IXTAPA, Mexico — "What was here before?" You look across the valley and up and down the beach, where sun lovers lie on the sand and para-sails float overhead. You ask the man who has lived here five years now, who was here at the beginning.
"Nothing," he answers.
Most resorts take shape over time. A few people find some small town is a nice place to get away from it all, others hear about it and come along. Someone builds a hotel and slowly, over the years, what was a "real" town evolves into a resort town.
In Mexico, the government decided not to wait for nature and man to take the slow course. On the Yucatan coast 15 years ago was a low-lying, deserted island, really more of an elongated sand spit bordering a brackish lagoon, until the government said, "Let there be a resort." And lo, there was Cancun.
Then someone saw a stretch of lovely beach on the west coast 140 miles north of Acapulco where eight years ago there was only a coconut plantation. The Mexican government said, "Here will rise Ixtapa." And Ixtapa is.
There's nothing else here--no town, no people, no burros carrying loads of sticks down narrow, cobbled streets. Only high-rise hotels tower along the beach.
Is It a Success?
What's it like to vacation here now, eight years later? Does Ixtapa really work as a resort?
It is certainly beautiful. Fonatur, the government tourism agency, spent three years building streets and roads, putting in electricity and carving out reservoirs high in the nearby mountains to supply pure water to the new creation.
Hotels were built. The Camino Real Ixtapa was first, followed soon by eight others strung along the beach like tall fingers reaching up out of the sand. Holiday Inn, Krystal, El Presidente, Sheraton, Westin, all the well-known hotel chains in Mexico soon started construction, and all the buildings, to fit this grand scheme, are grand indeed.
The Camino Real grabbed the best site by far, a private cove at one end of the six-mile strand with steeply rising, jungle-covered hills holding out encircling arms on either side of the clear water, green in close and blue farther out.
They hired Ricardo Legoretta, a world-famous Mexican architect, to solve one little problem; the only place to build the hotel was a steep, rocky bluff ending in a sheer 100-foot drop to the beach. The solution is an emulation of one face of a Mayan temple stepping down the slope, each floor set back above the next.
The deep, cool rooms open to long private terraces with hammocks swinging invitingly in the sun, and chairs and tables for breakfast or pre-dinner cocktails in the shade. The beach, the cove and the ocean are the view from every room and suite.
To reach the beach down that final descent, there are sloping paths or an elevator that deposits you on the sand seconds after you board it.
The other hotels are more conventional, but all are good to look at and only steps from the white sand and warm ocean water.
So what's not to like? Some might object that there are no people here other than tourists and the Mexicans who come into contact with them as maids and waiters. Where's the fabled Mexican experience, the feeling of rubbing elbows with and getting to know, albeit in a limited way, another people and their culture?
Old Fishing Village
Ixtapa is fortunate: Zihuatanejo is near.
Just four miles across the peninsula is the old fishing village that's been here since before it became an important destination for Spanish galleons bringing gold from Manila in the 1600s. True, tourism is finally catching up and some of the narrow old streets are closed to auto traffic now, the better to sell silver jewelry and straw baskets.
But Zihua (as the locals call it) still has all the earmarks of a somnolent little Mexican village. With a bit of effort you can get to know the young man who sells iguanas, trussed on a string by their feet, to the cafes.
Or you can sit under the big plane tree near the huge bust of Vincente Guerrero, Mexican hero, and speak at least a few halting words about the weather and village life with the old men who take the sun there all day.
Bakery at Dawn
One of the joys of staying at the Camino Real is to make the effort to get up before dawn, check out one of the hotel's Jeeps and drive over the gently curving road to Zihuatanejo through a cool breeze with the sky still pearl gray.
Stop at the panaderia where, for pennies, you can buy a roll the baker plucked hot from the oven moments before. Then stand on the beach, just to the left of the pier when the sun starts to come up over Zihuatanejo Bay, to watch the fishermen pull their wooden boats onto the sand to unload the night's catch.
Join in. Comment on the half-dozen species that lie flopping in the bottom of the boat. Even if your Spanish is muy poquito , they'll know what you mean. You might end up being invited to go out fishing with them in the boat tonight.