Rising above it all in Zihuatanejo

Times Staff Writer

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, Cancun'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 Cancun. Eager to tap into even more of the vast tourist revenue that followed the 1960s construction of Cancun 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 Señor 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 percent 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.

Of course, my days involved more skulking around in hotels than a normal civilian's would. The typical Zihuatanejo visitor's day begins with breakfast on a terrace somewhere and proceeds to lazing by a pool or the shore. Then maybe a brief dip and a stroll past the restaurants and shops in town or along the pedestrian-only Paseo Pescador, or "fisherman's walk." My best and priciest meal was a dinner alfresco at La Casa Que Canta hotel. Seated on a terrace under trees strewn with tiny lights, I merrily made my way through a $40, six-course chef's tasting menu. I remember tuna sashimi, shrimp tamales and a dessert of pear in white wine and chocolate sauce. The rest is a happy blur.

No matter where you sleep or whether you've rented a car, you can dine in Ixtapa or Zihua. Plenty of people sleep in one place and head to the other for a meal. They also switch for golf (there are two courses in Ixtapa, none in Zihuatanejo) and fishing trips (most of which begin at Zihuatanejo's municipal pier at the end of the paseo).

Fishing for marlin and other billfish is big in the waters beyond Zihuatanejo Bay. If you stroll the Paseo Pescador in late afternoon, you're likely to receive several invitations to book a boat for the next morning.

There are three beaches within easy walking distance of downtown Zihuatanejo: Playa Municipal, where the fishermen haul up their boats; Playa Madera, where many mid-range hotels are clustered; and Playa la Ropa, a mile-long stretch of creamy sand that is the most handsome and least crowded of the three.

The city's most exclusive lodgings are clustered near Playa la Ropa, and even if you're not interested in paying $300 or $400 per night (typical for these places), they are worth a peek for their architecture, landscaping and restaurants.

Villa del Sol is a good place to start. Since German-born Helmut Leins opened it with seven rooms and a restaurant in 1978, its beachfront spot and palm-shaded setting, aided by the margaritas of longtime bartender Orlando, have turned the place into an institution. During its first 20 years, the hotel grew to 23 rooms. It added 33 more in 1999, along with an elaborate pebble-and-lagoon landscaping job.

I had my second-best meal at the Villa del Sol's formal restaurant (formal means shirts with collars encouraged; shorts discouraged).

Villa del Sol's main competition since 1992 has been the architecturally marvelous La Casa Que Canta, just a few hundred yards up the beach and a few yards up the hill. La Casa Que Canta (the House That Sings, named for the sounds of waves and seabirds that resound through the complex) includes 24 guest rooms, set amid terra-cotta walls textured with adobe-style packed earth and embedded bits of straw. It doesn't stand on the hillside as much as it seems to drip from bluff to sea.

Meandering stairs lead down the cliffs to a pair of pools and generous lounging areas. (Sure enough, sneaking through the grounds at 8 one morning, I found two of the best lounges empty but already reserved, one with "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," one with "Mountain Time.")

The third high-luxury lodging is the Casa Cuitlateca, a four-room newcomer with similarly high style and prices. It clings to the hillside a few hundred yards above La Casa Que Canta. I stayed there one night, marveling at the view and the landscaping (there's a suspension bridge over the driveway and a zero-horizon pool on the terrace). The hotel floats above the fray -- but many travelers may be daunted by the combination of the lofty price and the uphill climb from the beach.

If you want to be a little closer to the sea, at less expense (about $100 to $200 nightly, depending on the season) and enjoy comparable contemporary style (but not as many amenities), there's a handful of B&B-style lodgings near Playa la Ropa to consider, including Villa de la Roca (five rooms) and Quinta Troppo (eight rooms).

With the palms overhead and the gentle tides underfoot, paradise is never too far from mind. In fact, it's fascinating to see what some new arrivals do in their efforts to complete their own picture of tropical beachfront perfection. For me, the two most striking tries are those of Owen Lee, the diver who jumped ship, and Arturo Durazo, the crooked cop.

I found Owen Lee's place out at Playa las Gatas: You take a water taxi for about $3 (round trip), then follow the perfect sand crescent around to the right, passing a dozen rustic restaurants until you reach the end of the line, Las Gatas Beach Club Restaurant, Bar and Bungalows.

Lee, the proprietor, was the first American hired to serve on Jacques Cousteau's shipboard crew and spent six years diving and giving lectures on sea life. But after he sailed into Zihuatanejo Bay in 1967, Lee changed direction. The following year he negotiated a long-term lease on the sandy point, built a half-dozen rustic huts amid the mangroves and tamarinds and gradually outfitted them with plumbing. Now he lives in one hut, rents out the others (typically $60 to $80 per night) and runs the bar and restaurant.

The huts have private baths and hot plates for cooking, but at least one shower relies on a garden hose. Another shower is basically a concrete shell sunk four feet into the floor in the middle of the room.

Meanwhile, Playa las Gatas outside is busy with sunbathers, snorkelers and families by day. The last water taxi usually departs at 5 p.m., which leaves Lee and his overnight guests with the beach to themselves until 10 the next morning.

