This article is from the June 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
Zihuatanejo, and a big thanks to Ixtapa
by David Simmonds
In 1974, I was on my way to Honduras to visit my then girlfriend who was doing a Peace Corps gig, when I took a wrong turn in Mexico City and surfaced in this perfect little fishing village with a couple of low-rent hotels on the finest protected bay I had ever seen. I remember thinking, “This can’t last long. They’ll Acapulco-ize this place, pronto.” Little did I know that just around the bay, five miles north, the coast was being cleared and families “relocated” (“Sorry, Pedro, but the very wise politicos have a need for this property your ancestors have farmed and lived on for several generations”) to accommodate the government’s latest master plan, the now-popular charter destination known as Ixtapa. The little fishing village, Zihuatanejo (Zihua), has since grown a bit. Most, but not all, of the roads are paved. The hills surrounding the bay, once unspoiled by lathe and plaster, now sport a few homes and condos. Potable ice is found as easily as the ubiquitous t-shirt shops whose owners can be observed salivating at the sight of the next cruise ship that magically enters the bay from the wild Pacific. But it could have unfolded far differently. My early fears might have been realized. Fortunately, once again, I was wrong. In that respect, it was good for Zihua when Ixtapa sprouted from the wetlands. It took the pressure off to high-rise and buy a fleet of pink jeeps.. A workable symbiotic relationship has resulted with both places doing what they do best. One gets to cater to rosy-cheeked conventioneers seeking corporate Margaritaville, while the other maintains its long relationship with the sea. The grandsons of fishermen still fish. And you and I, the grateful visitor, find the Mexico of our dreams.
Like much of Mexico’s coast, Zihuatanejo was just a small gathering of fishermen until a paved road arrived, making coming and going a feasible practice. This section of Hwy 200 came north from Acapulco in 1960. Of course, the Spanish sailors used this protected bay in the 1500’s to launch the first voyages to the Philippines and were wise enough to bring from there the coconut palm, which became the major crop of the region for many decades. And there is much archeological evidence that native Americans populated this coastline for a few thousand years before that. The local lore has it that the area was ruled by women (what area isn’t?). And the name, Zihuatanejo, actually means “Land of Women.” I’m not sure what Ixtapa means, but based on my keen-eyed observation, I think perhaps it translates to “Land of Women in Bikinis.”
THE TOWN TODAYBy town, I’m referring to Zihua, not Ixtapa, since there is no town there. Ixtapa has several beach-front hotels, a marina, two golf courses and what they call the “commercial zone,” which you would recognize as the U.S. term, “strip mall.” I spent an afternoon paying a visit to each of the hotels, and quite frankly, they don’t compare favorably to the like-type properties in Cancun or Puerto Vallarta. If you’re going to pay serious dough to see nothing but your hotel grounds for a week you might as well hole up in truly up-scale digs. Those in Ixtapa don’t quite fit that description.Zihuatanejo, on the other hand, has a range of accommodations to satisfy everyone. But, in truth, it’s not cheap by Mexican standards — supply and demand in action.
The town is basically comprised of four different beaches, all distinctly separated. In the center of town is Playa Principal, the everyday beach of the locals and the fishermen. The working pangas populate the sand. Nearby the day’s fresh catch is displayed and can be purchased (a good reason to consider a room with a kitchen, and these happen to be plentiful). In the middle of the action, along the shore, is the central landmark and social magnet, which should traditionally be a church. But not here. No, here in Z, it’s the basketball court, whose game is actually becoming a religion for far too many.
Surrounding this central area, many of the streets are tree-lined, narrow and pedestrian-only. This is one feature that makes it one of Mexico’s more relaxing and sane towns, a place to just hang out. Open-air cafes and cantinas share the streets with small hotels, tiendas and businesses that you would find in any town center. Factor in the contiguous sea and you have the one of the country’s prime stretches of real estate. It always takes me a couple of days when I fly into a town to decompress and hit my Mexico stride. In Zihua it took about an hour. You get the feeling that maybe you lived there in a previous life, perhaps with Shirley MacLaine. I packed a pair of long pants and closed-toed shoes; but it turns out that I wore neither.
