A recent visit to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, restored my faith in classic Mexican
tourism. While a mere eight miles from the resort town of Ixtapa, and a port of
call for cruise ships, Zihuatanejo still retains enough indigenous charm to
make a tourist like me hearken back to the Mexico of yesteryear.
More Than Margaritas
Mexico is a warm and affordable destination for residents of the United States.
As such, many Mexican cities, particularly those on the coasts, have
capitalized on the U.S. tourist dollar. Acapulco, once a glamorous destination
of the stars, is now a bit down-at-the-heels, but retains retro glamour and is
still home to the world-famous La Quebrada cliff divers. Mazatlan and Puerto
Vallarta on the western (Gulf of California) coast, are virtually
indistinguishable from one another, with their Senor Frogs and Carlos &
Charlie's chain restaurants, gaudy resorts, and beach vendors. Cancun, diving
Mecca of the eastern (Gulf of Mexico) coast, has been buffeted by storms in
recent years, but still has the best snorkeling beaches. Cabo San Lucas was
developed at the tip of Baja California to take advantage of the California
Then there's Ixtapa, a resort town developed on the west coast of mainland
Mexico. South of Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan, north of Acapulco, it draws on
the established tourist infrastructure of all of these destinations.
Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as the Mexican Riviera, each
boasting its complement of resort hotels, private beaches, and chain
restaurants with fishbowl-sized margaritas. But long before Ixtapa was even a
gleam in the developers' eyes, there was Zihuatanejo.
Sleepy Fishing Village
Blessed with protected waters, a great climate, and an abundance of sea life,
Zihuatanejo has long been an active fishing village, and so it remains today.
Stroll down the waterfront Paseo del Pescador ("Walkway of the
Fishermen") at 8 or 9 a.m. on a spring morning and you'll see the boats,
mostly small and privately owned, coming in with their daily catch. You will
likely not be the only gringo in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt standing on
the sidewalk watching ahi get separated from mahi mahi, but, unlike many other
coastal Mexican towns, you will be in the minority.
Fishermen, ice vendors, restaurateurs, and those tradespeople cleaning and
preparing the fish for market dominate the lively scene. West of downtown, on
Laguna de las Salinas ("Salty Lagoon") along Paseo de las Ballenas
("Walkway of the Whales"), you'll find a smaller, more intimate
market with a distinct "locals-only" flavor. During my visits over
the course of a week, I never saw another obvious American at this latter
It's not that Zihuatanejo is untouched by the foreign tourist trade. There
are blankets and jewelry and, yes, even margaritas to be purchased. But the
quality seems better here, the artistry less tainted by the bargain-hunting
gringos. Come to think of it, this artistry, this authenticity, extended even
to the food and beverages. I've never had better margaritas. I can't speak for
every bar in town, but I watched several bartenders take their time preparing
individual, handmade margaritas with the care of an espresso barista and
without benefit of any sort of prepacked mixes.
As for the restaurants, on both the budget and the fine-dining ends of the
spectrum, the food was uniformly exceptional. The only disappointment was a
lack of variety in the local seafood. The fishing quantity and quality, here as
in so many parts of the world, has sadly diminished over time. But on the
whole, Zihuatanejo in 2008 reminded me of my first visits to Mexico in the
early 1980s. In some respects, it hasn't changed since the 1940s, the period
represented in the 1994 movie "The Shawshank Redemption," when the framed convict
portrayed by Tim Robbins spoke so wistfully of the sleepy, sunny village.
Invasion Of The Tenders
But I mentioned the cruise ships. Luckily for me, my visit was in early April,
at the tail end of the cruise season. Only one ship entered Zihuatanejo Bay
during my stay. The sight of such a mammoth vessel invading such a tiny bay
borders on obscene, a sort of rape. The gigantic thrusters shake the village
and tear up the bay floor as the immense crafts come to anchor. (Gee, think this
has any connection to the reduced marine life populations?) During the peak
winter cruise season, ships come three or four days a week.
Once anchored, the ships disgorge tenders (smaller boats) full of tourists
to double the population of the village for a few hours. One might rationalize,
"At least it helps the economy," but according to the merchants with
whom I spoke, that's not necessarily the case.
Cruise tourists tend to make
their souvenir purchases at the first or last port of call, and Zihuatanejo is
neither. So those who come ashore mostly do so to drink the beer and tequila at
better-than-shipboard prices. The economic benefit of hordes of bargain hunters
tanked up on Corona and Cuervo is dubious at best.
But, like the Tim Robbins character, I found Zihuatanejo a destination worth
dreaming about. For the snorkeling, for the food, for the ambiance, I'd go back
in a heartbeat.
Sally O'Neal is a travel and outdoor writer who makes her home in the
Pacific Northwest. Zihuatanejo's fame increased after being featured in the
1994 movie "The Shawshank Redemption," and more recently drew attention as the
site of several shark attacks, an unusual occurrence now under scientific