Silhouetted against a dramatic sunset, their backs arched taut as bows, the daring cliff divers of Acapulco have enthralled spectators since 1934. From sheer rock faces, they plummet from heights of 85 feet to 110 feet into an impossibly narrow channel, timing their plunge to take advantage of the deeper wave swells. At most, this means about 14 feet of water.
Athletes Or Actors?
"La Quebrada," the catch-all moniker for the diving spot and the divers, literally means "The Gorge," referring to the 35-foot-wide chasm into which the divers jump. "La Quebrada," creepily enough, also means "The Broken." While the cliff-diving spectacle has become iconic to Acapulco, immortalized in Elvis Presley movies, and included as a part of every cruise ship's shore excursion packages, it is no piece of tourist kitsch. The young men making the dives are fine athletes who risk "broken"-ness with each dive.
How To See Them
Dive shows take place at 1 p.m., 7:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 9:30 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. daily. The afternoon show is designed primarily to accommodate cruise ships. The public can view the dives from either a public viewing area atop the lower cliff for a mere 30 pesos (less than $3 U.S.) or from La Perla Restaurant. The restaurant terraces are actually farther away from the action than the 30-peso area, but viewing is excellent. Tourist packages for dinner, drinks, or both can be arranged from any hotel. If you're really a starving student or have some other excuse for being short on pesos, you can also see the divers from La Perla's parking lot.
Remember that the sun sets early when you're this close to the equator; for the best evening performance photo opportunities, come to the 7:30 p.m. show. You might think that show would be jam-packed for that very reason, but Acapulco is a late-night town, in the Latin American tradition. Restaurants and clubs tend not to begin filling until after 9, and La Perla, when I visited was no exception.
My La Quebrada Experience
Upon our arrival to La Perla at 7:20 p.m., only about 15 people were seated in the restaurant, but about 30 or 40 stood in the viewing area below. A low-key guitar trio with modest amplification played "The Mexican Standards Gringos Love" ("La Bamba," "Guantanamara," etc.) on a small bandstand. At precisely 7:30 (come to think of it, this may have been the only thing that started on time while I was in Acapulco), four slender, bare-chested brown youths appeared on the stairwell above the viewing area. They paused, turned to those of us on La Perla's terraces above, and waved. A taped voice announced, in Spanish, "Ladies and Gentlemen, La Quebrada!"
About 90 seconds of Spanish narration ensued as the young men strode out into the viewing area, shook a few hands, then took a flight of stairs down the back side of the platform. The narration switched to English (eventually followed by French and German) as they reappeared on the cliff wall below. Various rituals ensued -- prayers, tossing of items into the channel to gauge wave action, short dives from the lower cliff. Eventually all four boys had dove from the low "practice" cliff and swum across the narrow channel, where they began hand-and-foot scrambling up the sheer cliff. By this time, the French narration was underway. We learned, among other things, that a diver's "tete" (aka "cabeza," "head," "kopf") would weigh four times the weight of his body upon impact with the water after a 110-foot (34 meters) dive.
Each Show Differs
Typically (we ended up staying for all four evening shows, each one slightly different), two divers would ascend to the top and two would stop at an equally impressive outcropping some 15 feet short of the top. A series of breathtaking, arched-back, flawless dives would ensue, singly or in tandem. Aside from prayers, waving, and gauging the wave action, there was precious little fanfare. Each time, the quad-lingual narration tape would play. Each time, one especially impressive young athlete would close the show with a solo dive from the cliff's apex. On the last two shows, some of the divers carried torches as they dove. There were no fireworks, no drumrolls to brass fanfares.
The dive show itself was short and refreshingly spare of such embellishment. It was simply a showcase of bravery and athleticism. For a town with a tradition of celebrity glamour and Technicolor nightlife, this came as a surprise. (So, for the record, did La Perla's reasonable menu prices.) After each show, the divers make the rounds for photo ops at the restaurant, so bring small bills for tipping.
Sally O'Neal Coates is an outdoor travel writer and occasional globetrotter. Her books include, "Hot Showers, Soft Beds, and Dayhikes in the North Cascades."