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Escape like ‘Shawshank Redemption’s’ Andy Dufresne to Zihuatanejo, Mexico

Beachgoers enjoy a Sunday evening at Playa la Madera in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, where humble restaurants and hotels -- not to mention the water -- beckon.
(Gail Fisher)

It was to Zihuatanejo’s bright shores that wrongly convicted prisoner Andy Dufresne dreamed of escape in the 1994 movie “The Shawshank Redemption.” As I floated, suspended in the turquoise surf in the bay of Playa la Ropa, a flock of pelicans drifting overhead, I could understand why.

Unlike Ixtapa, a government-developed tourist resort full of high-rises and chain restaurants just four miles away, Zihuatanejo and its laid-back style and cobbled streets more closely met my needs. Plus this Pacific Coast town of 120,000 is just a three-hour flight from Los Angeles.

As 2014 was winding down, my friend Karen and I decided to explore this part of Mexico for the first time. We shared a two-bedroom villa at Playa la Ropa’s Club Intrawest, which is carved out of a cliff and features private terraces, panoramic views and a personal plunge pool. I had been able to trade one of my membership vacation weeks last minute for this.

Eight buildings sit on 13 levels connected by open stairways (no elevators) that wind down from penthouse homes to elegant, adobe-inspired villas and the beach. I enjoyed the strenuous climb up and down, trusting it burned off some of the daily happy-hour calories.

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I spent cool mornings exploring Zihuatanejo Bay and El Centro, the downtown. Each day began with walking the cobbled streets or taking the Paseo del Pescador (Fisherman’s Path) by the sea.

Playa Principal, beside the municipal pier, turned into a lively market as the sun rose. Fishermen who had been out at night brought in their boats loaded with snapper, bonita, tuna, barracuda, sierra, wahoo and mahi-mahi.

By dawn, the local catch was spread on the ground and sold. The locals were gracious and willing to answer questions; fishing is the lifeblood of Zihuatanejo, and for many it is a tradition passed down for generations.

Afternoons had a different pace during the heat of the day. Relaxing with a book on the Playa la Ropa in Zihuatanejo Bay and floating in the Pacific were followed by backgammon, paddle ball and half-price drinks at the swim-up bar.

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The week flew. Because our flight home wasn’t until late afternoon, Karen and I packed in as many activities as possible the last day.

Before the sun’s rays appeared, we were on our way to the Mercado Municipal (public market), which took up a city block. Crowded stalls sold whole, skinned chickens, housewares, spices, jute boxes and just about anything else you could imagine.

We also took a quick stroll through town for last-minute gifts, then hustled back to the beach for a final plunge.

Then it was time to leave. We weren’t the only ones filled with regret.

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Ellen Hamilton of Toledo, Ohio, and her family were winding up a two-week vacation in a place they’ve visited often.

“It’s like coming home again,” she said. “We see all the local people we’ve met in the past 10 years since we started coming here.

“This is a village, not a bunch of fake high-rises. Blue skies, sunshine, ocean breeze. This is real.”

So the fish looks tempting in Zihuatanejo? Catch your own

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After hanging out for a couple of mornings at the market on Zihuatanejo’s Playa Principal, the town-square-turned-fish-market, I was inspired to try my hand at fishing.

For $75 each, my friend Karen and I hired the Reny (Marcos and Marlene Monserrat, 1 Playa la Ropa), a small fishing boat manned by Polo Flores and Gustavo Farfan, who picked us up bright and early outside our hotel.

After rigging our lines, we headed for the lighthouse, El Faro, and surrounding bays, trolling as we went. We spent the morning watching boobies dive-bomb our lures as they glistened below the surface.

With no hits to entertain us, we snorkeled for a while. Later in the morning, the fish began cooperating. My rod suddenly bent nearly in half, so I jerked it, trying to set the hook. Instead, we saw a good-sized mahi-mahi fly off my line and flip in the air. I knew I hadn’t been fast enough.

