Acapulco, The Original Party Town
by David Simmonds
My first time in Acapulco was in the early 70’s. I pulled into town hung over, in a second-class bus, a well-used backpack in hand, and about $200 remaining in my money belt. Was life a whole lot simpler then, or is it just me? All that I really remember from my first visit was sleeping on the beach south of town and a couple of spirited girls from Iowa who were headed for Costa Rica. Somehow I missed the jet-set parties and the swank hotels I had seen in the Elvis movie, but the beauty of the bay and the green hills surrounding it were pleasures enough. Alas, I only stayed a couple of days before continuing to Honduras where I was to visit my ex-girlfriend who was a Peace Corp volunteer.
Fast-forward to the year 2001. After traveling most of the roads in Mexico for nearly 30 years, I still had never returned to Acapulco. But now I had an invitation to attend, all expenses paid, the annual Tianguis convention/trade show sponsored by the Mexican government for the travel industry. I returned again for this year’s Tianguis and had the fortune to discover more about the town that put Mexico vacations on the travel map. Although Acapulco isn’t my favorite destination, there are many good reasons to want to visit this unique and storied city.
Acapulco became the hangout for the Hollywood elite in the early 1950’s, attracting such icons as John Wayne, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and, for a few laughs, Red Skelton. Later on Elizabeth Taylor wed Mike Todd there and it was the honeymoon choice for Henry Kissinger (he’s married?), Brigitte Bardot and JFK. But, contrary to typical American belief, the history and importance of the region can be traced to around 3000 B.C., as evidenced by recent archaeological discoveries. The earliest inhabitants grew crops in the fertile soil and fished in the ocean and streams, but had little contact with other people. The area was eventually settled by the Nahoas, an offshoot of the Nahuatl. The name Acapulco is derived from the Nahuatl words Acatl (place of canes) Pol (to break) and Co (place).
Although generally accepted history tells us that the first “discoverers” of Mexico were Spanish, the local historians will tell you that a Chinese monk named Fa Hsien predated Cortez by 100 years. He is said to have visited on several occasions, each time bringing silk clothes and introducing rice to the local diet. It is further claimed that there was a stone near La Quebrada, where the famed cliff divers perform, that told the story of the Chinese connection, but that the rock was destroyed during construction of a hotel, erasing any evidence of the lore.
The Spanish used Acapulco as the port for the trade route to the Philippines from 1565 to 1815, when Mexico’s independence from Spain and a changing world rendered the trade route outdated and useless. The port became a leading trading center for Spanish ships returning from the Orient. Ships loaded with silks, porcelain, jade, ivory, spices and incense were brought to the port and then transported by land on a six-foot wide trail to Veracruz, on the Gulf coast. The journey took about three weeks. It went from being operative, along with Veracruz, Mexico’s most important port, to virtual obscurity, isolated from the rest of the country. Acapulco became an official city in 1799, but with the War of Independence the town started to decline. The locals sided with the Spanish royalists, fueling the ire of insurgent leader José María Morelos, who attacked the city and promptly burned it to the ground in 1814. Acapulco remained mostly forgotten until the California gold rush in the 1850’s, when ships began dropping in on their way to Panama and hauling Mexican textiles on the return trip back to San Francisco. Then, in 1927, a road was paved from a growing Mexico City, bringing the first tourists, as well the Prince of Wales who enjoyed the fishing. Author and playwright Tennessee Williams was a frequent visitor who set his famous Night of the Iguana there, although the John Huston directed movie was filmed in Puerto Vallarta many years later. By the 1950’s Acapulco was rocking and rolling, which is where it finds itself today in the new millennium. And quite frankly, it’s a little overbuilt. The natural setting, with the Sierra Madre falling into the Bahía de Acapulco, is one of the world’s prettiest. But the once green hills have slowly become gray concrete with the bay view largely obscured by high-rise hotels. I see some of the same mistakes now being made in Puerto Vallarta, although not to the same degree. PV has managed to retain a small town ambience and the high rises are away from the town center, whereas Acapulco set a precedent years ago that was impossible to reverse. One of Mexico’s oldest towns, it is hard to find its long history in any form.
A recently restored exception is the Fuerte de San Diego, named after the viceroy of New Spain, Diego Fernández de Córdoba, now housing the Acapulco Historical Museum. The original fort, built in 1615, was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1776. The present fort was built as a replacement on the same spot, and was completed in 1783. With the pirates and looters in full force on this coast, the fort was designed employing the most advanced architectural concepts from that time. The shape, predating the U.S. military headquarters by well over 100 years, is that of a pentagon surrounded by a dry moat. It was able to house over 2,000 troops along with ammunition and provisions to last a year. With an efficient rainwater intake and storage system, the fort covered a total area of nearly 100,000 square feet.
After the fort was no longer needed to defend against enemy attacks (one could argue that the developers might have qualified as the enemy), the fort was used for various purposes until it became the Historical Museum in 1986. The more recent restoration has been a marvelous success and deserves a couple of hours of your time while visiting Acapulco. Each room around the building features a facet of the history of the fort and the town such as The Pacific Piracy room, the East Trade room, the Independence room, and the Manila Galleon room. A welcome surprise is found in being able to read many of the on-site descriptions in English as well as Spanish. The fort is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:40 p.m.
