With its sandy beaches, quaint white washed buildings and narrow cobblestone streets, bustling nightlife and amicable locals, Puerto Vallarta has certainly earned its reputation as one of the world’s friendliest cities.
Located along in the state of Jalisco along the Mexican Riviera, Puerto Vallarta (Vallarta or P.V.) is located on a narrow coastal plain between Sierras Cuale and San Sebastián and Bahía de Banderas. Río Cuale bisects Vallarta in half, while beaches stretch for miles in either direction along the bay.
Puerto Vallarta remains largely untouched by drug-fueled violence that has ravaged Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey, Acapulco and other Mexican cities. But visitors should keep valuables in a safe place and avoid bringing strangers into their hotel rooms or apartments. Locals are quick to assure visitors that both the water and the ice made from it are safe to drink. (Traveler’s diarrhea--known colloquially as Montezuma’s Revenge or Margarita’s Revenge--can possibly rear its ugly head long after one has left Vallarta, but one should not let this potential prospect deter any trip to the area.)
With some common sense precautions, Puerto Vallarta is the perfect place to experience Mexican hospitality and beach culture at its best.
A Gay Old Time in Zona Rómantica
The vast majority of Puerto Vallarta’s gay bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels are located in the quaint Zona Rómantica.
Located south of the Río Cuale, northwest of Highway 200 and north of the Puerto Vallarta Beach Club at the end of Playa de los Muertos, Zona Romántica contains whitewashed buildings along narrow cobblestone streets that cling to steep hillsides that overlook the Pacific Ocean. Bustling Calles Olas Altas and Cárdenas are the area’s main streets, but Playa de los Muertos is by far the best place in Zona Romántica to experience gay Vallarta at its best (while enjoying a cold coronita and fresh seafood under the tropical sun in one of the palapas that line the beach.)
Ritmos Café (Malecón 117) is particularly popular among locals and ex-pats who flock to the beach each afternoon. Cóctel de pulpo (octopus cocktail) and salsa mexicana (Mexican salsa) with a generous portion of nachos and the ever-popular Margarita are particularly enjoyable as the seemingly endless parade of eye candy strolls up and down the beach. The adjacent Blue Chairs Resort (Malecón y Alejandro, 4) is another good place to enjoy this daily spectacle. The rooftop pool deck is among the best places in Vallarta to watch the sunset amid go go boys and strippers. "Dirty Bitches" drag queens take the stage each day at 8:30 p.m.
Immediately off the Malecón, Zona Romántica offers visitors a chance to enjoy their South of the Border experience with a bit less hustle and bustle. Hotel Mercurio (Francisco Rodríguez, 168), the Abbey Hotel (Púlpito, 138) and Casa Cupula (Callejón de la Igualdad) that overlooks the Pacific from its hilltop perch above the ocean all contain pools surrounded by lush tropical gardens and vegetation. North of the river, Villa David (Galeana, 348) is Vallarta’s only clothing optional resort for men.
Puerto Vallarta’s nightlife starts very late and in some cases goes well beyond, so it’s obviously important to eat before the inevitable revelry. Chicago native Julie Guerrero and her Chilango (a Mexico City native) husband José Alberto Gonzalez Padilla opened No Way José! (5 de febrero, 260) in Oct. 2009. It serves traditional and contemporary high Mexican dishes that includes traditional sopa Moctezua with nopales and cinnamon, slow cooked duck, chicken stuffed with spinach and Oaxacan cheese, mahi mahi ceviche and mole poblano with tortillas, chili peppers, chocolate and nearly 30 other ingredients. The "Hot Chile Love Margarita" features chili powder around the rim of the glass.
Located on a small island in the middle of the Río Cuale surrounded by a local arts and crafts market, River Café (Isla Río Cuale, 4) is a sophisticated restaurant with a menu that offers an expansive array of local seafood, meat and vegetarian dishes. These include mussels steamed with chipotle peppers, braised short ribs with an ale and guajillo pepper and chocolate glaze, seared tuna steak and a mixed green salad with grilled eggplant, tomato and goat cheese.
Taquerías are a common sight throughout Vallarta, but Marismas has served fried fish and shrimp tacos and soups along Ávenida Serdan for 23 years. Dee’s Coffee Company (Rodolfo Gómez, 120) is a convenient place to have a café americano while surveying the Vallarta street scene.
Tucked away on Calle Rodolfo Gómez near Olas Altas, Anónimo is one of the best places to kick-off a long night in Zona Romántica. Bartender Alberto was serving $40 apple martinis and Sex on the Beaches on a recent Saturday night as a handful of Americans who had obviously enjoyed one too many Margaritas earlier in the day tried their hand at Karaoke. Garbo (Púlpito, 142) is a nearby piano and jazz bar with a slightly more upscale clientele, while the newly renovated Sama (Olas Altas, 510) serves large martinis through 2 a.m.
The appropriately named Wet Dream (Lázaro Cárdenas, 312) features a shower behind the main bar in which go go boys dance throughout the night. A second, smaller room features a well-used pole from which dancers titillate patrons (who eagerly part with their pesos or dollars) sitting along the wall. Dubbed the only nude gay strip club in Mexico, Anthropology (Morelos, 101) features nearly 20 dancers who have taken it off each night for more than a decade. La Noche (Lázaro Cárdenas, 257) is a sophisticated martini and Tequila bar that also features go go boys on the main bar and a second floor loft that overlooks it.
Paco’s Ranch (Ignacio Vallarta, 237) features nightly drag shows at 12:30 and 3 a.m. with Edgar Trevino and his queens who channel anyone from Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Carol Channing to Pink and Cher. In between the shows; ex-pats, locals and even cowboys packed the dance floor in this two-story club that has proven itself the center of Vallarta’s gay nightlife for years. Log onto Go Gay! Puerto Vallarta for more information on the city’s gay bars and clubs.
