Need a new bucket list destination?
Toby Whitehouse has found one for you..
“Its where I had my first gay clubbing experience. It’s where I found my first boyfriend. For me, it's the place where gay began”. That was the enthusiastic response from a mate when I told him about this trip I was going on. Forget about the usual suspects though - this isn’t Mykonos, Gran Canaria or San Francisco. We’re in Mexico - and specifically Puerto Vallarta and the neighbouring Riviera Nayarit.
Living in the UK, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cancun should be your go-to choice for a holiday to Mexico. But dig a little deeper and on the opposite, Pacific Coast, is a place that I’ve heard touted as the LGBT capital of Mexico. Not that you necessarily need a gay bar when there’s so much else to do here, but it's a great added dimension to a destination that is already so easy to fall for.
Its hidden-gem feel is reflected in its accessibility from the UK. TUI are the only direct operator to Puerto Vallarta, but they do fly from both London Gatwick and Manchester, from £645 per person, return. I have seen them for less on their website though at thomson.co.uk. I was on one of their Dreamliners which are less noisy and do something clever with cabin pressure so you feel more refreshed after a hefty flight.
I’m not one for casually settling in when I get somewhere new so was eager to get straight out when we landed. Puerto Vallarta’s reputation is steeped in romantic legend by two distinctly un-Mexican celebrities - Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Casa Kimberly was their home-away-from-home and is now a boutique hotel, restaurant and bar. It was a fitting introduction to the destination, and probably the most luxurious meal of the trip. In hindsight, maybe I would have appreciated the top-end dining even more with the benefit of a little shut-eye first.
So to our hotel, the all-inclusive AAA Four Diamond Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort. It's a step (or few) up from the traditional all-inclusive options you might have experienced in Europe, although they still haven’t found a better way of identifying guests than with a wristband. A small sacrifice when you’re lay on the beach overlooking the Banderas Bay with a waiter taking your drinks order. Rooms are spacious and modern, but if you’re looking for a for traditional Mexican ambience The Hacienda at Hilton is currently in development on the same site. Prices start at £124 per person, all inclusive.
Whilst you could feast all day for free at the Hilton it would be a wasted opportunity - you’re in Mexico. Right in the heart of Puerto Vallarta is a family-run restaurant, Gaby’s. Originally a small backyard business, nearly thirty years later its still going strong under the leadership of Julio Cesar, son of the original owners. For a truly immersive lunch, I’d recommend their cookery class which is just £33.50 per person and will have you visiting the local market to collect ingredients before cooking them alongside Julio Cesar in the original back yard of the restaurant. Don’t gorge on the hotel Breakfast buffet beforehand as you’ve got 8 courses to get through here.
Just 5 minutes walk from Gaby’s is Puerto Vallarta’s famous Melecón - a seafront promenade of restaurants, bars, shops and curiosities. At the ChocoMuseo you’ll learn about Mexico’s connection to the discovery of chocolate and if you’re burnt off that lunch already maybe do a bean-to-bar workshop where you’ll get to make your own chocolate bars to take home.
There’s so much to see and do in P.V. you might find it hard to sit still. Vallarta Adventures are the area’s top dog when it comes to booking every kind of activity from zip-lining to scuba diving, off-road trekking to whale watching. One of their top attractions is Rhythms of the Night - a Cirque du Soleil style show which takes place in the company’s private cove Las Caletas. As its only accessible by boat, you’ll feel like you’re arriving at an enchanted island. The sound of tribal music welcomes you and thousands of tea-lights illuminate your route to the amphitheatre hidden in a tropical rainforest. Dinner is included with your show for £105 so it is a full evening’s experience. Vallarta Adventures also allow private weddings at Las Caletas, which must feel completely magical. Same-sex marriages were legalized in the state of Jalisco in 2016 - just saying.
If the Rhythms of the Night show has got you itching for just that you should head to the Zona Romantica - it's where you’ll find most of the gay bars in Vallarta. The fact that there’s a thriving gay scene here is for me a great bonus but it doesn’t need to dominate your holiday perhaps unlike some other LGBT hotspots. They’re not reinventing the wheel here, so you’ll find the usual mix of karaoke, drag queens and dancefloors. Oh, and a silks performer called Charlie - I had to be dragged away and reminded it was an early start the next day.
I’m not great in the morning, but when there’s the prospect of swimming with dolphins in the wild, its funny how quickly you can bounce out of bed. Wildlife Connection offer the opportunity to join Marine Biologists on a research project and if circumstances allow to join bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat. This couldn’t be further from posing in a pool with a trained dolphin in captivity and you really do get the sense that your guides have complete respect for the animals. You cannot touch them, only 2 people are in the sea at once and they only allow you in if the dolphins are feeling playful. We were fortunate enough that they were and the experience of a curious dolphin swimming up to you and proceeding to dance around in the water with you really is one that is hard to beat.
