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twin cities

Mexico’s Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa provide everything a traveler to the Pacific Riviera could want.
by Eric Lucas • photos by Leslie Forsberg

Who knows how long this massive tropical tree has towered over a low flat at Ixtapa, Mexico? It’s 150 feet tall, its trunk is six feet across, and the green canopy is the size of a small neighborhood. I’ll bet Spanish explorers admired it on their way to the Pacific a half-mile away.

pool

Above: The inviting pool awaits guests at La Casa Que Canta in Zihuatanejo.

Below: Luscious finds at the market in old town Zihuatanejo.

food

Admiration isn’t my attitude, exactly. The tree lies between me and the green on hole No. 10 at Palma Real Golf Course. Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. shaped this 529-yard monster so golfers must carve their approach shots around the tree. A narrow strip of fairway leads past the tree toward the green. To the left of that is a sand trap as big as Australia. Like most golfers, I have a natural slice, which means my next shot is likely to head right toward the tree, unless I aim for the sand trap.

But I shouldn’t complain. It’s a hazy, calm, mild winter morning on Mexico’s Pacific Riviera. Songbirds chitter and chirp in the tree canopy. The distant surf whispers. It’s 9 a.m. and I have a championship golf course to myself in what was once North America’s highest-profile resort.

A tale of two cities (well, sort of)

The two side-by-side towns (separated by a scenic ocean headland) comprise an almost perfect amalgam of everything Mexico’s Pacific offers. Zihuatanejo (see-wah-tah-NEH-ho) is an old-fashioned beach town that’s popular with expats from North America and Europe. Here, you’ll find protected curves of palm-shaded sand and calm, warm, emerald waters. A charming old town is complete with a traditional market. Relax at some of Mexico’s finest boutique hotels, luxury inns, and bistros perched on hillsides around the bay.

Ixtapa (eeks-TAH-pa) is a purposefully built collection of glistening high-rise hotels along a two-mile strand of oceanfront that’s the color of butterscotch. Most hotels have a pool complex with energetic trainers gleefully cajoling 10 a.m. water aerobics participants. Behind the hotels lie the golf course, a modern shopping mall, several dozen cafés, and restaurants ranging from decidedly gringo fare to authentic Mexican regional cuisine. There’s even a new bike path.

I’m on the asphalt path riding northwest through the Parque Aztlan, a strip of marsh backing the resort area. Tropical birds chatter in the brush and soft breezes sift down from a low hill, but the crocodiles are elsewhere during the dry season.

At the end of a pleasant half-hour, I reach a small enclave where a fenced-off estuary does hold crocodiles, which seem as somnolent as sleeping bags. I only notice them in the inky water after I wonder what the “log” is that an egret is standing on for a nap. It’s an eight-foot cocodrillo, equally nappish. Nearby is its mate, smaller and almost invisible.

From here, one can hop on a panga (water taxi) for a 10-minute ride out to Ixtapa Island, an offshore nub of rock where you don snorkeling gear to admire the reefs and tropical fish just below the surface. Often likened to butterflies, tropical fish flash in the sun in every hue, from marigold to platinum. Snorkeling in such a locale is a chance to simply relish nature’s unmatched beauty.
One can have the same pleasure at some of Zihuatanejo’s beaches; or just glide out in the silky, warm water, which I enjoy equally. What “Zihua” has that Ixtapa doesn’t is its marvelous old town marketplace, a bustling warren of shops, stores, and food stalls. I stop at a stall for an early lunch of fried fish tacos wrapped in handmade yellow corn tortillas with salsa picante made of chiles pasillas. Later, I come across a local coffee vendor. The beans are grown on an estate in the hills nearby and roasted in town.

I tell the shop owner I would like the freshest coffee, please. She flashes a sly grin and scoops me a handful from a bag behind the counter. The beans are still warm, roasted within the hour.

She inquires if the beans are fresh enough. Yes, indeed, I say, handing over 100 pesos for a pound of what, to a coffee zealot, is pure gold.

Treasure in hand, I wander to the bayshore, where fishermen draw their pangas up on the beach each morning to sell shrimp and fresh fish. A palm-lined path leads to a pier where, 35 years ago, pens held hundreds of sea turtles for sale. Today, the entire bay is a sea turtle preserve, and spying one of the tortugas is a prized wildlife-watching experience. Gratefully, it is easily accomplished.

Here’s looking at you, kid

That evening, my wife Leslie and I are reveling in a quintessential Zihuatanejo moment–dinner at an al fresco table on a cliff-top patio at La Casa Que Canta, Zihua’s incomparable boutique inn above the bay. The town’s lights glisten on the hillsides. The cliff ridges backing the scene are dark and mysterious. The gentle waves shimmer in the night light, while snatches of music drift up from the town square. Stars ride the dome of sky overhead like a galactic candle parade. This feels like a movie setting, but it’s real life, including the everyday husband-wife conversation that’s seems more meaningful in this setting.

“How was the golf game this morning?” Leslie asks.

“Well. Let me tell you about this huge tree in the middle of…” I stop to reflect. “Never mind. It was excellent. But look at this panorama before us.”

She nods.

“And above, the whole universe. Let’s discuss the meaning of life,” I say, bringing up an old joke between us.

“Nah, let’s just have dinner and let the meaning of life take care of itself,” Leslie advises. She’s right. A local band strikes up a merry march in the town square, and Zihua’s charms seep into our memories as gently as starlight.

Eric Lucas is a new contributor from Seattle, Wash.

May/jun 2012 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

In Zihua, La Casa Que Canta is composed of private casitas tucked into the hill, each affording a view of the bay, traditional Mexican décor, and some offering plunge pools. The inn’s restaurant is a renowned purveyor of modern Mexican regional cuisine; standouts include Guerrero-style bean soup and fresh local fish.

In Ixtapa, Dorado Pacifico Beach Resort (AAA Two Diamonds) is an independently owned, full-service resort hotel with clean, airy, spacious public areas, and ocean-view rooms. A mellow atmosphere complements the relaxed ambience around the pools. Lifeguards watch over the beach, though most guests simply relax around the pools, play tennis, or head out on the nearby bike trail.

AAA Travel professionals can help you plan a getaway to Mexico with air/hotel packages from preferred vendors, such as Pleasant Holidays. Call (888) 366-4222 or visit AAA.com/travel for more information.

To visit Mexico, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, and TourBook® guides.



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