by Lee Foster
Mexico’s deliberate decision a few decades ago to establish a major west coast resort investment at Ixtapa, parallel to the east coast development at Cancun, makes fortunate use of the nearby fishing village of Zihuatanejo.
Ixtapa amounts to a choice 2-1/2 mile stretch of sand, Playa del Palmar, four miles north of the village. Only 50 years ago the terrain was a coconut and mango plantation. Now the site boasts deluxe hotels, where the fly-in traveler can luxuriate in the average 78 degree warmth, year-round sun (except in the July-September rainy season), and first-class facilities. Ixtapa offers the resources to lure a wind-chilled American to a sunny destination resort.
Without the village, Ixtapa, a tropical paradise, would be placeless, both on the edge of the sea and at sea. If you subtract the Mexican Spanish language and a few other trappings, Ixtapa could be in Hawaii. To some travelers, in search of a sunny, seaside paradise, location is of no consequence. However, the village of Zihuatanejo reminds and delights a visitor that Ixtapa is in Mexico.
Similarly, Cancun survives on the east coast of Mexico in a complex symbiotic relationship with the island village of Cozumel and with the Mayan ruins, both of which lend placefulness. Villages and ruins need first-class resort areas, and vice versa, for all to flourish. The traveler is the ultimate beneficiary of a richer travel experience.
Mexico’s FONATUR investment corporation, after surveying the 6,000 mile coast of Mexico and weighing the options, decided to stimulate the growth of Ixtapa. FONATUR realized that the new hotels need to be filled if profits are to be expected. Competition with the Caribbean and Hawaii make Ixtapa an affordable luxury destination. A traveler should not walk into a luxury hotel in Ixtapa and expect a bargain, however. The travel agent package of air and hotel, often heavily discounted, is the good value.
Physically, Ixtapa resembles a miniature Waikiki. A necklace of high-rise luxury hotels stretches around a gradual moon-shaped beach. The luxury hotels share a lovely stretch of beach, though the surf can be high for swimming. All the major hotels offer luxurious fresh-water pools for the traveler who would like to admire the ocean but swim in a pool.
FONATUR’s investment has included yacht slips on the 430-acre Marina Ixtapa, an attraction for yachting and fishing enthusiasts. The sport-fishing possibilities of Ixtapa have only recently been exploited, compared with other west coast resort areas, especially Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas.
Six miles from Ixtapa, at Playa Quieta, you’ll find the region’s best swimming beach, open to the public. Swimming, sailing, windsurfing, and snorkeling are popular here. All the necessary equipment can be rented. There is also a small seafood restaurant at adjacent Playa Cuatas. At Playa Quieta small skiffs can take you to explore the island, Isla Ixtapa, which has excellent beaches, good snorkeling, and a seafood restaurant. From the island you can view the waves of mountains, the Sierra Madre del Sur, rising behind the beaches, giving the area a visual variety that compares favorably with the flatness of Mexico’s east coast destinations, Cancun and Cozumel.
Playa Quieta is also the site of an elaborate Club Med facility, emphasizing activity-filled camaraderie. The swinging singles image of Club Med has given way to a family-oriented clientele. Though most Club Med vacationers book a prepaid week’s stay here, you can drop in and pay a day-use fee if you want to sample the Club Med style.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND DINING
If you choose Ixtapa as a Mexican resort destination, what can you expect in lodging and dining? If you stay, typically, at the Krystal or Westin, you would have a lovely room overlooking the ocean, which is especially beguiling at sunset. One upscale property is the Westin Brisas Resort Ixtapa, situated on its own cove.
Each of the major hotels has several restaurants. Begin the day with a lavish hotel buffet breakfast, emphasizing local papaya and mango fruits. The casual restaurant at the Krystal, located next to the beach, specializes in area seafood. Consider a brochette of sea bass, which the chef will cook within your sight at his beachside barbecue.
The Westin Brisas Resort’s gourmet restaurant features the “vastness of the Mexican kitchen.” As the chef once said, “Why, there is a mountain of different chiles alone!” The restaurant makes effective use of Mexico’s cornucopia of seafood and tropical fruits, including fruits many visitors have never experienced.
During the day, sunning on the beach and swimming in the pools or ocean are the main activity. The swim-in bars at the Krystal and other hotels give new meaning to the word “wet bar”. After a few duty laps in the labyrinthine pools, with their waterfalls and bridges, you can swim to the bar and reward yourself with a margarita. Walking the beach and reading blockbuster novels are major preoccupations. Walking the beach, incidentally, is a favorite nighttime activity, as spotlights from the hotels play dramatically on the crashing surf. Strollers use the beach as a pathway connecting the different hotels, which trade off hosting Mexican Fiesta nights, emphasizing Mexican buffet dinners, mariachi music, and regional dancing. During the day, snorkeling, scuba diving, deep sea fishing, tennis, parasailing, sailing, golf, and horseback riding can be arranged.
All this takes place at Ixtapa. The counterpoint to the Ixtapa experience is Zihuatanejo, the fishing village. Taxis can take you you there quickly and cheaply, so don’t rent a car here.
Zihuatanejo has existed for a long time. Excavations at the Barra de Potosi lagoon archaeological site have uncovered two pyramids. These sites are interesting, and gradually will be developed sufficiently to show the traveler. The excavations will lend a cultural note to future visits, but are not on a par with the Mayan treasures of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo.
Zihuatanejo rivaled Acapulco, 150 miles south, as a port during the 17th and 18th century Manila galleon days, when silk and spices were shipped here from the Orient, then carted overland to Mexico City or to Vera Cruz, on Mexico’s east coast, with Spain as the ultimate destination. The Manila galleon trade was a risky business, especially with pirates lurking near the tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, at Cabo San Lucas, where the treasure ships left land sightings and proceeded across the open ocean.
Zihuatanejo was already a sizable village when FONATUR selected the region for a developed future. There were 4,000 people in Zihuatanejo in 1972. Now there are 75,000 people, many of them young people who have moved here to work in tourism-related businesses. The village feels today like a quiet, minor fishing port, with fishermen mending their nets on the downtown beach. From the small pier, you can take a water taxi to Playa Gatas, a good snorkeling beach. Within the village, streets immediately adjacent to the beach hold the most interest for travelers.
Restaurants serve up the local seafood. Craft stores and boutiques are numerous along the mall-like streets. One interesting local craft is the painting of ceramic masks and wooden carved fish with bright colors, similar to the colors found on amate bark paintings in Mexico.
Small hotels and guest houses in Zihuatanejo will appeal to the traveler who prefers to remain in town and avoid the first-class high-rises. These in-town lodgings are cozy and comfortable, but more difficult to arrange for from afar. Don’t depend on a room being available for a drop-in visitor during the winter season.
If you jet into the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo Airport, your Mexican vacation can combine two appealing worlds–the luxurious and accessible high-rise resorts of Ixtapa and the rustic, authentic fishing village of Zihuatanejo, which gives Mexican soul to this tropical paradise.
IXTAPA-ZIHUATANEJO, MEXICO: IF YOU GO:
For further information on Mexico, contact the Mexican Tourism Board at 800/44-Mexico. They can send a packet of information on Ixtapa. The local website is www.ixtapa-zihuatanejo.com. Be sure to bring proof of citizenship to Mexico. A passport is best, but a certified birth certificate will do.