Puerto Vallarta is pretty good at hard to beat experiences though. Arriving at the harbour to realise that a private yacht from Mike’s Charter’s was waiting to whisk us to a beach club inaccessible by land, was to say the least, a bit of a moment. Free-flowing drinks on board meant that I was more than ready for lunch by the time we arrived at Casitas Maraika. What a lunch too - eating delicious fresh seafood with the sand between your toes overlooking the ocean with virtually nobody else around really is the one. If that sounds attractive you’ll be pleased to hear that you could wake up to it as well, with Casitas Maraika offering a small number of jungle style accommodations. Puerto Vallarta also has gay hotels if that’s more your thing, or for ultimate luxury there’s the city’s only AAA Five Diamond Hotel Mousai, which has an amazing rooftop pool and bar, perfect for a sunset cocktail.
I love staying in hotels, and have on a few occasions split a holiday across a couple of different nearby hotels to get a different experience. You’re in a good place for that here, and just North of Puerto Vallarta, over the Ameca River is neighbouring destination Riviera Nayarit. It's actually a different State to Jalisco’s Puerto Vallarta and offers its own unique mix of holiday adventures from small fishing towns to some of the best beaches on the Pacific Coast. I was staying in another all inclusive here, this time the AAA Five Diamond Grand Velas Riviera Nayarit. They take all inclusive to another level here though - from a welcome massage as you’re checking in, to a personal concierge and a fully stocked mini bar (that can be switched to a Wellness version if you’re that way inclined. I’m not). If you’ve dreamt of swimming up to an infinity pool bar and ordering whatever you like, this is that place. In fact, you don’t even need to swim to the bar -put your hand in the air and somebody will be over to take your order. You’ll pay upwards of £234 per person per night to stay here, but you might not want to leave so you can make the most of it.
The restaurants at Grand Velas are better than many places you’d find in town, so whether its a la carte Italian in Lucca or fine Mexican cuisine in Frida, gourmet French in Piaf or a good old buffet at Azul, you’re spoiled for choice here. We’re beach-front again, so other facilities include snorkeling, kayaks and body boards and if the welcome massage worked for you, make sure you pay the spa a visit. I didn’t participate in the anti-gravity yoga that was also included.
As tempting as it is to make the most of everything Grand Velas has to offer, you’ve got to get out and explore Riviera Nayarit. The cultural capital of Riviera Nayarit is San Francisco, or San Pancho as its known locally, which is a place of many contrasts. We visited a polo club called La Patrona where the wealth was evident all around, and on the same day saw a community centre called Entre Amigos which was established for families who can’t afford to send their kids to school. Away from the luxury of your hotel, there’s a fascinating number of small towns to explore with a real sense of Mexican life, like the fish market at La Cruz de Huanacaxtle and La Bucerias, a colourful Mexican town with a thriving art scene.
If art is your thing you should also pay a visit to Sayulita - a buzzing town with a hippy vibe, home to the Huichol tribe, a group of native Americans whose culture, language and way of life has barely been touched by the Spanish colonisation of Mexico. In Galeria Tanana, you’ll find traditional Huichol artworks from intricate beaded sculptures to huge yarn paintings from artist-in-residence Cilau Valadez. After some spiritual soul-searching with the Huichol, we were off to try a more modern tradition in the area - surfing. As somebody who grew up who spent my Summers in the surf capital of the UK, I’m ashamed to say that this was my first time on a board. Honestly, it will probably be my last too. As fun as it was, I hate being rubbish at something, and rubbish I was.
We never get sick of this view... 😍 Come surf with us, just walk this street to the beach and you'll find us on the left side! Best surf school in town, hands down. #sayulita #mexico #thebeachismyoffice #travel #rivieranayarit #surfing #beachtown #beachlife #beachdays #beachvibes #surftown #surfschool #surfcamp #regram @ric_vela 🙏
One water-bound activity I am comfortable with is snorkelling, and a trip to the marietas Islands gave plenty of opportunity for that. You’ll see hundreds of species of fish, turtles, manta rays, eels and apparently sometimes sharks (not the Jaws kind). We also paid a visit to the HIdden Beach - you might recognise it as it's the kind of image that has probably been used on hundreds of holiday brochures for the region. Getting there is something of a precision exercise in swimming and your time there is strictly controlled by the authorities to protect its position as a national park.
I’m toward the end of a piece about Mexico and I haven’t mentioned tequila yet. Which is odd as its one of my favourite spirits, and lots of it was drunk on this trip. They do say save the best until last, and the margarita(s) we had at W Hotels Punta de Mita was I think the best I’ve ever had. The resort’s Asian influenced Spice Market restaurant was the setting for their twist on the Mexican classic, and although they wouldn’t share their secret recipe with me I can tell you that it contained ginger and was thoroughly enjoyable in the cool and colourful surroundings of the Huichol-inspired W. If you’re trying to blend in, you should probably go for tequila's local sister Raicilla and if you prefer your dining a little more rustic, you should check out La Barracuda in Nuevo Vallarta or Tinos La Laguna, where lagoon-side dining offers great seafood alongside views of crocodiles and iguanas.
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I was in Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit for a week, and we really crammed a lot in. I’d love to visit for longer and allow myself some more time to relax on the world class beaches, get lost down the side-streets of tiny villages, listen to Mariachi bands, spot humpback whales, meet locals, drink Mezcal, eat tacos. Mexico has been on my bucket-list for some time now, and with so much still to do I won’t be striking it off the list just yet.
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