By BOB SCHULMAN (†)
Spanish explorers first showed up on the beaches of the Mexican fishing village of Cihuatlán in 1522, records show. They scoped the place out, figured it didn’t amount to much, tagged “ejo” (meaning “of little importance”) on its name and then sailed away, presumably to look for more important spots.
After that, things remained quiet around Cihuatlan-ejo – or Zihuatanejo, as it ended up on the Spanish maps – for a hundred or so years. Until the pirates moved in.
The brigands, mostly Englishmen, found the town’s cozy, mushroom-shaped bay was a great place to lay in wait for Spanish treasure galleons heading up the Pacific coast to their home port at Acapulco. So ships sailing under the skull and crossbones became a common sight at the bay, including the Jolly Rogers of scofflaw superstars like Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish.
The pirates pulled out of the bay in the mid-1700s, when the plundering business began to peter out. And Zihuatanejo again went back to being a sleepy fishing village.
Until big-time tourism came this way.
A New Neighbor
In 1970, the Mexican government announced plans to build a luxury resort just down the road from Zihuatanejo on a 2-kilometer-long strip of golden sands edging an old coconut plantation. The development was named Ixtapa.
The resort’s first hotel, the Aristos, debuted in 1974. Today, some 30 tropical palaces dot Ixtapa’s palm-lined beaches including such upscale brands as Barcelo, Las Brisas, Presidente Intercontinental and Capella, making the city a major tourist resort.
Need to work off some calories? Guests have a choice of two designer golf courses. Or peddling around on seemingly endless bike paths. Or sweat-outs in the hotel gyms and tennis courts. Or in pilates classes.
Rounding out Ixtapa’s top attractions is a kilometer-long shopping center along with a marina, a children’s park (complete with a pirate village) and a “dolphinarium” where visitors can swim with the bottlenose sea animals.
It didn’t take long for the commercial boom at Ixtapa to trickle over to its next-door neighbor. For instance, Ixtapa’s hotels needed everything from workers to watermelons, and if it couldn’t be made or grown locally, outsiders were called in to help out – many of whom wound up moving their businesses and homes to Zihuatanejo.
The Charm of ‘Zihua’
Remarkably, despite becoming a much bigger city, Zihuatanejo (or Zihua, as the locals call it) has somehow retained much of its small town charm. Its vegetable stands, bakeries, barber shops and other everyday businesses commingle with T-shirt stands, handicraft stalls and other touristy shops in a commercial area of several blocks running inland from the town’s main beach.
Lining the beachfront are dozens of al fresco eateries where visitors can enjoy some cool ones, snack on ceviche (marinated raw seafood) and soak up Zihua’s crown jewel: its picture-postcard bay.
Meandering outward for 10 or so kilometers from both sides of the village, most of the bay’s shoreline is overlooked by hills peppered by small hotels, bungalows, condos and vintage villas.
It’s about a 15-minute ride by water taxi from the city’s municipal pier to the secluded swimming and snorkeling areas (and not-so-secluded wall-to-wall restaurants) on Las Gatas beach at the southern tip of the bay. Along the way, the taxis skirt the beach at Playa La Ropa, where in the 1600s a Spanish galleon loaded with cargo from Asia made the mistake of entering the bay – and ran right into the blazing cannons of a pirate fleet anchored there. Fine Chinese silks from the ship drifted ashore on the beach, from which it got the name Playa La Ropa, or “beach of the clothes.”
Playa La Ropa today is the home of a cluster of “Special Category” hotels (Mexico’s supreme luxury rating). One, La Casa Que Canta, is where Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan burned up the screen in the 1994 hit movie, “When a Man Loves a Woman”.
NOTE: Sadly, Bob Schulman, who was one of the most esteemed and respected travel writers in the United States and a founding member of Pulse News Mexico, passed away on Dec. 28, 2017, after a courageous battle with cancer. This story was filed with Pulse News Mexico prior to his death. We will all miss him and his extraordinary writing.