Zihuatanejo, located on the Pacific side of Mexico roughly between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, is a charming fishing village that has grown beyond its roots but still manages to retain its original character, despite a huge surge in visits when its nearby neighbor, Ixtapa was built in the 1970s. With perpetually sunny weather in the winter (dry season), warm temperatures and inviting waters it is a perfect place to escape the winter doldrums.
Zihuatanejo—the mere mention of the name evokes a dreamy trance-like state for anyone who has seen the movie the Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, whose characters held a vision of the idyllic bayside village in their mind’s eye, carrying them through terribly long years in prison.
Today Zihuatanejo (or “Zihua”) has a few short blocks of tourist shops, bars and restaurants, but the town rolls up pretty early at night, and most evenings the locals outnumber the tourists by a large number as they enjoy the cool breezes at the waterfront.
Zihuatanejo has the good fortune to be located on a perfect crescent of a bay, with several distinct zones. Puerto Mio, clinging to a steep rocky promontory, anchors the northern end of the crescent, offering stellar views of the bay and Playa las Gatas. Next, the focal point of the town of Zihuatanejo can be found, with the main pier and fishing fleet located near the footbridge that connects Puerto Mio with town. Hugging the base of the crescent is Playa la Ropa, a perfect swimming beach. Securing the far end of the crescent is Playa las Gatas, good for snorkeling.
Accommodations in Zihuatanejo tend to be of the boutique variety, in addition to numerous time-share offerings from such purveyors as Raintree, RCI and Intrawest. Full service luxury resorts can be found in nearby Ixtapa but not in Zihuatanejo. Raintree’s Villa Vera is located in Puerto Mio, where we stayed. Intrawest and RCI facilities can be found in the Playa la Ropa area. Many independent boutique hotels are scattered throughout Puerto Mio and Zihuatanejo proper. A travel agent or a search through ZihuaRob’s extensive website can be an effective way to locate lodging options.
There are numerous small restaurants in Zihuatanejo and lining the beaches and many serve similar fare, usually consisting of fish, soft tacos and quesadillas filled with cheese, shrimp or fish. We found several restaurants that stood out from the rest. We were staying in Puerto Mio and encountered two restaurants on the west side of the footbridge that one might not discover if staying in other areas of Zihuatanejo.
Lety’s Restaurant is on the second floor of a building across from the footbridge. The downstairs is a bar frequented by successful fishing expeditions and was boisterous in the late afternoons. Lety’s featured a couple of unusual salads, one an octopus salad which arrived in a large bowl, with an outsized portion of the most tender octopus chunks I’ve ever tasted in a soupy tomato salsa that tasted faintly sweet. The other was a lobster salad, an equally large quantity of lobster finely chopped with jicama and sweet onions, reminiscent of Walla Walla sweet onions. I had a chili relleno unlike any I’ve had in the past. The chili was an enormous poblano chili, roasted to tender perfection and stuffed with an exuberant amount of octopus, clams and shrimp burst forth when incised. The accompanying sauce was creamy and piquant. The dish was truly delectable. My husband, Steve, ordered the tamarind shrimp, with the freshest shrimp smothered in a tangy, slightly citrusy tamarind sauce that was savory and spicy without
being fiery hot. To increase the heat factor you need only add a small amount of the salsa accompanying the chips—no tourist salsa here. It was nice to see a mix of Mexican and American patrons enjoying Lety’s flavorful dishes, and it was a delight to meet Lety when she emerged from her hot kitchen to inquire as to how we enjoyed the meal—very much, thank you. We washed the meal down with glasses of Santa Sylvia, a Mexican white wine that was young, fruity and quite drinkable. The entire bill was 250 pesos (US$20).
Casa Bahia was another restaurant we sampled on our way down to the footbridge. Located a bit further up the hill from Lety’s it clings to the side of the road overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay. This restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic dinner. They have two levels and the upper level is open to the stars and looks out onto the water. The ambiance is lovely and the food, while not as adventurous as Lety’s was quite palatable. Shrimp kebabs, simply grilled to preserve the fresh flavors, and blackened tuna well prepared and tasty. Consistent with the more refined ambiance, Casa Bahia was a little more expensive with entrees running 200-400 pesos each (US$15-30)
In Zihuatanejo proper we enjoyed Tamales Y Atoles Any. Steve loves tamales so that became a must-see destination that didn’t disappoint. The multiple kinds of tamales we tried were the most moist and tender of any we’ve had, even bare with no salsa. The poblano tamale came wrapped in a corn husk. My favorite were the pork tamales wrapped in plantain leaves which made the tamale very succulent, and was topped with a spicy red sauce. On a subsequent visit we enjoyed a huge bowl of pozole, a traditional dish originating in pre-Columbian times (circa 1500 CE). We went on a Thursday night, which is pozole night at many Zihuatanejo restaurants, but Any serves it every night. Pozole is a stew made with hominy and pork surrounded by many accompaniments in small bowls. We added radishes, sweet onion, jalapeno peppers (a modest amount), red chilis, oregano, lime, cheese and avocado. Other accompaniments include fried pork rind, a small tortilla filled with black beans and corn flour biscuits. Every bowl comes with a shot of mezcal from Sierra de Vallecitos. That and a nice bottle of Blanc de Blanc from Casa Pedro Dominguez 2007 had us feeling very relaxed. One night the restaurant was populated mostly with gringos, but another night we were the only Americans in a room full of Mexicans—always a sign of good food.
