Generosity is a strange thing. It can come in many forms and heal many wounds. Money heals Poverty. Knowledge cures Ignorance. Love mends Emptiness. Inspiration erases Apathy. Quite simply, the gift of Generosity can change someone’s life. On November 28th, 2011, my golden birthday, I was treated to one such gift. The gift of five days in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. Zihuatanejo was a city I had never heard of, and yet, this would be the place I would relearn the meaning of life. I found this vacation to be the most generous kind of gift…a gift that keeps on giving.
Leaving my hometown of Lake Charles could not have come at a better time, as this little city in the southwest corner of Louisiana was swallowed in a rare cold front. My wife, Faren, and I did not know much about Zihuatanejo (zee-wha-ta-NEH-ho) even though it is the third most visited area in all of Mexico behind Puerta Vallarta and Cancun. Faren and I landed in Mexico at the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International Airport and were met with pretty, tan faces who greeted us with, “Bienvenidos.” We shed our jackets and boots for tee-shirts and sandals while we were dizzyingly processed through customs, beat the scramble to our luggage, and introduced to our Club Intrawest representative who escorted us to an awaiting taxi driver. The representative and our taxi driver shared a few words and then we were off, speeding down the broken asphalt roads on the 8 mile journey toward our hotel, The Villas at Club Intrawest. We rode the taxi down unfamiliar streets marked in an unfamiliar language, intently studying each face and building we passed. Through our taxi window we watched the story of Mexico, a land of dilapidated homes and trash-riddled sidewalks in direct contrast to the backdrop of lush jungle and awe-inspiring mountain ranges beyond. I was anxious to show off my Rosetta Stone-learned Spanish – but searching for an ice-breaker with the taxi driver caused me to lapse back into the D+ high school Spanish student I used to be – and I decided to remain silent and keep all dignity intact. Faren and I had not spoken a word since we got into the taxi, and we did not dare speak any now with our taxi driver as he took a short phone call, angrily whispered a response, and hung up. We turned down an unpopulated road and the car in front of us slowed as another behind us drew near. Our taxi was at a near stop as a pair of men walked slowly by on the sidewalk, ignoring the dead dog at their feet. The men stared through the window, so much that I offered a kind, greeting nod. Their eyes did not shift. They did not return a kind gesture. At this point, every pre-trip warning regarding Mexico’s recent rap sheet of violence crept into my mind. I don’t consider myself to be a careless person but I began to understand how naive I had been…how vulnerable we were. This taxi ride could be bringing us anywhere. Faren’s hand eased into mine. I stole a glance at the driver’s badge. His first name was “Angel.” How ironic, I thought, that a man named Angel was delivering us to our deaths. If that was even his real name. Then the car in front of us sped forward and a sign for our hotel, “The Villas at Club Intrawest,” appeared before a steep driveway. Angel turned and grinned. “We here, señor.” For the first time since entering Mexico my heart allowed itself to beat. It was then that Faren and I agreed that we were out of our league and there was nothing we could do about it except enjoy ourselves. We paid the $25 taxi fare (USD) and I even offered Angel a tip for not killing us. After that, Zihuatanejo never allowed us reason to worry again.
Zihuatanejo, locally known as “Zihua” or “Zi”, is a city in the Mexican state of Guerrero along the section of the Mexican Pacific Coast known as the “Costa Grande.” Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa (eesh-tah-pa) along with several other coastal cities are also referred to as the “Mexican Riviera.” Click to see: Google Map of Zihuatanejo. For many centuries and under different names, Zihuatanejo was a simple fishing and hunting village. This area saw inhabitants such as the Cumbia, the Panteca, and the Coixcas who were conquered by the Aztecs who, in the early 1500’s were themselves conquered, this time by Spanish conquistadors under the command of Hernán Cortés. Now the city’s population is mostly Spanish descendants, and not forfeiting their potential as a great fishing area, Zihuatanejo boasts the top spot in Mexico for sports fisherman. But fishing here is not just a “touristy” pastime, as the locals rely heavily on the profits of this maritime trade, both for food and as a means for income.
