While I’ve long heard about the fabled “gay oasis” that is Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I hadn’t actually ever traveled there before. When I finally did, I found the bustling city was more queer, colorful, and fabulous than I’d imagined. Getting there was also easier than I’d thought, thanks to the Cross Border Xpress in San Diego, which I recently became aware of when some friends and I used it to enter the country for a destination wedding.
Mountaintop view of Puerto Vallarta skyline
Initially opened in 2015, the entry point was designed by pioneering Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta, and its main feature is a 390-foot enclosed pedestrian skybridge that quickly and easily connects travelers to the Tijuana International Airport. In its first five years, more than 10 million travelers crossed the U.S.-Mexico border using CBX, with a record 2.9 million travelers crossing in 2019 alone.
CBX has gained more attention during the pandemic, since American citizens are now required to provide proof of a negative COVID test before flying back to the States. However, there is no such requirement when walking into the U.S. Another great advantage is that direct flights from Tijuana cost about 30 to 50 percent less than those from the United States. Mexican airlines also fly directly to many more destinations in Mexico.
The Cross Border Xpress is just steps across the border to Tijuana International Airport
Ease of transportation to (and parking in) San Diego is also an advantage. In addition to the many flights into the region, CBX’s own shuttle service provides transportation to and from locations throughout California, including Los Angeles, Riverside, Fresno, Stockton, and Sacramento.
After our group walked across the border and flew in from Tijuana, we took a shuttle from the Puerto Vallarta airport to our resort, the Grand Miramar. Driving inward from the most touristy part of town near the airport — where mega-resorts, cruise ships, and American eateries like Outback Steakhouse congregate — you could feel the vibe change. I was struck by what a large, bustling Mexican city Puerto Vallarta is. I especially enjoyed the dozens of colorful murals by local artists that beckoned us deeper into the heart of the town.
The rooftop pool and bar at the Grand Miramar resort
In the mountainous city, The Grand Miramar is one of the highest resorts, elevation-wise, providing breathtaking views. On our first day, we relaxed and refreshed at the resort before heading into town. While the journey is too long and steep to walk, shuttles and taxis were readily available.
That evening, we went raicilla tasting at La Lulú Raicilleria. True raicilla, which roughly translates to “little root,” is only produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is located. Though it has existed in the region for centuries, this fine liqueur has been growing in popularity in recent years. Distilled from roasted and fermented agave piñas, the heart of the agave plant, raicilla has a subtle smokey flavor and tends to be more acidic and floral than its agave-made cousins, tequila and mezcal. We enjoyed several varieties along with interesting pairings of local delicacies, including tuétano with escamoles (roasted bone marrow topped with ant eggs — which may sound strange but was delicious). Locally, tuétano is often scooped out and served in tacos but in more formal settings and restaurants, like at La Lulú, it is to be enjoyed directly from the bone.
Raicilla cocktails and roasted bone marrow at La Lulú
The following morning, we took in Puerto Vallarta’s natural beauty on a luxury yacht snorkeling tour by Vallarta Adventures. Complimentary beverages (margaritas) and snacks (fresh ahi) helped pass the hour-long journey to the beautiful and remote beach on the north end of the bay for a day of fun, sun, snorkeling, and water activities. After a slightly chilly boat ride, I was relieved to find the ambient temperature nearing 80 degrees and the water surprisingly warm. I truly could have floated around all day exploring numerous caves and watching colorful fish swim by.
Fresh ahi appetizer at the Grand Miramar; smoked marlin taco from street food tour
Once back in town, we explored the main downtown area, El Centro, via Vallarta Food Tours, sampling numerous tacos and a sprinkling of other items at various eateries nearby. Because of the region’s access to fresh seafood, I highly recommend trying as many unique oceanic offerings as possible, such as the mouthwatering smoked marlin tacos we had at Mariscos la Tia. We also tried some more traditional Mexican fare, like tacos al pastor and tacos cabeza (boiled cow’s head tacos). If all this head and bone marrow talk is making vegetarian eaters start to sweat, not to worry. Most restaurants, and many street food vendors, have plenty of meatless options. A local favorite, tacos de papas (potato tacos), is a must-try.
We chose to take a deeper dive into the city the next day with a general walking tour from Vallarta101 that covered the main three downtown regions: El Melecón (a mile-long beach boardwalk filled with donated art), El Centro, and Zona Romantica (the gayborhood). Our wonderful and knowledgeable guide, Memo, showed us the sites and gave us historical insights, including that the town was founded by Mexicans, rather than Spanish colonizers— something locals, especially those of Indigenous ancestry, are very proud of. From the tour I also learned that various Puerto Vallarta landmarks — like El Centro’s church tower, the Zona Romantica pier, and the Melecón esplanade — make it particularly easy to navigate this city.
The beach and dining area for Rhythyms of the Night stage show
That evening we again traveled by boat to northern beaches, this time to experience Rhythms of the Night: Savia, a truly exciting stage show from Cirque de Soleil cofounder Gilles Ste-Croix that draws inspiration from the area’s ancient people and ceremonies. Costumed performers already in character greeted us from rocky hillsides alongside a fire-lit buffet, which we enjoyed before the show. Filled with amazing acrobats, fierce fire dancers, incredible contortionists, and more, Rhythms will surely leave you breathless.
Speedo-clad boys on the beach in Zona Romantica
After the show, we returned to Zona Romantica where tequila shots fueled a night of dancing in the concentrated strip of queer bars. We even got the pleasure of seeing one of our travel companions straddled by a gorgeous drag performer to Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” During the whole trip, I was surprised by the openness queer folks displayed, holding hands, kissing, etc. While Zona Romantica is the official LGBTQ+ area, all of Puerto Vallarta seemed queer-friendly and accepting (which is not necessarily the case throughout other areas of Mexico).
The view from the luxury beachfront LGBTQ+ resort Almar
On our final day we had some time to kill before our journey home, so we opted to check out the “straight-friendly” Almar Resort Luxury LGBT Beach Front Experience. Even though we weren’t guests we were able to purchase day passes for its adults-only beach club, Mantamar, for $40, which included a full bar and beach and pool access. Let’s just say there were banana hammocks and gorgeous men aplenty. We were also surprised to learn the rooms at the luxury gay resort started at under $200.
Puerto Vallarta delivered all I dreamed of and more. It is truly a queer vacationer’s paradise where endless possibilities for adventure await.
This piece initially appeared in Out Traveler print issue Summer 2022.