Travel
5 min

Puerto Vallarta

Enjoy beaches and gay nightlife, but beware of the chupacabra

Puerto Vallarta is renowned for its stunning sunsets. Visitors often gather on the beach or at a venue with a spectacular view for sunset cocktails. Credit: Elias Garcia-Ortiz

“The guys who checked in today both came single last year,” says Logan Miller, chief concierge at the gay boutique hotel Casa Cupula in Puerto Vallarta. “They met at one of our cocktail parties, and long story short, they’re back this year celebrating their one-year anniversary with sailing tours, champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries.”

True love is alive and well in Mexico’s de facto gay capital, but Puerto Vallarta’s not just for husband hunting (though I have it on good authority that one can easily make new friends while bobbing in the waves at the gay beach just four blocks from Casa Cupula. It’s a $3 cab ride, though most people prefer to “walk off” their meals).

Like everyone I’ve spoken to who’s made “Puerto Gayarta” home, Miller raves about PV. “This is a year-round, full-service beach. You don’t have to sneak around with a cooler, and there’s no other tropical gay beach destination in North America.”

While Miller’s sassy enthusiasm makes him the Laverne of Casa Cupula (he’s the one who named their diet margarita The Skinny Bitch), the hotel’s owner, Donald Pickens, is the pragmatic Shirley. He opened the hotel as a five-room guesthouse in 2002. Over the years he’s added three more buildings, for a total of 21 rooms.

Pickens came to PV from the US to “chill” after the company he was working for “put me out to pasture . . .  after the tech market crashed. I decided to buy and renovate.”

He’s become passionately enmeshed in the community and the country, pointing out how gains in gay rights in Mexico, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and adoption in Mexico City, are built on constitutional reforms instituted back in 1917, following the Mexican Revolution.

“Mexico was so Catholic, and the church was so powerful [and often corrupt],” he says, “they separated church and state.” The reforms include anti-clerical articles and a prohibition against creating a list of banned books. That provided the legal foundation for today’s gains, but socially, Puerto Vallarta’s uniquely gay identity heralds back to a Tinsel Town scandal.

“Puerto Vallarta got on the American map in the 1960s when Elizabeth Taylor came with Richard Burton [when he was filming Night of the Iguana], and they brought the Hollywood magic with them,” Pickens explains. They’d already caught the world’s imagination, starting an affair on the set of Cleopatra, both of them married — and not to each other. They later bought a villa in PV and would bring their entourages to the city. Taylor, especially, was “friends with a number of gay people in Hollywood — Montgomery Cliff, Rock Hudson.”

And so PV got a huge boost as a tourist and gay destination.

“Puerto Vallarta used to be called the San Fran of Mexico, because if you were gay in Mexico you could come here to be out . . . Now the city’s coming out with a marketing campaign that’s beyond gay-friendly,” Pickens says. The city celebrated its first Pride and a new Flower Festival in May of 2013, both efforts to extend the tourist season beyond its November–April window.

Vallarta Pride 2014 will expand this year from its traditional weekend to a five-day festival, which will take place May 22 to 26.

I confess that when I first arrived in the city in early May, I found myself wondering about the timing of the trip. After all, the weather in Toronto was finally warming up, so was this really the time for a tropical destination? As I collapsed into bed at midnight, having just arrived at the CasaMagna Marriott from the airport, I found my ears teased by a strange sound. I popped out of bed with a huge grin. It was the ocean. I rushed to the balcony, threw open the curtains and stared out at the waves, listening to them crash over the sand.

Any doubts I had about the timing of my trip evaporated.

This was way better than Canada in May.

Where to stay
For those looking for a boutique experience with a gay flair, Casa Cupula is the obvious choice. “Every room is different,” Pickens says. “It was a pain in the ass, but it was worth it. It looks beautiful.” Where some places distinguish between ocean or non-ocean rooms, Cupula’s guests can get fussy over whether they are in the “the Orange Room or the Black and White Room . . . Here, there’s a lot more detail.” That includes adapting to the gay clock. “Everyone likes to go out late at night. We don’t have an early end to breakfast. Technically, it’s at 11:30am, but if you roll out of bed at noon and want eggs, we’ll make you eggs.” If you’re looking for a resort experience and don’t mind being a taxi ride out of town (and from the gay bars), the CasaMagna Marriott provides a lovely stay right on the beach, with a great buffet breakfast, helpful staff, huge pool with swim-up bar and a turtle sanctuary. 

Where to eat
To get a lay of the gustatory land, I recommend taking advantage of Vallarta Food Tours. With eight different stops, you will get an authentic PV experience, from Mole Rosa (mole is an Aztec word that means to grind and mix), to the best taco stands in the city. (Hint: if a taco stand offers more than two types of meat, move on. The best ones have only one or two options, they cook it fresh, and when it runs out, they shut down for the day. Recipes are often handed down from generation to generation.)

Where to drink
A full belly needs a wet palate, and nobody knows Puerto Vallarta’s hopping gay bar scene like Christian Serrano and his Gay Vallarta Bar-Hopping Tour. He originally came to PV for two weeks, fell in love with the city, and “told my mom send me all my clothes. That was seven and a half years ago.” Dinner, drinks and shots are all included for $75 to $125 (depends on the night, the itinerary and the number/types of drinks/shots in the program). The tour starts with dinner at a restaurant so people can get to know each other (“I see those people hanging out with each other for the rest of their trip,” Serrano says), and on a typical night this is followed by three bars, one stripper bar and two nightclubs. “There’s never a cover charge, you never wait in line, and it can normally be an hour wait in high season” to get into a club. On some occasions, Serrano will also have special hosts, like a stripper stripping at each location or a pornstar or drag sensation and Canadian treasure Miss Conception, who’s known to spend her winters in PV. My favourite stops include the funky Reinas bar, with its kitschy makeup station and walls adorned with wigs, funky sunglasses and lady hats where you can “completely drag out.” My number-two choice is strip bar Wet, where two of Serrano’s “very cute” clients once got into the shower stall and put on a naked show of their own. gayvallartabarhopping.com

Where to escape
If you want to get away from the beach (but not the booze), take a drive into the mountains to enjoy the Vallarta Botanical Gardens. A haven for indigenous orchids (they have dozens of species), this former cattle ranch was converted seven years ago into a botanical retreat. You can stick to the gardens or follow the old cow trails into the forests of the surrounding conservation area, down into a valley with a river full of swimming holes. (“No crocodiles,” I’m assured.) Bring a swimsuit and towel. There are five trails, each taking 40 to 80 minutes to traverse. Stay for a delicious meal, and for a margarita with an extra kick, order a chupacabra, which is made with tequila and raicilla. What’s raicilla? My guide laughs: “It’s basically moonshine” and is local to PV, so you won’t find it in other parts of Mexico. The chupacabra was delicious, and as a lightweight in the drinking department, it had me drunk after only a few sips.

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Puerto Vallarta, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

Check out visitpuertovallarta.com for more info on gay Vallarta.