BALLS IN THE AIR | Vacationers frolic on the famed Los Muertos gay beach outside the Blue Chairs resort. (Photo by Andrew Collins)

Puerto Vallarta along the Mexican Riviera is vibrant, warm … and very gay-friendly

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 hemmed in by the verdant slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Just south of El Centro, in Zona Romantica, you’ll find a bustling gay scene comprising trendy cocktail bars, hopping dance clubs, scene-y open-air restaurants and inviting hotels and condos … just steps from the beach.

Despite its growing popularity, the city is still a relative bargain compared with the U.S., the Caribbean and other Mexican resort areas. On nearly any budget, you can eat well and stay in a comfortable room near the beach in this inviting, friendly destination that’s now one of the hottest LGBT resort communities in the world — a favorite place both to vacation and retire to.

With a population of roughly a quarter million, Puerto Vallarta no longer bears much resemblance to the carefree and isolated fishing port that provided the 1963 location for film of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. In recent years, PV has developed into a world-class gay mecca. Resources for LGBT visitors are many, including GayGuideVallarta.com and GayPV Magazine (GayPV.mx).

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 beachfront location of Zona Romantica, as well as its elegantly faded veneer and historic charm, accounts for its ever-increasing draw among gay visitors and bohemian types. It’s a neighborhood that celebrates its diversity — everyone is welcome, but especially during the bustling high season (from about December through April), certain blocks of Zona Romantica seem about as gay as any in North America.

There are a few more general attributes that further enhance Puerto Vallarta’s standing. Again, it’s reasonably priced. Dinner entrées at top restaurants rarely cost more than $20 and often run for $10 to $15. Hotel rates, cab rides, cocktails, fashionable clothing and handcrafted gifts also tend to come at fair prices, although it’s definitely possible to find high-end exceptions.

It helps to understand Spanish, but you can get by easily in PV speaking only English. 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 Extreme Zip Line Adventure, a tree-top canopy tour, off-roading trip and waterslide experience in a high-jungle adventure park. The company also offers tours of secluded beaches like Yelapa and Las Caletas, as well as whale-watching, snorkeling, sailing trips, and up-close encounters with bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.

Where to eat
PV has dozens of outstanding restaurants as well as a slew of hip bars, and the scene is continuously evolving. At the upper end, don’t miss Cafe Des Artistes, a sumptuous spot with refined service and deftly prepared contemporary cuisine. For authentic regional Mexican food served in a charming, warmly furnished dining room, try lesbian-owned El Arrayan, where you can sample everything from duck carnitas in an orange-guajillo chile sauce to roasted crispy Oaxacan crickets sautéed with tomatillo-avocado salsa.

Along the beachfront, Daiquiri Dick’s is a picturesque spot for a leisurely brunch or lunch, with or without a potent cocktail, and overlooking the water on the north side of El Centro, open-air El Barracuda serves superb, fresh-caught seafood, such as shrimp al pastor tacos and blacked rare-seared tuna steak.

Just inland from Zona Romantica, the less-touristy Colonia Remance has a few wonderfully romantic restaurants, including the famed Red Cabbage Cafe, an art-filled dining room that’s known for some of the best moles and other classic Mexican dishes in the city, and dapper Casa Naranjo, which serves consistently delicious and inventive Nuevo Latino fare.

You’ll find dozens of mostly casual, affordable spots in the heart of Zona Romantica, many along the “restaurant rows” of Basilla Badillo and Olas Altas, which intersect a block from the beach. Reliable options along the latter street include Café San Angel for burgers and tapas, Kabuki Sushi Bar for Japanese food, and The Swedes Bar & Bistro for European classics with a Scandinavian flair. Along Basilla Badillo, check out intimate and lively Joe Jack’s Fish Shack for first-rate seafood, El Mole de Jovita for expertly prepared regional Mexican cooking, and Boccon di Vino for modern Italian fare in a romantic dining room.
Gay nightlife and beach scene
When the mood to socialize strikes you, keep in mind that dance clubs don’t get going until late, and they keep pulsing into the wee hours. Socializing over beer or cocktails begins for many visitors quite early in the day at, for instance, one of the beach clubs along scenic Playa Los Muertos (a few blocks south of Zona Romantica’s stunning pier, which glows at night with colorful lighting). At three très gay spots along here — Blue Chairs, Mantamar and Ritmos Café — you can enjoy hobnobbing, dining and eating while lazing under a thatched beach umbrella overlooking the sea.

Early in the evening, head to one of lounges and cocktail bars along Olas Altas and the surrounding blocks. These include convivial lesbian-owned Apaches bar, the jazz club and piano cabaret Garbo, trendy Sama bar, festive La Cueva Cantina and friendly Los Amigos. One of the swankiest and trendiest bar options, La Noche is a gorgeous bi-level lounge with a highly popular upstairs patio. Across the street, CC Slaughters is a hot spot for late-night dancing, and Spartacus Spa is the top gay sauna in the city. And within a few steps of this bustling intersection, you’ll also find Paco’s Ranch, a fun option for late-night drinking and dancing; and Wet Dreams, which, as its name suggests, showcases buff dudes stripping in showers. Fans of male strippers should also be sure to check out the hot roster of talent at Antropology a few blocks north.

Other nightlife highlights include one of the campiest bars in town, Reinas, which is decorated as an homage to the British royal family; the Act II Stages complex which includes a theater, piano bar and cabaret that presents both local and internationally renowned touring acts, musicals and concerts; Diva’s, with its well-attended, dishy drag shows; and Club Enter, which is arguably the top PV venue for late-night dancing, with an emphasis on electronica.

Where to stay
In Zona Romantica, visitors can choose from 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. A handsome, contemporary property that’s also in the center of the action, Olas Altas Suites has three types of reasonably priced units, all of them with full kitchens, flat-screen TVs and attractive, well-chosen furniture. The best units have balconies.

A short walk north of Zona Romantica in the historic Old Town, gay-owned Villa David is the only clothing-optional men’s property in PV. This historic hacienda with a tree-shaded pool and courtyard has 10 beautifully appointed rooms – the vibe here very much captures the city’s Spanish Colonial heritage.

Puerto Vallarta is also home to one of the most alluring, dramatically situated gay resorts in the world, the stellar Casa Cupula, which excels as much at its stylish accommodations as it does at its staff, who are friendly, knowledgeable and charming. The 20 rooms range from cozy, more economical rooms to ultra-plush suites with magnificent ocean views and private soaking pools. The on-site restaurant Taste serves outstanding Latin-Asian-Mediterranean–fusion fare and is popular both with hotel guests and visitors staying in town. Facilities include a well-stocked gym, a pool and a large open-air lounge with adjacent computer room. The property tumbles down a hillside high above Zona Romantica, a 15-minute walk from the gay beach.

Most gay travelers opt to stay in or near Zona Romantica, but if you’d prefer to chill out at a large mainstream resort that’s a bit far from the fray, you’ll find plenty of swanky options north of downtown, around the marina. The stylish Westin Resort & Spa occupies a gorgeous stretch of beachfront. A 45-minute drive up the coast in a once-sleepy fishing village that’s now a chic resort, the Four Seasons is one of the most luxurious getaways on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. This secluded compound of beautifully appointed casita-style rooms is perfect for a special getaway. Amenities include an inviting spa, two outstanding golf courses, plus tennis, uncrowded beaches, stunning pools and fine restaurants.

The Four Seasons is still close enough to Puerto Vallarta to venture in for dinner or clubbing, and it’s just a quick 30-minute hop down the coast from the laid-back surfing village of Sayulita, a bohemian, artsy community with a growing LGBT following and even a couple of gay-owned vacation retreats, including chic Casa Brava guest house and the eco-conscious Xocotla bluff-top hideaway with four inviting apartments.
— Andrew Collins

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 9, 2015.