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Gay Puerto Vallarta: A Travel Guide

Sand castles dot the beach along the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (c) Nathan DePetris

Every year Puerto Vallarta seems to become more popular as a gay vacation spot.  With a great climate, beautiful ocean bay, beaches, mountains and lush tropical jungle as the setting, Puerto Vallarta is a small city devoted to serving the visiting traveler.  While retaining much of it’s old style Mexican charm, Vallarta has over the years built up the infrastructure of a modern resort community.  Internet cafes, ATM machines, fine restaurants, excellent airport, modern medical services,  drinkable water supply, and a safe, tolerant environment are now all part of the Vallarta scene.  So visiting a tropical paradise doesn’t have to be a choice between a modern but sterile place or the alternative of a quaint but primitive existence.  Puerto Vallarta has all the quaintness, without compromising on any of the modern conveniences.Vallarta now has over a dozen hotels, guesthouses, and bed and breakfasts that cater to our community, several different gay bars and gay clubs, a world famous gay beach, great gay trips on boats, special tours including evenings out at natural hot springs, and some great restaurants.   The gay scene in Vallarta runs the gamut, from gay beach bums, to the A-list couples who winter here and entertain themselves and their friends in high style.

Some of the worlds best whale watching is available in the bay of Banderas, where visitors to Vallarta vie for the elusive whale breach. photo (c) Nathan DePetris

Some of the worlds best whale watching is available in the bay of Banderas, where visitors to Vallarta vie for the elusive whale breach. photo (c) Nathan DePetris

Vallarta is popular with all sorts of gay men and women from many places around the globe.  Younger and older, European and from the Americas or Australia, the cosmopolitan mix is part of what makes this an exciting place to see and be seen.

And in case you’re worried that this means not meeting some beautiful Mexicans, rest assured that many “friends of Dorothy” from Vallarta and from the larger cities within Mexico, especially Guadalajara, also come here to relax on the famous beaches and grace the clubs at night.

Vallarta is in the tropics, on the Pacific Ocean side of Mexico, tucked into a mountainous coastal area.  Located on one of the largest, deepest, and most stunning natural bays in the world, Bahia de Banderas, which supports almost any form of water recreation imaginable.  This bay is where the humpback whales come every winter, where dolphins nest year round, and deep sea fishing is excellent.  The winds are great here for sailing.  Surfing is good on the north coast of the bay.  And it isn’t overrun with development. Almost thirty miles of the bay’s coast is completely inaccessible by road and therefore pristine and devoid of development.  The mountains surrounding the bay are lush with tropical jungle, the beaches in some areas are framed by these mountains that come right down to the water’s edge, and, best of all, none of it is ruined by pollution or any industrial ugliness.   In Puerto Vallarta the air is clean, the sun shines without rain almost all winter long, and the sunsets – well, they’re as spectacular as you could possibly ask for.

You’ll find plenty of ways to wait out the daytime until your next trip to the bars and discos.  During the daytime you might be inspired to do some shopping or browse through the many art galleries in Vallarta.  We have dedicated separate pages for those, so we won’t repeat much about those ideas here.  Vallarta has many options for relaxation during the day including our gay beaches and many organized gay cruises and tours.  Unless your accommodations have satellite TV, the half dozen channels that are in English on the cable system here just might not do!  So, what else is there after TV in the daytime?  Part of the reason to visit the tropics is to enjoy the outdoor life that our climate makes possible.

The arts are alive in Puerto Vallarta ,Mexico. Galleries line the streets and public installation such as this amazing mermaid can be found throughout the city. (c) Nathan DePetris

