Gay Puerto Vallarta
By Richard Ammon
Last month I spent a week in Puerto Vallarta on Mexico’s west coast. It was my first visit and my impression was favorable. It is a bustling modern Central American urban city with all that it means: a busy international airport, shopping malls, a diversity of lifestyles, copious inner-city transportation, a charming mortar-and-bricks old-town, countless eateries that range from mom-and-pop to chic elegant, as well as oceanfront luxury condos for half a million dollars.
And, as I’ve heard for years, a spirited commercial and tourist LGBT scene. There are three main areas where gay day-and-night-life is concentrated: Olas Altas, Lazaro Cardenas and the Rio Cuale. In general, the larger area, Olas Altas, is commonly referred to as the Zona Romantica (Gayborhood) toward the south end with a beach fronting a few mostly gay condo towers marketed to our community who arrive in the high season (November to April) every year. for sun, skin and Speedos.
The city is playful and serious. Thousands of visitors of all colors, stripes and persuasions flock to the mile-long Malecon ‘boardwalk’ (made of cement) that runs along the ocean beach with countless restaurants, musicians, mimes, acrobats who dangle from a hundred-foot pole, clothing stores, a Naval museum, an amphitheater that often hosts entertainments such as folk dancing and mariachi music. The Malecon oceanfront city walk ends south in the gay area.
The serious part are the thousands of hard-working restaurant owners and shop keepers, police, street sweepers, library staff, tourist agencies, hotel maids and clerks, bus drivers—all who keep the city in motion.
The old town streets of PV are not cobblestones; they are made of rounded river rocks cemented in place many years ago that makes the roads very rough. Walking on them is difficult for folks with weak ankles or knees. It also makes the traffic noise loud all day especially the countless buses that rumble along these streets every minute—literally every minute. often there multiple buses one behind the other, sometimes two or three together. often with only two or three passengers on board. Cost is 7.5 pesos (40 cents). It’s a convenient way around town as the old buses shake rattle and roll along the narrow streets.
The main gay scene is south of the old town hub and is easily accessed along the Malecon beach walk or by back street vehicles. It’s a lively scene that is capsuled in three small magazines called ‘Gay PV’, ‘Gay Guide Vallarta’ and ‘Gay PV Travel Guide’. Both list dozens of venues in their 200 (each) or so pages. No one can get lost or bored here.
Real Estate is a big advertiser in public promoting condo ownership and rentals. The city is an internationally favored destination drawing mostly from USA and Canada. There are the usual plethora a gay and gay-friendly bars (at least two dozen), gyms, cafes, restaurants, clothing and accessories stores as well as drag show performances, nude pole dancers (so I read in the guides) and go-go boys, massage venues, saunas. For the well-heeled there are yacht tours. For the energetic there are “Wet and Wild’ cruise tours. Not to be missed is elegant dining scene at the Casa Kimberly (Iguana Restaurant) occupying the former residence of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton high on a hill with panoramic view of the city and sea; stunning at sunset.
Listings include gay friendly dentists, tourist offices, art galleries, hair salons, Spartacus Sauna, Vallarta zoo and botanical gardens and of course ads for Gay Pride, this year in May.
Mantamar Beach is the center of the LGBT scene. There are two big gay hotel condo towers with bars restaurants and where the White Party happens with lots of sun, skin and Speedos show in abundance protected from the sun by a sea of umbrellas. Mantamar Resort and the well-known Blue Chairs Resort are the two main LGBT-owned destination venues each with a pool, cabanas, restaurant and beach area. Because they are so popular there are crowds during peak hours which requires wiggle room and loud voices.
There is another, smaller, gayborhood on Basillo Vadillo street, aka South Side Shuffle. There is a drag show theatre there called Act 2 PV with numerous decorative entertainers (Act II Entertainments) who cycle in and out of PV. As usual they have catchy double entendre names such as Miss Conception, Hedda Lettuce and Mama Tits. Broadway shows are mounted in the Act II Stages as well.
One day at noon I walked over to the beach area for lunch at Palapa Restaurant near the sail-shaped Muerte Pier, very busy with local and foreign tourists. Vendors strolled among the tables and beach chairs selling a variety of stuff—hats, blankets, bags of Fritos, sun glasses, silver jewelry, string hammocks, massages, bead necklaces, drinking mugs, miniature ceramic football team helmets, brightly colorful dresses and pants, hardwood carved figures, scarves, toy parachutes, plastic toys for kids, woven handbags, string bags, printed PV t-shirts, henna tattoos… and more. I stopped counting. Waiters from the many restaurants along the sand wander among the beach chairs and umbrellas serving liquids to lounging overweight customers. The beach is indeed a busy main thoroughfare of commerce.
