NOTE: As of mid 2017, I’ve moved this story to my personal blog. Updates and revisions to this guide are only being made there.
For our 10th annviersary in 2007, we decided to take our first trip to Puerto Vallarta. What we thought was going to be a one-time thing has turned into an annual tradition. It’s a shabby-but-cute gay village on a bay that used to be a giant volcano. It’s old Mexico charm surrounded by high rise condos, all-inclusive resorts, Walmarts, shopping malls, an actual jungle, and an ocean full of whales, beautiful fish, and pelicans.
November through June, it’s also full of Canadians, Californians, cruise ship tourists, retired snowbirds both gay and straight (easily identified by their “NO! I dont want a &@# -ing timeshare!” T-shirts), and of course lots of locals trying to hustle up a living by catering to all of the above.
I’ve put together a bunch of tips for visiting.
Getting here, Map, Where to Stay, Packing, Arriving, Activites, Typical Day, Food and Drink.
(Notice that there’s no “weather” or “clothes” section. It’s mild and pleasant in the winter and with very few exceptions no one cares what you wear)
I wrote a long blog post about travel options from San Francisco and New York. It’s over here ✈️. There are a ton of direct charter flights from Canada (really, I saw a plane with direct service to Winnipeg!) but I’m not an expert on that topic. You might want to consider a layover in Mexico City or Guadalajara en route. Both are incredibly fun.
Mexico’s country code is +52 (on an iPhone, hold down the 0 key to make a plus sign). On your mobile, use the country code even when dialing from within Mexico to a local Vallarta business (example: +52 322 222 3333).
The currency is the Mexican peso and it’s usually denoted either $ or MX$. It’s currently 21 Pesos to the USD (Jan 2017) which is way up from the usual 10–12 pesos of the past decade. Normally we recommend just getting pesos from the ATMs, but on last year’s trip even the “safe” ones ended up frauding out several of our friends’ cards. From what we’ve read, the fraud is not coming from skimmers, it’s from crooked armored car drivers putting skimmers inside the machine so they get your PIN too. In every case the fraud didn’t happen until weeks or months later. So this year we brought some pesos with us from the US, used the ATM normally, and then just immediately canceled our cards and ordered new ones with new PINs as soon as we got back. Many places take credit cards, but enough places don’t that you’ll need to have some cash.
While we’re on the topic of money, tipping is handled like it is in the USA — 20% for anyplace that has table, beach chair, or cabana service. Given how strong the USD is right now (seriously beers are like 50¢), you can afford to tip like a baller.
I made a custom Google map of Vallarta with a bunch of notable places on it. Taxis are everywhere in the old town. (Uber hasn’t made its way there from Mexico City yet…) They’re yellow, cheap, and reliable but they’re all quite small so groups might need more than one. Outside the old town, most hotels will have a taxi stand. Some of the drivers will offer you things (the whole “i know a great club…” thing) but a clear and firm “No.” has always been sufficient to end that discussion.
Where to stay
Casa Cupula if you want fancy and gay, Blue Chairs if you want a gay partyparty beachfront atmosphere, Shearaton Bougainvillas if you absolutley positively have to earn/use Starwood points and don’t mind taking a taxi everywhere (Vallarta Cora and the Abbey are both closed now). AirBnB is really taking off, there’s even an Unlock Vallarta key handoff retail shop in town. One big challenge doing AirBnB is that if your rental isn’t in the central city, you have to speak Spanish to the taxi dispatch to hail a car. If you’re up in the hills you might have a hard time convincing them. Your host should be able to recommend a private, English-speaking car service. Also, stock up on snacks and beer if your AirBnB isn’t close to town — it gets super annoying to have to call a car every time you want a taco.
