Friday, February 6, 2009

Manzanillo Part 1 - Beautiful bay shelters Mexico's busiest seaport

Sailfish capital of the world...among other things.  In January, Carole and spent five days in Manzanillo, a busy seaport nestled in a gorgeous bay rimmed by long clean beaches and dramatic bluffs plunging steeply into the sea. Manzanillo has been known to sport fishermen for more than sixty years. They seek the huge sailfish lurking in deep water just off the coast. Actor John Wayne, among others, tried his luck back in the 1950s.  The huge blue metal sculpture on the malecon (waterfront) of Manzanillo's El Centro district celebrates this history.

In truth, I was skeptical about this trip. I had heard from others that, to enjoy the coast experience, one should skip Manzanillo.  It's "too busy", "too industrial", "not laid  back enough", I was told. When we first hit town, after a gorgeous 3.5 hour drive down the toll road from Lake Chapala, I feared the worst. We promptly got lost and wandered through a gritty industrial area searching for our hotel.  But once we were settled into La Posada, a modest but comfortable old-fashioned beachfront hotel near the harbor entrance, our attitude began to change. Manzanillo is defintely worth a visit.

This is the first of four posts on Manzanillo and the surrounding area. This post will focus on El Centro and the malecon area. I hope to provide you with a feeling for what a busy--but fascinating--seaport Manzanillo really is.  Future posts will show our lovely old hotel, wildlife along the coast, and some unspoiled small beach towns just north of Manzanillo where we intend to spend some time in the future.

A look at the big picture.  Manzanillo lies on Mexico's western coast a couple of hundred miles almost due south of Guadalajara.  To reach it, one must cross the rugged coast range, then drop down into the narrow humid stretch of coast that separates the mountains from the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes these mountains plunge directly into the sea, creating dramatic jagged coastlines. Other times one finds miles of nearly empty white beach, fringed by deep green coconut plantations. Still other times, one happens upon beautiful crescent bays, bounded by rugged points of  land extending into the ocean like the points of a half moon.  

The map above (click on map to enlarge) shows Manzanillo as one of those crescent bays, subdivided into the Bahia de Manzanillo and the Bahia de Santiago by the Peninsula de Santiago.  Most of the population lives around the Bahia de Manzanillo.  In the lower right area of the map you will see Downtown Manzanillo (El Centro). Just above it, across the narrow entrance to the harbor, you will find La Posada Hotel where we stayed. La Posada is located on the Zona Hotelera which follows the beach around the bay to the Santiago Peninsula.  The Zona Hotelera contains many old hotels and newer condominiums and some of the best restaurants in Manzanillo, all right on the beach. 

El Centro's malecon.  The malecon (waterfront) area contains many lovely spots to stop and enjoy a sunny day.  Here, a fountain burbles in the plaza next to the huge sailfish sculpture seen at the beginning of this post. We were very impressed at the clean and prosperous appearance of the malecon and El Centro area. The area underwent a major facelift in recent years, making it very attractive to passengers from the numerous cruise ships which dock here, as well as landlubbers like ourselves.

Putting a spin on it.  A massive ship's propeller ship forms another kind of sculpture along the malecon.  From blade tip to blade tip, it was at least twenty feet wide.  The car sitting under one of the blades gives a sense of the dimensions.  In the background, a container ship is docked, one of many that daily visit this busy port.

The Mexican Navy looks modern and efficient.  Mexican Navy gunboats of the Fuerza Naval del Pacifica (Naval Force of the Pacific) ride gently at anchor along the malecon.  A naval base sits directly across the street from La Posada, and truckloads of heavily armed and body-armored sailors rumble through the streets. Mexico is fighting a brutal war against the narcotrafficantes (drug dealers) and clearly the Mexican Navy is playing a role.  However, for all the military display, we didn't feel threatened and the general atmosphere was pretty easy-going.

The Hotel Colonial dominates the El Centro area.  Clean, white and bordered by lovely arched portales, the Hotel Colonial had been recommended as a good spot for lunch during our visit to El Centro. The food was good and moderately priced and we had the restaurant nearly to ourselves, except for a Gringo couple who puffed away on their cigarettes right underneath several "no smoking" signs.  Mexico recently banned smoking in restaurants and other areas.

