Saturday, February 2, 2013

Zihuatanejo Part 1: Steep hills, rocky points, and crescent beaches

View of Zihuatanejo looking northeast. After our stop at Patzcuaro to see the ancient Tarascan ruins at Ihuatzio (see previous posting), we continued on through Michoacan to the Pacific Coast near Ciudad Lazaro Cardenas and then south into the small, mountainous, State of Guerrero. A one hour drive along the coast road (Highway 200) brought us to the beach town of Zihuatanejo (Zee-hwa-tan-ay-ho). In the photo above, the most heavily populated part of Zihuatanejo  can be seen in the upper left. The curved beach stretching from the center to the lower right is Playa la Ropa. It is the largest of the four main beaches that lie around the perimeter of the small bay in front of Zihuatanejo. Each of the beaches is shaped like a half-moon with steep hills rising in back of it. There are rocky points at the tips of each crescent beach, separating it from the next one. The beaches vary in size from about 200 m to 1600 m (200 yds - 1 mi). The northern two, Playa Municipal and Playa Madera, are both about the same length and are the most heavily used. Playa Ropa is somewhat more quiet, and Playa Las Gatas, at the extreme south end of the bay, is the smallest and most isolated. In addition, there are a number of other small coves but the four I mention are the main beaches. For a Google map of the Zihuatanejo area, click here.

The Big Picture

Telephoto shot of Playa Municipal, the most northern of the four beaches. At the right is the beach where the fishermen pull up their launches so that they can sell their catch to the restaurants among the trees just behind the beach. In the center is the long pier where you can catch tour boats that will take you to various scenic spots around the bay. To the left is the channel leading to the marina. Behind all this is the relatively flat Centro area about 6 blocks deep. It contains shops, small hotels, and restaurants that cater to the tourist trade. Back behind the Centro area, the land rises sharply and is crowded with homes and apartments.

The point of land called Puerto Mio is on the northern arm of Zihuatanejo Bay. The point is dotted with sumptuous homes perched on rock cliffs around its shore. North of this point, about 8 km (5 mi) by land, is Xtapa, the Mexican Pacific Coast's answer to Cancun. Xtapa was conceived in the 1970s, and built from the ground up out of a coconut plantation. It is full of modern, all-inclusive hotels and is, like Cancun, a "tourist bubble", somewhat sealed off from the real Mexico that we were seeking. By contrast, Zihuatanejo is small-scale, colorful, quirky, filled with ordinary Mexican people who actually live there, has a history going back to pre-hispanic times, and is close to my definition of what a Mexican beach resort should be.

Playa las Gatas is sheltered by a cove on the point forming the southern tip of Zihuatanejo Bay. Playa las Gatas is the beach you can see in the center left of the photo. The point of land at the top of the photo is the northern tip of the land surrounding the bay and, along with the southern point, forms its entrance. Playa las Gatas reputedly has an offshore reef built by one of the ancient Tarascan kings. The beach is named for the whiskered sharks that once--but apparently no longer--gathered there. There are regular boats to the beach departing 8 AM - 5 PM from the pier at Playa Municipal shown earlier. Playa las Gatas is reputed to be the best snorkling location in the bay because of its clear water. Snorkling gear can be rented from the beachside restaurants. However, swimmers must beware of sea urchins which can deliver a painful sting. Carole and I never actually put our feet on the sand of this beach because we got lost in the maze of roads winding around the peninsula above it. We never found time to visit by boat, but perhaps next time.

Playa la Ropa

A quiet morning stroll on Playa la Ropa.  During our entire stay at Zihuatanejo, few of the beaches we saw got much more crowded than in the scene above, and this was in January, the top of the season! Perhaps, after all, Xtapa has been a boon to people like us. It has diverted intensive development--and the resulting tourist mobs--away from this idyllic, dreamy, beach community and concentrated it out of sight, a bit up the coast. Playa la Ropa ("Clothes Beach) got its name when a colonial-era merchant ship sank just off shore and its cargo of fine Bombay silks drifted in to the beach, no doubt delighting the local women. The gentle waves of this beach make it one of the best for swimming. Carole is not a fan of cold water, so she kept her distance at first. Testing it myself, I found it to be just a mite cooler than lukewarm and persuaded her to get her feet wet as we strolled the beach. She loved it!

Dotted throughout the coves of the bay, sailboats like this rocked gently at anchor. Every day, from dawn to dusk, there was a constant slow movement around the bay by boats of various sizes. Some were expensive sailboats like this, some were tour craft, and others were the launches of the local fishermen. It was mesmerizing to sit and watch this majestic movement, crowned by the slowly swirling flocks of brown pelicans overhead,

Small catamarans were available to rent along the various beaches, including Playa la Ropa. These simple craft are constructed from two narrow hulls with a nylon and metal platform connecting them. Someone once described a sailboat as "a hole in the water into which you pour money." Something like this would certainly create a smaller hole to fill than the sailboat in the previous photo. A catamaran this size can sail into remarkably shallow water and is light enough to easily pull up on the beach by hand.

And for those with really tight budgets... I watched in curiosity as this woman walked toward the water carrying her paddle and surf board. She waded out a few yards, mounted the  board and started stroking her way down the beach while I marveled at her sense of balance.

