Zihuatanejo Mexico: For Children of all Ages

Story & Photos by Michael Anderson

My father sidled up to me and asked, ” Is this all ours? We get the while place?” We had just walked through the condo and the two terraces with stunning views of La Ropa Beach, and he couldn’t imagine that much space for just the four of us. Spacious was a wholly inadequate description of the condo. But it was the view of the bay and the beach commanded our attention. This was the vacation that everyone dreams about – the beach vacation for children of all ages. 

In our case, children of advanced age. Our parents, mid-80’s, escaped the cold in the US Midwest by visiting us, aged early-60’s, and we had decided that we deserved one last splurge into childhood pleasures on the beach before settling into the cooler climes of the Mexican highland town of Guanajuato.

There’s no shortage of vacation rentals in Zihuatanejo, but the size, location and amenities of Punta Marina 302, together with the attentiveness and graciousness of the owner, Óscar Sánchez, made the choice easy. We drove in from Guanajuato, staying overnight in Pátzcuaro for the Day of the Dead celebrations before heading to the beach.

The countryside down from the highlands was lush green as the rainy season had just ended. Along the way, we passed plantations of avocados, mangoes, and coconuts, pausing beside the road to choose from the towering mounds of brightly colored fruits. Arriving in Zihuatanejo, we wound around the bay, past La Ropa beach, and easily found the vacation rental. Oscar’s housekeeper and cook, Silvia, was waiting for us, and so we began our beach adventure.

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From the terrace, we watched our neighbors frolic in the pool, waving to us to come-on-down and join them. On the beach, the parasailers took off and landed among the sunbathers on the beach, and I said, “I’m going to do that!”

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But first, we needed to unpack and settle in. Sylvia led us through the condo, once again pointing out the features. It had, well– everything! King-sized beds with private modern baths in each room, fully equipped kitchen, large-screen TV entertainment system with satellite dish, Wi-Fi internet, and everyother-day cleaning service. Just like being at home – no cramped hotel rooms for us. That beautiful beach beckoned to us, but we decided that a good meal and a few moments of rest were our first priority after the long drive. We jumped back in the car, drove a few minutes to the supermarket, and loaded up with supplies for the week stay. This would be a frugal vacation, made possible by choosing a vacation rental instead of two hotel rooms. We would prepare one or two meals each day in our own kitchen, splurging at lunch or dinner time according to where we were at the moment.

Preparing our first dinner was a snap – the kitchen came equipped with a microwave, blender, coffee brewer, and a large assortment of pots and dishes. Our dinner ended with a magical moment: sunset over La Ropa beach – gold and orange splashes over the restaurants and palm trees, then, the lights of the village flickering on while we followed the lanterns of the fishing skiffs exiting the harbor for open sea. We had already shifted into slow-motion time.

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Our dinner ended with a magical moment: sunset over La Ropa beach – gold and orange splashes over the restaurants and palm trees, then , the lights of the village flickering on while we followed the lanterns of the fishing skiffs exiting the harbor for open sea . We had already shifted into slow-motion time .

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Beach time
Over the next few days, we explored the towns, Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, the beaches, and the attractions nearby. The prettiest beach, Playa La Ropa, was just a 10-minute walk away – clean, cream-colored sand, Zihuatanejo’s claim to fame. We checked out the beach restaurants as we walked by, finding those that had been recommended by our host, and envied the kids splashing in the gentle waves. The waves were irresistible – we rented beach umbrellas and lounge chairs, sipped juice from freshly cut coconuts, and joined the kids splashing in the waves.

Arriving each day back from the beach, the genius  of Oscar’s interior design became evident. The style of furnishing and decoration was perfect for a beach stay – Mexican contemporary, minimalistic, functional and uncluttered. No worries about bringing in a little sand on our sandals, or breaking some cute decoration. We had everything we needed and nothing extra – perfect! The living room and master bedroom fronted their respective terraces through tall sliding glass doors. The lounge chairs provided the perfect setting for our afterbeach siestas.

