Sunday, February 10, 2013

Zihuatanejo Part 2: Playa Madera

Bronze sculpture of a beautiful girl basking on a rock along Playa Madera. This is one of seven statues of indigenous women along Playa Madera and Playa Municipal. The bronze statues, each slightly larger than life, represent indigenous women of the seven regions of Guerrero. They were created by sculptor Crecencio Oregon as part of a Zihuatanejo beautification program. The statue above represents Acapulco, the famous colonial port that became a popular playground for the rich and famous in the 1950s and 60s. In this posting, I'll take you for a walk along Playa Madera to give you a sense of it at various times of the day.

The coast of Guerrero has long been known for its tropical woods, including cedar, oak, and walnut. Playa Madera ("Wood Beach") gained its name because it was the place where such fine wood was loaded onto ships heading to ports around the world. The origin of Zihuatanego's name is somewhat more obscure. One translation, from the Purépecha language of the Tarascan Empire, means "water of the yellow mountain." However, in the language Nahuatl of the Aztecs, Cihuatlán, means "place of the women." This may refer to the paradise of the  female goddesses whose duty was to lead the sinking sun toward the west and ultimately into the darkness of Mictlán, the place of the dead. I like the second explanation better, because it ties in nicely with the lovely bronze statues lining the shore, as well as their human counterparts playing on the beach.

Condos on the point known as "Chain of Rocks" glow softly in the late afternoon sun. The surf along Playa Madera is very gentle and makes the beach ideal for swimming. Several people on the lower left are enjoying a cool dip during the afternoon heat. The point above forms the southern tip of Playa Madera's the crescent beach. On the other side of the point is the northern end of Playa La Ropa, seen in the last posting. Notice the precipitous way that the coastal hills drop directly down to the water in some places. There is no way to walk along the water around this point to Playa La Ropa. To do that, you have to walk on a street up over the hill.

Zihuatanejo's recreational potential was recognized very early. Approximately 1400 AD, Tarascan Emperor Tanganxoan II discovered beach vacations. He liked to bring his many wives down to the shores of this lovely bay, particularly favoring Playa las Gatas (see previous posting). In order to create an area of safe, quiet water for bathing in that little cove, the Emperor built a stone underwater reef that still exists. The Mexica (Aztecs) under the Emperor Ahuitzotl conquered the area in 1497, dispossessing the beach-loving Tarascans. During their rule, the Mexica established a temple for the goddess Cihuatéotl, whom they revered as the mother of the human race and the goddess of warriors fallen in battle. 

A small hotel overlooking Playa Madera blends with the vegetation and contour of the land. One of the charming aspects of Zihua, as it is known by the locals, is how often structures like this have been designed to blend in, rather than ostentatiously stand out. Notice the extensive use of palm leaves to thatch the roofs. They are light, cool and, when woven thickly together, are almost impervious to rain. However, high winds can sometimes blow them apart.

In 1522, only months after conquering the Mexica, the Spanish under Gonzalo de Umbria arrived in the Zihua area. Gonzalo was sent by Hernán Cortez to look for gold and generally reconnoiter the area. When the Spanish appeared, most of the indigenous population literally "headed  for the hills," escaping into the mountains, never to return. This gave the haciendas in the area a completely different character than those found in the rest of Mexcio. Lacking indigenous slave labor, the Spaniards were for once forced to do the work themselves. There wasn't much gold in the area, so their haciendas produced cotton, chocolate, vanilla, and corn, as well as fine wood cut in the forests of the coastal mountains. 

Early morning shadows cover the beach as gentle waves lap at a rocky point. The walkway shown above winds along the shore from the south end of Playa Madera to the marina channel at the northern end of Playa Municipal, except for a short stretch of open sand at one place.

Zihuatanejo also figured in some of the early Spanish maritime expoits. In addition to searching for gold, silver, and other treasures in Nueva España (New Spain, i.e. Mexico), the Spanish were vitally interested in establishing a trade route to the East Indies. This was, after all, what Colombus' voyages were originally about. Zihua first appears in historical records in a report by Cortés to King Charles V of Spain. The Spanish had identified the Philippines as the key to the East Indies trade when Magellan stopped there in 1521. Now they needed a launching point for an expedition that would create a direct link to the East Indies from Nueva España. 