Hotel Irma

Hotel Irma sits on the side of a cliff overlooking Playa Madera. In writing this blog, I occasionally mention the hotels where we stay on our travels around Mexico. Usually, this is to give anyone following our footsteps a starting point in their search for accommodations. Generally, they are more or less comfortable places to sleep, in between the adventures we find while we're out-and-about. Hotel Irma is different, in a class by itself, and our experience there came close to making it the star of the whole show. The pool deck, seen above, is the level where you can see the horizontal blue line in the upper center. The water of the pool is level with the top of that line, allowing swimmers to gather in the water along the edge to enjoy the view.

The hotel is on the beach, yet set apart from it at the same time. The view here is from Playa Madera, looking south. Hotel Irma is the rust-colored, multi-level building on the side of the hill. The different levels provided wonderful, 180 degree vistas encompassing most of the bay. There is a steep, narrow, stone stairway leading down to the beach, but this is locked fairly early in the evening. Most of the time, we walked out the main entrance (in back of the top level you see above) and down the street to where there is an access alley to the beach coming out just to the right of the red umbrellas on the lower left of the photo.

A view from the pool deck, looking north toward the Centro area. I took this shot on one of the levels overlooking the pool deck. You can see the pool and its blue wall at the lower left corner. We spent hours on this deck, watching the birds and boats, and the people frolicking on the beach. This shot was taken about 8 AM, as the sun was peeping over the hills behind me, leaving Playa Madera and the pool deck still in shadow. The view was so enthralling that we had to tear ourselves away to go check out the town.

Playa Madera, seen from the pool deck of the hotel. As you move north along the beach and approach the Centro, there are more and more small hotels, condos, and homes lining the beach. They are all "human scale" and don't project the imposing, even overpowering, sense of other resort beaches we have visited. At the busiest times of day, Playa Madera had perhaps twice this many people on it. The large dark object on the beach approximately in the center of the photo is a sea-sculpted rock. For those with limited budgets, or just wanting a change from more formal restaurants, the beach umbrellas at the center shaded very informal beach eateries.

This lush garden offered one of the many intimate spaces within Hotel Irma. Although the hotel offers 67 rooms, it provides a feeling of intimacy through its variety of levels, each decks of varying sizes, or quiet interior cubbyholes like this. It took me a bit of time to understand the layout, but the overall effect was to provide many options for privacy outside the confines of one's own room.

The pool's blue wall was a very popular gathering place, particularly in the late afternoon. Below the grassy area on the right, the cliff drops off sharply. While mornings are cool and breezy, and evenings after sunset are balmy, the afternoons at Zihuatanejo can get quite warm and sultry, even in January. A sultry afternoon is the perfect time to soak in the pool, while hanging your arms over the edge and quaffing an icy marguerita.

One of the interesting sights from the pool deck were the very fancy catamarans. There were two of these anchored offshore below the hotel, and they appeared to be identical. I never found out for sure, but I think these might be connected to the sunset cruises we read about. At about $60 USD per person, these were a little too rich for our blood, but some might find them fun.

Happy hour was a popular time on the pool deck. The hotel offered 2 for 1 margueritas for $40 pesos total (about $1.60 USD each). I haven't drunk alcohol for many years, but Carole persuaded me to drink one of the pair the waiter brought her. I can testify here that the bartenders certainly don't scrimp on the tequila! A hotel acquaintance scoffed that they weren't strong at all but, after drinking her pair, she at first couldn't find her keys, then lost her sunglasses. Through it all, she sat there with a glazed but happy grin. As you can see, the sunsets are spectacular, and they last for a long time.

The finale is sublime. The effect is stunning and on our high perchs on the pool deck, margueritas in hand, we had no complaints. The show just goes on and on as the colors deepen and finally settle into dark.

Even after dark, the show goes on. The lights around the bay would come on and sparkle across the water toward us. The telephoto shot above shows the malecon (waterfront area) along Playa Municipal. There is considerable nightlife in the Centro area, but we were cautioned to stay off the cement walkway that parallels the beach between our hotel and Centro after dark because of robberies that have occurred along that isolated path. In my next posting, we'll take a daytime stroll along the malecon. Every twist and turn reveals a sculpture, or people working or playing in interesting ways, or the abundant animal life.

This completes Part 1 of my Zihuatanejo series. I know many of my friends up north are currently enjoying frosty weather and snowdrifts (or rain squalls in Oregon). I hope they will be happy to see that somewhere out there is a world of sunshine, warmth, and long, slow walks along quiet beaches. I always encourage feedback, so if you would like to make a comment or correction, or yell at me for enjoying myself too much, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jim, for the warmth you bring with your text, pictures and the memories that come from this post. It's been 5 weeks since our last visit to Mexico, and from this cold and rainy PNW outpost I still check the temperature every day in Yelapa and moan about it with my wife. What I remember from my stay in Zihuatanejo 15 years ago are the short, fat crocodiles lumbering past our little hotel at the far end of Playa de la Ropa, and a magical visit to that more isolated beach. Looking forward to your next post.


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