This article is from the June 2002 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Outback Acapulco

by Ann Hazard 

Ann Hazard is the author of Cooking with Baja Magic, Cartwheels in the Sand, and the just released Agave Sunsets. She has also written over 100 articles on Baja, Mexico, and Mexican cuisine. Visit her at www.bajamagic.com  

The air horn trumpets, momentarily drowning out “Ghostbusters,” which is blaring from speakers strategically placed all over the ceiling. The vintage ‘60s bus swerves to the right, coughs, honks again and pulls up next to the Mercado Central. Odors of raw fish, fresh produce, cooking meats and diesel assault my olfactories. My ears are ringing. Three ladies and two kids board the bus, their arms laden with packages. One has two bags, overflowing with clothing, shoes and toys. Jammed on top is a huge bouquet of fresh flowers wrapped in newspaper. Another has obviously done her grocery shopping – at least for today. She plops five plastic bags on the seat next to her, and wipes the sweat from her brow. Following the lead of the kids in front of me, I slide open my creaky, reluctant window and hang my head out, searching for a breeze. There are a dozen plucked chickens hanging upside down in an indoor/outdoor stall. Next door flip flops are piled almost to the ceiling, along with every kind of plastic household trinket imaginable.  

It’s lunchtime and the aroma of roasted chicken hits me again. My stomach growls and I take a sip of water from my bottle. It’s sweltering. I’m covered in a film of perspiration and I’m trying to conserve my water until we reach our destination. It’s Saturday, obviously the busiest day of the week. There are people everywhere – of all ages and shapes. All are happy, bustling, munching and sipping fruit drinks that come served in plastic bags with straws out the top. They seem oblivious to the riot of noise and milling bodies around them. Another bus – the Looney Tunes Bus – is painted all over with Tweety Bird, Pepe le’ Peu and Sylvester the Cat. It cruises by to our left. The drivers honk. Wave. The kid in the front seat yells a greeting.  

I pull my head back inside. This bus is ancient, and it’s unlike any I’ve ever seen or ridden on. For less than a dollar apiece, we could travel all day, experiencing the “other side of Acapulco” – as far away from the high rise hotels, beachfront restaurants and bungee-jumping, disco-dancing crowds of tourists as we could get. I like that. I came here in search of it, asking the concierge at the Fiesta Americana where we’re staying to send us on an adventure. He said we could either take the bus to Pie de la Cuesta, or take a taxi. I insisted on the bus. It would take no more than forty-five minutes, he told us. It’s been longer than that now, and we’ve been sitting in front of the Mercado, moving maybe a block every five minutes, for the last thirty, while people hop on, hop off and hop on again with a new parcel. 

The music changes. It’s Donna Summers’ “Bad Girls.” The volume increases. On the outside and in the back of the bus are detailed drawings of Tigger, Pooh, Roo and friends. On the inside, the seats are plastic, painted in bright blue with graffiti on the backs. The metal frames are rusted, the matching paint peeling off. I wonder if the sound system cost more than the bus. The Disco-Winnie the Pooh Bus. That’s what we’re on. These rock ‘n roll cartoon buses are the rage in Acapulco.

We pull away from the marketplace and head up into the hills. The commercial area melts away below us. There are three buses ahead, belching diesel fumes that shimmer silver and gray in the heat. To my left are houses of brick, rock and pastel stucco, adorned in flowering purple, magenta, rose and peach-colored bougainvillea – all the shades of sunset. I see mango and rubber trees, papaya, banana too. We turn a corner and head down a steep hill. I say a quick prayer that the brakes are good, as I brace myself for the roller coaster ride to the bottom. We hit ruts and the windows rattle. I reach out and hold mine to quiet it. The music has shifted again – this time to “Get Down Tonight,” followed by “Venus” and “We are Family.” The driver is rocking out, having the time of his life. 

Terry points out Pie de la Cuesta in front of us. I lean out again, delighting in the breeze on my face and the sight of a long spit of land, surrounded on the west by turquoise ocean, edged with foamy breakers and an endless white beach. On the east is a lagoon, framed by lime green mountains, blending into purples and blues as they meet up with the sky. There are restaurants and hotels dotted along both sides, but they’re sparse and relaxed-looking – nothing like high-intensity of downtown Acapulco. “Keep your head in,” Terry warns me. I pull it back in, just as another bus passes us, a little too close for comfort. 

