Experience Sun-Soaked Beaches On The Mexican Pacific Coast
Photo: Playa la Ropa, Zihuatanejo © Eric Broder Van Dyke | Dreamstime.com
Are there any twin beach communities that twist the tongue as much as Ixtapa (Eeks-TA-pa) and Zihuatanejo (Zee-hwa- ta-NAY-ho) in Mexico? If it weren’t for Tim Robbins’ character telling Morgan Freeman’s character about the latter in the 1994 movie The Shawshank Redemption, there’s a good chance we’d still give a blank stare when someone mentions a vacation there.
In that movie, Zihuatanejo is where Andy Dufresne dreams of going when he gets out of prison, “a little paradise on the Pacific” and “a warm place with no memory.”
Indeed, this region does not hold a whole lot of memory — or history. It was mostly a land of small-scale fishermen until the Mexican government tagged Ixtapa for a Cancún-style planned tourism development and hotel investors started moving in. The region now offers good air connections, especially from Mexico City, and a range of excellent resorts for couples or families. It seldom feels overly crowded in either of the twin towns, and visitors can easily get around by taxi or rental car. This makes the region an ideal getaway from Mexico’s capital to extend a business trip with a significant other or the family.
Located seven roundabout hours by car south of the capital and four and a half from Acapulco, this part of the Mexican Pacific coast was the kind of place most ships passed by on their way to more important port cities. Supposedly, Playa la Ropa got its name when trunks of Chinese silk clothing washed up from a sunken ship in the era of extensive trade between New Spain and China — an incident most likely caused by the people who spent the most time in the area: pirates. For most of its history, this was a land of fishermen going out each day to see what they could catch under the water and hidden pirates looking to pillage cargo ships carrying silver or silk above the water.
Visitors don’t come to this beach playground for the sightseeing, so it’s important to choose the right resort for your base. The central part of Ixtapa is actually the least desirable part to stay in: Its all-inclusive hotels built for 1970s standards mainly draw budget-minded tourists. Instead, consider the newest option at the north end: Azul Ixtapa Grand. This ocean-facing resort offers 323 oversized guestrooms and suites, three swimming pools, five whirlpools, four bars, a poolside snack bar and a big game room with pool tables and Ping-Pong. The grown-ups in your group will enjoy bars with quality drink choices, multiple restaurants and a spa.
The Club Med Ixtapa Pacific takes things to another level of activity with a trapeze facility, a huge kids’ club, dance shows the kids participate in and a wide variety of nightly performances from staffers. The beach here is gorgeous, Negra Modelo is on tap, and the meals are surprisingly good. Families find it hard to leave after settling in here.
Not far from there, the romantic Capella Ixtapa makes a great choice if you prize dramatic views over activities and long beach strolls. Spilling down a rocky cliff, with rooms connected to public areas by a funicular train, it offers panoramic ocean vistas from every room, with plunge pool balconies set up for taking in the show of waves crashing on the rocks.
Zihuatanejo boasts two hotels that continually top magazine “best resorts” lists. La Casa Que Canta (“House That Sings”) sits on a promontory between Zihuatanejo proper and Playa la Ropa — the best beach in the area. The singing here comes from the wind whistling outside the bungalows perched over the water and the waves lapping against the rocks below. Right on that best beach, with pools and villas stretched out along it, lies Viceroy Zihuatanejo, a resort that does a good job catering to both families and couples by segregating pool crowds and offering villas with their own plunge pools and decks.
Ixtapa doesn’t offer much of a commercial center apart from a few bars, discos and real estate agencies, but Zihuatanejo tells a different story. This vibrant community blends a nice mix of restaurants and shops geared to tourists with places meant for locals — often on the same block. Stroll around in search of some good street tacos or meander through clothing stores where the Mexicans shop. You can also find a good handicraft market near the central Zihuatanejo beach, and those who arrive early enough will see the catch of the day on sale from local fishermen, with chefs showing up to get their pick of pescado.
For those meeting up with children, put two animal encounters on the list: the crocodile sanctuary and swimming with dolphins. The first is free, next to Playa Linda beach within walking distance of Club Med or Azul Grand. Safely behind a fence, crocs of all sizes lounge, accompanied by plenty of big iguanas to complete the prehistoric feel. A variety of sea birds usually rest above them in the trees.
The Delfiniti Ixtapa center for dolphins follows a familiar script, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. The resident porpoises do tricks for fish from a bucket, and kids squeal with delight as they swim next to them. Don’t miss the finale — go for a ride as a dolphin swims upside down, pulling you along belly to belly with the smooth and fast creature of the sea. Naturally, the poses and rides will all be captured in photos if you want to share your post-business fun or keep the memories for later.
The area offers two golf courses for enjoying a round in the warm sun. Both courses are open to the public and offer rental clubs and caddies for hire. Marina Ixtapa Golf Club by the marina features a challenging links-style course designed by Robert von Hagge. The hilly course presents water hazards on 14 of the 18 holes — some with resident crocodiles. This is not a course where you want to look for your lost ball in the water. Opened in 1975, the Campo de Golf Ixtapa course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., offers a more forgiving course at 6,898 yards but is great for nature lovers. It’s not uncommon to see colorful parrots in the trees or watch sea birds diving into the water as you play by the coast.
The Pacific coast of Mexico is also known as a prime fishing destination. If you’d like to attempt to snag a blue marlin or sailfish, ask the hotel concierge to arrange fishing charters, or contact sportfishing offices at the local marina.
Since there’s no such thing as a private beach in Mexico — in a legal sense, anyway — you’ll find vendors selling trinkets, women ready to crack open a coconut to drink and watersports operations. Plenty of outfitters stand at the ready to send visitors out on a Jet Ski or banana boat, arrange sunset sailing trips or put people up into the air in a parasailing rig. The waters range from calm to ones with waves meant for boogie boarding or surfing, with the mellowest on Los Gatos islands just offshore, reached via a ferry from near the crocodile sanctuary. That is one of the best spots for snorkeling, and the restaurants that serve lunch also rent out snorkeling gear.
At the end of The Shawshank Redemption scene mentioning Zihuatanejo, Andy Dufresne says life all comes down to a choice: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” After striking deals and doing business in Mexico City, a trip extension in Ixtapa will make you feel like you’re leaving the pressures behind for a while to get busy living.
INFO TO GO
Aeromexico, Aeromar and Interjet all fly directly from Mexico City’s main airport to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International Airport, with flight times a shade more than an hour. Prices sometimes dip below $100 each way, including checked luggage. Taxi rates to hotels after arrival range from $25 to $35 depending on distance, and large vans charge roughly double that. Rental cars are available from familiar brands such as Alamo and Hertz, with reasonable rates.