It turns out that one of the best times to visit Puerto Vallarta is during the first two weeks of December.
Apparently, the city explodes with tourists over Thanksgiving and then again at Christmas, but the lull in between is prime, and you’ll see the difference: beaches aren’t quite so busy, wait times are completely eliminated at the upscale restaurants, no lines at the bars.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a ghost town, by any means. There’s always plenty of fun to be had.
We arrived on Friday afternoon. Arranged for a ride from the airport via our hotel, the Casa Cupula. That hotel rests atop a hill just a short ten-minute walk from the beach. Admittedly it’s a bit of a climb – there is a set of stairs that includes something like 70 steps. Cardio-phenes among us will appreciate the opportunity to work off some of those margaritas down at the beach at the end of a long, sunny afternoon. For the rest: there’s a convenient lift that will get you to the top of that hill easily enough.
Don’t worry about renting a car. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch to get from the airport but once you hit Zona Romantica (the Romantic Zone), you have nothing to worry about. Everything from bars, the beach, to your hotel and restaurants, they’re all within walking distance. At the end of a late night, you may want to catch a taxi back to the hotel, but even that will only cost you about 40 pesos.
Word to the wise: the Romantic Zone is not wheelchair friendly. The cobblestone streets are gorgeous but at times they’re rough. And some of the side streets are very steep. We all got around well enough in our summer sandals but you may want to pack a pair of runners if you anticipate any great amount of walking.
Within the first day or two of your stay, you cannot afford to miss the Gay Vallarta Bar-Hopping tour. The owner, Tim Wilson, is North Carolina born and bred and he has the accent to prove it. Talking with him brings with it a little surprise slice of home. It was our experience that Tim coordinated a lot of our visits to the bars that evening – as well as the dinner that started it all off – but the big prize among patrons was two-fold.
First, you’re going to meet and become fast friends with the others on the tour. For example, we chatted with Matthew from Toronto (one of many, many Canadians visiting P.V.), and learned more about him and his home as we strolled – and maybe at times stumbled – the streets en route to the next location.
Second, you’re going to love your tour guide. Our guide was MJ, though he answered just as quickly to the name Michael. Ask for him. You’ll have a blast. He’s super-model handsome and just as tall, dark as any Mexican sunshine will tan you, and … get this … he’s from New Zealand, which only adds to the unique escapist feel to the vacation city.
The tour was a cross-section of the bars in the area: we left Fusion Gourmet (which included dinner) and walked just a block away to Blondies Loft and Slush Bar, which we assumed grew busier as the evening wore on. It was rather dead around 9pm or 9:30 when we got there. Then we hit Anonimo, a neighborhood bar owned by a Los Angeles transplant.
From there we hit the cantina Reinas and then, just a few steps away, a stripper bar called Wet Dreams. First, the Anglo name of the strip club should provide you some indication the amount of Spanish you need to get around Zona Romantica. Simply, it’s not a problem. Everyone everywhere, from the wait staff at the restaurants to the clerks at the convenience stores are accommodating and friendly to tourists.
The strip club itself is everything you’d expect from gay Mexico, with one exception. If your tour group is large enough, and you get him all riled up, MJ (the tour guide) *may* be convinced to hop up on one of the poles himself.
We ended the night at a go-go bar called La Noche. Get there early to catch the Spanish drag show (American songs, yes!) but stay later – when the bar gets really busy – to watch the dancers. And it isn’t just dancing; these guys easily give P!nk and her silk acrobatics a run for her money.
Let’s go back to Anonimo for a moment. In addition to all the vacationing Canadians, we ran into a number of Americans who’d visited the city a few times and, ultimately, decided Puerto Vallarta should be their home. It was at Anonimo where we met Julie hanging out with friends. She’s from Chicago, moved to P.V. a few years ago, became a real estate agent, and opened the single greatest restaurant we visited that week. It’s called No Way Jose and you have to go there!
“We got real Mexican food there,” she told me. “No tacos or burritos!”
The gayest section along the water is called Blue Chairs Beach. You’ll find it behind the Blue Chairs Hotel. I can’t tell you if it was a time-of-year issue but during our stay I don’t recall seeing even one woman out on that beach, though I trust P.V is just as accommodating to lesbians.
Be sure to stroll north up the beach onto the boardwalk, also called the Malecon, which Google informs me is a 12-block, mile-long esplanade. On the way you’ll come up on the Los Muertos Pier, a unique landmark of the area. It’s in that same place you’ll find the crowds become a bit more family-oriented with children of all ages and, further along, particularly during the dinner hour, retirees and other vacationers to remind you both how all-inclusive the city is toward tourists of all sorts and how closely we all can intermingle.