After an hour and half, we start to veer off to the right – away from Pie de la Cuesta. I ask the woman in the seat across from me where we should get off. She points back to the previous stop. I holler at the driver and he pulls over. We get out, catch our third bus of the day. It drops us off about three blocks from Tres Marías, our destination.  

By the time we get there, we’re hot, drenched in sweat and thirsty. Our water is gone. We’d been told we could take a boat ride out to the islands in the lagoon, where we’d feel like we’d been catapulted back in time. But, by the time we arrive, it’s too late to make the two-hour trip. We have an engagement at 6:00 in Las Brisas – a Tianguis party in the most scenic, elegant part of Acapulco – and it’s not one we want to miss. So, we gulp down a beer apiece, share some guacamole and chips, take a quick dip in the ocean, buy some more water and grab a taxi (make that two) back to our hotel. 

Later that night, after the party, we decide to go to El Sombrero, a bar down the way from our hotel on the main strip. It’s Saturday night and everything’s packed. We meet Felix and Debbie there. He’s Mexican; she’s American. They own a restaurant called Prego on the hillside, along with a bed and breakfast. We recount our adventure to them and they shake their heads, telling us we did it all wrong. “We’ll take you to a way better place tomorrow. Be out front of your hotel at eleven.” 

We’re there. This time the trip to Pie de la Cuesta takes only 20 minutes in their Jeep Cherokee. They take us past Tres Marías and all the way down to the end of the spit. They know the boat driver. They know where we’re headed and regale us with stories about it. José Luis comes here. Julio Iglesias too. Back in the ‘50s, Johnny Weissmuller was a regular too. They filmed the Tarzan movie on this lagoon. 

We board a panga and motor slowly through the tranquil waters. Palms and flowering lily pads line the lagoon. Two men in a bright orange panga pull in a net overflowing with huge, squirming shrimp. I lean back and sigh. The green of our boat nearly matches the green of the palms, while the blue of the water is a perfect reflection of the cloudless sky. We pass palapa-roofed restaurants scattered along the shores. Some are rustic; a few appear more upscale with blue and white umbrellas and modern tables. That’s not where we’re headed. We’re going to Polita’s, the legendary hangout of movie stars. She’s old – so old no one really remembers – or will tell. Her place consists of a huge palapa covering a dirt floor. Straw flowers, plastic leis and papeles picados (colorful Mexican cut-out streamers) hang from the rafters. Mexican music crackles from the speakers of an ancient stereo. The kitchen is off to the side. We are greeted like long-lost friends and seated at a rambling table in the shade. Soon we’re served ice-cold beers, homemade mezcal (similar to tequila) and platters of saucy shrimp, along with heaping bowls of shrimp soup, fresh salsa and handmade tortillas. We dig in.

A couple more boats drift in, disgorging Mexican families – at least three generations’ worth apiece. They haven’t come for the food; they’ve come for Polita’s legendary mud masks. She sits down and waves them over, one at a time. Soon there are a dozen brownish-green-faced people milling around, laughing as the mud dries, hardens, cracks around their mouths and turns a dusty gray. These people look to me to be local businessmen and their families – their tailored clothing totally incongruous with the primitive masks. Polita explains to me that the mud here is rejuvenating. “It changes you back to when you were young,” she says in Spanish. Debbie assures me that it’s true as we line up to get our faces done too.  

Forty minutes later our boat returns. As we motor back through the lagoon, we’re told to lean over the edge of the panga and rinse our faces in the clean, soft water. I do it and my skin feels smooth, young, totally refreshed. Before heading back to the city, we stop at a small, picturesque hotel right on the ocean at Pie de la Cuesta, across from where Terry and I were yesterday. It’s called Vayma, and with its 24 rooms, pool-front bar and restaurant, lush tropical gardens and typical Mexican hospitality, we know it’s somewhere we want to come back to. As much as we enjoy resort life, it’s the out-of-the-way places that lure us. It’s those outbacks within minutes (or hours, depending on your mode of transportation and destination) of the bustling cities that offer the surprises, the relaxation – the rejuvenation and friendship that we're always searching for.