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The San Francisco of Mexico: The Magical City of Puerto Vallarta

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by Brian Waddle
Photo by Brian Waddle

Puerto Vallarta has often been called the “San Francisco of Mexico,” a tribute to the beauty of both of these magical cities. Situated on a mountainside and cascading down toward an extraordinary sandy beach, the city stretches across the eastern edge of Bandaras Bay on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Some might argue that Puerto Vallarta (PV) could even beat San Francisco in a head-to-head match; both have world-class chefs and cuisine, natural beauty in abundance, and locally produced one-of-a-kind beverages—San Fran’s wines from Sonoma and Napa vs. PV’s legendary tequila from the surrounding Jalisco state.

Puerto Vallarta’s tropical climate is often compared to the Hawaiian Islands, which are on the same latitude. The best time of year to visit is in fall or spring. Summers in PV are hot and crowded with Mexican residents taking their own vacations, so if you are seeking an escape from the dog days of summer in Houston, look elsewhere. However, PV does provide a spectacular diversion from the gray skies of a Gulf Coast winter—a big advantage it holds over foggy San Francisco.

You will land at Licenciado Gustavo Díaz Ordaz International Airport (and you thought George Bush Intercontinental Airport was a mouthful!) before proceeding to one of the city’s three zones. The northern zone, known as the “Zona Hotelera” (or in English, “the area you want to avoid”) is mostly filled with name-brand hotel and resort chains you’d recognize instantly. This is where the uninitiated traveler buys a weeklong stay complete with a never-ending bar card, literally across the street from the Walmart.

The sophisticated gay traveler books a room in the southernmost area known as the “Zona Romantica,” or “where everything you care about lives and breathes.” The boys and girls all know the Romantic Zone is the only place to stay, thanks to the food, the bars, and the beach. Between the two zones, in the center of the city, is the business district. Although you’ll find a beautiful 1908 brick cathedral across from city hall, it’s best to concentrate your time in the Romantic Zone south of the Rio Cuale.

Puerto Vallarta has perfectly bridged the gap between street food and haute cuisine. Out shopping and don’t want to break for lunch? Just pause and grab some mouthwatering street tacos from any of the friendly food trucks. You may be watching your waistline, but you can’t miss the Austrian splendor of Kaiser Maximillian’s seven-course extravaganza, the torch-lit beachside bistro La Palapa, or the just-opened 116 Pulpito Gastro Pub (yes, they use that term in Mexico, too). You’ll agree that the food in PV is worth the trip alone.

And beyond the fabulous food, PV nightlife is one of the other big draws of this incredible city. Regardless of what you’re looking for or the mood you’re in, you will find it in PV. Beautifully designed with an open-air second floor, La Noche is a beautiful spot for drinks before or after dinner. As in all gayborhoods, the later the hour, the more compelling the nightlife. Piano bar with Broadway showtunes? Try Garbo. Martini bar with a mix of locals and visitors? Find Apache. Interactive drag? Go to Reinas (“Queens” in Spanish). Google “Antropolgy Puerto Vallarta” to discover what an open shower in a bar area really means.

Those are just small samples of the array of choices awaiting you. Practically everything in this part of the city leans either fully or partly gay. With cobblestone streets adding to the air of romance, it’s difficult to throw a wig or a tantrum without it landing on something or someone gay.

After a full day on the beach, followed by fabulous drinks, dinner, and then dancing and flirting, where can weary LGBT travelers lay their heads at night? With all of the hotel review websites, you won’t have trouble finding a great place to stay that suits your personality and your pocketbook. I’ll just recommend two places to start your investigation:

  • Vallarta Shores is a condo hotel at the southernmost end of Malecon Beach. Whether you are traveling alone or with your entourage, they have accommodations small and large—some with private pools and personal chefs. Within walking distance to every bar and the best beach clubs, you will find it convenient and comfortable.
  • Hacienda San Angel is the former villa purchased by Richard Burton for his then-wife Susan Hunt in the 1970s. Burton held a special place in his heart for Puerto Vallarta after filming the John Huston film Night of the Iguana there for over two months in the fall of 1962. It has since been converted into a luxury bed-and-breakfast overlooking the crown-topped downtown cathedral, offering spectacular views of the hillside coastal city. Even if you don’t stay here overnight, you should visit for dinner on the rooftop terrace where you will be enchanted with lobster tails the size of Volkswagens and a full mariachi band performing Luis Miguel to perfection.

No matter what time of year you visit Puerto Vallarta, you will feel safe. The Policía Turística (or Tourist Police) all speak English and have a strong, visible presence to provide assistance and directions, should you need it. Just as in any international city, be aware of your surroundings and know where you are going. While most bars and restaurants have WiFi for your mobile phone, contact your provider and purchase an international plan for your stay. Yes, mobile apps help you locate local flavor, but more importantly, you will have a safety net with you at all times.

And finally, learn a few essential words and phrases en Español. Knowing how to order food, ask for the check, and find the bathroom will serve you well, both on vacation in Mexico and perhaps even back home in Houston. Such friendly interactions can make your vacation more memorable and endear you to the locals who welcome the world to their exceptional corner of the globe with una hospitalidad especial.

Brian Waddle holds a U.S. passport and uses it as often as possible to travel near and far, working to make every day a photo op.

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