If you look into the story of Puerto Vallarta’s evolution from sleepy fishing village to international gay travel destination, you’re bound to hear about the 1964 film Night of the Iguana. Hollywood director John Huston chose Vallarta as the setting for his film — and leading man Richard Burton chose it as the setting for his affair with Elizabeth Taylor. Wherever Hollywood goes, it appears, gays also go (or maybe it’s Liz we’re following). It’s probably not that simple, but in any case, Puerto Vallarta has been welcoming LGBT travellers for more than 50 years.
These days, the Mexican Pacific coast city is home to around 300,000 residents, of which an estimated 35,000 are expats from the United States and Canada. Although the hub of LGBT life is the Zona Romantica on the south side of downtown, visitors should branch out and explore. In many ways, Vallarta’s an easy place to travel. It’s safe and friendly, and the economy relies heavily on tourism — in addition to an international airport, it also has a cruise-ship port — so plenty of locals are bilingual.
There are loads of accommodations options, too, from short-term apartment rentals to five-star hotels. Those looking to be in the thick of things choose Blue Chairs Resort; the beachfront at this seaside hotel is the main cruising spot in the day, and go-go dancers and drag queens hold court on their rooftop patio at night. Recent renovations have spruced up the place and carved out even more terrace space for sunset cocktails. If you’re more interested in peace and privacy, check into Casa Cupula. This sophisticated boutique hotel has three pools, a hot tub, a gym and an on-site restaurant serving Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican plates. Sunday brunch at Taste Restaurant is a perennial favourite; don’t be surprised if it turns into an all-day affair.
Located on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, Puerto Vallarta is a revelation for seafood lovers, who will find everything from grilled shrimp to ceviche to fish tacos on offer. For authentic Mexican recipes served in an open-air courtyard, go to El Arrayán in el Centro. This highly rated restaurant has been in business since 2003, and — added bonus — it’s owned and operated by Pride Committee co-president Carmen Porras and her partner, Claudia Victoria. For those who can’t bear to leave the local food behind when they fly home, the pair also offers cooking classes.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of tacos in Mexico — they’re part of the national identity and differ from state to state throughout the nation. Fortunately for visitors to Vallarta, many regional tacos can be sampled at the street stands found around downtown. Don’t be afraid to graze on your own. Aside from the type of meat and its preparation, taco stands differ in the salsas and sides on offer; don’t pass up the cebollitas (grilled green onions). With only a couple of words of Spanish and a few pesos, you can happily spend several hours sampling. If you prefer a guide, try Puerto Vallarta Food Tours; this company offers several routes, including an evening “taco adventure tour.”
Speaking of adventure, there’s plenty of it in and around the city. Especially in the high season (November to May), the south side is busy with vendors offering up all the standard beach-town activities. Hire a guide to take you horseback riding, jet skiing, zip lining, ATVing, whale watching, snorkelling or parasailing. Or hitch a panga (water taxi) to a nearby beach for the day. Yelapa is recommended if you’re looking to get low and slow; there isn’t road access to the village, so everything has to be ferried in. If you’re interested in a gay-run outfit, try Diana’s Tours. In business for well over a decade, these excursions are also lesbian- and straight-friendly.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with simply hanging out at the beach, and with more than 60 kilometres of coastline, Vallarta’s just the place to do it. For a day of good, clean fun, choose Playa Palmares; in 2014, the beach received Blue Flag certification for its cleanliness, accessibility and water quality. If you’re looking for an outdoor beach adventure without the crowds, take two hours and walk the path between La Boca and Las Animas. There are several small beaches on the way, and Las Animas has a strip of seaside restaurants to serve hungry hikers. For cruising and boozing, you can’t do much better than Los Muertos, right downtown. Just follow the dance music to the DJ in front of Blue Chairs.
Beach clubs offer food and drinks and a slightly mellower vibe. Move two spots north of Blue Chairs to the Sapphire Ocean Club and watch the sunbathers and fly-boarders from the comfort of your shaded lounger. Or to really beat the heat, go for lunch and a swim. Recently renovated Club Mantamar has a full kitchen staffed by local chefs, a swim-up bar and an Olympic-sized saltwater pool.
When the sun goes down, Puerto Vallarta comes alive, with venues for every phase of your evening. Start out with cocktails at Sama Martini Bar, Twisted Palms or Garbo Piano Bar & Jazz. Mostly men and mostly 30-somethings mingle at Los Amigos, conveniently next door to dance club Paco’s Ranch. The balcony at Bar Frida is a lesbian hotspot, and you can find a mixed crowd dancing at CC Slaughters. Men looking for tacos des ojos (eye-candy) may want to grab a drink at La Noche, where gay porn and bar-top go-go dancers vie for your attention. Antropology has nude male lap dancers, and there’s a shower show at Wet Dreams. Hit Spartacus Spa for a hookup.
It might be hard to imagine what Puerto Vallarta was like way back in 1964, but you can rest assured that the rules are the same now as they were for Huston’s Hollywood crew: eat, drink, siesta, dance, and tomorrow, start it all again.