By Amy Thibodeau
Puerto Vallarta wasn't always the tourism mecca it is today. Prior to the 1960s it was just a small port town with about 10,000 inhabitants; and then in 1964 Hollywood royalty Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Director John Houston moved in to film The Night of the Iguana, penned by Tennessee Williams. During the filming, Burton brought his soon to be wife Elizabeth Taylor and by all accounts they both fell in love with the sea side town. When I try to imagine what Puerto Vallarta must have been like in 1964, I can't help but think of San Blas - a small town of about 8,000 residents a two hour bus ride North - minus the bugs. Having just spent five weeks in San Blas, I understand the sense of seclusion it must have offered to the couple who were used to being hunted by paparazzi everywhere they went. Even today, the winding, narrow cobble stone streets of Puerto Vallarta are steep and navigating isn't easy if you don't know where you're going. Street names don't necessarily mesh with what is on the map and in some cases a street will end only to restart abruptly around a corner or just up a hill. The high walls around most properties and the roof top verandas are not easily accessed by prying eyes.
Burton bought Casa Kimberley, which is located in the middle of the old town area of Puerto Vallarta, allegedly as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor's 34th birthday. She owned it throughout their two marriages (and divorces) and until about ten years after Burton's death in the early 90s. There isn't a lot of information about Casa Kimberley online, but by some accounts Taylor stopped visiting the house after Burton's sudden death. According to one interview, with the daughter of an old Casa Kimberley housekeeper, "She claimed Liz had returned for a couple visits [after the divorce], the last being after Richard's death. She could not even spend the night in the casa. The memories were too painful".
I was excited at the prospect of seeing the love nest of what is arguably one of the most passionate and tempestuous relationships of the past century but mostly, I wanted to see the vestiges of the 60s design. When Elizabeth Taylor sold the property in the early 90s, she left almost everything: clothes hanging in the closets, the heart shaped bathtub, magazines on the coffee table, photographs ... As though she wanted to leave an entire life of memories behind her. The people who bought the place turned it into part bed and breakfast (each guest room named after a different Taylor or Burton film) and maintained the rest as a kind of living museum to the time the couple spent in Mexico.
Having seen nothing to indicate that this has changed, the other day we trudged through dusty Vallarta with a badly hand drawn map in search of Casa Kimberley - sure that we would be able to spot it by the curved pink bridge that connected the two parts of the property across the narrow Calle Zaragosa. We went across the river, through the local artisan market and finally took a steep climb up a convoluted passage of streets, none of which really corresponded to my badly rendered map. We almost gave up twice. Back in the area that Casa Kimberley is built there are a number of impressive, larger homes and it is quiet with none of the bustle of the touristy area nearer to the seafront. But then, after rounding a corner, I saw the little bridge, which was called 'Lover's Arch', still delicate but also sad and neglected - it's pink and white paint peeling.
Even from about five meters away, it was obvious that Casa Kimberley had changed. The structure on the North side of the street was completely gone, leaving only a skeletal cement outline of where a new building would be going up. An old Mexican man sat about three stories up, shirtless and watching us - probably a worker - though it didn't look like a lot of progress had been made recently. The small structure on the South side of the road was more intact - it's structure of lovely little look out windows visible. I peeked into one of the lower windows and could see a beautiful round blue tiled pool, unmaintained, and rooms filled with about two feet of water. It too was a construction zone.
There was no furniture, nothing to indicate who had ever lived there or what the place had been, except for a little tile sign that said 'Casa Kimberley' and then around the corner another little sign that read 'Casa Taylor' with an arrow pointing back up the street. The larger structure had a laminated piece of paper glued to the door that indicated that a bank now owned the property and that it was being turned into condos. Sad.
I have no idea when the Casa Kimberley museum closed, but I did find an old real estate listing:
Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton's Honeymoon Hideaway !
Step back into a time of romance & passion.......Where one of the worlds greatest love affairs, existed in a time of innocence
Casa Kimberley is one of the most famous landmarks on the Mexican Riviera's Gold Coast, and undoubtably the most celebrated property in PUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICO !
It is little known fact, Elizabeth Taylor sold the villas intact, including Exclusive Art / Original Memorabillia / Antiques / Furniture Clothes / Personal Photographs / Letters to the current owner, as part of the agreement. These items will be included in the sale & have considerable value.
There's another, slightly less colorful real estate listing here.
Like the Burton/Taylor love affair, I guess nothing lasts forever - even a villa carved high onto the side of the mountain overlooking Banderas Bay. Still, I wonder where all her letters and photographs ended up and whether anyone thought to save the iconic heart shaped tub. Mexico is filled with ghosts and Casa Kimberley is one of them; no more than an empty slab of concrete, with very little to indicate that it was ever loved.
Burton and Taylor on the Casa Kimberley Deck from Squidoo . All other photos by Amy Thibodeau