Walking south along the beach from Playa Principal will take you to Playa Madera, now accessible by a walkway carved into the rocky hillside. Or you can take the road, which takes a little longer, but it is necessary if you are in a vehicle. Madera has several small hotels, cottages and a few condos, mostly on the hillside providing great views. The beach, about half sand and half rocks, is fairly short and the surf is gentle.
The next beach along the bay is Playa Ropa, considered by many to be one of Mexico’s finest. You have to take the road to get there because of the rocky promontory that prevents you from walking via the beach. It’s a strenuous 20-minute hill climbing walk from Madero, but you can flag a taxi for less than two dollars. Playa Ropa is home to the best, and most expensive, hotels in the area (including Ixtapa): La Casa Que Canta and Villa del Sol, both members of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Fortunately, on the same beach is the wonderful, and affordable, Hotel Paraiso Real, formerly known as a flop-house named Hotel Omar. I was directed to this hotel by Mexico File subscriber and Zihua resident Leigh Roth (more about Leigh later).
The hotel was purchased by the in-town Scuba Center owner, Ed Clarke, who arrived in town from San Francisco ten years ago. Ed and his manager Bernie are great hosts and have created something of an ecological resort that I recommend for anyone not requiring a hot tub and 24-hour room service. The grounds are next to a mangrove estuary that is home to several crocodiles, turtles, and countless bird species. The six ocean-front rooms offer sea views, open air verandas and most importantly, your own hammock. One of the rooms (the one I stayed in) has a full kitchen. Facing the estuary and garden is a new building containing 14 spacious, nicely furnished rooms. From here you can watch Brian, another ex-Bay Area resident with an intellectual demeanor who fixes things and oversees construction, working on his proud project, a putting green. This lies a few feet from where the crocodiles take their sun naps. Toward sundown, you can find him practicing his sand wedge on the beach. Did I mention that this town seems to attract a rather quirky, maverick personality? They all have this weird glint in their eyes perched above a continuous, disarming grin that suggests that life just can’t get much better as long as you don’t take it too seriously. I knew things were a little surreal here when on my first night I was enjoying a beer at Elvira’s, a long-time haunt on the waterfront in town, talking to one guy from Chico, California, who I found out went to my high school just after I graduated (San Bernardino, CA) and then we were talking to another guy from Texas who went to the same high school as my Dad (Beaumont, 1942) thirty years later. It’s then that I started looking for Stephen King to grab a stool.
The manager of Paraiso, Bernie, is half Mexican and half German, and studied and lived in Grenoble, France, for ten years. He has been coming to Zihua since the early fifties and knows expertly how to run a hotel. He previously did so in Mexico City, Mazatlan and Cuernavaca before deciding this was the best place to be.
The hotel has a good restaurant/bar with casual palapa dining, but if you get the urge to cruise the rest of the quarter-mile long beach you can find windsurfing, kayaking, waterskiing, boat rentals and several fine open air restaurants with surprisingly good food. The aforementioned Villa del Sol has the best food in town and you are welcome to elbow rub with their guests at the bar. I talked to many of them one night and each said they were having the best time of their lives.
If you are looking for some good seafood while watching a U.S. sporting event, try La Perla, a three minute walk from Paraiso Real. And if you feel obliged to partake in the latest boomer affectation of cigar smoking, they have a walk-in humidor filled ceiling high with Cubans.
It was here that I made the acquaintance of Tanya Scales from Akron, Ohio, who has lived in Zihua for about thirty years. Tanya is an original who earlier spent time in the surrounding hills studying the effects and properties of various herbs with the Indians. In response to my question as to what first enticed her to Mexico, she proclaimed, “I’m a hot-headed Dago and God sent me here to teach me patience.” She now operates a gallery in town named “Ixchel Maya, Women and Goddesses of Mexico” (Cuahtémoc #1). She also owns and lives on the best piece of property at the very end of Playa Ropa.
Now, back to Leigh Roth. Leigh can be your best single source of information for your trip to Zihuatanejo. She knows the town as well as anyone and can arrange your hotel accommodations and answer any of your questions before your arrival. I have described the impressions of an infrequent visitor, but to get the real low-down you can’t beat one who lives there. I doubt that I would have found Paraiso Real without her. So I am following this article with a rambling discourse Leigh e-mailed me with a few of her thoughts and suggestions.