Puerto Vallarta, Part 2: Finding Love in the Romantic Zone
The second installment in our series on Puerto Vallarta tourism. Click here for Part 1.
Located on Mexico's Pacific coast, Puerto Vallarta is a bustling city of a quarter-million that is currently in the midst of a big-time expansion fueled by gorgeous beaches, low crime and an exchange rate that offers lots of bang for an American buck.
The 90s brought visitors to PV from the west coast of North America -- from Los Angeles on up to Vancouver -- but now not only tourists but also ex-pats are winging in from all over the continent. Condos are popping up everywhere to house the newbies, though that can bring its own set of problems.
"We are getting a lot of new condo owners who visit once a year and don't care about Vallarta as a community," notes Don Pickens, owner of Casa Cupula, a luxury gay guest house he opened in 2002. "Some just want to make income renting, but don't want to join gay associations, or support our city's institutions or neighborhood associations if it costs money. Which is ironic, since it is the community that brought them here in the first place. I say, learn some Spanish, understand the culture, and participate in improving the city that has welcomed you here in the first place... that is what makes Vallarta special."
Gay jet-setters discovered Puerta Vallarta in the early 60s when director John Huston arrived to film "Night of the Iguana." Hair stylists, makeup artists and costumers -- many part of Hollywood's gay creative community -- descended on the sleepy town, which only had a population at that time of about 15,000 and wasn't easily accessible.
Elizabeth Taylor, then in the midst of a scandalous affair with "Iguana" star Richard Burton, brought along her "gay mafia" friends to keep her occupied when Burton was filming, and an international paradise for the LGBT community was born.
A decade or so later Humberto Esparza and Roberto Cuevas, who would become the city's first gay couple in the public eye, opened the fine dining establishment Le Bistro. It paved the way for more openly gay-owned businesses, like Balconies, the city's first gay bar, which debuted in the 80s.
When Taylor fought with Burton -- a not-infrequent occurrence for that famously passionate, hard-drinking pair -- she would flee to a friend, "Silver" Maria Cortez. Cortez's property, Rivera del Rio, would go on to play host to other Tinseltown luminaries like Raquel Welch and Ridley Scott.
Today, Alexander James Andriadis Killen, Cortez's grandson, owns the property, along with Garlands del Rio, also an LGBT-welcoming inn. He would like to see tourism officials and business owners market to more than primarily gay men.
"We need to be more than a party town," Killen explains. "We should be more inclusive to lesbian travelers, for example. There is so much more diversity in the LGBT community, and we need programming that reflects that diversity. Puerto Vallarta is such a great area for romantic weddings and honeymoons. We just have to tap into that market."
Killen might want a wider selection of smaller, kinder pleasures for LGBT tourists in PV, but Tim Wilson, founder of GAYPV magazine, dreams of a convention center-type space where international party planners can host large groups for a great party.
"The reason cruise events are in Nuevo and not PV (Jalisco), I think, are the lack of large luxury-type hotels who embrace and solicit LGBT business in the Romantic Zone. The three large properties (San Marino, Tropicana and Los Arcos), are still owned by Mexican families who don't understand the value of LGBT tourism. So far, they haven't been open to a takeover event where we can exclusively use the hotel for our parties during those days."
One aspect of the LGBT scene that appears to need no help at all is live performance. PV offers three venues running up to three shows daily in the high season, from November to April.
"Puerto Vallarta is growing tremendously and is one of the top LGBTQ destinations for not only Americans and Canadians but many travelers from Europe, Asia and Latin America," says drag icon and PV legend Chi Chi Rones. "As the town continues to grow so does the LGBTQ culture. There are many gay plays and musicals that cater to the community at large. There is cabaret, singing drag queens, singers, Tony-Award winners, comedians, hypnotists, tap dancers, flamenco and musical acts. All varieties of entertainment for all ages!"
Whether or not the Romantic Zone gets a convention center, owners of large hotels who want to host a big gay circuit party or even more marketing abroad targeted to LGBT travelers, Puerto Vallarta will continue to draw those looking for one of the world's best times. What precisely they'll discover going forward is something city officials and the local LGBT community is still figuring out.
This story is part of our special report titled "Spring 2017." Want to read more? Here's the full list.