alluring explorer

Travel expert tells us how to make friends while flying solo

Calum McSwiggan in Puerto Vallarta
Calum McSwiggan at VACAYA’s Mexican Resort Getaway, 2023. Photo by Gabriel Goldberg/@hollywoodbruisers

It’s an embarrassment of riches. Sitting across from author and travel influencer Calum McSwiggan, I’m unsure if I’m more enamored by his turquoise eyes or the similarly-hued Pacific Ocean in the distance. 

We’re guests at VACAYA’s full resort takeover in Puerto Vallarta, where the LGBTQ+ tour operator has crafted a week of rest, relaxation, and revelry for every facet of the queer spectrum. 

“All I ever want to do is inspire people to travel,” the 33-year-old tells me as the sound of frolicking vacationers hums below our oceanside balcony, “I’m a working-class boy from a working-class background. That’s the message I want to get across to people: travel can be accessible.”

Growing up in a small coal mining town in central England, becoming a published author and global traveler was the last thing on McSwiggan’s mind. School, bristling with bullying, forced the youth to remain closeted until he was able to transfer and ultimately find a more accepting community where nearly “everybody was gay. And I just went, ‘Oh, me too!’”

Based in London for the past decade, most of McSwiggan’s time is now spent globetrotting, creating content for his social media platforms, and sharing recommendations for new and seasoned travelers. Most of his trips are solo ventures, but he was intrigued by VACAYA’s efforts to widen the lens on queer group travel. 

VACAYA Puerto Vallarta 2023
VACAYA launched in 2019, offering cruise and land itineraries for LGBTQ+ travelers. Photo by Gabriel Goldberg/@hollywoodbruisers

“From the moment I arrived, I’ve loved that it’s a lot more diverse than similar products being offered,” says McSwiggan. “There’s a lot of different people from across the LGBTQ+ community — lesbians, trans folks, people of color. I don’t just want to be around gay men. For some guys, that’s fine, but I want to be surrounded by my whole community.”

McSwiggan has traveled to over 60 countries and experienced queer cultures worldwide, gaining perspective about marketing tactics and authenticity in the travel space. 

“We need to stop being afraid to say gay when we mean gay. And stop saying queer or LGBTQ+ when we mean gay because they’re very different things. If you want to create an LGBTQ+ trip, create one inclusive of everyone,” says McSwiggan. “That’s where my frustration lies — when events are advertised as LGBTQ+, and then you attend, and it’s like, oh, this is actually just for men.” McSwiggan cites promotional materials exclusively showcasing male photography and then use contradictory inclusive language as a conflated marketing strategy. Not that he’s against a gay ol’ time. 

“There’s nothing wrong with a gay male resort, getaway, or sauna,” says McSwiggan. “There are a lot of single-sex spaces designed for gay men, and that’s absolutely fine. But if that’s what you’re going to do, then say that. Be inclusive of everyone or don’t.”

Viva la Mexico

Calum McSwiggan in Puerto Vallarta
“All I ever want to do is inspire people to travel,” says Calum McSwiggan, pictured at VACAYA’s Mexican Resort takeover, 2023. Photo by Gabriel Goldberg/@hollywoodbruisers

From Puerto Vallarta’s bustling queer nightlife to Cancun’s sprawling hotel zone and pristine beaches, it’s no surprise that McSwiggan describes Mexico as “my favorite country in the world.” He first visited several years ago to celebrate the Day of the Dead in Mexico City and describes the trip as “one of the most meaningful cultural experiences I’ve ever had — just connecting with local people and seeing how they celebrate something often seen as quite sad and devastating.” One of those connections turned into a holiday romance and the opportunity to see the city through a local’s eyes. 

McSwiggan isn’t alone. According to Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism, approximately 3.5 million LGBTQ+ travelers visit the destination annually. Direct flights from many major airports make it particularly appealing for US travelers, which is one reason why VACAYA will return to Mexico in 2024, taking over Playa del Carmen’s Mahekal Resort for a week of “causal luxury at its best.”

Smart splurges

When asked what makes an experience feel elevated, McSwiggan points out that the global economy impacts how far your travel dollars will go. In early 2023, he traveled for nearly 80 days on approximately $3,000. He suggests venturing beyond big cities and tourist destinations, saying Thailand, in particular, is filled with stunning locations and affordable upscale offerings. 

One of his most memorable recent experiences was at Castaway Koh Lipe Resort, a collection of beachside bungalows located on a small island off of Thailand’s southwestern coast. The rustic chic setting is part of Taratao National Marine Park and is near secluded beaches, waterfalls, and Insta-worthy vistas.

“It’s difficult to get to, so not a lot of tourists go there. And it’s just these gorgeous little treehouses right on the beach. Every morning, without fail, dawn breaks over Sunrise Beach, and everything about waking up on what feels like a private island feels like luxury.”

“I’m a working-class boy from a working-class background. That’s the message I want to get across to people: travel can be accessible.”

Calum McSwiggan

Bali’s Ubud Village Resort & Spa in Nyuh Kuning also ranks high on McSwiggan’s bucket list for its intimate touches like a drawn bath upon arrival, afternoon tea, and private plunge pool. He points out that local spots may not have the flourish of an international brand, but that’s precisely what makes them so appealing.

“There’s a family vibe there that I love,” recalls McSwiggan. “They’ll ask where you’re going, and when you return later that day, check in to see how your experience was. People are actually paying attention, and that kind of closeness gives it a little luxury.”

While McSwiggan is happy to strip down to swim briefs for a day in the sun, he’s equally thrilled to layer up for a winter adventure. He recently discovered an Airbnb in Norway’s Nordmarker Forest, north of Oslo.

A two-hour hike through the snow led him to a remote cabin with no running water and a woodfired sauna. Despite chopping his own wood and trudging to the well for water to make his morning coffee, McSwiggan describes the destination as “breathtaking” and the best cup of joe when life is stripped down to the basics. Rural luxury accommodations can be found throughout the country for those looking for a few more amenities.

“My friends say that I don’t have a fear filter,” McSwiggan says of his adventurous spirit, recalling when a bar chat turned into a week-long road trip. “It’s probably why I love to travel so much — you never know what experience you’ll have through the people you meet.”

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