From Old to New
While not as quaint as la Zona Romántica with its expanse of sprawling all-inclusive resorts that stretches for miles along Bahía de las Banderas, Nuevo Vallarta or la Zona Hostelera offers a smattering of places that any gay traveler would find worthwhile.
Located in the CasaMagna Resort, the Ohtli Spa offers a variety of massages and other therapies with an emphasis on traditions from the Huichol people who live in the Sierra Madre above Vallarta. These include Yelapa-reiki touche, rosemary-peppermint therapies and Mexican fire opal therapies, couples massages, an agave and sea salt body scrub, a chocolate soak and facials. Ohtli also features a Jacuuzi, a cold plunge, foot baths, a steam room and sauna. A full menu of spa services can be found on Ohtli’s website.
The Malecón (or boardwalk) stretches south from the Hotel Rosita to the mouth of the Río Cuale. Los Arcos, an outdoor amphitheater near the Malecón’s southern terminus, features folk dancers, concerts and other cultural events and even street performers. Caballito, a sculpture of a boy on a horse and Bailarines de Vallarta (Dancers of Vallarta) and several seahorses that symbolize the city are among the dozens of public art installations that line the Malecón. A weekly Art Walk takes place every Wednesday from 6 - 10 p.m.
One of Vallarta’s best restaurants, Café des Artistes (Guadalupe Sánchez, 740) features an expansive outdoor patio set among a lush tropical setting where orchid pedals literally fall onto one’s plate during dinner.
Chef Thierry Blouet’s menu includes prawn and pumpkin cream soup, Iberian ham with toasted pecan bread, duck confit prepared in a clay pot with agave syrup and pumpkin puree, pork belly glazed in an orange honey and giant shrimp flamed with Tequila and vegetable broth with ginger, swiss chard, mushrooms confit and French green beans. Desserts include a three chocolate mousse, crème brulée and an the elaborate Café des Artistes Exotic Dancer that features passion fruit, banana, coconut and mango mousse.
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Vallarta’s Natural Side
Some of México’s most pristine beaches are located along the rugged coastline south of Vallarta along Bahía de las Banderas.
Accessible only by private boat or water taxi, Yelapa is a small fishing village on a steep hillside above a crescent-shaped beach. Domingo’s is one of the handful of palapas that cater to visitors who arrive each day from nearby Boca de Tamatlán or Vallarta-the peppers stuffed with shrimp (chile relleno con camarón) and homemade tortillas are particularly delicious. A local resident sells coconut pie (torta de coco) and other treats she bakes each morning in her home, and shots of raicilla are plentiful. Known affectionately as Mexican Moonshine, this particularly potent potable made from the roots of the maguey plant is known to make those who drink it happy within 20 minutes. It certainly lived up to the hype on the catamaran back to Vallarta!
Nearby Mismaloya, which is accessible from Highway 200, provided the stunning backdrop for John Huston’s classic 1962 film "The Night of the Iguana" that featured Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and other Hollywood A-listers of the era. Vallarta Adventures has transformed Huston’s compound in Las Caletas into "Rhythms of the Night" that features a buffet dinner and Cirque du Soleil-inspired show each night. More than 1,400 candles and torches illuminate the property, and they are easily visible from catamarans that bring visitors from Vallarta as they approach Las Caletas. The company also organizes trips to Majahuitas, another secluded stretch of rugged coastline that features a reef that parallels the rocky shore. Moray eels, puffer fish (globos) and other tropical species were in abundance on a recent snorkeling trip, but the water quality can sometimes obscure visibility.
In addition to Vallarta Adventures, Diana’s Tours offers gay and lesbian cruises from the pier at Playa de los Muertos each Thursday to Mismaloya and other beaches. The company also offers charter tours of these areas.
Go Gay! Jungle Adventures is one of the handful of companies that offer tours into the lush tropical forests that surround Vallarta. The company’s canopy zipline is located 15 minutes south of the city in El Nogalito along Río Punta Negra. The company also offers horseback riding, tequila tasting and other outings in the market town of El Tuito. Log onto www.myownconcierge.com.mx for more information.
Located roughly 15 minutes south of Zona Romántica towards Mismaloya, Garza Blanca Preserve Report and Spa features 73 oceanfront rooms, suites and 2,769 square foot penthouses. A large affinity pool that overlooks the ocean and a beach bar and lounge are among the resort’s many features.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made the area in which the resort is located famous in the 1960s and 1970s with their torch-lit dinners and parties at the Garza Blanca Club de Playa. These torches-antorchas-are featured prominently throughout the resort in homage to Vallarta’s glitzy past.
Award-winning Blanca Blue’s breakfast menu includes omelets, Arrachera steak with nopales and sweet bread; while its dinner menu includes beef and portabella "salpicon," roasted mahi-mahi and stuffed mushrooms papardelle with Parmesan cheese. The restaurant’s 17-course meal that takes more than four hours to eat includes corn truffles, ceviche with sea asparagus and lettuce, fois gras, liquid olives and dark chocolate with coffee ice cream. Blanca Blue’s wine cellar contains more than 2,600 vintages, while the bar offers 110 types of Tequila.
Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport is roughly six miles north of the city, and offers daily flights to and from Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Newark, N.J., and other American cities. Non-stop flights are also available to Mexico City, Vancouver, Toronto and other Canadian cities.
A taxi from the airport to the center of Vallarta averages 15 minutes without traffic and costs around $80 ($5.87.) The fare from Garza Blanca to the airport averages between $180-$200 ($13.22 - $14.67.) The trip should take around 30 minutes.
One American dollar is roughly $13.62 Mexican pesos.