Playa Los Muertos – the “Gay Beach”
It’s usually called the blue chairs, which really is one beach restaurant’s section of this special beach on the southside of Puerto Vallarta.  Los Muertos is the busiest beach area in Vallarta, and one section of it is very gay: around the beach concession commonly known as the blue chairs.  Spread out under little palapa (thatched) umbrellas are literally blue beach chairs, where our kind of people tend to hang out.  So many, in fact, that the gay beach area now includes the green chairs of the Ritmos Cafe concession area too, immediately south of the blue chairs.
In this area you’ll find hundreds of gay men and women sitting under the palapas or on towels nearer the surf line, soaking up the hot Mexican sun and socializing with gays from all over the world.  Both the blue and green chairs areas serve drinks and food.  You don’t have to buy anything or pay, this is a public beach.
Once at the beach you’ll immediately come in contact with the many beach vendors, who are licensed and very territorial.   There are various things being sold, all by differing vendors, since there are separate licenses for each kind of item.  You’ll be offered fruit, ice cream, fresh pies, newspapers, silver jewelry, clothing items, tickets to cruises and tours, Mexican blankets, and many more items.  This is the place to bargain, you should never pay the asking price, although even with great bargaining skills you won’t get as good a price here as when you shop for these items away from the beach.  After a while it can get irritating to some, because these vendors keep coming around.  Our recommendation is to stay relaxed and get used to saying politely (but firmly) “no, gracias” and don’t let it bother you.
The beach is easy to find, it is less than a quarter mile south of the pier located at the foot of Francisca Rodriguez Street.  The blue and green chairs are marked on our map In case your gaydar isn’t working when you get there and you need help finding the place, the Blue Chairs flies a rainbow flag on top of their restaurant building.  If taking a taxi to the beach it is best to tell the driver “Blue Chairs – Los Muertos.”
If your interested in how wonderful the lush environment of Vallarta can be, be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens. Located about a half hour drive south of town, the gardens aren’t a “gay area”, but the volunteers and staff have many of our community involved.

Gay Puerto Vallarta Nightlife
Most of the gay spots are on the level ground where the Rio Cuale (Cuale River) empties into Vallarta’s Bandaras Bay. This area, a zone often called South Side or Zona Romantica over last few years, could just as well be called homo heights.   There is a decided shift away from the Hooters, Hard Rock Cafe, and local straight night spots like the Zoo or Kahlua, that so dominate the malecon just north of the city center.  South of the city center is where gay men and women are everywhere.
Vallarta’s primary club or disco scene, gay or straight, is pretty late in the evening. Don’t plan on much happening at these clubs until past midnight.

Before the late night action gets going, the places to be are on Olas Altas Street. Olas Altas Street, a wonderful side-walk café strewn strip of land where the mountains are closest to the beach, is where everyone walks.  Olas Altas by has become something reminiscent of a Paris back street, lined with sidewalk cafés, but located in the tropics here in gay Puerto Vallarta.  Along Olas Altas Street are several gay bars.  All are the kind of places where you’ll see activity earlier in the evening.
Earlier in the evening the happy hour circuit usually starts off at various places where the crowd gathers to watch the sunset.

Leaping off a pole and twisting through the sky 13 times, Voladores are one of the many entertaining shows that can be seen along the beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (c) Nathan DePetris

Restaurants, Cafés and Taco Stands
Vallarta has come a long way in the quality of the restaurants and cafés.  At one time the best you could hope for was lots of atmosphere.  Now you can find places with excellent food too.  There are hundreds of restaurants in this town, many very good, but we limit our list to those of general interest to the gay visitor.  Many of these places are gay owned, especially gay friendly or just in the gay part of town.

A quick note about service: In Mexico a restaurant meal is an event, so the waiters would never think of rushing you on by delivering the check before you ask for it.  Sometimes this isn’t so obvious to our tourist friends who sit at their table wondering why they don’t bring the bill!  Please be sure to tip generously if the service is good, as all restaurant help gets paid only 4 dollars per day, and they all really depend on your gratuities. Typical gratuities are 15%.

History
Puerto Vallarta is a new city by the standards of Mexico – only about 150 years old.  Initially called Los Peines, an earlier name for the Los Arcos Islands nearby, Vallarta was founded as a port for gold, copper and silver mined in the mountain village of Cuale nearby.  Shipped back to the mines was salt, extracted from the Tres Mariettas Islands about 25 miles offshore.
Due to the extreme depth of the bay, it never was really useful as a sea port like Acapulco was.  Another factor working against Vallarta then too, was the rugged terrain that made for a very difficult trip overland to any major city.  These features (remoteness due to the mountains and an extraordinarily deep bay), though, combine to make Vallarta the excellent resort location it is today.
Since Vallarta was founded after Mexico’s colonial period, the architecture prevailing in the town simply doesn’t rival the splendor of the colonial silver towns found far inland.  Instead, Vallarta has a much more modest and quaint style of stucco whitewashed buildings and orange tiled roofs.  The streets are simple cobblestone affairs rather than the glorious granite avenues found in the rich colonial towns.  It has left Vallarta with a far less ostentatious, but nevertheless beautiful, look.

