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A king, movie stars and a spy draw tourists to Mexico

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This is the story of four Mexican vacation destinations, and how celebrities helped put them on the map. Today, three are among the country's most popular beach resorts. The fourth was a little town in the mountains before Uncle Sam agreed to pay American artists to go to school there – thanks to a deal swung by a World War II secret agent. (More about that later.)

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Acapulco made the charts in the 1920s, when Great Britain's Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VIII) dropped by what was then a remote bay on the Pacific to do some big game fishing. He liked the area so much he told his upper-crust friends about it, and they told their friends, and so on. Soon, the bay and its powdery beaches were full of European royals, rich Mexicans, American movie stars and the like.

Later on, celebs helped transform the once-tiny villages of Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo into mega-resorts. Vallarta's big break came in 1964, when reporters from across the globe showed up there to catch snippets of superstars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – both married to other people at the time – cavorting around town during director John Huston's filming of “Night of the Iguana.”

Fifteen years later, a middle-aged composer (played by Dudley Moore) chased a sexy young newlywed (Bo Derek's character) around the beaches and bedrooms of Manzanillo's luxury hotel Las Hadas in the movie “10.” Tourists flocked to the resort, and particulary the hotel (built by a Bolivian tin magnate in 1974) after scenes of its Moorish fantasy-like architecture filled the world's movie screens.

A reputed World War II spy helped another of today's popular Mexican destinations get its start, this one up in the Sierra Madres.

The story goes back to 1948, when Life Magazine published a feature article headlined “G.I. Paradise: Veterans go to study art, live cheaply and have a good time.” The story mentioned that students could rent an apartment in the inland city of San Miguel de Allende (better known as just San Miguel) for $10 a month, hire a maid for $8 a month and buy rum for 65 cents a quart – and all while drawing educational benefits available to U.S. veterans of World War II.

Right after that, 6,000 applications poured in.

American painters, sculptors, writers, weavers, potters and poets have been coming to San Miguel to study, play and open galleries ever since. Thousands of ex-pat retirees moved in, too, many drawn by the ambiance of the art culture in an old-world colonial setting of Baroque churches, cobbled lanes and bougainvillea-draped homes.

So who turned the city into a paradise for the arts set? Meet Stirling Dickinson, an American artist who came here in the late 1930s to help run the newly opened Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, San Miguel's first art school. Dickinson was also a great pr man, and his stories about the school got a good play on both sides of the border, in turn helping to boost enrollments.

Fast-forward to 1945, when Dickinson cut a deal with the U.S. Government – some say in return for his having worked as an American secret agent ferreting out Nazi spies in Mexico during the war – to get the Bellas Artes approved for veterans' benefits. Later on he did likewise for the Instituto Allende, another school he founded in the city.

All this started the ball rolling, and it kept rolling and rolling. Today, besides being packed with artists and retirees (along with other ex-pats, all told accounting for perhaps one out of 10 of the city's 80,000 or so residents), San Miguel is among Mexico's most-visited inland tourist attractions.

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