No doubt, Acapulco has a well-deserved reputation for night-life marathons with many warriors going from their room-to-the-beach-to-their-room-to-the-disco-to-someone’s room, day after sunny day. This is the drill until it’s time to fly home feeling several years older, belching margarita mix and gobbling Tylenol. Ah, but there is more to do, much more, if you take the time to explore.
The first thing you notice about Acapulco is that it’s right on the beach. This part of the Pacific Ocean has some of the finest deep-sea fishing in the world. Striped-marlin, billfish, bonito, pompano, red snapper, and tuna are in abundance year-round. In the fresh-water lagoons you can hook up with mullet, catfish and carp. Most hotels can arrange your fishing trip or you can go to the Pesca Deportiva office on the downtown pier. All categories of boats and amenities are available.
Small sailboats, power boats and personal watercraft can be rented at many places, but make sure you know what you’re doing. The Pacific can get very rough on this southern coast, especially outside the protection of the bay. Even in the bay, in front of your hotel, the shore-break can face-plant you in a split-second and cause serious injury that can absolutely ruin your holiday, if not your life. Red and black flags indicate that the conditions are not safe, but let your eyes be the determining factor. All of the beaches are open to the public, even those at the expensive, luxury resorts, and you can usually rent a chair and order food and drinks at any of them.
The most popular beach in town for international travelers is Playa La Condesa located between the El Presidente and Continental Acapulco hotels. This is where the party atmosphere is most evident for the thonged-bikini and surfer wannabe crowd. But don’t expect a celebrity sighting. They usually hang out in private villas, poolside.
The locals like to frequent the original popular beach in town, Playa Caleta. Located on the peninsula in near Old Acapulco, the waters here are calmer than elsewhere, buffered by Isla la Roqueta. It’s a good place to spend an afternoon and mix with the Mexican families, trying to forget that your hotel room probably costs more than they earn in a month. It’s also a good point to hire a boat ride for a little exploring and a visit to Roqueta, a 10-minute boat ride. There you will find a beautiful beach, great diving, and even a small zoo. Just off shore from the island is a sunken statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who certainly does get around.
South of town are Puerto Marques, a stunningly beautiful protected bay, and Playa Revolcadera. This area is referred to as Acapulco Diamante and is where the newer resorts are being built. For the most part they have learned from their earlier mistakes of walling off the beaches with tall buildings. The properties here are more low-rise, consuming many acres. Some of the better examples are the Acapulco Princess Hotel, Vidafel Mayan Palace, Camino Real Diamante (a personal favorite), and the Pierre Marques Hotel. Ask your travel agent for brochures on these and other hotels. Many of them have web pages easily found on all the major search engines.
I usually suggest searching out the small inns in Mexico that will provide you with a cultural experience and a connection to the locals that you just don’t get at the large chain hotels. But, in Acapulco, with a single exception, I haven’t been able to find the type of hotel I would normally recommend. So, my suggestion on this trip is to plan on spending some money and stay at one of the world-class hotels on the beach. Or, for a very special occasion (honeymoon, facelift, kids leave home) you might want to opt for the pink-jeeped Hotel Las Brisas. Although it is now in its fourth decade of operation, this hillside resort maintains the highest standards to contend in this competitive market. The view from Las Brisas is still the best in Acapulco, and the bungalows, many with private pools, are guaranteed to rekindle the romance that may have grown a little stale over the years. A trip to the disco, or anywhere else, becomes a low priority when you’re kicked back at a place like this.
On a much smaller and cheaper scale I like the Hotel Los Flamingos. Built in the 1930’s, this hotel perches 450 feet above the ocean with spectacular sunset views. Located in an older section of town, it is just minutes away from the famed La Quebrada, site of the cliff-divers known throughout the world. Also nearby are Old Acapulco, the zócalo, and the bullring. Sitting in the open air bar and patio, you are easily transported back to the 50’s when Johnny Weissmuller was the principal owner with his partners John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Roy Rogers and Cary Grant. I also highly recommend the food at the hotel. I was hosted to a great dinner here by AeroMexico that was a highlight of my trip. Afterward, the owner entertained us at the bar on his classical guitar, which he plays at an incredible level of skill.
Los Flamingos is not a luxury resort, rather a very comfortable slice of history. This feels like Mexico, the part of Mexico that keeps me coming back. It is on secluded grounds filled with vegetation and only about 30 rooms, some nicer than others. Room rates range from about $50 to $125 for the junior suite, or you can work out a deal to rent Tarzan’s Round House, where Weissmuller used to live and play.
When and How to Go
Like much of Mexico, Acapulco has two seasons. The high season starts in mid-December and ends on Easter week, which is a very busy week with anticipated pricing. The low season is summer, which starts after Easter week and lasts until mid-December. This is when you can find the better deals, but you might get slammed by a hurricane, or certainly some serious rains. As you might guess, that’s when I like it best. It kind of weeds out those people looking for perfection in their vacations, always somewhat disappointed because that’s just not the way life is. To me, there is nothing finer than gazing out at a late afternoon rainstorm, sunburnt shoulders, and a cold Carta Blanca within my grasp.
Over 100 flights a week go into Acapulco’s international airport by many of the major airlines. As always, I suggest AeroMexico first to see if that works for you. If you are in Mexico City, Acapulco is only a 3½ hour drive on the Autopista. You might want to stop over for a night in Taxco on the way for some silver purchases and small town charm.