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Rising Above It All in Zihuatanejo

Repairing frayed nerves at this Pacific resort, a short hop but a world away from its glitzier neighbor.

April 08, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Travel Writer

ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico — Maybe you were planning to come here for the sea and sky, which is fine, as far as it goes. Both tend to be blue and 80 degrees, and who could complain about that? Your attention may wander to nearby Ixtapa, Cancn's cousin, until you learn about the Novels of Dawn, the key to relaxation here. If you can then pry yourself from your chaise longue, you may even be tempted to see the Palace of the Crooked Cop. It's all part of the laid-back allure in this niche on the Pacific Coast, about 140 miles northwest of Acapulco.

First, Ixtapa, which is similar to Cancn. Eager to tap into even more of the vast tourist revenue that followed the 1960s construction of Cancn on the Caribbean side, the Mexican government unveiled Ixtapa (along with the area's international airport) in 1975. Since then, visitors to this crescent of coast have faced a choice.

With Option 1, they head north from the airport to Ixtapa, choose a room in one of the dozen tall buildings by the sea, admire the sunsets beyond the rough waves, and get down to the business of deciding whether to eat at Senor Frog's or Carlos 'n' Charlie's. On a busy night in winter (the busiest season because it's less humid), you might find 6,000 visitors in the hotel zone.

With Option 2, they go about four miles south of Option 1 to Zihuatanejo (pronounced zee-wha-ta-nay-o), the fishing village that was here for decades before Ixtapa was dreamed of. This was my choice because, I'd been told, choosing Zihua, as many of its devotees call it, has always meant seizing upon the quaint and the rustic, turning away from the night life, bunking in a small hotel and bobbing in the calm water of a protected bay instead of splashing in powerful surf.

Sure enough, the beaches here are still laid-back, and the fishermen still park their pangas (boats) by the palapas (palm-frond-covered shelters) along Playa Madera. Playa las Gatas, with the calmest waters of all, is still a favorite day-trip destination, accessible only by hiking or by water taxi.

Still, Zihuatanejo has changed plenty. The population, estimated at 8,000 in 1975, is now closer to 80,000. (U.S. Consular Agent Elizabeth Williams estimates 350 year-round foreign residents, mostly American.) The list of restaurants and watering holes stretches into the dozens (although most are within walking distance of one another), and the hotel room inventory has grown to about 400.

The lodgings are far smaller than those clustered in Ixtapa's hotel zone. A handful have gone upscale, charging more than $300 nightly. But you can get a spartan room in town for less than $50; a modest beachfront hotel room is likely to cost $60 or more. For air-conditioning, add $20.

I've been hearing about the yin-and-yang nature of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo almost as long as I've been visiting Mexico, but I'd never seen either. So last month I caught a three-hour nonstop flight from LAX to the international airport here.

I gave Ixtapa the once-over, then asked my taxi driver to turn toward Zihuatanejo. There I soon discovered the Novels of Dawn.

Reclining poolside and reclining beachfront are two of the leading activities in Zihuatanejo, so it's important to grab a good spot. To do so, the most dogged vacationers rise around dawn, creep down to the prime chaise longues, deposit books and towels, then retreat to sleep some more and breakfast at their leisure.

'They come down at 5 a.m.," says Eva Bergtold, co-owner of the Sotavento & Catalina Beach Resorts, still bemused after 35 years on the scene. "We have to fix that somehow."

The 126-room Sotavento & Catalina is one of the oldest lodgings in town. It's actually two adjacent hotels (one from the 1950s, one from the '60s) that merged under the same ownership in 1972. The sibling buildings, managed through a single lobby, stand tall above Zihuatanejo's Playa la Ropa. The rooms are spartan, but the views are great and the rates are reasonable: $50 to $120 per room in winter, 20% less from April 15 to Dec. 15.

I stayed two nights in the Hotel Irma on Playa Madera, paying $70 nightly for a fifth-floor room with a commanding view of the beach and bay. Unfortunately, it was a walk-up (no elevators) and the plumbing and air-conditioning unit rattled loudly. Next time I'll try one of the other hotels in its neighborhood and price range, such as the Hotel Brisas del Mar, Villas Miramar and the Hotel Palacios (a bit less than the others at $40 to $60 per night). Each of those looked appealing when I checked out rooms and grounds.

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