Local students have waged a fairly successful clean-up campaign. This hand-painted sign reminds passersby that "Throwing trash at the world is like throwing the world into the trash." Signs with varying versions of this message hang from trees at regular intervals. Underneath, the students have placed small wooden fruit crates to collect the trash. While this hasn't eliminated the problem, it appears to have helped a great deal. I am  guessing that "Prepa5" means that the students are in the 5th grade.

Cortés wrote to King Charles that Zihua's protected bay was a good possibility for a West Coast port. The ships that first sailed from Nueva España to the Philippines were built at Zihua, using the abundant lumber. They were christened the Florida, the Espiritu Santo, and the Santiago. The little fleet sailed from Zihuatanejo Bay for the East Indies on Oct. 31, 1527 under the command Captain Alvaro Saavedra Cerón. This was only six years after 1521, the year the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlán fell, and also the year of Magellan's visit to the Philippines. In the context of the times, it was a lightning-fast move and it set Spain up as the dominant power in the world for the next couple of centuries.

Dotted here and there along the Playa are small outdoor restaurants. This is the one short stretch of beach where there is a break in the cement walkway. Fortunately, the sand is firm and can be walked easily. Waiters for these restaurants hang out on the beach and try to persuade potential diners to stop at their establishment.

Of Captain Saavedra Cerón's Zihua-built ships, only the Florida made it to the Philippines. Although it never returned to Nueva España, the link was established. The Spanish could now challenge Portugal's East Indies trade dominance. Unlike Spain, Portugal had managed to reach the East from the opposite direction by sailing around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. It took a couple of more attempts to establish a strong Spanish base in the Philippines, and it was not until 1565 that they finally managed it. 

Youngsters wrestle in the water near the surf line. I learned later that salt water crocodiles have been spotted in this area, probably hoping for tasty morsels like these. A friend of mine told me that he was swimming offshore during a visit to Zihua and saw people on the beach frantically waving at him. He finally realized that what he thought was a floating log not far away was a croc. He removed himself from the water with all due speed.

In 1565, Nueva España's Viceroy Luis de Velasco sent Captain Miguel López de Legazpi on the first voyage to the Philippines that ended with a return to Nueva España. The problem was with the prevailing winds. The Spanish knew how to use them to travel west, but at that latitude they were blowing the wrong way to come back. Legazpi took along a navigator-priest named Fray Andrés de Urdaneta. When Urdaneta attempted the return to Nueva España, he sailed north instead of east, taking a chance on finding easterly prevailing winds at a higher latitude. Reaching the southern tip of Japan, he found winds that might take him from west to east.  His gamble succeeded and he made the first documented return voyage across the Pacific, making landfall on the coast of California. Urdaneta then made the long trip down the coast to Acapulco, with stops here and there that may have included Zihuatanejo Bay. Whether he paused there or not, later galleons that followed his route certainly did. 

The cement walkway winds around some rocky points along the way. In the background is the northern part of Playa Madera. Behind the Playa, homes and hotels rise up the sides of Cerro de la Madera ("Wood Ridge"). The fruit crate under the lamp post on the right is one of the trash collectors left by the students.

The China trade, not the Philippines, was the ultimate prize.  China's porcelain, silks, and other wonderfully crafted luxury goods were much more important than anything the Philippines produced. They could be easily purchased with the fantastically abundant silver produced by the Spanish mines in Nueva España and Peru. The importance of the Philippines to Spain was its great harbor at Manila, which became the collection point for goods procured all along China's coast, as well as from other areas in the East Indies. There were any number of possible ports to receive these goods along the coast of Nueva España, including Zihuatanejo. However, the Spanish King, who was by now Phillip II, wanted to maintain strict control over this great torrent of wealth. It was essential to his power and ambitions in Europe. Under Spanish law, the king could demand his quinta (1/5) of all profits produced in the trade with Nueva España and the East Indies. Using multiple ports made control of the trade more difficult. In 1561 the King had the foresight to choose Acapulco as the sole port of entry on Nueva España's West Coast. In 1565, when the link was made to the East, the great ships began carrying silver to Manila and Chinese wares on the return trip. The Acapulco-Manila Galleons of legend were thus established

A fisherman tries his luck on the rocky point at the northern end of the beach. His equipment is simple: a hook and a weight on the end of a fishing line wound around a plastic bottle. I was curious about his likelihood of success, so I dallied for a bit to watch.