Beyond that I don’t have much first-hand experience with Vallarta hotels. Try to stay south of the Cual River in the Zona Romantica if you want to be close to the central old town. Also, the further you go from the beach, the less touristy and more “real Mexico” the town becomes. Check Trip Advisor because “more real” isn’t always a good thing…
For flip-flops and sunglasses, consider bringing the “beach pair” and the “town pair” since the former is about 10x more likely to get lost. Bring a beach bag large enough to hold your stuff and your towels. At least two swimsuits. Dress codes are fairly lax but bring a collared-shirt and nice jeans in case you decide to go to a nicer place. A tube of hydrocortisone for bug bites (there aren’t many, but I usually get one bite or two). I bring a small tube of nice facial sunscreen but then buy a big bottle once I get to town. Bring foot protection if your winter feet aren’t used to your summer shoes (I love these). While there is a late-night pharmacy, I still like having a couple of starters in my bag so I can head there on my own time: loperamide/anti-diarrhea, benadryl/anti-histamine, and sudafed in case I need to clear my ears for flying. Some more general packing tips are on my blog.
Netflix now lets you download shows for offline viewing, so queue up some plane/beach watching while you pack! Maybe also fire up Duolingo.
Most hotels will offer a paid car service to pick you up at the airport. Follow their instructions for meeting the driver.
There’s a gauntlet of vacation hawkers and taxi services right as you leave immigration. If you’re sourcing your own taxi, it’s best to walk past all of them and out into the main airport area to find a ride. For taxis, go to one of the small ticket booths near the exit and buy a ticket from them. (picture here). Then head outside and show your ticket to the uniformed staff and they’ll put you into the right cab. It’s around MX$300 from the airport to the center of old town. Alternatively, several car services have offices in the main airport hall and those cost a bit more.
If you’re fluent in Spanish and can schlep your bags up two flights of stairs, locals take the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the highway and get a cab there to avoid the airport surcharges. I wouldn’t do this alone or at night, personally.
Once I arrive at my hotel my favorite thing to do is call room service and immediately COMMENCE LOAFING.
There’s a lot to do in Vallarta but I highly recommend the aforementioned loafing. If you wanted museums you’d have gone to Paris, if you want to hob-nob with East Coast gays who fancy themselves “A-listers”, you can do that next summer in Fire Island or P-Town. For now, have a margarita and a Xanax (they’re over-the-counter here!) and slowww-dowwwwwn.
If you’re here for Beef Dip Bear Week, their offical Events calendar is here. They usually offer a group zip-lining and ATV day, so if you want to do those things with a group of big furry gay men, you’re all set. Their pool party and booze cruise are fun (just remember to take Dramamine for the latter). The “jungle dance” thing is a complete bust. I’d avoid any of their events at straight bars or outside the old town.
Your hotel should be able to arrange for the most common activities: whale watching, jet skiing, zip-lining, ATV riding, booze cruises, scuba diving, snorkeling, tequila distillery tours, parasailing, botanical gardens, horseback riding, parasailing, cooking classes, and private beach excursions. I’d trust the hotel over one of the people hawking these activities in the streets.
Also, if you want to do a day trip, renting a car is really easy. They usually bring the car right to your hotel. You sign like two forms and you’re on your way. MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT TOPES ARE BEFORE YOU DRIVE!! San Pancho (sometimes called “San Francisco”) is a great day trip. Make sure you ask a local about potential destinations as road quality can drastically slow your driving.
Our rule is that we have one day out of the whole vacation with a planned activity and the rest of the days we just make up as we go.
Much like in Provincetown there’s a loose, hang-out sort of mentality yet that somehow ends up flowing into a fairly predictable routine.
Mornings usually start by stumbling to a nearby cafe for lots of strong coffee and a hair of the dog. Try a Cafe de Olla (a spiced Mexican drip coffee) if they offer it. Most places offer an American-style breakfast/brunch so you can get French toast if your stomach isn’t ready for chilaquiles yet. Birria and Menudo are both renowned hangover cures, but for me it’s chilaquiles rojas with an egg pretty much every single morning.
I’ve heard rumors that the beach vendors sell amazing bread pudding before noon, but I’ve never been up early enough to find out if it’s true.
Afternoon people usually head to the beach. Nearly all of the beach resorts have umbrellas, reclining beach chairs, bathrooms, and full-service kitchen and bar. Most things on the menu are very reasonably priced. Gays tend to like the Blue Chairs beach club and the others near it. Order a bucket of Pacificos and make some new friends. It’s best to ask your waiter’s name so you can easily find him when it’s time to pay your bill and depart.