Are you ready to get in touch with your inner child and enjoy this beautiful and spacious condo? Click here to get the details now and book your stay

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Still a fishing village
Even with the condos and apartments spreading out along the hills on the south side, Zihuatanejo is still a small fishing town, and the town center preserves that feeling. From the downtown beach, called the Playa Municipal, the fishing skiffs load-up and motor out each afternoon around dusk. We wandered around the boats as the fishermen prepared their nets and tackle, looking into the storage boxes that each boat has on the shore. The fishermen drink beer, joke and feign punches, exchange their fish-tale exaggerations, then help each other drag their skiffs down the sand and out into the sea. This ritual took me back 40 years to when, as a child of the hippie age, I wandered around Mediterranean villages, watching this timeless ritual repeat yet again and again, the men of the sea.

Zihuatanejo by Land, Sea, and Air by Michael Anderson

 

ZM10By Land: Tours by Luis de la Maza
To get a good overview of Zihua and its sister resort town, Ixtapa, we chose a highly-rated tour by Luis de la Maza. Luis drove us through both the historic center and the more modern sections of Zihua, explaining their history and current highlights in excellent English. As he drove, Luis filled in with information we would never have heard elsewhere: population and visitor numbers, hotel prices, shortcuts to the best beaches, rainfall statistics, property values, history of Ixtapa’s development, hurricane dangers, recommended restaurants and handcraft vendors, rock formations, ecology projects, and so-on-and-on about the area. Then we went to photograph the iguanas and crocodiles before taking a boat to Ixtapa Island for snorkeling and a just-caught mojarra lunch. The fish, fries and salad were as delicious as the breezes blowing across the island. Luis is courteous, patient, drives safely and his van is immaculate.

 

 

ZM11By Land: Alberto’s Tours and Services
This tour with Alberto would be a godsend for longer-term vacation renters as Alberto laid bare all the market shopping secrets of Zihuatanejo. We walked through three markets, including the hard-to-find Campesino Market, where Alberto pointed-out the best locations for the freshest foods, best prices, and best low-cost eateries. The walking tour took about 90 minutes, and provided great photo opportunities into the lives of the Zihua townsfolks. If you’ll be staying more than a week in Zihua, this tour will get you oriented in the market culture, save you money and improve your diet.

 

ZM12By Sea: Picante Sunset Cruise
This cruise was great, one of the highlights of our trip to Zihuatanejo. The Picante Catamaran is 75 feet long, 35 feet wide, with a forward tarp (no shoes allowed) between the two hulls. The rear section has solid floors and chairs around an open bar. The boat was very stable in-harbor and out on the ocean. To pleasant music, salsa, light rock, blues and romantic music, we motored out of the bay, then north along the coast towards Ixtapa. After clearing the bay, the main sail was raised with the help of the passengers, but that was just for visual effect – we motored the entire trip. Along the way, we passed Las Gatas beach, cliff-side caves, and rugged coastlines until passing along the hotel row of Ixtapa. After a light meal on-board, we headed back to Zihuatanejo bay further out in the ocean to watch the fantastically romantic sunset. Both the crew and the passengers danced and imbibed, great fun for all.

 

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Fisherman’s beach is next to the main wharf of Zihuatanejo where many of the town’s restaurants, cafés, and curiosity shops are located. Touristy, but fun.

Resort town and monsters
We found the resort town of Ixtapa less interesting – it was mainly premium-priced hotels with upscale restaurants and tourist-trap attractions. We wandered through some of the hotels admiring their infinity pools and amenities, but if we had to pay their prices for lodging and food, we couldn’t have made this trip. Just having our own kitchen saved us so much time and expense.

Ixtapa has several nice beaches, but the crocodile reserve was a bit unsettling. The crocodiles, just a few inches away behind a skimpy wire fence, flash that “come on in for lunch” invitation, and they are certainly large enough to honor their offer.

