I moved to Puerto Vallarta within six months of first setting eyes on this Pacific coast city, located 180 miles west of Guadalajara. There are few historic cobblestoned beach towns with such a stunning mountain backdrop, or with a Malecón (the town’s main ocean walk) that features sculptures along its palm-lined path. With more art galleries than churches, and a weekly hosted Art Walk, the local art scene here attracts serious collectors from around the world.
Of course, “P.V.” holds a place in the camp hall of fame as the eternal destination of TV’s Love Boat. Travelers also know Puerto Vallarta for its great gay scene, by far one of the most open and vibrant in Mexico—perhaps because of its popularity among foreigners and its proximity to Guadalajara, the second most populous city in Mexico, with its own large gay population. The gay beach at Playa los Muertos, better known as “Blue Chairs” for its signature-color chaise lounges, flies a rainbow flag high. There’s also a lesser-known gay beach accessible only by boat about 12 miles south, in front of the remote gay guesthouse Paco’s Paradise. Over 20 gay bars and nightclubs are found around Calle Olas Altas in the very queer “Romantic Zone,” while the city is also home to a plethora of gay-only lodgings. For travelers who have traipsed through other parts of mostly Catholic and closeted Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is like a gay revelation.
Vallarta was placed squarely on the world map when director John Huston filmed The Night of the Iguana here in 1963. Lovebirds Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were trailed by the world’s paparazzi, Ava Gardner bought a house, where she kept company with local young men, and Deborah Kerr brought her husband, Peter Viertel, previously involved with Ava. Tennessee Williams, author of Iguana, also spent several months here with his partner.
It was about that time that Puerto Vallarta’s first informal art galleries opened to showcase local talent—later including the vivaciously colorful work of Mexico’s Huichol Indians, known for their peyote-fueled hallucinogenic rituals. By the late ’70s, the Latin American school of magic realism was being taken seriously and commercial art galleries began to spring up, including the still-thriving Galería Uno. Today there are over 30 art establishments, most found in historic downtown—one of the more scenic areas of the city—and the Romantic Zone.
Puerto Vallarta in the 21st century has become an important Latin American art center, and the wide variety of mediums and styles—folk art, sculptures, oils, watercolors, ceramics—attests to the continued prosperity of the scene. The exuberant, passionate spirit of Mexican art goes way beyond the famous self-portraits of Frida Kahlo. Modern taste leans toward reinterpretations of classical art with a very Latin intensity, resulting in rich complexity. The town has been the starting point of many internationally acclaimed artists, including Rodolfo Morales, Daniel Palma, Vladimir Cora, and Ramiz Barquet. During “Art Season,” November through April, you’ll see art enthusiasts downtown and in the Romantic Zone with maps in hand, sipping cocktails as they stroll from one gallery to another in organized Art Walks.
Despite its growing fame, local art is still priced fairly. Gallería Dante owner Claire Guarniere says, “Art collectors who know the value of art are always impressed with what they can buy in Vallarta.” Located in the Romantic Zone, the newly expanded Gallería Dante features artists in an indoor-outdoor space that invites the viewer to partake in the entire scene. An interior courtyard with an intimate pool is surrounded by classical and modern sculpture, as if the art is on parade. Walls of cement and brick display lush abstracts of Montreal’s Jean-Gabriel Lambert, Israel Zzepda’s classic dreams of erotic abandon, and more.
Partners Jean Pierre Renucci and José Angel Villavicencio of Galería Córsica have a talent for finding the best up-and-coming artists out of Mexico City. Their rainbow circle includes the intriguing Jorge Marin, who gives his sensual bird-men gymnasts’ bodies, and Rocío Caballero’s playful male and female nymphs, who gambol underwater in nude abandon. On a corner in the same neighborhood, which also boasts gourmet restaurants and boutiques, is the exclusive Galería Omar Alonso, showcasing vibrant black-and-white photographs cleanly displayed on stark walls, punctuated by the ruptured metal nudes of Olivia Guzmán.
Puerto Vallarta continues to grow in size and strength, while in quality it holds its own against any upscale global destination. You’ll want to take Puerto Vallarta home with you, but it won’t fit in your bag. Happily, its art will keep your memories alive forever.
GALLERIES [Dial 011-52-322 before all international phone numbers]: Gallería Dante (Basilio Badillo 269, 222-2477) features some of the best sculptors and painters of Vallarta and beyond in a villa garden setting; Galería Córsica (Leona Vicario 230, and Guadalupe Sánchez 735, 223-1821) showcases some of the best international artists; Galería Omar Alonso (Leona Vicario 249, 222-5587) specializes in photography; Galería Uno (Morelos 561, 222-0908) is where some of the locals still hang out; the electric Patti Gallardo Eclectic Art (Basilio Badillo 250 at I.L.Vallarta, 222-5712) is operated by artist Patti and her partner, Wendy.
SLEEPS: Blue Chairs Beach Resort (Malecón y Almendro 4, 866-514-7969, $59–$229) is the largest gay resort in the country, located right on P.V.’s famous gay beach. Each room features a balcony. Friendly Hotel Mercurio (Francisca Rodríguez 168, 222-4793, $45–$96) offers amenities such as concierge, in-house massage, and a pool area. Boana Torre Malibú (Calle Amapas 325, 222-0999, $40–$190) boasts gay Vallarta’s largest pool, and it’s only a block away from the gay beach.
EATS: Service and a distinct menu set apart the woman-owned traditional El Arrayán (Allende 344, 222-7195), built around a courtyard. Plates come in all sizes at Boca Bento (Basilio Badillo 180, 222-9108), with a focus on fusion of Latin and Asian flavors. The ultrasophisticated Bianco (Insurgentes 190, 222-2177) offers five-star dining on a river-view balcony.
DRINKS: You haven’t experienced Vallarta if you haven’t danced to the Latin beat at the three-level Club Paco Paco (Ignacio Vallarta 278, 222-1899). Next door, The Ranch (Venustiano Carranza 239, 223-0537) has upstairs pool tables and a rooftop bar. The Palm (Olas Altas 508, 223-4818) offers a fun-filled atmosphere every night of the week. For sunset cocktails, trip up to Blue Sunset (222-2176), the new rooftop bar at Blue Chairs, with its fabulous view of the Pacific, plus nightly entertainment. The neighborhood piano bar Garbo (Púlpito 142 at Olas Altas, 229-7309) is where locals hang out before hitting the late-night clubs.