From the 1950’s through the 70’s if you were travelling in Mexico that usually meant you were headed to Acapulco. Famed for its cliff divers and nightlife, Acapulco was the scene, long before its more recent problems with violence. In the 80’s and 90’s Cancún, Playa Del Carmen and Cabo San Lucas became popular spring break spots. Now, I love a good keg stand as much as the next guy (or I used to) but oases of serenity these places are not. Then it seemed most Americans awakened to the pleasures of Mexico’s non-beachfront culture, making visits to Mexico City and Oaxaca, both rich in the culinary arts, and well, art in general. But I recently returned to a place where Mexicans themselves go for solace…a hidden gem in Mexico: Ixtapa.
Ixtapa, along with Cancún, is a government created tourist area situated about 150 miles north of Acapulco. In 1968, the Bank of Mexico funded the small resort town as part of a national effort to develop the Mexican coastlines. Agustín Landa Verdugo, architect and urban planner, conceived Ixtapa’s development (among other cities and buildings along the Pacific and Gulf coast, including the first leisure hotel in Cancún, the Hyatt Caribe). And here we were, almost 50 years later, spending most of our time on the beautiful result of Agustín’s plan: Playa El Palmar.
Ixtapa’s main beach greets the mighty Pacific and features a walkable mile and a half of sugar soft sand. Although the playa sits squarely within a popular “hotel zone” (a row of hotels are flanked by the beach) we had plenty of space to ourselves. Your toughest decision each day basically boils down to bathing in the sun on the beach, or bathing in the sun by the condo’s pool…next to the beach. In either instance, one can lay on one’s back like an inanimate raft and take in the windsurfers, jet skiers and Instagram worthy sunsets over the Pacific with pool bars a breath away.
This was a family trip. Going on the last 15 years or so, my dad, his wife and some friends have visited this small fishing town and resort city in late winter. Over the last handful of years, Wonderhoney and I have had an open invitation to join them. My dad is a gregarious and genial octogenarian whose winter getaways have transitioned from the white linen disco nights of 1970s Acapulco to the orange polo ease of 21st century Ixtapa. You can decipher the amount of times he’s been to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo from the friendly greetings he receives and gives. At the risk of sounding like Henry Hill, there is…Jimmy at the popular breakfast spot Deborah’s, there is Juan at Blue Shrimp across from the thing…and of course, there is Raphael at Arcadia on Zihua Bay. These are among Ixtapa’s and Zihuatanejo’s best restaurants, having been narrowed down from a list of eateries over 15 years.
My brother and one of my nieces accompanied us on this trip so now the Ixtapa tradition has been passed to (or at least witnessed by) by the third generation. Walking through the downtown streets of Zihuatanejo, it was fun seeing all the colors of the souvenir stands, brightened by florescence, reflected through her young eyes. My brother’s polite “no gracias’s” would inevitably follow her exclamations.
The whole area (if not the coastline) is known for its seafood and Zihuatanejo’s is stellar. On Playa Principal, a sandy beach that faces the downtown streets, fishermen bring in their morning catch, which is immediately sold to chefs and home chefs alike. Dividing the playa and the streets is a walkway that features stands, shops and restaurants…one of which is Arcadia. With friends and family, dinner at Arcadia featured soft light, bay side dining, plenty of margaritas, laughing at Raphael’s corny jokes, and the freshest grilled snapper I’ve had since the last time I was there.
We made other memories within the unsung environs of Ixtapa with a visit to Isla Ixtapa. Lined with seafood restaurants fronting its beaches, this small island off the coast also boasts its own small, secluded beach, Playa Carey. As Jacques Cousteau once famously said, ‘the best way to observe a fish is to become a fish’, so four of us struck out for snorkeling on the other side of the island via Coral beach. The species in the shallow bay were especially vivid: black and yellow Moorish Idols, iridescent blue King Angels & schools of Yellow Tailed Surgeonfish. Our water guide was a hermanito who was as swift as a manta. He dove down to retrieve urchin our group could pass around and hold in our hands.
We returned to Cuachalalate, Isla Ixtapa’s main beach, to dry off by way of lounging under a consequential sun; we enjoyed ice-cold beer and more seafood (outstanding ceviche). The ladies got henna tattoos after some light-hearted negotiating. And I remember various styles of hair in the breeze on the short boat ride back to the coast.
During the trip to this beautiful and slept on destination, there was plenty of peaceful reading on and around the playa. Ironically enough, I thought of Stephen King.
In his novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne famously wanted to go to a little town in Mexico called Zihuatanejo, in part because it was ‘warm all the time’. Ixtapa is the little beach resort town the Mexican government gifted us as a neighbor to Zihuatanejo. On our last day before leaving, I sat back in my lounger, closed my eyes behind my Ray-Bans, and thought of Andy and Red, reuniting and shaking hands on Playa Larga.