Beach vendors pester you about every 2 minutes to buy some crap. I shouldn’t have to tell you that eating oysters on the half-shell that some guy has been carrying down the beach for 2 hours in blazing sun is a bad idea. Say “No, gracias” and stick to getting food from your waiter. If the massage guy comes, definitely get a foot massage, though. It’s amazing. Also keep an eye out for the legendary “Howww mannnyyyyy” Christina too. She’s the beach vendor who has everything.
La Palapa is a beachfront restaurant near the Blue Chairs and they’ll give you a full-service beach day experience with umbrellas, white tablecloths, and silverware if your’e feeling a little fancy or need a quieter beach day. When I’m doing a beach day with my family, I love doing it here…
Mantamar is a new fancy beach club south of the Green Chairs that has a beachfront saltwater pool, hot tubs, private cabanas, “gourmet” food, blaring club music, and a cover charge.
If you’re not up for the beach or a full-on “activity”:
- Shop. There’s a bunch of places to buy Tequila, Mezcal, and if you ask nicely, Raicilla. (However, if you’re flying home on a non-stop and not checking a bag, you might want to just buy your liquor at the airport’s vast duty free shop). There are also a ton of places to get Mexican wrestler masks, woven ponchos, ridiculous hats, and other touristy souvenir crap.
- Sightseeing. The Malecon is a long beachfront boardwalk full of shops and restaurants. Make sure to take a couple of detours off the boardwalk to check out the cathedral and Cual Island.
Post-beach, late afternoon
If you’re already at Blue Chairs, lots of folks go up to the roof top bar to watch the sunset and watch bad bi-lingual drag shows.
Or you can head back to your hotel’s dipping pool. Order a round of margaritas, hop in, watch the sunset, and chat with other guests about what they’re doing tonight. It’s a great way to get invited to things you didn’t even know were happening.
Alternatively, you can head to a beachfront restaurant for an early sunset dinner. (Tip: you can actually Google “what time is sunset in puerto vallarta tonight?”… or “¿A qué hora es la puesta del sol en Puerto Vallarta esta noche?” if your browser has auto-forwarded to google.mx)
Don’t forget that sometime between the beach and the club, you’re going to need a disco nap since you probably only slept six hours last night.
Dinner tends to be fairly late for locals, but given the high number of older folks and Canadians in town, you can get dinner as early as 5:30pm at some places. It’s also common for people you’ve met during the day to try and put together some kind of group dinner thing. Have your hotel concierge make a reservation for you even if you speak Spanish, since they might have relationships that could magically open up a table for you at a “fully booked” restaurant.
Cafe des Artistes is the nicest restaurant in town. It’s quite expensive (around US$100 a person) but the food is fantastic. It’s one of the few places in town I’ve seen people dress up for – I’d at least wear a polo shirt and nice jeans.
Repollo Rojo (aka The Red Cabbage) is probably my favorite place for dinner. The squash blossom quesadilla is fantastic. So is the peanut soup. Their mole Oaxaca and Chile en Nogada are both phenomenal. So is all of the Frida Kahlo memorabilia. They also offer cooking classes.
La Palapa has tables on the patio and directly on the beach. The food is decent if a bit touristy and the prices are high but, hey, you’re dining on the beach by a bonfire with a tippy-top-shelf margarita that goes down waaay faster than you ought to be drinking it. It’s also a great place to stop in after dinner elswhere for a round of top shelf tequila with a sangrita chaser.
There are more restaurants with my reviews on my Vallarta Google map. 🌮🗺
After dinner many people head to one of the bars before moving on to the dance clubs. There are too many bars in town to even begin to list them all. There’s a good list here, but keep in mind that things change quite quickly, so one year’s hotspot will be next year’s dud (Club Mañana, I’m looking at you). Grab one of the free printed gay guides when you get to town or ask your concierge what’s hot. We usually start our night by drinking at Frida’s, Dos Amigos, or La Noche. Once we’re done there, we head to CC Slaughters or Paco Paco. Clubs are open late (past 4am when it’s busy).