In addition to the perky, sexy and stylish gay scene there is a LGBT business association. Their website reads: The gay Puerto Vallarta Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Center has a purpose “to provide essential services to the GLBT community, including support in recovery from addiction, physical and mental health treatment and referrals, education and recreation in an atmosphere of safety, free from discrimination. The Center offers the GLBT community, their families and friends a variety of services meant to improve their physical, emotional and spiritual well being. Creating a network between members of the GLBT and non-GLBT community allows opportunities for members to experience, learn and participate in the mutual development of our common community.” (Their website was not functional when I checked it the next day and their office had moved.) More accurately the ‘Center’ is a referral hotline.
Behind The Scene
It’s easy to write a story about gay life in PV, playtime, pool parties, drinking, sexing, beach time, gourmet restaurants all along the Malecon. But the scene is not all ‘happening’. Inland from the coast style is minimal and working-class locals live in modest abodes.
I talked to three local gay residents who live and work year round in PV: Jorge a front desk staff member at Mantamar Resort, Luis a handsome young sales agent for Mantamar condo tower, and Marcos, owner of a stylish boutique guest house high on a hill overlooking the city.
I invited each of them for their views on PV.
Jorge works the front desk at Mantamar Resort. He was very helpful in helping me sort out the difficulty locating SETAC, the gay center with the downed website and disappeared office. He has lived in PV for five years and loves it here.
Originally from Wyoming, Jorge escaped from his Hispanic Jehovah Witness family after he came out to them. Needless to say they were not pleased although his mother was only ‘slightly’ judgmental. His father had nothing to say to him. “I knew I could not stay there. I needed to be here among ‘my’ people. It was suffocating to have to restrain my thoughts and actions with my family and their community of believers. It’s sad because they are such friendly and helpful people within their own congregations. There’s nothing they would not do for each other. But for me they had no use other than to change me and try to make me follow their strange ways and the way they interpret the Bible.
“But here I live and do as I please, as I must as a free and independent person. I have a partner and we care for each other as much as any Witness couple. Our sexual orientation is not a barrier; it’s a bond, as it is for all our friends. Look around,” he said, sweeping his arm toward the crowd in the hotel pool and restaurant. “These are not ‘gay’ people; they are people with their lives enjoying the freedom that’s here. I wish the rest of the world could see us like this.”
Finishing our chat he described the ‘circus’ of Gay Pride here held each May. “It’s wild and sexy with dancing boys in bikinis and floats from gay businesses.It’s much smaller than Prides in the States, but still with lots of color and music. The city is totally supportive because it’s great for business, which is the city’s bottom line of course. Not to mention that this gay-and-straight vacation city supports a lot of Mexican families.”
The next day I met Luis a handsome 23-year-old native Mexican salesman for Mantamar Resort. His job was to persuade newcomers to have a free lunch and take a sales tour of the condo tower adjacent to the beachfront dining area. He was soft spoken and in not rush to give us a sales pitch. My husband and I demurred from the tour but ate lunch after which I asked Luis if I could interview him. He was agreeable so we sat for about 20-30 minutes to talk about his life as a young gay man in Mexico today.
He said first felt attracted toward other boys about twelve years of age but was not aware of what it meant. As the years came on he continued to have the feelings but did not have any understanding, he said. It was not until he was 14 that he had his first sexual experience, with a classmate. “I liked it and it felt good but I still didn’t know what it was. “I guess you could say I am just now getting to understand what gay means, what gay feelings are, what gay romance means.”
It was not until he was 23 that he had what he called a boyfriend, in fact two boyfriends in the same year.
He has a university degree in marketing and international trade. During college he went to China as a cultural exchange student because he wanted to get outside Mexico and see other countries. After college he worked in an office for a business company but after a couple years he found the work boring. “I wanted something more exciting so I moved here to PV. I knew what was here and as a gay person I wanted to find out more about the lifestyle. I feel I am still coming out, still evolving. So I’ve been here less than one month being a sales person for this gay resort. I like it but it’s not where I will be for long.” What’s next? “I’m not sure…whatever happens; I am open.” I encouraged him to search around, study possible opportunities and not just rely on chance occasions.
Luis is from another city, Celaya Mexico. He was there until he went to college in Guanajucito where he met his first boyfriend Alex who was thirty years old, a professional in the fashion industry. But Alex had to move to Europe for his work. “Alex is the first person I loved—I still do and we hope maybe we can be together some day but we are not waiting for each other. We know that we should not wait. I’m still trying to figure out who I am and where I want to live.”