After a day relaxing at the pool at Villa Vera we were ready to do some exploring. Zihuatanejo offers a wide range of “fun in the sun” activities. Right next to the footbridge the main pier juts into the bay. We took the water taxi over to Playa las Gatas, named for the nurse sharks (previously known as catsharks) that used to ply these waters. Playa las Gatas has a coral reef that attracts colorful tropical fish and a protected basin. The 10 minute water taxi costs 35 pesos per person and the taxis are plentiful. The last boat returns at 5:30 p.m. and there is sometimes a short wait as the beach clears out. A 2 part ticket is issued, with one section for each ride, so it’s important to retain the return ticket.
The beach is lined with restaurants that all serve the same food and beverage, and provide lounge chairs for the day, so pick an operator you like and settle in for the day. Snorkel gear can be rented at most establishments as well. The snorkeling is best at the end of the reef closest to the pier. As you get out toward the reef keep a lookout for sea urchins, which could negatively affect your vacation. You can’t miss them because they are spiky, large and anchored to the coral but because of their presence we didn’t go very far in the water without our mask on so we could see what we might be stepping on.
Sport fishing is hugely popular in Zihuatanejo, and judging by what we saw coming off the boats every day, very successful. Marlin, sailfish, mahi mahi and tuna are the predominant catches. Sport fishing expeditions can be arranged through most hotels, or arrangements can be made at the pier. At Villa Vera the cooks will prepare your fish for you.
Playa la Ropa, so named for silks that washed ashore from a wrecked Chinese ship, is an excellent swimming beach, which also offers parasailing, banana boat rides (where riders straddle a yellow tube being pulled by a power boat and usually go flying off into the water amid squeals of delight).
Sailing catamarans are a wonderful way to enjoy the water and sunset cruises are available in the evenings. They also provide access to Playa Manzanillo (not to be confused with a large town of the same name up the coast toward Puerto Vallarta), an otherwise inaccessible beach around the southern end of the bay on the Pacific Ocean. The skipper can drop you off with your picnic lunch and fetch you later in the day.
In the tourist section of Zihua there are some beautiful examples of local pottery, silver jewelry, clothing and crafts, in addition to the usual knickknacks. The tourist core smoothly transitions into the real town with appliance stores, music stores, pharmacies and various services surrounding a large food market. We enjoyed being able to mingle with locals instead of feeling like we were in a tourist bubble.
Cruise ships pull into town every few days, contributing to a profusion of tourist shops in the blocks nearest to the pier. The huge ships, out of all proportion to anything in Zihuatanejo, pull into the entrance of the bay between Puerto Mio and Playa las Gatas early in the morning and start ferrying people to the pier in tiny craft, making about a million trips, then pull up anchor and silently slide out of the bay between 3 and 5 p.m. The sudden influx of people is noticeable, as are the increase in prices, but it’s short lived. If you plan it right, as we did inadvertently, you can check the cruise schedule with the hotel staff and plan to go to Ixtapa or Manzanillo on cruise day and miss the whole episode.
This town likes to party!
The first evening that we strolled around town we were pleasantly surprised to find a bustling amount of activity at the town square on the beach, to discover that we were in the midst of “Social Sunday”, a weekly event. There were many food stalls serving excellent tacos, ice cream and other foods, a live band and a horde of small children following a bubble-blowing clown like the Pied Piper in the basketball court. Ninety percent of the people were locals so even though we were in the “tourist” area of town, it is very apparent that the real people who live in town still claim the public spaces as their own.
The next evening we went to an early dinner and saw another crowd gathered at the small outdoor amphitheater at the beach square. Upon investigation we found families enthralled by a slap-stick performance of clowns that made the kids dissolve in laughter and squeals with their physical comedy.
Another afternoon we were walking away from the beach and found another town square anchoring the downtown business district. Noting a large assembly we hurried over to the square to find a troupe of small children dressed in traditional folklorico dance costumes. We settled into plastic chairs and were fascinated by the skill and grace of the small children. Older children and adults performed as well in their brilliantly colored costumes, flouncing and whipping their voluminous skirts. One couple performed a dance skit illustrating the tried and true persistence of unrequited love in a moving and humorous sketch.
Zihuatanejo—a town retaining its character
We thoroughly enjoyed Zihutaenjo, finding it delightfully Mexican and retaining its culture while enjoying the economic diversity that being a tourist destination brings. We found it easy to get around, with many people who spoke enough English that we had a hard time practicing our Spanish. The townspeople were friendly, always willing to share stories about their town, and love to have a good time in the cool evenings.
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Photos by Inga Aksamit