Puerto Vallarta: This Is What a Gay Destination Should Be!

By Michael Sanchez

Competition for Gay travelers has been really heating up in the past few years, with cities large and small vying for what is perceived to be a bonanza in pink dollars. It’s true that Gay folks travel more than their Straight counterparts…and often spend more when they travel. But not every place that’s competing for your vacation dollars has the infrastructure in place to truly welcome LGBT visitors. And, while true that we are as diverse as society itself, and we all have our own expectations and interests in what we want out of our vacation, the “Gay Destination” still seems to be very much in the vernacular of Gay travel. We see the evidence for this in multiple surveys that ask LGBT respondents what cities are “most-visited” or “most-wanted-to-visit.”

Building up the infrastructure to become a truly world-class “Gay destination” requires time, capital investment, and a willing partnership between city governments and private entrepreneurs. It’s more than a marketing program launched last month or last week.

A general culture of welcoming acceptance – not ‘tolerance,” – but honest, heartfelt welcoming acceptance, is obviously vital for any destination hoping to capture a share of the Gay travel market. Local government – including but not limited to the local Tourism Board – has to be supportive to the point of investing resources and having local politicians out front, vocalizing their support and welcome. And they must back up nice words with action on behalf of the local and visiting Gay community.

Private sector entrepreneurs play perhaps the most vital, and challenging, role of all. For a city to become a serious contender as a gay travel destination there has to be a diverse business and arts community able to cater to the needs and desires of a Gay community that is anything but homogeneous. That certainly means having a broad offering of gay nightlife. Not just one big Gay dance club – but also a diversity of options, for daytime and nighttime activities. That might mean great shopping; sports and outdoor adventure; art and culture such as galleries, theater and cabaret offerings; and of course, accommodations to fit a broad range of budgets and tastes.

All of this brings to mind one of my favorite Gay destinations: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Puerto Vallarta seriously has a lot going for it as a Gay resort destination. Besides being gorgeous – it’s nestled between the Bay of Banderas and the verdant green slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains on Mexico’s Pacific coast, it boasts a bustling Gay scene centered in the Zona Romantica, at the south end of the downtown “El Centro” area. And despite the hip martini bars, pulsing dance clubs, and world-class restaurants, the downtown retains a feeling of “old Mexico” with cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings with tiled roofs, and Mexican ranchero music blaring from rustic cantinas (some of which are Gay owned and attract many of the sizeable local Gay population).

Among the popular dance clubs, Club Enter, Paco’s Ranch and C.C Slaughter stand out. These venues get busy late, so before the club, enjoy a cocktail at La Noche (go-go boys and a popular rooftop terrace); or La Margarita (busy, with music that’s just loud enough to have a conversation with friends). For a basic, friendly cantina-style bar, there’s La Cueva (as “leather/cowboy” as you can get in the tropics), Bar Los Amigos, or Frida’s. For strippers, there’s Antropology and Wet Dreams. And if you’d like something a bit upscale, Garbo’s Piano Bar & Jazz. And these suggestions just scratch the surface! There are at least 20 different options for quenching your nighttime thirst (however you may define it!)…so be sure to check the local Gay Guide (www.gayguidevallarta.com) to see what’s new and hot!

In recent years, the show, theater, and cabaret scene has flourished in Puerto Vallarta. The Palm Cabaret hosts a remarkable array of Gay-favorite talents. Recent shows have included an extended run by Michael Walters as “Dame Edna;” Leslie Jordan (Will & Grace, Sordid Lives); Coco Peru; Bruce Vilanch, and others. The Red Room at Act II Entertainment features lesser-known, but no less talented entertainers, and on the adjacent stage, Act II has produced outstanding local productions of “A Chorus Line,” and “Steel Magnolias.” The Boutique Theater recently produced an outstanding production based on Bob Fosse dance choreography, “Fosse – All that Dance” featuring outstanding local talent.

Hungry? There’s more to Puerto Vallarta than tacos and frijoles! While there are great Mexican restaurants, there are options to delight any palate. Mexican favorites include Lesbian-owned El Arrayán, offering unique regional dishes from recipes collected by the owner over many years of travel throughout Mexico; and the gay-popular No Way José! that frequently offers live music, and always offers great service and outstanding, fresh Mexican fare. Of course, you’re right by the sea, so the freshest seafood is everywhere. The local tuna, marlin, snapper, shrimp, and shellfish are on most restaurant menus. And be sure and eat like the locals at least one night of your vacation – at a streetside taco stand! Among the best in the Gayborhood is known as “Las Gueras” (“the pale girls”) at the corner of Venustiana Carranza and Naranjo. There is great upscale dining with international and fusion menus at Restaurant Trio and Café des Artistes among others. And for the best steak in town, head north to “La Marina” (toward the airport, about 15 minutes by taxi) and check out Sonora Grill in the new Nima Bay condo complex.

For daytime activities, check out one of the popular Gay day cruises. Diana’s Tours leaves the Los Muertos Beach pier every Thursday at 9:30 AM. The Wet & Wild Cruise features sexy strippers who truly do get wild while on the high seas! The Wet & Wild Cruise departs the pier every Wednesday and Saturday at 11:45 AM. Horseback riding tours in the jungle-covered mountains by Juan can be arranged any day of the week, and can be great fun for a Gay group. There is a Gay River Expedition Tour every Monday that includes zip-lining, river tubing, and a mule ride. And if all of that still hasn’t satisfied your need for adventure, you can go swimming with dolphins, go whale watching (December to March), visit the Vallarta Botanical Gardens, or just check out the local shopping scene.

The city also offers a wide range of accommodations. Most gay travelers opt to stay in or near Zona Romantica, within walking distance of bars. Here you'll find a nice mix of Gay and 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 just a 5-minute walk to the Gay 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. Mercurio offers an outstanding full breakfast buffet each morning, as well as wifi throughout the property and international calling all included in their affordable rates. 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.

An intimate gay B&B with a stunning view and a quiet location in the upscale Conchas Chinas district just south of Zona Romantica, the lovely Arco Iris B&B is run by helpful owners Ran and Thom – the latter is an expert chef who whips up amazingly tasty breakfasts each morning. This elegant hideaway, just a 15-minute walk from the beach, comprises three smartly furnished units, each with sweeping bay views.

There are also many condos available for vacation rental in the Zona Romantica and beyond. This option gives you more space, including kitchen where you can do your own cooking and dishwashing, thus saving on (and missing out on) restaurant meals. Most condo rentals do not include maid services, except at additional cost.

Zona Romantica, or Gayborhood, 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 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 90s (F) and humidity can sometimes be oppressive. Puerto Vallarta receives far fewer international visitors during the summer season, but remains popular with Mexican nationals, particularly from Guadalajara, a city of 7 million within driving distance of Puerto Vallarta. If you don’t mind heat, thunderstorms, and humidity, summer can be a great time to visit Puerto Vallarta and get a true “Mexican” vacation experience, and at prices well below those in the busy winter season.


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