Acapulco was chosen over Zihuatanejo because the distance between Acapulco and Mexico City was only 300 km (190 mi) and there was an existing road and some port facilities. By contrast, Zihuatanejo lay 374 km (233 mi) away  and there was no viable road through the tangled mountains of Michoacan and Guerrero. In addition, it had little in the way of an established port. However, Zihua continued to play a role in its own way. Because the galleons from Manila reached the Western Hemisphere at California, they had a long sail down the coast to reach Acapulco. Zihua's bay served as a safe harbor during storms and a place to take on water and make repairs. In the last part of the 16th Century, when the Spanish shipyards at Zacatula burned, new shipyards were built at Zihuatanejo to handle galleon repairs.

To my surprise, the young man almost immediately hooked a small fish. He was pleased to show it off for my camera. You can see the white fish at the end of the line below his right hand. There appears to be a large population of various kinds of fish both in the bay and in the ocean just outside. Fishermen use a variety of techniques, including simple hand lines like this, to rods and reels, to hand nets, to large nets pulled by powerboats. This area has been known for its excellent fishing for thousands of years.

Unfortunately for the Spanish, Zihuatanejo Bay also played a role in the long history of piracy against their galleons. Over the centuries, pirate ships would lurk in the bay, waiting for a galleon to come by. Ships captured elsewhere would sometimes be brought to Zihua for repairs. Because the Pacific was considered a "Spanish lake" during the early years of the China trade, galleons often went unarmed to save weight and cargo space. This made them easy prey, at least for a time. Some of the visiting pirate notables included the Englishmen Sir Francis Drake and William Dampier. Drake was a 17th Century figure, working covertly for Elizabeth II. His savage attacks on Spanish possessions in the New World helped bring on war with Spain and Phillip II's famous (and disastrous) Armada invasion. William Dampier was a pirate who became the first man to circumnavigate the planet three times. In the Archaeology Museum previously mentioned, a rusted cannon is on display that was recovered by divers from the bay. It came from a Spanish galleon captured by Dampier. He brought his prize to Zihua to make repairs and to recruit crew to help sail it back to England. Unable to find any suitable recruits, he burned and sank the galleon. Admiral George Anson was not a pirate, but major figure in the 18th Century British Navy. During his operations against Spanish shipping in the 1740s, he sank the ship Caramela in Zihuatanejo Bay. 

People get around the bay in many ways, this being one of the more exciting. In addition to jet boats like the ones above, the bay swarms with fishing craft, sailboats, kayaks, Naval patrol boats and launches full of tourists. Watching all of this water traffic can be quite entertaining.

Aside from the excitement of occasional pirate raids, things drowsed along at Zihua through the 18th and into the 19th Centuries. The lack of a road to the interior meant that contact with the outside world was seaborne and sporadic. Zihua largely escaped involvement in the 1810-1821 War of Independence, except for its use by insurgent leader José María Morelos y Pavón as a logistic port during 1811. Nearly 100 years went by before Zihua again played a role in national events.

Kayaks are available to rent at various locations along the beach. In this shot, you are looking directly across the bay toward Playa Las Gatas, where the wives of Tanganxoan II once frolicked. The sailboat in the center is one of the large catamarans that are used to take tourists on sunset cruises. I took the panoramic shots seen in the previous posting from the hills in the background.

When the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910, four well-known brothers from the Zihua area, Alfredo, Leonel, Hector, and Homero Lopez signed up with the revolutionaries. The feeling in the area was generally pro-rebel, and the Lopez brothers were soon joined by many others. Conflict arrived soon at sleepy Zihua as rebel groups fought with federal troops, and with each other. During this period, Zihua was pillaged and vandalized at various times. While the main fighting during the Revolution lasted from 1910-1917, various uprisings and conflcts continued until the late 1920s in different parts of the country. In 1926, a rebel group called the "Vidalistas" brought 1000 men to attack government installations in Zihua in an attempt to free some of their leaders who had been imprisoned. Government officials made a secret agreement to release them in return for a rebel withdrawal.

