Puerto Vallarta’s diverse elements appeal to a wide range of visitors
It’s hard to name a gay resort destination in North America that has more going for it than Puerto Vallarta, a fast-growing city on the Pacific Coast’s fabled Mexican Riviera. PV’s historic downtown (“El Centro”) is nestled beneath the verdant slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Just south of El Centro, in Zona Romantica, you’ll find a bustling gay scene comprising hip martini bars, pulsing dance clubs, relatively affordable hotels and condo rentals, and critically acclaimed restaurants. But there’s far more to this friendly city that offers everything from posh full-service resorts, exhilarating recreational activities, and gorgeous scenery.
With a population of roughly 220,000, Puerto Vallarta has seen huge growth in recent years, to the point that it bears little resemblance to the sleepy fishing port that provided the 1963 filming location for the movie version of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. Star Richard Burton and new love Elizabeth Taylor, who joined him on the shoot, became entranced with the city – they bought a house here together during filming.
In recent years, PV has developed into one of Mexico’s most desirable resorts, its diverse elements appealing to a wide range of visitors. It’s a major port on the Mexican Riviera cruise-ship circuit (along with Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan, Acapulco, and Manzanillo). Sprawling international resorts and condo developments, which have been built from the edge of downtown to many miles north of the city, attract families, retirees, and honeymooners. Sporting and adventure enthusiasts come for the zip-lining forest canopy tours, scuba diving, mountain biking, deep-sea fishing, and many other outdoorsy activities.
Zona Romantica is a compact patchwork of hilly lanes tucked beneath the Sierra Madre foothills. The neighborhood fringes Los Muertos Beach and narrow auto and pedestrian bridges connect the district with El Centro. The relative isolation of Zona Romantica, as well as its elegantly faded veneer and historic charm, may very well account for its ever-increasing draw among gay visitors and bohemian types. It’s a neighborhood that celebrates its insularity and diversity – everyone is welcome, but especially during the bustling high season (from about December through April), certain blocks of Zona Romantica seem at least as gay as the downtowns of Provincetown and Palm Springs.
There are a few more general attributes that further enhance Puerto Vallarta’s standing. Although the city has become significantly more expensive as its star has risen, it’s still less costly than many other alluring tropical resorts. Dinner entrees at top restaurants rarely cost more than $25 and often run $10 to $15. Hotel rates, cab rides, cocktails, fashionable clothing, and handcrafted gifts also tend to cost less than those in the Caribbean, Hawaii, or California, although it’s absolutely possible to find high-end exceptions to many of these rules.
Although it helps to understand Spanish, you can get by easily in PV speaking only English. Adding to its draw, this city set stunningly in the center of Bahia de Banderas (the largest natural bay in Mexico) enjoys a spectacular climate. The city is generally dry and breezy with temperatures in the 80s, the exception being the summer rainy season (generally June through September), when highs often reach the low 90s and humidity can sometimes be oppressive. Puerto Vallarta receives far fewer visitors off-season, and some businesses close for extended periods in summer.
If you’re a fan of outdoor activities or are interested in some of the many side excursions available from this area, book a trip through the gay-friendly outfitter Vallarta Adventures. One excellent tour option is the company’s thrilling Outdoor Adventure, which entails a white-knuckle boat trip across the bay, followed by a bumpy mule ride up a hillside, zip-lining through a lush forest, and rappelling down waterfalls. The company also offers trips to colonial San Sebastian and bustling Guadalajara as well as whale-watching, scuba and snorkeling, sailing trips, and up-close encounters with bottlenose dolphins.
PV has dozens of outstanding restaurants as well as a slew of hip bars, and the scene is continuously evolving, but among dining options, there are some “must tastes.” At the upper end, don’t miss Cafe des Artistes, a sumptuous spot with refined service and rarefied contemporary cuisine. For authentic regional Mexican food served in a charming, warmly furnished dining room, try lesbian-owned El Arrayan. Boca Bento serves some of the tastiest fusion Latino-Asian fare in town, and the setting – a handsome historic hacienda – is quite elegant. Chiles and Kit-Kat are a pair of hip gay lounges that also serve reasonably priced lunch and dinner fare, and slightly more upscale Banana Cantina turns out superb contemporary Latin cuisine. For a snack, grab a sandwich or iced java at the gay-owned Coffee Cup, or enjoy a hearty meal at the campy gay diner, Mama Dolores.
When the mood to socialize strikes you, keep in mind that things start late here and continue into the wee hours. The after-dinner crowd tends to congregate at one of the low-keyed lounges, such as lesbian-owned Apaches, upscale La Noche, or the tiny but fun Stereo. Another great bet is Garbo, a jazz club and piano cabaret that’s often packed. Bench and Bar, an import from Oakland, Calif., is a great Latino bar with lively drag shows. And just about everybody ends up at the city’s hottest gay club, Manana’s, a stunning former hacienda with a big swimming pool in the center of its open-air lounge-and-dance area. This spacious, trendy club also has a separate strip bar to one side and a large show stage. This is just a sampling of favorite options – Puerto Vallarta has more than a dozen gay bars.
The city also offers a wide range of accommodations. Many gay travelers opt to stay in or near Zona Romantica, within walking distance of bars, but if you’d prefer to chill out at a large mainstream resort that’s a bit far from the fray and actually has a nicer beach than Los Muertos, consider the regal Marriott CasaMagna, a swanky full-service resort that’s just a short cab ride from the airport and enjoys an enviable oceanfront setting. To be sure, it’s a mainstream property popular with families and honeymooners, but the management is very gay-friendly. This is a nice option, especially the day you arrive or the day before you leave, when it’s handy to be near the airport. The resort’s stunning Ohtli spa is one of the most lavish on the Mexican Riviera.
In Zona Romantica, you’ll find a nice mix of gay-friendly options. If you’re on a budget and seek a clean, comfortable, and friendly gay property in the center of the action, check into the 28-room Hotel Mercurio, which is just steps from many gay bars and restaurants (and two blocks from the beach), and offers compact but pleasant rooms and a youthful, social vibe – there’s always plenty of frolicking going on around the pool, and the staff is super-friendly. PV’s famed Blue Chairs Resort is a six-story hotel right on the gay beach – the location couldn’t be better, but the property underwent some major management changes recently, and it remains to be seen how this will affect the quality of the place.
Puerto Vallarta is also home to one of the most alluring, dramatically situated gay resorts you’ll find anywhere, the stellar Casa Cupula, which excels as much for its stately accommodations as for its friendly, knowledgeable, and charming staff. The main building comprises six rooms and two unbelievably lavish suites, and owner Don Pickens also rents out two cozier but still comfy rooms in his adjacent villa – these share a patio with unparalleled views of the city and Banderas Bay. Casa Cupula has also developed the world’s first gay condo hotel – these seven residences adjacent to the inn are currently under construction and for sale (for full or fractional ownership). Facilities – for the inn and the condos – include a well-stocked gym, a pool, and a large open-air lounge with an adjacent computer room. The property, which tumbles down a hillside high above Zona Romantica, is a 10- to 15-minute walk from the gay beach and the many bars and restaurants. But once you’ve spent a little time relaxing here, away from the crowds and in full view of Puerto Vallarta’s stunning shoreline, you may find it hard to leave this romantic resort.