Area there are trips to San Francisco and the wine country and days on the bay in his powerboat. In Puerto Vallarta, he points his friends to art galleries and shopping spots (“both elegant Beverly Hills–style malls and little Mexican shops”). Water sports buffs can find various wave-running, parasailing, waterskiing and snorkeling concessions on the beach. Nature lovers might choose exotic bird or orchid tours in the mountains, boat trips up the river, hiking or dirt-biking on area trails, or zip-lining through jungle canopies. 

When Polly Johnston, Schwartz’s friend and colleague, visited him in Mexico last spring, she chose activities close to town. “Puerto Vallarta is charming and the beaches are serene,” she says. “I’m a water person, so we walked up and down the Malecon (a sculpture-lined oceanfront promenade) every day; (we also) went to several art museums and lots of shops and ate at very sophisticated restaurants.”

She stayed in the garden casita behind Schwartz’s house, located on the edge of Gringo Gulch, one of the original enclaves of Americans expats living in Puerto Vallarta. The area dates back to the 1960s when the movie Night of the Iguana and its stars Richard Burton and Liz Taylor put Puerto Vallarta on the international map.

Three years ago, Schwartz spotted a house for sale on his way to lunch at Burton’s former home, now the Hacienda San Angel, a luxury boutique hotel owned by San Anselmo expatriate Janice Chatterton. He wasn’t sold on that home, but when his realtor showed him another one, right near the Hacienda but on another street, “I knew I was a sucker for it from the minute I walked through the door,” he recalls. “ It was perfect.” He bought it and renamed it Casa Angelito.

The home’s top floor has big views of the famous horseshoe-shaped Banderas Bay and the crown-shaped bell tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, glimpsed over red tile rooftops. From the two-story-high wall of open fretwork there’s a view into the private garden, filled with tropical blossoms and flowering vines.

“The minute you walk in, there’s an incredible feeling and allure about the house,” Schwartz says. “There are views of the bay from point to point and the location is fantastic, within walking distance to great restaurants and shops.” The place even came with furnishings from the previous owner, Mary Sue Morris, a Texan well known in Puerto Vallarta for her fashionable boutiques. “I didn’t have to decorate,” Schwartz says. “I just added some personal pieces to put my own signature on it.”

The garden is embellished naturally with sunbathing iguanas, brightly colored parrots and cheerful songbirds—plus sounds from the neighboring homes. “It’s very common to have livestock in and around the houses here,” Schwartz says. “I often hear roosters and pigs or the bray of a donkey. It’s a beautiful thing.”  

As much as he loved his casa, Schwartz later began to “fixate” on the Peninsula, a collection of three sleek steel-and-glass condominium towers going up on the beach along Banderas Bay. “They were such a juxtaposition to everything else.” Last year he bought a 3,500-square-foot 21st-floor unit there and plans to use it as a vacation rental. The air-conditioned three-bedroom, four-bath condo wraps around three sides of the building with nine-foot-high windows framing views of the sparkling bay. He’s outfitted it with “custom furnishings, selected art, hotel-style mattresses, high-thread-count sheets and Bulgari bath products.”

Maybe it’s the real estate agent in him, but Schwartz believes more Marinites would consider a second home in Puerto Vallarta if they knew how easy it was to purchase one these days. “North Americans used to have to pay all cash to buy a house here because there were no mortgages available,” he says. “But local banking laws have changed now, and there are really good lenders in Mexico who look at the real estate market quite favorably.”

He’s so encouraged that he’s now opened a mortgage company catering to North Americans called Conficasa Mortgage International.

“Mexico is the number one place where North Americans retire,” he points out. “The weather is ideal most of the time, just like in Marin; the cuisine compares with that of San Francisco; health care is geared toward North Americans; the cost of living is lower; and we have Costco, Wal-Mart and Home Depot.”

Traveling between the two countries is easy, too. “It’s only three hours on the plane and there are a couple of direct flights to P.V. every day,” Schwartz says. “A lot of my friends have weekend homes up at Tahoe; that’s a four-hour trip. Instead of Tahoe, I have my weekend place in P.V.”