On Puerto Vallarta's Lazaro Cardenas -- a cobblestoned street lined with the Mexican city's gay bars -- men embraced as if World War II were just won. Bright rainbow banners unfurled overhead. The sun shone brilliantly above a sea sparkling like freshly uncorked Dom Perignon.
It was Vallarta Pride 2021 in May. Vaccines had been rolled out, and P.V. was hosting one of the world's first major Pride celebrations. The clouds -- in the form of COVID variants -- had yet to roll in, and in that moment, an unbridled happiness swept the city. Life was resuming, and so too could queer joy.
While the realities of the pandemic have somewhat dampened this rosy outlook, Puerto Vallarta remains an oasis of this exultation. LGBTQ+ tourists from around the world flock to this city for its beauty, seaside activities, parties, and above all, acceptance. On the streets of Zona Romantica -- P.V.'s LGBTQ+ district -- the sight of two people of the same gender holding hands is unremarkable. Moreover, it's a sign that the city's travel industry, dependent upon out tourists, is thriving.
My partner and I have visited Puerto Vallarta nearly a dozen times over the past few years. (We live in Los Angeles, a mere 2.5-hour flight away.) It remains our favorite vacation spot, in part because each time we've visited, our experience has always been different and exciting. The city is a choose-your-own adventure, and I'll outline a few of the paths for a vacationer ahead.
WHERE TO STAY
Puerto Vallarta is a resort city, so it's easy to be a tourist here. In particular, Nueva Vallarta, the area closer to the airport, teems with large resorts offering all-inclusive experiences. Why leave the hotel when major chains -- Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, etc. -- offer unlimited food, drink, entertainment, and beach fun?
While these experiences can be tempting for some, particularly rainbow families in need of kid-friendly activities, many queer people will want to take advantage of the LGBTQ+ resorts. For those who really want to be in the mix, the Almar Resort (AlmarResort.com) is supreme. This beachfront property boasts dazzling ocean views and a nearly all-queer clientele, which mingles at the Top, a gay sky bar offering food and nightly entertainment, the newly opened Eden pool and lounge garden, and Mantamar, a seaside club boasting beach chairs (order the sushi and a massage) and an often-boisterous pool. Mantamar is the frequent site of DJ'ed parties and events. It's common to spot influencers and visiting Drag Race stars (hi, Shangela!) within its cabanas.
For a more budget-friendly alternative, consider the nearby Blue Chairs Resort by the Sea (BlueChairs.com). It's situated closer to the ocean, and the suite we booked had more square footage and much better views than the rooms at the Almar. However, the property definitely shows some wear and tear, and a shaky elevator ride up to the suite sparked some old Catholic prayers. (We also found vomit on a towel once.) Want closer to the nightlife? I've heard good things about the clothing-optional Pinata (PinataPV.com), or consider Airbnb for scouting the area's many luxury condos and seaside houses.
My favorite P.V. resort is Casa Cupula (CasaCupula.com). Situated on the hillside, this gay-owned property is a charming, if pricier, option with individually designed rooms and stunning views of the city. Whether a guest or not, don't miss its weekly Naked Pool Party.
ADVENTURES & ENTERTAINMENT
I'm not usually an "adventures" kind of tourist -- my eyes glazed over when the older woman next to me on the plane talked excitedly about zip-lining and parasailing. Honestly, just give me a beach chair and a margarita. But for those seeking out outdoor activities, Puerto Vallarta has an ocean full of options. Your best stop for finding these escapades, from whale watching to dolphin swimming to snorkeling to ATV tours, will be Vallarta Adventures (Vallarta-Adventures.com). One of our highlights from Vallarta Adventures included a cruise out to Yelapa, a charming coastal town (pictured above), with a boozy hike up to a waterfall. We were also blown away by Rhythms of the Night -- Savia, a Cirque du Soleil-esque outdoor show inspired by the Aztec creation story; this island amphitheater was only reachable by boat, and the night ended with a torchlit dinner on the beach.
The above experiences will have many straight families on board, although we've befriended some same-sex couples on each excursion as well. However, there are a few cruises that cater exclusively to, well, gay cruising. Wet & Wild (PVSunsetPartyCruise.com) and Jet's (JetsPrivateBoatTours.com) both offer coastal tours that conclude with a secluded, clothing-optional beach party. We hear there's a nearby cove for those looking for a little more privacy.
Back on dry land, don't miss the amazing shows Zona Romantica has to offer. At the Palm Cabaret and Bar (ThePalmCabaret.com), we recently caught the jaw-dropping Boys on Fire, a male burlesque spectacle where the muscled performers tore off various uniforms while exhibiting feats of dance and contortionism. There, we also heard a beautiful Sam Smith tribute, and there are similar shows dedicated to the songs of Lady Gaga and Freddie Mercury. Catch homages to Whitney Houston at the Act2PV theater (Act2PV.com), which also hosts hilarious drag performances from Hedda Lettuce and Mama Tits.