In 1963 when John Huston brought the worlds attention to Vallarta during the filming of the Night of the Iguana, the town was still a very humble fishing village set in a tropical paradise.  All that soon changed, as the rich and famous discovered this wonderful place, and notables like John Huston, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton took up residence.  Expensive homes now line the hillsides, set in the lush jungle, and modern high rise hotels run in a line along the beach from the town out to the airport.  But the original character of Puerto Vallarta, including the cobblestone streets, still exists on the southside of town away from the hotel zone.  Today this area is called the Zona Romantica, and this is where you’ll find Gay Puerto Vallarta.

Culture
Puerto Vallarta is located in Jalisco, the most conservative State in Mexico.  Mexico has a Latin culture, strongly influenced by the predominate Roman Catholic faith.  Latin cultures tend to be more circumspect with regard to clothing.  Beachwear, such as skimpy thongs, are not appropriate on the street.  This isn’t the place to try a topless look on the beach either (presuming you’re a woman)!  It is a tolerant city, but not one that deals well with nudity or demonstrations of homosexual affection in public.
This is the land of the siesta, the notion that the middle of the day is an extended break when many stores and offices are closed.  Normally the down time starts around 2 pm and places reopen by 4pm.  Government offices many times close for the day at 2pm.  You’ll find that locals don’t eat lunch at noon but during siesta, when the day is hottest.

Areas of Vallarta
Vallarta isn’t a particularly large city, but is a narrow area running along miles of coastline.  The areas are known as (starting downtown and heading south, then north):
El Centro (or downtown) Located just north of the river, this is where the large church everyone calls the cathedral (but it’s not one), the main square (called the zocalo) and the malecon (boardwalk along the waterfront) are located.  While this is not the real center of gay activity, which  is nearby to the south, it is where much of Vallarta’s straight nightlife is located.  There are many shops, restaurants and galleries in this area.

Bronze statues line the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico offering visitors many photography opportunities. (c) Nathan DePetris

Zona Romantica Also known as old town or southside, this is the area where most of the gay venues are located.  A more bohemian area, with older buildings that have retained much of the old flavor of Vallarta, this area has cobblestone streets, and quite a mix of artists, shops, gays, and locals.  Part of the area is zoned for the late night entertainment.  Along Basidillo Badillo Street are so many good restaurants that is it known as restaurant row, and along Olas Altas Street there are bookstores and charming cafes with side walk seating.
Mismaloya Much further south along the mountainous coastline is the bay Mismaloya, where the movie Night of the Iguana was made.  There is a small village up the river here that is somewhat primitive, but the cove itself is lined with very expensive condos, villas and a resort hotel.  The remains of the set are still there and can be visited.
Hotel Zone Going north along the coast from the center of town you’ll find a string of huge hotels and resorts, many with names you’ll find in most of the world’s resort areas, full of families.  This is the more modern and plastic side of Vallarta, the place where so many first time gay visitors book themselves only to change (or wish they could) to the gay hotels in the Zona Romantica and Conchas Chinas once they get here.
Marina Vallarta Just before you get to the airport you’ll find the cruise ship terminal (where the Love Boat would dock!) and Marina Vallarta, a large modern yacht marina for about 600 boats.  The Marina is lined with condos, shops and restaurants, and is a lovely place, but not particularly gay.  In the marina area are several mega resort complexes (Marriott, Westin) and a golf course.
Nuevo Vallarta Going north past the airport, you cross the state line and enter Nayarit.  (Vallarta is in the State of Jalisco).  There is a large mega resort development area (without any town) known as Nuevo Vallarta (new Vallarta) which has a strong orientation toward timeshare resorts.  These places are nice, but very remote from Vallarta’s gay scene ($20 dollar taxi ride).