Sunday, March 29, 2009

Las Vegas

Las Vegas is the most dynamic, spectacular city on earth. At the start of the twentieth century, it didn't even exist; at the start of the twenty-first, it's home to well over one million people, with enough newcomers arriving to need a new school every month.

Las Vegas is not like other cities. No city in history has so explicitly valued the needs of visitors above those of its own population. All its growth has been fueled by tourism, but the tourists haven't spoiled the "real" city; there is no real city. Las Vegas doesn't have fascinating little-known neighborhoods, and it's not a place where visitors can go off the beaten track to have more authentic experiences. Instead, the whole thing is completely self-referential; the reason Las Vegas boasts the vast majority of the world's largest hotels is that around thirty-seven million tourists each year come to see the hotels themselves.

The casinos want you to gamble, and they'll do almost anything to lure you in; thus the huge moving walkways that pluck you from the Strip sidewalk, almost against your will, and sweep you into places like Caesars Palace. Once you're inside, on the other hand, the last thing they want is for you to leave. Whatever you came in for, you won't be able to do it without crisscrossing the casino floor innumerable times; as for finding your way out, that can be virtually impossible. The action keeps going day and night, and in this windowless – and clock-free – environment you rapidly lose track of which is which.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Puerto Vallarta

PUERTO VALLARTA is smaller, quieter and younger than Acapulco. In its own way, it is actually every bit as commercial – perhaps more so, since here tourism is virtually the only source of income – but appearances count for much, and Puerto Vallarta, while doing all it can to catch up with Acapulco, appears far less developed and retains a more Mexican feel.

It lies in the middle of the 22-kilometre wide Bahía de Banderas, the seventh largest bay in the world, fringed by endless sandy beaches and backed by the jungly slopes of the Sierra Madre. Its hotels are scattered along several miles of coast with the greatest concentration in Nuevo Vallarta, north of the town and sliced through by an eight-lane strip of asphalt. Just south of Nuevo Vallarta is the new marina, where you can stroll along the boardwalk and have a look at how the other half live, on beautiful boats. Despite the frantic development of the last decade, the historic town centre, with its cobbled streets and white-walled, terracotta-roofed houses, sustains the tropical village atmosphere, an asset assiduously exploited by the local tourist authorities.

The town's relative youth is undoubtedly a contributing factor. Until 1954 Puerto Vallarta was a small fishing village where the Río Cuale spills out into the Bahía de Banderas; then Mexicana airlines, their hand forced by Aeroméxico's monopoly on flights into Acapulco, started promoting the town as a resort. Their efforts received a shot in the arm in 1964, when John Huston chose Mismaloya, 10km south, as the setting for his film of Tennessee Williams' play The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton. The scandalmongering that surrounded Burton's romance with Elizabeth Taylor – who was not part of the cast but came along – is often attributed to putting Puerto Vallarta firmly in the international spotlight: "a mixed blessing" according to Huston, who stayed on here until his death in 1987, and whose bronze image stands on the Isla Río Cuale in town.