This article is from the September - August 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Hot Time in the Old Town, The Heart and Soul of Acapulco

by Susan Kaye

Susan Kaye has been awarded the Mexican government’s highest award for her coverage of its destinations and has twice received the Acapulco Award for her articles on that city.

The climate was sultry; the views, sizzling; the tequila, cheap. Best of all, photographers were nowhere in sight.

Back in the early `50s when the jet-set was first finding its wings, Acapulco’s voluptuous bay embraced Hollywood’s biggest names. Trigger never made it, but Roy Rogers, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Red Skelton and dozens of others flew down for unabashed partying, weeks at a time.

Sooner or later, everyone ended up at Los Flamingos Hotel, a modest property atop the city’s highest cliff that even today has its list of regulars. Built in the `30s, Los Flamingos was one of only a handful of Acapulco hotels when Hollywood arrived.

John Wayne called the flamingo-pink hotel "the ideal hideaway" and in 1954 he and some cronies bought it. They added a pool and a second (pink) story to the motel-like layout, then closed the doors to the public.

"Viva Mexico! Viva Acapulco!"

The Hollywood halcyon days are over, but this go-go destination still offers a wealth of hotels, restaurants and attractions from decades past. Peso for peso, they offer excellent values, making them all the more worthwhile to seek out.

Early Acapulco grew from its beginnings near Fort San Diego, an area referred to as "el centro," or downtown. The zócalo with its shade trees and bandstand sandwiches between the modest cathedral and the docks where fishermen pull up at dawn with their night’s catch. This is also the dock for sport-fishing departures. All in all, though, visits to the zócalo are disappointing, as there’s really nothing to see or do except cool off with an ice cream cone while watching locals go about their errands.

A far better plan is to head downtown for a seafood lunch, first stopping for a drink at Los Flamingos Hotel, at the same long bar where the Hollywood gang wasted many a night. You’ll see familiar faces in the photographs on the portico walls. One shows John Wayne with a young busboy, Adolfo Santiago. Still working every day at the hotel, Santiago now owns it.

"It’s so tranquil here, away from the buzz of the beaches and the traffic, that some guests have returned every winter for 20 years," he says. The 35 rooms are serene (no TV) and unpretentious; best are the suites with hammocks draped on the balconies.

Walking past the small pool, he pointed out Casa Redonda, a round three-bedroom unit that Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) lived in for many years until his death in 1984. He regularly sunbathed on a private point of land that faced the immensity of the Pacific.

The food at Los Flamingos is good, the setting tranquil, and the views of the open ocean unsurpassed. At the other end of the spectrum for noise and crowds is El Amigo Miguel restauranta. Despite its uninspired decor and setting on Calle Benito Juarez near the zócalo, it’s always crowded with families and business people. Among its specialties are bay shark hash and the broiled snapper.

Another great choice for an entire day or a beachside lunch is Playa Caleta on the far western arm of Acapulco Bay. The stars once lazed on its crescent of sand; now that it’s no longer glamorous, tourists overlook it. The prime open-air dining spot, smack in front of Roqueta Island and a couple of feet from the sunbathers, is La Cabana de Caleta, in the same sunny location for 50 years. Owner Imelda Alvarez oversees the busy kitchen, whose specialties include baby shark tacos and seafood crepes.

Nearby are the cliffs made famous by the La Quebrada high divers. Although La Perla restaurant offers sensational views of this nightly spectacle, its buffet may be among Acapulco’s most insipid. The other options are to pay a $12 entrance fee that includes two drinks and a prime seat on the open-air terrace for the shows or to join a hundred or so others who’ve paid a modest fee to climb up to a small observation point opposite the divers.

The show has been an Acapulco tradition since 1934 and the divers are highly regarded, since they court death with every plunge. Connected to La Perla restaurant is the Plaza Las Glorias Hotel, another old standard that has recently added 130 rooms and remodeled the rest. The choice rooms open to views of La Quebrada.

It will take a savvy cab driver to thread his way up the hills of old Acapulco, past old-fashioned mansions, to a 60-foot streetside mural by one of Mexico’s greatest artists. In the mid-50s, Diego Rivera spent 18 months creating this mosaic mural from tiles, seashells and stones on the exterior wall of Dolores Olmedo’s home. The mural includes the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and the mythological dog Tepezcuincle and became a draft for later works in Mexico City.

Rivera and Olmedo became lifelong friends when she posed for him as a young girl. He lived in her home the last two years of his life and proposed marriage when he was very ill, but she refused.

Back in the tourist zone off the Costera Highway, the Elcano Hotel on one of the bay’s best beaches is another survivor from Acapulco’s early days. Built in 1950, it was remodeled for $13 million in 1992. Elcano has aged to perfection and now is counted as one of Acapulco’s finest resorts.

Stars still escape to Acapulco — Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvester Stallone and Julio Iglesias keep homes there; others seclude themselves in gated and guarded Las Brisas villas that climbs the hill north of the airport. But that doesn’t keep the rest of us from enjoying the hotels, beaches and restaurants that started the Acapulco buzz almost half a century ago.


(To dial Acapulco, precede the phone number with 011-52-74.)

The Diego Rivera mural is on the exterior wall of Dolores Olmedo’s home on Cerro de la Pinzona street in old Acapulco. The home is not a museum but visitors are welcome to photograph the streetside mural.

Hotel Los Flamingos. Rooms from $65; telephone, 82-06-90; fax, 83-98-06.

Another downtown hotel with a loyal following is the 42-room Boca Chica on Playa Caletilla. Phone, 83-63-88; fax, 83-95-13.

Elcano Hotel, rooms are approximately $150; phone 84-19-50; fax, 84-22-30.

Restaurant La Cabana de Caleta, daily from 1-8 p.m.; phone 82-50-07.