As a travel destination, Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa share recognition as being virtually one in the same, and while visiting one you should certainly visit the other. (It’s as simple as a $5 USD taxi ride.) But past the hyphen that connects their names on postcards and airport terminal screens, the similarities end. While Zihuatanejo has been around for centuries, Ixtapa was a government-planned resort created in the 1970’s. Ixtapa’s younger architecture is evident in the high-rises, modern resorts, and tourist attractions that mark the landscape like adolescent scars, ugly to some while part of its beauty to others. While not a complete eyesore, Ixtapa in my opinion lacks something its older sister, Zihuatanejo, has protected for many years…the romanticism of old-Mexico. Between the timeless villas and the exclusiveness of its beaches, Zihuatanejo captures the local flavors, and the local pulse, of real Mexico. The Villas at Club Intrawest, our hotel in Zihuatanejo, stayed true to the local architectural style by building their open-air bungalows in a step design down the mountainside. This intuitive design, the common theme for coastal resorts in Zihuatanejo, offers an amazing view of Playa La Ropa (Clothes Beach) and Zihuatanejo Bay. I will not detail Club Intrawest in this article but I will offer insight to our experiences in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo below. Visit The Villas at Club Intrawest’s website for more information at: http://www.clubintrawestvillas.com/.
Your hotel or travel agency will have a list of adventures to choose from and I suggest not booking anything prior to arriving, unless mandatory, because local deals and last-minute specials are common if negotiated. I use the word “adventure” appropriately because this area boasts the Sierra Madre del Sur (the predominant mountain range in southern Mexico), a plethora of beaches such as Playa La Ropa (Clothes Beach), Playa Larga (Long Beach), Playa Las Gatas (Cats Beach), and Playa Madera (Wood Beach), and the main body of water, Zihuatanejo Bay, which extends into the Pacific Ocean. All of these elements, along with the city itself, offer a tireless array of opportunities for adventure and experience in both Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa. In five days we were able to enjoy an excursion into each of the above elements. Not once during this time did I feel rushed. In other words, we still had time to enjoy a simple “beach life” full of tanning, drinking, and sleeping in the sun. Your experience is what you make of it. Remember, the variable is you.
The activities we participated in during our stay in Zihuatanejo are detailed in the topics below. They are: The Beach. Ixtapa Island Adventure. Magical Sunset Cruise. Adventure Park Canopy/Zip-Line. Taking it to the Streets: Eating, Drinking, and Shopping. Individual articles exist for these topics as well. Follow their links to gain access to extra photos and information that may not be included in this article.
Your first adventure should be to experience the rhythm of the beach. We arrived late in the day and while Faren slept off the stress of travel I took a stroll on Playa La Ropa, the beach in front of The Villas at Club Intrawest. Playa La Ropa is highly regarded, boasting both the most exclusive beach and the best water for swimming according to several travel guides, however, I cannot personally score it any higher than the other area beaches because I stayed primarily on Playa La Ropa and am extremely biased. Some websites detailing Playa La Ropa and Zihuatanejo Bay state that cruise ships anchor off in the distance but I saw none the week I was there. What was common, however, were the local skiffs and pangas anchored idle off the shoreline and the occasional deep sea fishing vessel making its way to land. While generally quiet, the beach always seemed to be teething with grinning local fishermen who held their fresh catch proudly, asking if you want to go fish or perhaps buy the one in their hand for dinner. The most common catch among the fishermen was grouper or small tuna, but other guests returned from their deep sea excursions boasting trophies of sailfish, large tuna, and rooster fish while others told tales of spotting pods of dolphins, which are seen year-round, and humpback