A quick not here on “Dating”: local Vallarta guys are very friendly and helpful, but don’t be surprised or grumpy if, halfway through the evening, he lets you know that he’s also a massage therapist and that he’d happily come back to your place and give you a massage for MX$800. There’s a good chance the affection was geniuine, but he’s got bills to pay just like you do. Vallarta is also a popular weekend getaway for Guadalajarans (espeically in summer), so you might have different luck barking up that tree. Smartphones cost a zillion pesos here so The Apps will be full of other tourists (when they can get the Wifi to work!). If you really need to internet-date while you’re here, try Manhunt. I think that’s where most of the ‘flip-phone + Internet cafe’ crowd hangs out.
After the club it’s time for some street food! Taco stands line the streets near the bars and the alcohol level in your stomach should disinfect anything questionable that you’re about to eat, right? Our favorite is near the big Farmacia Guadalajara (the one closest to the intersection). Make sure you try the tocino (bacon) and the panela (a soft white cheese that’s amazing with grilled onions). “Wash” your hands by squeezing a lime onto them and treating the juice like Purell. If the plate is wrapped in plastic, return it when you’re done eating (even if it’s styrofoam!) and you’re ready to pay. Don’t use more napkins than you need if you want to stay on the cook’s good side (paper products are expensive in Mexico).
One more bit about food and drink
Mexican food in tourist towns has an identity crisis: restaurants often have to bend their own cuisine to meet the vision of how visitors expect it to be. If you’re at Daquiri Dicks on the beach, it’s basically indistinguishable from Casa Bonita in Denver. The more inland and “authentic” the place, the more respectful you should be about your expecations and requests. To that end:
Tacos come on corn tortillas, not flour.
Tacos don’t have cheese on them. Order a quesadilla with meat or a queso fundito (see below) if you want cheese.
Chicken is not a common ingredient for tacos.
Burritos are American.
Keep in mind that Vallarta is in the state of Jalisco – the birthplace of tequila. Ergo, don’t order a nice añejo tequila and then shoot it like a college kid on spring break (that’s what the cheap stuff is for). Sip the good stuff as if you were in Scotland driking a fine whisky. If you’re at a serious bar (or nice restaurant) and drinking tequila neat, ask if they’ll bring you a sangrita as a chaser. Yes, sangriTa has a T in it, and it’s not a fruity wine beverage. Click the link☺ Patrón is only available at tourist bars (order Don Julio instead). Most Mexicans put a nice blanco/silver into their margaritas, rarely an aged reposado or añejo. While we’re on the topic of liquor, Controy is a local orange liqueur (and critical margarita ingredient) that tastes suspiciously close to the vastly-more-expensive Cointreau its name sounds like a mispronunciation of.
Always eat what’s popular. If 90% of the restaurant is eating al pastor tacos, eat al pastor tacos. The fastest way to get food poisioning is to order the hamburger at a place that serves one hamburger a month. Most corner stores sell a wide variety of drinkable yogurt products to keep your belly happy. Note that popular flavors are prune, celery, and cactus so do read the label.
Since this is a tourist town, tipping is largely handled like it is in the USA — 20% is customary.
Lastly, the orange salsa is always the hottest. Picante means spicy, caliente refers to temperature.
What to eat
Carnitas and chicharrón. Slow-cooked pork served with deep-fried pork skin garnish. And of course, a stack of fresh corn tortillas, half a dozen salsas, some radishes, and a Pacifico. I dream of the the green avocado salsa…
Al Pastor. Think greek gyros only with Mexican spices and slab of spit-roasted pineapple on there. Panchos Takos is my favorite place to get these. Or if you’re more daring, try one of the people cooking it on the street with a tiered charcoal spit-roaster.
Queso Fundito. It’s mexican cheese fondue, usually topped with crispy chorizo and served with fresh corn tortillas. Yes, it really gives you this face when you eat it.
Elote. Char-grilled corn covered with mayonnaise, chili, and lime.
Pozole is usually eaten on Sunday after church. It’s amazing. They make a white girl version if you’re too scared to eat tongue and tripe. (But you should totally get the one with tongue and tripe, live a little!)
Michelada de mariscos. A spicy beer bloody mary with a jicama seafood salad in the top. The beer stand at the foot of Igualidad road has amazing ones.
Torta ahogada (literally, “drowning sandwich”) originates nearby Guadalajara, where the high altitude gives the bread the necessary fortitude to stand up to a full dunking in super hot sauce. It’s common for people to ask you how “picante” you want it. “Gringo” is a perfectly acceptable answer.