Arturo Durazo frolicked through this paradise too, but on the darker side. Durazo was Mexico City police chief from 1976-82, having been hired by his boyhood friend, President Jose Lopez Portillo. Durazo excelled at extortion of his peers and wringing kickbacks from underlings, and he amassed enough money to build a Mexico City mansion (later converted into a national museum of corruption), with enough left over for a getaway house here.

The locals call it "the Parthenon." It looms on a big hillside lot near Playa la Ropa, surrounded by a wild garden full of wounded Greco-Roman statues and a backyard terrace lined with Doric columns. Inside there's a foyer of imported marble and a secret tunnel down to the beach.

How do I know this? Because soon after Durazo and his pal the president left office, the succeeding administration launched an anti-corruption campaign and tracked down Durazo in the U.S. (He'd been living in Marina del Rey, among other places.) Extradited in 1984 and convicted of racketeering and arms dealing, he served about eight years in a Mexican prison, then retired with his family to Acapulco, where he died of cancer last August at 81.

And so the Zihuatanejo house stands idle. Or nearly idle. The property's security guard, who gave his name as Miguel, has spotted an opportunity in all of this tawdry history and put the word out to taxi drivers. If you seem discreet and offer a "tip," Miguel may give you a tour. At least he did for me. (I didn't tell him I was a journalist. But because I was taking photos, he asked for $15. Most customers, he said, pay less.)

So I got to see the frescoes, the marble, the vast empty swimming pool and of course the mirrored bedroom ceilings. I also saw the rigging that allowed the beds to dangle from the ceiling.

"Ecchh," I said. Miguel nodded.

"This was our money," he said, waving a hand at the rest of the house. Miguel's indignation was impressive, I thought, for somebody who had just taken a "tip" himself.

But then again, as somebody who had just paid that tip, I was in a poor position to judge. Instead I went for a stroll on Playa la Ropa and watched the sun set on the bay. With that much paradise already in place, who needs marble and mirrors?



Lodging prices here don't include 17 percent tax. Sotavento & Catalina Beach Resorts, Playa la Ropa, P.O. Box 2, Zihuatanejo, Guerrero; tel. (877) 699-6685 or 011-52-7-554-2032, fax 011-52-7-554-2975, www.giga.com/~sotavent. Two hotels merged into one operation, with 126 hotel rooms and bungalows. Two restaurants, pool, waterfront site. Ceiling fans, no air-conditioning. Rates for double rooms $50 to $120 until April 30, $50 to $75 May 1 to Dec. 15.

Villa de la Roca, Playa la Ropa; tel. (801) 277-2534 or 011-52-7-554-4793, fax (801) 281-8269. Five rooms, air-conditioned. Two small pools. Breakfast included. Rates $118 to $197, depending on season.

La Quinta Troppo, Playa la Ropa; tel. (616) 471-5546 or 011-52- 7-554-3423, fax 011-52-7-554-7340, www.mexonline.com/troppo.htm. Eight rooms (three with air-conditioning), small pool. Breakfast included. Rates $117 to $205, depending on room and season.

Brisas del Mar, Playa Madera; tel./fax 011-52-7-554-2142, www.brisasdelmar.bizland.com. On a hill overlooking the sea. Restaurant, pool with slide for kids. All rooms have balconies, ocean views, TV but no phones. Of the 28 rooms, the best are the 10 that have been renovated, with air-conditioning added. Rates $50 (fan-cooled) to $69 (renovated), more for suites.

La Casa Que Canta, Camino Escenico a Playa la Ropa; tel. (888) 523-5050 or 011-52-7-554-6529, fax 011-52-7-554-7900, www.lacasaquecanta.com. Twenty-four rooms (all with air-conditioning), restaurant, multiple pools. Rates $285 to $700, plus 10 percent service charge, depending on room and season.

Hotel Villa del Sol, Playa la Ropa; tel. (888) 389-2645 or 011-52-7-554-2239, fax 011-52-7-554-2758, www.villasol.com.mx. Fifty-six rooms (all with air-conditioning), two pools, two restaurants. Rates $170 to $1,000, depending on room and season. Breakfast-and-dinner packages mandatory in winter (at $60 per person per day), optional other seasons.

Casa Cuitlateca, Playa la Ropa; tel. (877) 541-1234 or 011-52-7-554-2448, fax (801) 619-4179, www.casacuitlateca.com. Four rooms, air-conditioning, pool. Breakfast included. Rates $200 to $340, depending on season.


Coconuts, Pasaje Augustin Ramirez No. 1; local tel. 554-2518. Main courses about $10 to $22.

La Casa Que Canta (see above). Main courses about $11 to $40.

Villa del Sol (see above). Main courses about $20 to $40.

Amado's, Playa las Gatas; no phone. Fresh seafood served alfresco on the beach. Good barracuda tacos. Main courses up to $9.


Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; tel. (213) 351-2069, fax (213) 351-2074, www.visitmexico.com.

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