whales, which are most often seen from December to February. A handful of elderly local women roamed the beach as well, showcasing their “homemade” jewelry made of seashells and ceramics. A polite, “No gracias,” is all that is needed for them not to hassle you again. Walking down Playa La Ropa away from Club Intrawest I could hear mariachis and troubadours serenading guests at the open-air beach restaurants dotting the coastline, the restaurants’ thatched roofs and the surrounding coconut trees shielding the setting sun from their happy patrons. Down the beach I could see volleyball nets and small soccer goals, left vacant as the night neared. I noticed the runners who passed wore shoes, but walking barefoot on the pristine sand was enjoyable. After my walk I entered the warm, calm water. The average temperature in Zihuatanejo ranges from 70-80 degrees, and the water, even in December, was very comfortable. The beach has an open view to Zihuatanejo Bay with the bilateral mountainous shoreline daring to enclose the bay’s escape to the Pacific Ocean. This crescent shaped land entrapment made for the perfect frame to the beautiful picture of Zihuatanejo Bay – and standing in the water not only do you feel that you are looking at a painting – but that you are a part of it. Despite the few people who remained on the beach, I felt completely alone, and such solidarity was welcome. With the sound of the waves slapping against a rock formation, now but a shadow off the shoreline, I watched the sun set over Zihuatanejo. That same night, with this majestic image still fresh in my mind, Faren and I enjoyed a beach dinner provided by Club Intrawest’s Zi Restaurant. The meal included lobster, Caesar salad, and crepes, all prepared right before us. It was a great end to our first day in a place we had never knew of. Though now, Zihuatanejo was a place we would never forget.
Ixtapa Island Adventure
The next morning in Zihuatanejo we packed a bag with bug spray, towels, some pesos in a waterproof container, and tennis shoes before taking the short taxi ride to a bike shop where we were fitted for our mountain bikes and helmets. The “Ixtapa Island Adventure” begins with a 4-mile bike tour along Ixtapa’s path through the area’s ecological park, called the “El Refugio de Potosi.” Established in 2008, El Refugio de Potosi was established to preserve the area’s rich biodiversity. Led by our extremely informative and well-renowned guide, Javier, we were exposed to the sights and sounds of the area’s tropical dry forest. A sample of the wildlife we saw included: crocodiles, tarantulas, scorpions, iguanas, turtles, porcupines, termite nests, all accentuated by the multitude of bird, insect, and flora species that inhabit the refuge. While the crocodiles (measuring 18 to 20-feet long) were behind the safety of a fence, the rest of the wildlife was completely free. So free, Faren nearly ran over a tarantula on the bike path as we came within arm’s reach of a native animal of South and Central America called a “coati mundi,” which is similar to a raccoon or anteater. Javier offered extensive information about each species we encountered, occasionally interjecting amusing anecdotes. He proudly informed us that Mexico ranks fourth in the world in its number of different species of plants and animals – which is totally believable – because every glance into the dense undergrowth made lush by an abundance of sunlight and 43 inches of rain per year, something new and different revealed itself. Mexico, Javier also noted, takes first place in the number of species of reptiles (640), cacti (30,000) and pines (44). It is second in mammal species (450), fourth in amphibians (330) and plants, and tenth in birds (1,000). Mexico is also home to 10% of the world’s butterfly species, which based on the colorful assortment of butterflies weaving from the trees and plants like blooming flowers, I would have guessed a higher percentage. Despite his pride in Mexico’s rich biodiversity, Javier’s face grew dim when he reported his next statistic: that Mexico has 242 species in danger of extinction as well as a deforestation rate of 1.2 million acres per year, one of the worst rates in the world. But with efforts like the El Refugio de Potosi, true preservation of our world’s greatest asset, the forest and those that dwell within, is possible.