Luis is not yet out to his mother and there is no father active in his life. He has no siblings from his parents but has heard his father has a couple of other children. “He disappeared a long time ago.” Luis doubts his mother knows he is gay. “She is emotional and easily gets upset; her focus is herself; we are not very close. He is reluctant to tell her his truth because he fears a highly emotional reaction. So this is another reason to be in PV. “She didn’t want me to move away from her but I knew I had to. I want to be free to be myself.”
Have you ever experienced homophobia, I asked? He paused for a moment then said “no, not really. No one has ever yelled at me or bullied me.” Partly because he comes across as straight, whatever that means.
His second short-term boyfriend was Alberto but “we broke up because there was too much distance (mileage) between us.
The worst thing that ever happened to him was the death his grandfather when Luis was 12 years old. “He was a father to me, and kind—the kindest male adult I ever knew… I see some of these couples here at Mantamar; they are kind to each other and I want that. Maybe someone older to be a sort of daddy. I don’t think about it much but when I see a daddy guy with a younger guy as a couple I feel something missing inside me.”
The best thing that’s happened to Luis: “realizing I can have what I want with no one to stop me…in gay Puerto Vallarta I am free. My freedom is the best thing I have.”
After my interview with Luis I happened upon a nearby massage parlor with a friendly looking guy out front who invited me to get a full body massage for $40 for an hour—a real bargain for an American. His name was Santiago, from Guadalajara. Seems that everyone here is from somewhere else.
Casa Amigos, Up The Hill: Marcos
But the gayborhood is only one part of the vacation scene here, only one face of the various gay appearances of PV.
Up a short hill in central downtown is piece of the ‘non-scene’. Among countless neighborhood humble family homes, along the stoney streets, there are numerous tourist guest houses. I went to visit with Marcus who owns a boutique place called Casa Amigos on the hill above central PV, four blocks up from the Malecon.
Marcus is an energetic, athletic California expat who opted out of the corporate race seven years ago after being seduced by the easy ambiance of PV. He happened upon an old guesthouse with the Pacific spread out 180 degrees outside the front door. (photo left)
Rechristened as ‘Casa Amigos’ a year later, Marcos has reshaped and revitalized the tired nondescript building, adding two guest rooms to the existing five and decorated them with bright indigenous colors of Mexico. Every room is a different shape and size with different windows, plush beds, handwoven fabrics and carpets, lights and custom bath tiles; some bathrooms have views of the sea with sailboats gliding by. Virtually every inch the casa has been revived by Marcos’s tasteful eye and creative hands. There are seven units ranging from a single room to an apartment available for a month or longer. All the rooms have an ocean view; the color of the water changes as the sun climbs then sets and the city lights up like a sparkling jewel box.
Marc is a cheerful, chatty welcoming host who showed me around the several levels of the guesthouse which he expanded up and out over the past 7 years. He loves it here, living with his Australian Shepherd dog Rubi-doo. His move came here after getting laid off from his job in the finance industry. Previously he had visited PV several times and like it for the sea, the temperature and the diversity and ambience of the mixed social scene. He’s constantly busy with house changes and repairs and the many plants scattered around in all public rooms. At 47 he has a youthful face, a lean body frame and keeps his head shaved smooth (and wears a cap).
He did not come here to get away from anything or anyone. “I love the weather and the atmosphere and the clean air.. I can surf and paddle board anytime ; my beach is just over there,” pointing to a cluster of palms by the ocean. His family knows he’s gay but his father and brother (who has 8 kids) are “resentful” that he was not the rugged boy they wanted. Too bad, he said. His mother is OK with it. “Can’t please everyone!”
His recent message to me said, “I am the wrong gay guy to ask about the gay life here in PV. I’m not at all in the gay scene. I know it is plentiful here but I’m not into it. I don’t go to the gay beaches, don’t do the gay clubs and I don’t attend gay events. I’m not anti gay, as I am gay and comfortable with myself, but I would be the last one to talk about the gay scene that this amazing city has to offer.”
Never mind. We had enough other things to talk about and appreciate about this independent business man, guesthouse host, dog-lover, interior designer and artist, and the free-spirit of the man.
Also see these other Mexico stories: https://www.globalgayz.com/gay-mexico-a-three-part-journey/310/
and see Gay News and Reports Archive for Mexico: https://www.globalgayz.com/central-america/mexico/