Manzanillo The Undeniable Charm of Old Mexico

When considering beach destinations in Mexico, Manzanillo seems to somehow get lost in the shuffle. It somehow gets mixed up with Mazatlan and passed over for Puerto Vallarta, when in truth Manzanillo just needs to be appreciated for what it is: a simple, friendly, economical and traditional Mexican beach experience.I will be the first to admit that high-dollar resort towns up and down the Pacific coast of Mexico are fantastic places, but I also have to confess that the intimacy, charm and attitude of the still unspoiled Manzanillo holds tremendous appeal. Its laid back style and the comfortable open arms offered by its people gives this special town a personality all its own.

Located in the Mexican state of Colima (known as one of the safest states in the country), Manzanillo is approximately 3 ½ hours south of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. Historically important as a seaport even before the Conquest, it was first settled by Europeans in 1522 and used as a departure point for Spanish expeditions to Baja and Northern Mexico. When Cortes arrived in 1531, he noticed an abundance of beautiful chamomile or “manzanilla” plants that are indigenous to the area and quickly named the city in their honor. He then proceeded to found the first shipyard in Latin America at the head of the Santiago River. Modern day Manzanillo continues to rank as one of the most important West Coast ports in all of Mexico because of its ideal location and rail connections to the interior of the country. Because of all this marine activity, Manzanillo is hardly your typical resort town, but from a tourist perspective, it is certainly taking strides to become a contender.

Surrounded on the outskirts by vast coconut plantations, Manzanillo has an interesting mixture of tropical energy and stark beaches. The focal point for tourists is the Santiago Peninsula, a rather understated stretch of hotels and restaurants that lie between two picturesque bays, Bahia de Manzanillo and Bahia de Santiago. Of the two bays, Manzanillo Bay is the most developed area, while further up the coast, Santiago Bay remains for the most part unpopulated stretches of golden sand. And, unbeknownst to most travelers, Manzanillo and its neighboring coastal areas offer some of the finest resorts on the Pacific.

As for dining and nightlife, this town likes to keep things rather low-key. Restaurants are plentiful, the pace of life is slow, and the locals enjoy leisurely meals to highlight their perfect sunsets. The seafood is always fresh and the service is always with a smile. Italian, French and Spanish, and some good old American classics are also easy to find. If you dare, ask for a glass of “ponche.” This typical drink of the region mixes Mezcal with the juice of pomegranate, pineapple and guava. After that you may indeed want some all night dancing (and the disco scene can be found), but I believe you will get more out of your experience in Manzanillo if you just kick back a bit and discover the pleasure of real relaxation.

The year-round great weather makes lounging at the beach a daily option, but there is plenty more on the topic of water sports. Not be outdone by its big name counterparts, Manzanillo has been called the “Sailfish Capital of the World,” with some of the best sportfishing possibilities in the country. Since 1954, annual fishing tournaments have been held here, attracting anglers from around the globe. Some of Manzanillo’s tournaments boast as many as 300 fish caught in a three-day period! Fishing boats are plentiful and easy to arrange with prices ranging from $80 – $100US for half-day trips to full day charters beginning at about $300US.

Scuba and snorkeling are also very popular. Still relatively undiscovered in terms of dive sites, the reefs and ocean refuges in the area remain natural and virtually untouched. Blue, warm waters (temperatures range from 78 – 86 depending on the season) and the diversity of underwater life have made Manzanillo a hot commodity for beginners and experts alike.

Away from the water, more and more, golfers are also flocking to Manzanillo. The combination of great courses at great prices is putting it on the map as a premier golf destination. Boasting a whopping total of 72 holes throughout their various courses, it won’t be long before this area attracts some impressive tournaments. Already the course at the famous Las Hadas resort has been names one of the “top 100 courses in the world.”

Don’t come to Manzanillo expecting dazzle and glamour, what you get here is good old bare bones Mexico. It is a special place with a special style and if you take some time to get a good feel for it, you’ll be hooked.

Beyond the Beach:

The Zocalo (Main Square) is located directly across from the waterfront in downtown Manzanillo. Restored and beautified in 1996 with a Victorian-era bandstand, benches and streetlights, it has cozy, quaint feel. The new Museum of Archeology and History is a modern standout and displays the region’s history including pre-Hispanic artifacts from the state of Colima.

About an hour or so to the east, the capital city of Colima is a real charm. This colonial city lies in a fertile valley in the shadow of two imposing volcanoes towering above. Volcan de Fuego is still active, and beside it lies the taller but extinct Nevado de Colima. There are two newly opened archeological sites (El Chanal and La Campana) that worth a look.

Colima has been occupied since the 11th Century and was settled by the Spanish in 1523. The city center is surrounded by museums, restaurants and impressive government buildings with hand painted murals by Jorge Chavez Carillo. The city’s cathedral, originally built in 1527, has been rebuilt and restored.

Filled with ambiance, the nearby village of Comala (population only about 8,000) is a colorful, fun stop for the day. Great for shopping, this town is famous for its fine carved wood furniture and handicrafts. On the way to the city is a mysterious “inversion hill” where objects appear to defy gravity. Ask your driver to show you this incredible phenomenon.