Our bike ride led us to a boat launch at Playa Linda (Pretty Beach). There we took a 10-minute panga ride to Ixtapa Island. It was a weekday and the island seemed uninhabited except for the brown pelicans, frigate birds, egrets, and terns flying above. We landed at Ixtapa Island’s Playa Varadero (Boatyard Beach). The price of this ride is around 40 pesos per person (around $3-5 USD). If you plan on traveling there independently, make sure you bring enough money to get you back to mainland. Once on Ixtapa Island we kayaked off Playa Varadero, following Ixtapa Island’s beautiful overhanging cliff shoreline and into “Booby Cove.” Do not get excited guys; it’s named after the brown booby birds that inhabit the cliffs above the cove. After we returned to Playa Varadero we took a short stroll to the other side of the island to Playa Coral where we snorkeled. The beach of Playa Coral was the most populated of the beaches of Ixtapa Island, with many locals and tourists heading into the rocky waters. Playa Coral, as you can imagine, is riddled with coral reefs that, as you head out further and deeper, becomes much more manageable and enjoyable. Javier led us through the clear water through schools of friendly fish curious enough to nibble at our hands. Obviously, they were very attracted if you had a little food with you. If you want a great experience but are not with a guide, buy a tortilla from one of the island’s many restaurants and take it into the water to serve as bait. Another note, bring a water-proof camera, something we regretfully forgot. The waters off Playa Coral held starfish, sea urchins, and we witnessed Javier catch a pufferfish who blew up in his hand before darting away to freedom. In a scene of Darwinian proportion we also witnessed a black spider starfish consumed in one gulp by an angel fish. After snorkeling we walked back to Playa Varadero where we enjoyed local dishes at Peraiso Escondido Restaurant and a short siesta. This time allowed me to venture off to see the highlights of the island. The four beaches of Ixtapa Island (Isla Ixtapa) are: Playa Cuachalalate, Playa Varadero, Playa Coral, and Playa Carey. Each beach offers different amenities but the common theme is snorkel and scuba rental. There are restaurants available, scuba and snorkel rental huts, parasailing and jet-skiing opportunities, and boat tours around the island. Playa Varadero offered massages and several palapas to sit under and enjoy the island breeze. Perfect for a cold drink on a warm day.
The Ixtapa Island Adventure was a moderately intense outing but the family that joined my wife and I included two young boys, around 9-12 years old, and an older man who were able to enjoy the activities and still manage the 4-mile bike ride back to the bike shop. I strongly suggest this adventure package because of the intelligence of the guides, the pace of each phase of the adventure, and the change in environment and intensity which makes for a satisfying and memorable experience. There were some negative reviews of Ixtapa Island that I found while searching for information that perhaps could be helpful. These complaints mentioned the “outdoor” restroom between Playas Varadero and Coral that would not pass inspection in the U.S. Other chief complaints included food and drink prices, and also getting wet while getting off and on the docked pangas from errant waves. While I respect other people’s opinion, I will remind any traveler that if you are going to an island, be prepared to get wet, and be prepared to pay a little more than you may be accustomed. More importantly, while in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, take advantage of this unique adventure and the island that offers endless opportunities for fun and relaxation.
For my one-page review of the “Ixtapa Island Adventure” with extra photos, click here: http://lodeplus.com/offbeat-travel-in-new-orleans/the-ixtapa-island-adventure.
Magical Sunset Cruise
The next adventure was the “Magical Sunset Cruise” aboard the 75-foot sailing catamaran, Picante, that sails along the Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa coastline as the sun sets. This gives you a wonderful chance to relax in the Pictante‘s forward tramps or in the shade of the cockpit/bar while embracing a much different view of the area…from sea to land. As you sail further out into Zihuatanejo Bay the gentle waves that beat the shoreline moments before have now turned into vicious explosions of water that shoot up the rocky cliffs. You are well out of danger, and seeing this demonstration of power is an amazing experience. Mango and coconut groves cover the countryside, interrupted only by gorgeous private villas and an occasional resort with the view of the sprawling towns of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. We witnessed an osprey bird, a rare sight our captain reported, fly into and out of the cove that was carved into the shoreline cliff. The captain, an American man from New York, entertained us with facts about the surrounding land while his crew, a wonderful assortment of local men and women, pampered us with drinks from the open bar…so if sea sickness plagues you, you can always blame the abundance of alcohol. For those who lack sea legs, the Picante was extremely stable throughout the journey, and not once did anyone complain of nausea. Music plays gently through the outing, and mixes well with good conversation. On the cruise we befriended a great honeymooning couple from Melbourne, Australia. This well-traveled couple, Ben and Emma, noted that Zihuatanejo surpassed their previous stay in Hawaii. The care-free atmosphere is only interrupted two or three times with entertaining intermissions. The first interruption being the hoisting of the mainsail and jib, which is done by a crewman with the assistance of a volunteering guest. The second interruption is when dinner is served. The dinner is a light, one-course serving of fresh seafood, vegetables, and spice. It is not a “huge” meal, but it holds you over. The final, and best interruption, is when the relaxing cruise morphs into a Mexican fiesta. With every belly full of good food and drink and the fresh memory of the sunset still vivid in our minds the crewmen dance under the full sails. At one point “Tequila” played loudly and the catering crewmen transformed into pirates, capturing Ben, Faren, and myself. They managed to talk all three of us into a shot of tequila. (Not much convincing was needed.) This adventure reached paramount when we sat idle before a v-shaped rock formation far out in Zihuatanejo Bay. With the Sierra Madre del Sur behind us we watched in awe as the sun set between the rocks and sank into the Pacific horizon, passing day to night, and ending an amazing adventure.
For my one-page review with more amazing photos of Zihuatanejo Bay and the coastline of Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, click here: http://lodeplus.com/offbeat-travel-in-new-orleans/at-full-sail-zihuatanejo-bay.
Parque Aventura (Adventure Park) Canopy-Zip Line
The last adventure we went on was the “Parque Aventura (Adventure Park) Canopy-Zip Line” where we balanced, climbed, and zip-lined our way through the dense jungle on 11 different canopy walks and 11 zip-line rides. For two hours you will test your balance and concentration with tight-rope walking and plank balancing and then test your fortitude with zip-lines (while secured with a carabiner and pulley, of course) that range from as high as 100 feet off the ground and 800 feet from end to end. This adventure was purely physical with no educational interludes, and while it may not appeal to everyone, my wife and I had an absolute blast. It is a great adventure for those who want to interrupt the relaxing nature of the beach, and sweat out some of the tequila you had the night before. If age or handicap concerns you, Abraham, our guide, noted that children as young as 4 years old have ridden before, though it is done while secured to the chest of an expert guide. Also men and women with an amputation or other ailments have taken part as well. The most physically challenging part for our group was the steep uphill climb to reach the launch platform for the longest and highest zip-line. But the trek is totally worth it. Remember: the higher you climb, the longer the ride!
For my review of the “Parque Adventura Canvas-Zip Line” with extra pictures, click here: http://lodeplus.com/offbeat-travel-in-new-orleans/zihuatanejo-s-adventure-park
Taking it to the Streets: Eating, Drinking, and Shopping
Zihuatanejo offers a town center, called “El Centro,” where you can find shops, restaurants, and local entertainment venues. El Centro is located in downtown Zihuatanejo toward the north end of the bay. Another top spot in Zihuatanejo, considered the heart of the town, is the Paseo del Pescador (Fisherman’s Path), which is lined with stores, restaurants, and depending on the season, special events. Other area favorites are the Mercado de Artensanias (Craft Market), which showcases over 200 shops selling local art, jewelry, and souvenir pieces, and the Museo Arqueologico de la Costa Grande (Archeological Museum of the Costa Grande), which is located at the southern end of the municipal beach and the Paseo de los Pescadores. Another interesting venue, even if you are not Catholic or Christian, is the main church of the town, the Parish of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), which offers insight to local religion and rituals.