WHERE TO EAT
From street vendors to high-end restaurants, there's so much delicious food in Puerto Vallarta. A great way to sample an assortment of the best is through Vallarta Food Tours (VallartaFoodTours.com). My partner and I chose a tequila-and-taco tasting tour. We not only got pleasantly buzzed, we also ate a taco made from cow eyes, an experience we're unlikely to repeat but nonetheless makes for a good story. It was also a nice way to acquaint ourselves with the streets of Puerto Vallarta while making friends with our (mostly straight) fellow group members.
Don't like tours? There are a plethora of fine-dining options. The Iguana (CasaKimberly.com) -- located in Elizabeth Taylor's onetime residence, which is now the tony hotel Casa Kimberly -- is filled with artwork honoring the late violet-eyed ally; it offers an elegant setting for shrimp, steak, and sunsets. If you're feeling romantic and adventurous, take a 25-minute Uber ride out to Le Kliff, a cliffside restaurant with unforgettable views. Cafe des Artistes (CafeDesArtistes.com), in Zona Romantica, has a gorgeous garden patio (with vegetarian options), and Barcelona Tapas (BarcelonaTapas.net) also offers stunning sunset fare with a Spanish twist.
For those looking for a culinary adventure, try Tintoque (Tintoque.com.mx), ranked one of Mexico's best restaurants for its celebration of Puerto Vallarta's cuisine history. If it's fancy Mexican food on the beach you're after, seek out La Palapa (LaPalapaPV.com, pictured above) or El Dorado (ElDoradoPVR.com), adjoining restaurants where you can dine right on the sand. And if you're looking for a change of pace (and pasta), Tre Piatti (TrePiatti.com) is a must-visit for lovers of Italian food.
For more casual fare in Zona Romantica, try Joe Jack's Fish Shack (JoeJacksPV.com) -- request a table on the rooftop patio and get the red snapper -- or grab margs and fajitas at Margarita Grill across the street. Eat at Coco's Kitchen (CocosKitchenpv.net) for a great breakfast served on a charming patio. Finally, there are very affordable food options in P.V. Pancho's Takos is one of the city's best taquerias, although due to this reputation, the wait for a table may be lengthy. Stop by Mariscos el Guero for cheap, amazing seafood dishes. And don't miss the street fare -- look for lines of locals to get a clue as to the best.
As mentioned previously, nearly all of the gay nightlife is centered on Lazaro Cardenas. The first stop I'd recommend visiting on this street is not a bar, though -- it's Farmacia Guadalajara, located two blocks east of the clubs. This venue has an ATM that distributes pesos, which you will definitely need at the gay bars; many do not accept credit cards. After getting cash, it's really a matter of personal taste. Peek into the different venues and see what vibe you're seeking. On a typical night, I'll start at Mr. Flamingo, an open-air bar where the dance party spills onto the sidewalk. If Flamingo is too wild, I'll grab a table at La Cantina Margarita next door to watch the parade pass by. Next to La Cantina is La Noche, where I'll catch a fun drag show; the last time I was there, a queen lip-synched the entire Shakira-J. Lo Super Bowl halftime routine. Then head upstairs to La Noche's rooftop, which is the easiest place on the block to grab fresh air and mingle with other patrons. Afterward, sing your heart out at Kooky Karaoke.
The dance clubs are across the street. Industry plays pop favorites in its main bar. During circuit season, the back room pounds with house music and often requires a cover. Next door, CC Slaughters has a sizable dance floor, and it also has a food window if you need a late-night snack. Around the corner, CO-DE is a more of an LGBTQ-inclusive space with a Vegas vibe; spheres drop from the ceiling and change color while flames shoot from the DJ booth. End your night at Paco's Ranch, which attracts more of a local clientele and boasts some of the wildest drag shows I've ever seen -- all in Spanish, of course.
There are a number of infamous strip clubs in this neighborhood. Wet Dreams is probably the most well-known, although it looks seedy and the men can be aggressive here in pulling customers into back rooms. I was also turned away once for wearing gender-nonconforming attire. Next door, however, 69 offers a more upscale experience, with expert pole dancers performing amazing feats for the crowd. Tired of the strip? Don't miss the city's other queer haunts, including Blondies for a boozy slushee to go; One Six One, a craft cocktail lounge; and Qulture, a courtyard bar with art galleries featuring LGBTQ+ artists.
There are several tentpole events that fill Puerto Vallarta with out tourists, among them Vallarta Pride (VallartaPride.org, May 23-30), White Party (WhitePartyGlobal.com, most holiday weekends, especially New Year's), and BeefDip Bear Week (BeefDip.com, January 30-February 6). In general, December through April is considered "high season" for the tourism industry. If you hate crowds and want a more low-key experience, consider visiting in the weeks before Pride or during the rainy season (July to October).
Also, it's still a pandemic. Ensure that you're vaccinated with a booster shot. And if you're still worried about COVID-19, skip the indoor bars and restaurants and stick to the beach and al fresco dining.
As of the time of this article's writing, Americans flying back to the U.S. are required to submit proof of a negative COVID status one day before departure. Your resort should be able to arrange an antigen test. Otherwise, schedule an appointment with the LGBTQ+ COVID Center in Zona Romantica, which can be dialed locally at (322) 293-8478.