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More determined than ever, the next time I got a hit I quickly set the hook and reeled in a yellowfin tuna. It was small by tuna standards, which can range upward of 300 pounds, but still, what a thrill.

At lunch time, our captains motored us to their favorite restaurant, Otilia’s (on the beach at Playa las Gatas), and grilled our tuna, which was served with sautéed vegetables. We paired our catch of the day with a couple of Negra Modelo beers. The fish was delicious, and there was plenty of tuna for our party of four. Lunch was included in the price of the excursion if you caught your own fish.

5 restaurants to check out in Zihuatanejo

At the end of our first day in Zihuatanejo, my friend Karen and I watched the sun set, then headed out to explore the neighborhood at dusk. We walked up Escénica la Ropa, a curvy road overlooking Playa la Madera.

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We found good dining in Zihuatanejo; here are some of our choices. To call outside the country, call 011 (international dialing code), 52 (country code) and 755 (area code).

For dinner, we decided on Kau-Kan (Domicilio Conocido, Playa Larga, Zihuatanejo; 554-8446, www.casakaukan.com/kaukan), an open-roof restaurant with views of the surrounding bays and sparkling lights. We feasted on fresh mahi-mahi carpaccio with olive oil and lime, and grilled red snapper, vegetables, lemon and sweet capers. About $84 for two.

Most afternoons we would wander down the beach for a late lunch of fresh fish. There were many choices, and we were never disappointed. Dining was casual, with tables at the edge of the sand, and inexpensive, especially compared with Los Angeles prices.

We had chiles rellenos and fish tacos, washed down with Negra Modelo beer, at Hotel Villa Mexicana (Playa la Ropa, La Ropa; 554-3631, www.lat.ms/1NlZgzE). About $27 for two.

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At Paty’s Marimar (Playa la Ropa; 554-2213, www.patys-marymar.com), we dined on mahi-mahi fajitas accompanied by a couple of Victoria beers. About $26 for two.

At the southern end of Playa la Ropa, next to an estuary lined with mangrove trees, El Manglar (Presidente Darío Galeana Farayan, Playa la Ropa; 554-3752, www.lat.ms/1Fu2Rnk) was a nice surprise. It’s secluded but worth the hunt. And you can see iguanas, crocodiles and several kinds of wetland and coastal birds while you dine. Karen’s Diabla Shrimp was wonderfully spicy, and my tuna steak, with sesame seeds, pecan and coconut sauce, was outstanding. About $28 for two.

At the Fonda Irma (Mercado Municipal) we shared a large plate of chiles rellenos (about $3) for breakfast. It’s casual, with chairs circling the counter so you can watch your meal being prepared.

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If you go:

THE BEST WAY TO ZIHUATANEJO, MEXICO

From LAX, Alaska offers nonstop service to Zihuatanejo, and Aeromexico and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $446, including fees and taxes.

TELEPHONE

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To call the numbers below from the U.S. dial 011 (international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) 755 (area code) and the local number.

GETTING AROUND

You don’t need to rent a car if you plan to stay in Zihuatanejo. If you’re staying at Playa la Ropa, it’s a 20-minute walk to town. Taxis are inexpensive: A ride into town is about $2 depending on the time; add 40% between midnight and 5 a.m. For information on local transportation — taxis, buses and rental cars — go to Zihua Rob’s Servicios Internet at www.zihuatanejo.net/localtransport.html

WHERE TO STAY

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Hotel Irma, Calle Adelita, La Madera Beach, Zihuatanejo; 554-8472, www.lat.ms/1NY80vQ. Inexpensive standard rooms, balcony or terrace sea view. Doubles from $60 a night, not including fees or taxes.

Catalina Beach Resort, Playa la Ropa, Zihuatanejo; 554-2137, www.catalinabeachresort.com. Doubles from $100.

Casa Kau-Kan Boutique Hotel, Playa Larga, Zihuatanejo; 554-6226, www.casakaukan.com. Eleven suites beginning at $110.

TO LEARN MORE

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Mexico Tourism Board, www.visitmexico.com/en/ixtapa-zihuatanejo

travel@latimes.com

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