The night on the town was a magical experience in which we experienced life as a local. Once again joining the Australian honeymooners, Ben and Emma, we ate at La Papa Loca (The Crazy Potato) and enjoyed local beers like Pacifico, Leon, Sol, and Victoria. My favorite was Pacifico, with its smooth honey-taste being the perfect combination with the warm night. At Ben and Emma’s suggestion we asked to top off our Patata Especial (Special Potato) with shrimp and mushrooms which combined perfectly with the cheeses and spices topping the steaming baked potato. Other local dishes we tried were seviche, generally served as an appetizer, which is a dish of raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice often mixed with oil, onions, and peppers. Another local specialty is tiritas de pescado, which is a plate of fish, generally whitefish, sliced red onions, cilantro, tomatoes and a spicy sauce, often chile or chili peppers, all soaked in lime and served with tortilla chips. Both these are best served with beach and beer. Another great local spot is the Doña Licha Restaurant which offers the “Comidas Corridas” (Worker’s Lunch, or roughly, a fast food special). Doña Licha is located on Calle Los Cocos #8, Centro. Other area special dishes, which you can find at Doña Licha’s include pozole, which is a hominy-based soup, and also interesting selections like barbacoa (barbecued goat), all for a very affordable price.
With full bellies we hit Zihuatanejo’s night scene. Our first stop was the “Kokoma Bar,” a hole in wall “dive bar” that offers an authentic glimpse of local nightlife. Repeat, this is not a “tourist” bar, but it is at such places where you can find non-tourist deals like a bucket of seven beers for 100 pesos (roughly $8.00). While two Mexican soccer teams battled to a 0-0 draw on the three televisions lining the walls, the four of us shared stories about each other’s countries and our travel experiences. Most area bars will serve complimentary snacks for the table like peanuts, crackers, usually topped with a spice of some sort. Faren quickly learned she did not prefer Mexico’s version of Saltines called Saltidas, which in her opinion were drier and less “salty.” Our next stop was another bar called “The Flop House” where we met the owners, an American woman and her husband, a local-born. Here we enjoyed Lemon Margaritas, I had mine frozen, with salt (margarita congelado con sal). We ended the night by stopping at a local karaoke bar where men and women sang Mexican classics while others danced the Samba. The deeper you go into the city the less people may be able to speak English and/or menus be less “Tourist-Friendly,” so be prepared…and certainly bow to their established ways. As I mentioned before, the variable is you. Because my wife and I were sociable we ended up having an amazing experience…meeting some wonderful honeymooners from Australia, in Mexico, and enjoyed our differences and our similarities with them and the exotic country around us. This, to me, is the essence of travel.
It is not knowledge alone that we strive to discover, it is the experiences we encounter in the pursuit of knowing. Don’t confine yourself to a road, less traveled or not, venture out into the wild and see life…untamed.
Faren and I were fortunate enough to be a part of a special event sponsored by the local turtle conservation campaign. From August through December turtles are incubated in a local conservatory, until the beginning of December, when they are released into the ocean at sunset. Club Intrawest is one of the key places that host this rare event, and we were on the beach to witness it. Hundreds of newborn turtles, called tortugas, were released and scrambled through the wet sand toward the waves. One by one they disappeared into the surf until the beach was vacant except for the tiny tracks left by their waddling flipper fins. These events are often unannounced until the day before, so pay attention to the local announcement signs and ask your hotel concierge to keep you updated.
Our last day, on a whim, Faren and I rented kayaks from Club Intrawest and paddled out into Zihuatanejo Bay. We took one last look at the beach and the land beyond. Then, out the corner of my eye I saw a dark glimmer rise through the waves to my right. At the same time Faren and I spotted the pod of dolphins breaking the water. We watched as they periodically emerged, seemingly waving their fins, “Adiós,” as the waves crashed against the mountainous coastline in the distance. I could fill my heart beat. I could feel the heartbeat of Mexico and the world around me. Just like our first taxi ride in Mexico, Faren slipped her hand into mine, though this time it was not in fear but in absolute peace. I thought of the wealth we had gained from this experience, of the knowledge, of the love, and of the inspiration. “Adiós,” I returned in a whisper. “Muchas gracias.” This was all from a gift. A gift that keeps on giving.
For more articles by Christian White, visit:
1. Breckenridge, Colorado
2. Glacier National Park
3. Omaha Beach
4. The Statue of Liberty
5. The Alamo