El Centro bustles with activity.  Manzanillo, a city of 110,000, abounds with new cars and well-dressed people.  In addition to the seaport trade, commercial and sport fishing, tourism, and agriculture (particularly coconuts) drive the local economy.  The cab driver who took us from our hotel to El Centro was obviously very proud of his clean and beautiful city.  We managed to converse with him fairly well, an indication that our Spanish is improving. 

Cool white walkways under the portales give relief  from the bright mid-day sun. The shops were full, and the whole community seemed alive and bustling.  There are many plans for further renovations. Manzanillo officials even talk about the city sponsoring its own cruise ship. However, as the current international economic crisis deepens, it is hard to say how many of these plans will reach fruition.

A low-tech shop.  In Mexico, any unoccupied stretch of sidewalk can become an instant commercial center.  In this case, the impromptu shop showcases hammocks and sun hats, two items apparently in great demand among those seeking the laid-back beach lifestyle.

Step #1 in getting that seafood onto your plate.  I photographed this fishing trawler from the beach in front of La Posada, with the Santiago Peninsula in the background.  Seafood in most of the restaurants we tried was excellent and came in great variety, as you would expect in a seaport. The best restaurant we found was Toscana, on the Avenida de las Brisas, which parallels the beach along the Zona Hotelera. Great food, great service, a table right on the beach, strolling musicians, a beautiful sunset, it was everything we could ask for in a romantic dinner.

Brown pelicans crew an anchored fishing boat. Brown pelicans swarm around the local fishermen, looking for easy dinners. The fishermen come out every morning to drop their nets in the bay just in front of La Posada. The patio of the hotel gave us front-row seats as the fishermen hauled in their catch and the pelicans flapped, squawked, and fought for position next to this great bounty. When the fishermen were otherwise occupied, the pelicans took over their boats.  In the background, one can see the El Centro area across the channel between the Zona Hotelera and the harbor. A large container ship  is docked at the upper right.

The busiest seaport in Mexico, if not in all Latin America. Above, a large container ship enters the bay and begins a long slow turn toward the narrow harbor entrance. These ships are so massive that they must begin these turns very early. Our Mexican cab driver insisted that Manzanillo surpassed all of Latin America in cargo processed through the port. In 2007 alone, 18 million tons of cargo passed through the port.  Apparently US ports have been (until recently) so overwhelmed by trade from Asia that much of the excess has been transshipped through Manzanillo, put on railcars, and shipped north of the border. This is in addition to that which is shipped throughout Mexico itself. 

On the alert.  Two harbor tug boats move in to guide the ship into port. These tug boats are about 90 percent engine and 10 percent boat. This gives them the immense power necessary to shove a huge container ship into position.

In position. The tugs have reached the ship and begun the delicate process of threading the needle: moving the huge, slow moving ship through a very narrow channel into the inner port docking area.

The eye of the needle.  The container ship above is just entering the harbor channel, marked by the stone jetty just in front of the bow of the ship.  This whole process was repeated, coming and going, several times a day.  Thus, the La Posada provided us with ring-side seats to a very entertaining spectacle, an unanticipated benefit of our stay at La Posada.
A sense of scale. As the ship passed along the stone jetty, I took this shot to give a sense of perspective and scale.  The containers, each essentially a railway boxcar without wheels, are stacked high on the deck.  The white superstructure behind them rises from the deck to the height of an eight-story building up to the set of bay windows at the top, called the bridge, where the captain sits. This thing  is BIG.


  1. Thanks for your wonderful post on Manzanillo. Looks like there's been many changes. It's been about 4 years since we wandered that way from Lakeside. I think it's time for a repeat visit. We also stayed at the Posada and enjoyed it.

  2. Awesome post! Great job reporting on Manzanillo! I run the Manzanillo blog, and once you get your four articles up I will send all my readers your way to check it out.

    Well done! Thanks for the hard work.

  3. BDT- What Manzanillo blog are you referring to? Perhaps I could put a link to your blog in the article? Email me at Jim Cook

  4. The little bit I've been told about Manzanillo was that it is a gated very upscale community; which doesn't seem to match with your pictures and description. Is there an old and new part of the city that they could have been referring to?


  5. Are you still writing about Manzanillo?
    Jeri Geblin

  6. Awesome pictures.The growing popularity of this place is strictly enforcing more and more tour agencies to provide some reliable services to the tourist.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim