It was a gem of adventure — a voyage that brought added dimension to their life together. The two brides stood on the powdery white sands of Cancun looking at each other tenderly. Ashley Swauger’s dress was handmade by her mother. Her sash and hairpiece were decked out in shells and bits of coral her bride, Angela Nguyen, had saved from their first vacation there two years before, when they were celebrating Nguyen’s graduation from college.
“We both come from different backgrounds,” says Swauger, a 33-year-old nurse anesthetist who lives with her wife in the outskirts of Philadelphia.“Not only are we lesbians but we are also biracial, and we wanted our families to understand each other and become close.”
A destination wedding was the ideal way to get everyone together for that kind of bonding. “Our first trip to Cancun was so great; the people were so welcoming, and it was relatively affordable, so it’s only natural that we decided to have a wedding getaway there.”
Swauger and Nguyen are not acting outside the norm for an American couple. Many are opting to jet off to Mexico to say their vows, for a honeymoon or both. Some thirst for adventure; others expect to be spoiled aplenty. There are those who seek a festive atmosphere and those yearning for relaxation. The stellar beaches, Mayan ruins, colorful indigenous folklore and incredible culinary offerings draw many more.
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Having embraced and courted the LGBT leisure traveler over the past decade, the various tourism boards throughout Mexico, along with hoteliers, business owners and tour operators are now turning their focus to the small, but growing, same-sex destination wedding market. Major centers — including Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, Guadalajara and Cancun — continue to be incredibly popular vacation spots and are well positioned to capitalize on this emerging trend.
“Part of the appeal of Mexico is that it will never lose its signature ‘wedding-in-paradise’ feel,” says Richard Calvert, president and CEO of GayDestinationWeddings.com — a U.S.-based website that specializes in travel planning and celebratory travel. “Additionally, it’s a convenient hub for international travelers and has a reputation of being welcoming toward the LGBT community.”
Now more than ever, couples want to plan their nuptials to reflect their individuality, incorporating fun details, as well as cultural traditions and fun excursions for an unforgettable event. Cancun’s expansive resorts have been at the forefront of this kind of personalization, which Calvert says is particularly enticing for the modern LGBT couple looking for a great place to host a wedding. “You can enjoy a budget-friendly affair that is simple and romantic, an opulent celebration at a luxury resort with all the bells and whistles or something in between.”
Shortly before the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in June 2015, the Mexican Supreme Court made it illegal for states in that country to bar same-sex couples from getting married. Gay and lesbian couples can now legally marry in six Mexican states, as well as the capital. Though the other Mexican states do not perform marriage ceremonies, they recognize them. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has also proposed adding language to his country’s constitution to protect these rights.
Yet, even as marriage equality becomes more widely accepted, machismo is strongly embedded in Mexico’s social fabric, and many parts of the country are more provincial and therefore more conservative, too.
“The main obstacles are cultural and religious,” underscores Ron Kuijpers, general manager at Maya Moon Tours — a gay-owned travel agency in Cancun — and the global ambassador for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) representing Mexico. “Often, the older generation is more reserved.”
That said, marriage equality means big business for Mexico’s already robust destination wedding industry. Recognizing this new market’s lucrative potential, long-time planners, venues, caterers, event production companies and a host of other vendors have branched out to help couples make their dreams come true. According to Mexico’s office of tourism (SECTUR), 220 businesses nationwide received accreditation through a state-run program designed to educate hospitality operators about the LGBT community just last year. This program helps inform and sensitize business owners and their staff members, and underscores the country’s commitment to these changes.
A Progressive Spirit
Ever since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor delighted the celebrity gossip circuit with their romantic escapades to a charming, off-the-radar hamlet called Puerto Vallarta in the 1960s, the city has been a romantic haven for couples.
In recent times, the resort town nestled between the thick-wooded Sierra Madre Mountains and the pristine waters of Banderas Bay has been reimagined as a gay vacation mecca. Where else in Latin America can a traveler find a district affectionately called the Zona Romántica, a sort of gayborhood for fiesta aficionados?
While it was just this year that the state of Jalisco legalized performing same-sex marriages, Puerto Vallarta’s officials were more than ready to open their doors to LGBT visitors who wanted to say “I do.”
At some properties, couples can incorporate ancient Mexican rituals in their nuptials. A popular option is the lasso tradition, which involves a rope — sometimes made of rosary beads — placed around the couples’ necks in a figure-eight shape, the mathematical symbol of infinity. This is meant to represent an everlasting union. Other packages include a presiding judge, legal services and marriage certificates.
There are plenty of outdoor activities for those who seek action and adventure as part of their event, too. Swimming with dolphins in their natural habitat can be a healing experience, while thrilling mountain biking trails challenge those in top shape. Serene horseback rides organized by family-owned ranches offer guests the opportunity to explore off-the-beaten-track scenery in the tropical forest. Navigating a mangrove-lined canal in El Salado estuary may spur a spontaneous kiss.
Land of Mariachi & Tequila
Tequila, charrería (Mexican rodeo) and mariachi music are all things we associate with Mexico, but they are actually quintessential Guadalajara. These elements, so characteristic of a festive celebration, are almost universally present at weddings, religious ceremonies and family gatherings in this, Mexico’s second largest city. Culturally rich and economically vibrant, Guadalajara is often staunchly conservative, but also boasts a lively gay scene.
It is in the bidding process to be the host city for the IGLTA’s 2020 Annual Global Convention and is also one of the seven remaining cities continuing to compete for the right to host the 2022 Gay Games — the world’s largest sporting and cultural event for LGBT athletes, artists and musicians.
The city is already home to a gay Pride parade that attracts more than 50,000 participants every June. Visitors are spoilt for choice, as they can stay at meticulously restored historic mansions or majestic colonial haciendas. These often serve as dreamy backdrops for weddings and out-of-town guests. A number of couples have pledged their love at venues such as Hacienda La Magdalena, a 17th century Neoclassical ranch converted into a stylish boutique hotel with a host of amenities.
The main draws in town essentially derive from the local landscape — a heady mix of colonial architecture and metropolitan sophistication topped off with the incredible warmth of the locals. Horse-drawn carriages offer enchanted strolls through the 400-year-old downtown district. Superb frescoes, painted by José Clemente Orozco, a pioneer of the public arts movement, reflect Mexico’s blend of Spanish and indigenous cultures and are a must-see inside Hospicio Cabañas, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Artisanal distilleries devoted to agave cultivation and fermentation in the nearby volcanic hills entice tequila enthusiasts, while the health-conscious can go on a brisk climb to the top of Tequila Volcano — a perfect spot to take in the sweeping scenery, quiet the mind and bask in the mellow light of a golden sunset.
The real treasure of a destination wedding in Mexico is the adventure of officially starting your lives as a couple in such an incredibly rich and rewarding location. The rest of the journey awaits at home.