Elizabeth Taylor is the reason Puerto Vallarta is popular with gay men, locals tell me.
She sparked its evolution from humble fishing village to international tourist hotspot when she dropped by 50 years ago.
Liz of course joined on-again, off-again husband Richard Burton on set in the greater Banderas Bay as he filmed Oscar nominated drama Night of the Iguana in 1963.
They promptly fell in love with the region. The world’s media, following their every move, soon did too. Perhaps it’s the 322 days of sunshine each year?
They left stardust across all of Riviera Nayarit. It’s a glorious, subtropical stretch of Mexico’s Pacific Coast, rich in dense vegetation and beaches as soft as white silk.
In fact, they were so enamored, they bought a large property right in the heart of Puerto Vallarta.
The building they once called home is now a luxury hotel called Casa Kimberley. Think chandeliers, swaying palms and warm sea breezes. You can practically feel the Cleopatra co-stars’ combined spirit in the corridors.
It was here, during an evening meal at the hotel’s elegant, open-air Iguana restaurant that I had one of the most satisfying travel experiences of my life.
We were dining on deliciously fresh seafood paired with Champagne-infused Burton Martinis. The Mariachi La Joya de Mexico, one of Mexico’s most famous Mariachi troupes [pictured below], began to mill around us. Then they filled the room with perfect, harmonized song.
When they sang (in Spanish) the moving, cinematic standard Con Te Partirò by Andrea Bocell, several diners started to cry.
The performance was captivating. For a second, it was as if we were in the movies ourselves. The magic of that moment, for me, is indicative Puerto Vallarta, and Riviera Nayarit as a whole.
Glamor and good vibes hang in the air here like a heady, woozy energy. And that’s just the start of it. Here are five more reasons to add this destination to your travel bucket list immediately…
1 Resorts fit for a movie star across Banderas Bay
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A short drive from Puerto Vallarta is the ‘village’ of Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita – a beachside complex caressing the wild, tropical greenery of Banderas Bay.
It’s an AAA Five Diamond property, and part of a brand majority-co-owned by Bill Gates, operating in 43 countries.
I was ready and willing to hate it. Blockbuster luxury isn’t for everyone, and most of my all-time favorite hotels have been boutique and mid-range. But I was truly bowled over. This is one of the most resplendent places I’ve ever stayed.
In fact, I can see myself saving up and splashing out to stay again in the future. Perhaps for a landmark birthday, or, if I’m lucky, a honeymoon. (Same-sex marriage was legalized in the state of Jalisco in 2016).
There were simply too many exceptional details to list. Here are just three. Firstly, an oceanfront feast of flame-grilled shellfish, complete with tequila sommelier. Secondly, dozing off poolside, margarita in hand, in the adult-orientated Tamai Pool Complex.
Finally, a desperately-needed clifftop yoga session, to the soundtrack of crashing waves below. (Indoor AntiGravity classes are also available, combining yoga with aerial acrobatics. The discipline was invented by Broadway choreographer and gymnast Christopher Harrison).
Next we headed to the glossy and stylish W Punta de Mita. It’s the second W property in the country after Mexico City, opened last year.
Given the W’s a five star within 20 minutes of the Four Seasons, it’s helpful the two cater for completely different kinds of traveler.
The W is as cool and quirky as the Four Seasons is opulent and classic. (I hope I’m both, but am probably neither.)
The hotel’s defining feature is the stunning ‘Camino Huichol’ mosaic walkway – a gigantic work of art.
It stretches 460 feet and consequently threads together the hotel’s shared spaces (It starts in reception, then goes down a huge staircase and through a bar before transforming into a bridge, carrying you across a spectacular pool and towards the sea)
It’s like a vein of energy underlining the hotel’s sociable, party-friendly atmosphere.
What’s more, the rooms are a lot of fun.
A funky and fresh departure from the Four Seasons’ earthy color schemes and poised maturity, they’re full of acid brights and surf paraphernalia.
My favorite characteristic of the W, however, was the abundance of local Huichol handicraft. One expression of this distinctive artistic style is the adornment of ornaments and sculptures (and even bottles of liquor) in thousands of brightly-coloured seeds.
2 Shopping and surfing in Sayulita
You can pick up endless Huichol at the bohemian art colony of Sayulita, home to 5,000 and a half-hour drive from the W.
This glorious surfing village is also known for its attitude-free art galleries and cute craft stalls.
I bought a fantastically rich, thick cotton throw for my bed, emblazoned with a almost Grecian blue and white pattern. It cost me under £20 ($26, €30), and is genuinely one of the top 10 purchases of my life.
Again, I’d like to return to Sayulita one day, and that’s not something I say often. It was slightly overcast the day of our visit. So of course I want to see it in all its sunny vibrancy: the daringly brightly-painted buildings, the pretty, floaty bunting. For me, the surfing lesson (obligatory, amusing and in any case entirely unsuccessful) was an afterthought.
3 Drinks and dancing in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta is an hour down the coast from Sayulita, and almost 40 times bigger. Of course, this is the party capital of the area. Puerto Vallarta is also immensely popular with LGBTI party-goers.
We visited a handful of thriving gay bars, most a stone’s throw from each other. All boast trashy soundtracks, cheap drinks and friendly crowds. Many are concentrated in and around the Zona Romantica area.
One important date in the calendar are Mexican Bear Week which takes place from 28 January until 4 February. (To read our report of this year’s event, click here). Also there’s Puerto Vallarta Pride, which kicks off this weekend!
For queer-orientated accommodation you have Piñata PV Gay Hotel or Blue Chairs Resort among many others. (We went mainstream at the comfortable four star Casa Velas, known for peacocks that wander the grounds and turtles that paddle in the ponds.)
4 Beaches and beyond throughout Riviera Nayarit
Tourism has been kind to Puerto Vallarta, and allowed its population to flourish. In 1950, fewer than 11,000 people called it home; now, it’s over 255,000. But its foremost selling point is as it always was: the staggering beauty that surrounds it.
There were two moments when the region’s natural aesthetic really slapped me around the face. The first was while dining on fish tacos at Casitas Maraika Beach Club, a accessible only by foot or boat.
It’s found on the tiny cove of Playa Caballo. It’s close to paradise as I’ll ever experience. The only beach equal in beauty I’ve seen was Megans Bay, St. Thomas in the Caribbean. But that of course was full of tourists.
This feels like the world’s best-kept secret. Again, I’d like to return to stay the night in one of its rustic treehouse lodgings. Think Robinson Crusoe meets Vogue.
Once again, I was left awestruck during a pre-dinner, clifftop cocktail around the rooftop pool at Imanta Resort Punta de Mita.
This opulent retreat has the ocean on one side of it, and dense, lush jungle on the other. What’s more, it’s teeming with wildlife. From deer to wild boar and also iguanas, tropical birds and even jaguars. As you wander from A to B, you wander through private forest. Or rather, 250 acres of ecological jungle preserve.
5 The wonders of the Pacific Ocean
Finally, the deep blue sea itself. Because there’s no way to cure a mescal-induced hangover like the ocean breeze. (Or, as I discovered, a semi-mild jellyfish sting). We saw wild bottlenose dolphins, stingrays, eels and a gigantic turtle on our various sea excursions with
The ‘hidden beach‘ in Islas Marieta National Park wasn’t in a photogenic mood the day of our visit (the tide was in, and the waters extremely choppy. Nevertheless it’s a perfect example of some of the strange rock formations jutting out of the ocean throughout the region. Unforgettable.
Thomson Airways fly to Puerto Vallarta direct from Gatwick from £645 ($838, €753) per person return.