Zihua's Seductive Vibe
story and photos by Jane Onstott
Jane Onstott is a freelance writer and editor based in San Diego. She is the author of National Geographic Traveler Mexico, which was reviewed in the August/September 2002 issue of Mexico File.
It’s hard to imagine not falling in love in Zihuatanejo, or at least falling in love with Zihuatanejo. Whether you bring a new love, celebrate a golden anniversary, or just pray for a close encounter of the romantic kind, Zihua has an air of innocent seduction that would awaken the passion of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.
There’s an insistent exuberance and love of simple pleasures in this fishing village 120 miles northwest of Acapulco. The lush quality of the air is shared by Zihua’s sidekick, the planned resort of Ixtapa, just four miles away. After a day of heat and humidity, evening breezes are blessedly cool and palpably moist, like one of those chilled and lemon-scented white washcloths you receive when you arrive, hot and sweaty, at a fancy resort.
Near Zihua’s main plaza, grackels call and answer insistently from the branches of tropical almond trees and lacy tabachín. Dense with diminutive orange flowers, hedges of ixora lining Ixtapa's tourist zone are constantly being trimmed to keep them in line. Everything is luscious and full-blooming. Luckily, Ixtapa has grown reasonably slowly. A quarter century after its birth, it hasn’t totally taken over the landscape or ruined the nAeighborhood.
Most Mexico File readers would have to be seriously moonstruck, or on a pull-out-all-the-stops honeymoon, to stay at either of Zihua’s two most romantic and pricey hotels. The luxurious yet earthy Casa Que Canta perches high on a bluff overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay, while on the beach below, Hotel Villa del Sol snuggles right up to the sand. Both belong to Small Luxury Hotels of the World and share Mexico’s highest hotel rating: gran turismo. Good service is emphasized (the ratio of employees to guests is staggering); it’s all about luxury in a casual (but not necessarily unpretentious) beach setting. La Casa Que Canta (“the House that Sings”) has palapa roofs and adobe-faced walls. Tasteful guest rooms – the more expensive ones with wonderful big balconies – have lovely folk art from Oaxaca and Michoacán. Villa del Sol has equally lovely rooms in bungalows facing the beach, pool, or a manmade lagoon. Lunch here isn’t as expensive as you might think ($7 to $20), and non-guests wearing casual clothing (but not bathing suits and cover-ups) are welcome. Prices are higher for dinner, when “resort casual” clothing (for men, long pants and a shirt with a collar) is required. If you can’t afford these prices, have a drink at the bar and soak up the ambiance.
The most romantic restaurants in Ixtapa are outside the hotel zone, above Vista Hermosa beach. El Faro offers good food and stunning vistas of the ocean and offshore rocks and islets. If you’re visiting in the fall or winter months (when the lobster is fresh, not frozen) and want to splurge on a special dinner, visit El Faro on a Friday evening after 6 p.m. The lobster buffet and salad bar ($37) includes a glass of Baja’s white wine. Call ahead and reserve a table on the patio or near the large open windows.
If a $37 dinner sounds too pricey, there are lots of places to get great food for under $15. For the regional specialty pescado a la talla (butterflied fish rubbed with salt and spices and cooked over charcoal), try Garrobos, right in the center of Zihua. The nearby Bandidos specializes in grilled fresh catch of the day (as does Garrobos) and fish tacos made with fresh tortillas and grilled pineapple and onion. There’s live music most nights after 9 p.m.
Part of the fun of Zihua is mingling with locals, and not just those pouring your coffee or carrying your bags. Even when it gets crowded during peak seasons, locals still outnumber the tourists. Grandpas survey the street scene from front steps. Fishermen sell their wares at the busy fish and seafood market, while sporty types play basketball in the main square and soccer on the beach just below. Couples and families stroll along beachfront Paseo del Pescador. A paved pathway continues along the bay to La Madera beach, where a few hotels offer simple dining (and restrooms).
More popular with foreigners is La Ropa beach, just around a rocky outcropping. There are sailboards and jet skis for rent, and parasailers float high overhead, tethered to speedboats like colorful balloons. It’s a pretty, long beach where you can get drinks and snacks from the restaurants in a handful of beachfront hotels (including Villa del Sol, mentioned above).
Continuing along the curve of deep, wide Zihuatanejo Bay, Playa Las Gatas is a wonderful beach accessible only by boat. Covered launches from Zihua’s main pier make the trip every 10-15 minutes at a cost of $3. (Really thrifty and youthful types scramble over the rocks from Playa La Ropa.) If you like solitary beaches, don't come on Saturday or especially Sunday. Families stake out places in side-by-side palapa restaurants, buying soft drinks and chilled coconuts and staying put all day. Bikini vendors hawk their wares and banana boats pile on passengers. It’s a festive atmosphere. Hills rise up sharply around the curvaceous bay, so close they seem to spring from the sea. The scene is especially beautiful after summer rains paint everything green. Summer also brings swells – you can watch surfers catch great waves at the point.
More Reasons to Head to Zihua
There’s shopping in a series of malls in Ixtapa, but to me, shopping is lots more fun in Zihua. The selection of locally made crafts at the Mercado de Artesanías Turístico (Calle 5 de mayo between Paseo del Pescador and Morelos) is truly overwhelming. Many of the more than 200 diminutive stalls sell silver jewelry from Taxco and even less expensive shell and bead jewelry. Painted or wooden ceramic plates and trays are typical of the area, and almost every merchant sells them. T-shirts and ruffled gauze blouses are everywhere, and there’s no shortage of string hammocks and onyx chess sets. Cheerful bargaining is expected.