Young love on the beach. Set into the rocky points along the way are various benches that make convenient spots for couples to snuggle. This young musician and his girl friend seemed amused by my desire to capture their moment.

In early colonial times, a Spaniard named Anton Sanchez received an encomienda (a precursor to the hacienda system) that included the Xtapa area. Spanish galleons on the Manila-to-Acapulco leg brought coconut palms from the Philippines and they gradually became a large-scale export crop at the Xtapa hacienda and elsewhere along the Costa Grande. In 1952, coconut workers at Xtapa and many other haciendas staged a major strike all along the coast from Zihuatanejo to Acapulco. During the strike, roads into Zihua were blocked.

Palm fronds dry in the afternoon sun. I noticed a young family laying these out on the beach and stopped to observe. They confirmed that these would be used to roof one of the many palapas (open-sided, palm-thatched huts) found along the beach.

Until the 20th Century, Zihuatanejo never became much more than a tiny, sleepy, fishing village of less than 5,000 people. The only practical way to visit was by boat. In 1920, the Prince of Wales visited Acapulco down the coast, announced his enjoyment, and spurred interest in the area. Wealthy yachtsmen began to cruise the coast, as pirates had in previous centuries. Some of them dropped anchor in Zihuatanejo's pristine Bay and word began to get around. Lacking other facilities, these outsiders stayed in private homes or on their yachts anchored offshore.

Still another way to get across the bay. Parasailing is very popular and one of these colorful parachutes can often be seen crossing the sky in the distance. I tried this once on a visit to Cancun years ago. It was quite scenic, but I couldn't help noticing that the only things connecting me to the chute were two small metal clips. My north-of-the-border sensibility immediately kicked in and I began to think about proper maintenance and regular inspections as I peered down at the water hundreds of feel below. Fortunately, I landed without incident.

In the 1950s, the construction of a small airport brought in a modest increase of visitors. This finally forced the laid-back locals to put up a few small hotels. Still, there were no roads connecting the village to the outside world until the 1960s when one was built up the Costa Grande from Acapulco. Then, in the early 1970s, everything began to change. The government decided to create major destination resorts at Cancun, on the coast of Yucatan, and near Zihuatanejo on the Costa Grande.

Playa Madera ends at the right side this pedestrian bridge. Playa Municipal begins on the left side. The bridge stretches over a long arroyo (creek bed) that cuts down from the hills behind Zihua, through the town, and finally empties into the bay. The cement-lined channel was mostly dry when we visited, but I imagine it handles quite a torrent during the rainy season. Near the left end of the bridge is the Archaeological Museum of the Costa Grande. It is a small, but very nice, museum displaying artifacts from the earliest habitation of the area through the arrival of the Spanish. I will show some of these artifacts in future postings.

The Mexican government's original idea was to develop their mega resort in Zihua, but the local community protested the destruction of the character of their little beach town. In the end, Fonatur (Mexico's Federal Bureau for Tourist Development) took over the Xtapa coconut plantation. The old hacienda lies about 5 km (3.1 mi) to the north, out of sight behind the point of land that forms the northern arm of Zihua's bay. 

A hand net fisherman tries his luck at dusk near the north end of Playa Madera. As I headed back to Hotel Irma from my beach stroll, I came across this fellow. He was standing chest deep in the calm water, gathering up his net for another throw. It must be hard work to repeatedly haul in the water-soaked net, hopefully full of wriggling fish, in preparation for another toss.

To construct and maintain the Xtapa resort, large numbers of workers were required and Zihua became their bedroom community. The population today is about 62,000. While many residents of Zihua work in Xtapa, very few live there. Xtapa remains as it was created, a tourist bubble for well-to-do outsiders, while Zihua has remained a blend of overgrown fishing village and quirky, laid-back, beach community.

Another spectacular sunset, looking toward the northern arm of Zihuatanejo's bay. Carole was waiting for me back at Hotel Irma, but I didn't think she'd mind if I stopped for one last shot. Next week, we'll take a look at Playa Municipal, the busiest of all the beaches along Zihua's shore.

This concludes Part 2 of my Zihuatanejo series. As always, I appreciate feedback or corrections. If you want to leave a comment, 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


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