Pure Paradise: Puerto Vallarta

Chez Elena. Photos by Lydia Pruett
Chez Elena. Photos by Lydia Pruett

This winter has proved that Mother Nature simply thumbs her nose at Minnesota Nice. Fleeing is the only sane response, and south is the optimal direction. Therefore, I boarded Sun Country Airlines’ daily non-stop to Puerto Vallarta—perhaps the most idyllic gay-friendly getaway on the continent. Daytime temps hover in the 80s under a relentlessly cloud-free Mexican sky painted in swimming-pool blue. What’s wrong with this picture? Only a masochist would ask.

In Old Town, the Zona Romantica is a magnet for the LGBTQ crowd, so slip on your Speedo, snag a chaise, and summon a Margarita at Blue Beach Club, boys-town’s primo seaside stake-out. Break your siesta with a stroll along the adjacent Malecon, a mile-long promenade under an honor guard of palms aside the water, where people-watching serves as an Olympic sport. Stick around in hope of spotting a passing whale (we did!) and the nightly fireworks.

At midpoint on the Malecon stands the charming little church of Our Lady of Guadaloupe, the city’s patron, with her silver crown atop the steeple. The street behind her leads to the city’s gallery district, at its best on Wednesday night crawls. Art bursts out all around town in the form of flamboyant murals (including one devoted to George Floyd).

Head the opposite direction on the Malecon to encounter Tile Park, where the reigning art form adorns a cache of concrete benches, each dressed in its unique collage of sparkly tiles. The park’s  centerpiece is a bandstand, which also anchors the Saturday farmers market.

Taco Tour

For a view from midway up the gentle hills that clasp the city, climb to the open-air bar called Chez Elena, where the mango Margaritas assume the dimension of a swimming pool. Then, trek back down to explore Old Town’s assorted shopping ops and a chance to choose your dinner site. Ours: the seafood-centric Martini en Fuego, where Margaritas come in “regular or vacation -size,” invokes our server. A complimentary Caesar salad heads your way before your order of shrimp in many guises or maybe a husky slab of tuna. Then, a gratis finale of ice cream aside a bite of cake.

More art and more food wait to be discovered a little farther up into the hills—the first at the captivating, year-old Arte VallARTa Museum, celebrating a donor’s collection of regional artists’ bright landscapes and portrait paintings, saluting a delightful style best described as Grandma Moses meets Chagall. Enticing gift shop, too.

Close by rises a café called Red Cabbage harboring an intimate, art-covered interior (watercolor portraits of Burton and Taylor, who filmed Night of the Iguana in these environs; another of Bob Dylan) and a menu that offers what became my favorite meal of the trip—a traditional list with a repertoire of mole sauces topping chicken; a starter quesadilla layered with onions, serrano chilies and earthy huitlacoche (“corn fungus”); and a traditional dish called chilies en nogada—an artwork in itself, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds topping a creamy sauce of pureed walnuts.

Red Cabbage

A scrumptious way to dig deeper into the city’s food scene is to sign on for a tour offered by Vallarta Eats. Our choice, the Untouristed Taco Tour (vallartaeats.com, 3-4 hours, $55), winds us through an intriguing, un-touristed neighborhood, with taco stops that ranged from barbacoa to goat birra, from beef brains (an added, voluntary extra), to adobo, climaxing with a combo of seafood soup and tacos plump with smoked marlin. Then helado, ice cream in your choice of many, many flavors (mine: fig with mezcal). 

Oftentimes, however, we sought the dining venues in the neighborhood where we bedded down northwest of the Old Town called Versalles, sprinkled with condos-turned-air B&Bs (a 15-minute walk to the beach, 20-minute bus ride or uber to Old Town), flush with inviting restaurants and taco stands. For breakfasts, we bounced from trendy, open-air sites like Flamboyan (fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade breads, eggs Bennie, chilaquiles en mole) to Lattey’s for creamy enchiladas suizas and shrimp-stuffed crepes, or to Noah’s, popular with the neighborhood’s expats for its mammoth breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros.


The neighborhood’s Barrio Bistro is the upscale dinner choice, where designer cocktails and Nuevo Mexicano-style dishes are delivered in a garden setting flanked by Frida-like murals. My starter starred stuffed zucchini flowers with poblano peppers and avocado sauce. The tender, long simmered pork shank which followed came dressed in a broth of seven chilies. Or choose fish in a tamarind sauce or an almond pesto broth; shrimp upon saffron noodles; or an Angus ribeye with grilled bone marrow and poblano pepper sauce.

Sleep it off until morning, when it’s time to rinse and repeat: just another sunny day on the sandy shores of the ocean with not a care in the world.

Top Gay Bars in Old Town

Blondie’s Loft—open until 2 A.M.  
Mr. Flamingo—good music, primo people-watching
La Margarita—great DJ, strong drinks
Reinas Bar—Jell-o shots delivered by drag queens
Antropology Bar—stripper club with continuous shows
7 Divas—sing along with the talent onstage
Puerto Vallarta Gay Bar Tour ($75, 3 hours)
Vallarta Pride: May 20-26, 2023: parade, beach & pool parties, concerts

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