The shop Rosimar Artesanías (at Calles Cuauhtémoc and Ejido) was recommended to me on my last trip, so I headed there after the artisan’s market. Josefina, one of the store’s friendly owners, gave me an item-by-item tour of the store that left me exhausted. But she was animated, friendly, and genuinely proud of the merchandise and the artisans who had produced them. This level of engagement and interest seems to be the main difference between the Zihua and Ixtapa shopping scenes.
I don’t mean to dis Ixtapa; it’s actually pretty low-key, and one of my favorite Mexican beach resorts. It’s just that I recommend those who stay in the hotels there spend time in Zihua. The beaches there are prettier than the hotel zone beach, Playa del Palmar, and the surf doesn’t crash onshore. Buses between the two places are cheap and frequent, and a taxi costs 40 pesos, or about $4.
For some reason Ixtapa’s hotels aren’t as fancy, or as well-maintained, as those of other Mexican beach resorts. (They’re also not as expensive.) Exceptions include Las Brisas (formerly a Westin), which was designed by Ricardo Legorreta. Soaring up from Playa Vista Hermosa (“Beach of the Beautiful View,” south of Ixtapa's main hotel zone), Las Brisas has a modern, even daring design that incorporates regional building materials in interesting ways. In the hotel zone, the Spanish-owned Barceló is a good choice and offers both European and all-inclusive plans. During the off-season, you can get super deals on both. Rooms aren’t large, but they are clean and comfortable. Service is friendly and the grounds very pleasant.
The nearby Riviera Beach Resort was recently renovated and redecorated. I hate to admit it, but the breakfast buffet there ($14 per person) was one of the highlights of my last trip. Giant glass pitchers held a luscious lineup of fresh tropical juices, and the made-to-order quesadillas, omelets, and empanadas were delicious. The squash blossom crepes looked like perfect chamois medicine bags, delicately tied with a string of corn husk. Inside, I found not powerful totems, but a wonderful squash blossoms sauté. A large number of dishes are as appropriate for lunch as for breakfast, so go as close to noon as possible, and plan to eat hearty. The decoration is simple: a good view of the ocean and the rocks at Los Moros, a popular dive spot.
A Traditional Meeting Place
Sunday is Cultural Night in Zihua, and it’s mainly local talent that takes to the open performance venue just below the main square. The night I was there, a light but steady rain didn’t stop a large crowd of townspeople and a sprinkling of tourists from enjoying the show. A middle-aged woman in a tight-fitting, animal-print dress and black heels strutted around the stage belting out ballads and boleros and popular tunes in a throaty contralto. Despite the rain-slick cement, she jumped around dexterously in her high heels. Her heavy makeup ran a bit in the rain, but she sang with passion and engaged the crowd.
Behind the spectators, vendors in the plaza hawked popcorn and bright blue and pink cotton candy. Tamales steamed in giant aluminum tubs. Couples strolled arm in arm, while teens loitered in packs.
I was just a kid of 17 myself the first time I went to Mexico. For the three months I lived in the fishing village of Santa Cruz, Nayarit, I watched a similar ritual every weekend. On Saturday evenings the whole town would show up in the plaza dressed in their best clothes. Men and boys walked one way ‘round the square, while the women – mostly girls and young ladies – walked in the other direction. Mothers and grandmothers kept an eye on their kin while catching up with their neighbors.
This cotillion gave opportunities for flirting and eye contact, but not too much other contact. Girls and boys teased and giggled, while young studs engaged in mock battles designed to impress future sweethearts. The people mingling in Zihua’s misty plaza last month reminded me of my first Mexico experience.
The mating game may be less organized now than it was, but it’s still a ritual. The public square is the place to see and be seen, to run into friends, and to flirt with the opposite sex. Great ExpectationsÔ and Match.com aren’t needed in Zihuatanejo. The power of seduction there is just too strong.
If You Go
The new highway 37 (to be completed in the next few months). will shave an hour or so off the drive from Mexico City. Driving time: 6 ½ hours. The new road connects to the capital via Morelia, while the old road goes to Acapulco and up Highway 200. Either way, drive with caution, especially when it’s raining. Winding roads can be treacherous (see accompanying photo).
Continental offers nonstop service from Houston. America West flies nonstop twice a week from Phoenix, as does TWA from St. Louis. Carriers flying into Ixtapa/Zihua via Mexico City include Aeromexico, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Mexicana, and Northwest. From the airport, it’s about $23 to Ixtapa and $18 to Zihuatanejo by cab. Fares are less going to the airport, about $10 from Zihuatanejo and $14 from Ixtapa.
Bandidos, Calle 5 de Mayo at Pedro Ascencio, tel. 553-8072
El Faro, Paseo de la Colina s/n, at Condominios Pacífico, tel. 555-2525
Garrobos, Juan N. Alvarez 52, tel. 554-6706
Barceló, Blvd. Ixtapa s/n, tel. 553-2438, www.barcelo.com
Hotel Villa del Sol, Playa La Ropa, tel. 555-5500 or 888/389-2645, www.hotelvilladelsol.com .
La Casa Que Canta,Camino Escénica s/n, Playa La Ropa, tel. 555-7030 or 888/523-5050, www.lacasaquecanta.com .
Las Brisas, Playa Vista Hermosa, tel. 553-2121 or 888/559-4329, www.brisas.com.mx
Riviera Beach Resort, Blvd. Ixtapa s/n, tel. 553-1066 or 888/809-6133, www.riviera.com.mx