Miniature dinosaurs, called iguanas locally, seem equally willing to indulge in toes and fingers, and these came through the fence easily, hypnotizing the homo sapiens with fierce stares from their slanted eyes. We backed away slowly and silently just to find ourselves trapped by a stream of swamp water. We had to peel-off shoes and roll-up pants to cross over and were pleased to escape to Ixtapa Island by skiff for swimming, snorkeling, and lunch.

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Treasures are where you find them
Wandering around the town center on a Saturday morning, we stumbled upon an unexpected treat, the Ecological Flea Market at the Archeology Museum. We were drawn in by two excellent musicians playing Cuban songs and a few Santana pieces. They kept us entertained as we marveled over the ingenuity of the artisans to create decorations and jewelry from recycled items. Partial to the natural beauty of seashells, I selected some gifts for back-home friends while my wife tried on handembroidered blouses and hand-painted scarves. My mother sampled natural body creams and oils, and the fragrances of artisan organic soaps.

We had just finished breakfast, so we skipped the tantalizing vegan foods on offer, but we did try the chilate, a drink made with white cacao, rice, cinnamon and brown sugar. It was very rich, filling and delicious. We sampled Snake Eye mescal, a close relative to tequila, as our final treat before loading up on organic produce to take back to our condo for lunch.

It feels like you belong
A few days into our stay, we found we were exchanging buenos días and small talk with our neighbors and folks along our walking and shopping paths. The feeling of being part of the town rather than walking-dollar-bill-tourists, if just for a few days, is one of the most satisfying aspects of staying in a vacation rental. The Mexicans are naturally warm and responsive and appreciated our small courtesies and attempts to make conversation. After they see you a few times out in their neighborhoods, they adopt you as a neighbor and respond with neighborly grace. There’s a suspension of belief: you belong – what a difference from a hotel!

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Mexican spice and seafood
Armed with recommendations from our host and from TripAdvisor, we passed the entire week with nary a bad meal. At each restaurant, we tried the freshest seafood, or local specialties such as chiles rellenos, pozole, tamales and tacos, and pork BBQ ribs. If you like Mexican spiciness, you must try pozole, a stew of hominy granules and pork or chicken chunks in a red, green or white spicy sauce. As side condiments, you’ll add oregano, radish slices, minced onion, minced chile serrano, and shredded lettuce to suit your taste, using crispy corn tostada chips in place of crackers. An ice-cold dark beer, such as Bohemia, washes down the spiciness perfectly. Pozole is traditionally prepared on Thursdays in Zihuatanejo – we found both the white and green pozole excellent at Any’s Tamales and Atoles restaurant on Calle Ejido #18 in the center of Zihua.

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Practice run for your retirement.
My wife and I are very pleased with our lives and location in Guanajuato, at about 6,500 feet above sea level. We find the coastal heat, even in November, too extreme for our comfort. But I overheard several conversations between my parents, coming from a much colder city in North America, how wonderful it would be to live in a hotter climate next to the ocean. They talked about the cost of living, activities, socializing with the locals and other expats, mobility issues, and so on. For them, our one week stay in a vacation rental in Zihuatanejo had transformed into a practice run of a potential retirement situation. I can’t think of a better way to do it.

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Food Fantasia
We used TripAdvisor.com and the recommendations of our host to choose restaurants for each day’s special meals.

Rufo’s Grill
Our first dinner out was at Rufo’s Grill in Colonia Madera, a rustic joint just a short drive from our condo. To the soft tropical sounds of bossa nova on bongo and guitar, we shared three specialty dishes, spicy pork ribs with a Texas style BBQ sauce; grilled white fish, and grilled vegetables. Expats and tourists packed the restaurant, always a good sign, and we weren’t disappointed. The BBQ ribs were especially good, give them a try.

Cooking with Claudia
My mother and I began at 8:00 AM at the market for a tour of fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses. Alberto, Claudia’s husband. took us to three different markets, pointing out where the freshest and best-priced foodstuffs were found.

Along the way, we purchased the items needed for our cooking project– chiles rellenos in tomato sauce. Following the market tour, we went to Claudia’s house close by the nature reserve of Barra de Potosí. We were greeted by Claudia, who immediately led us to the kitchen and we got started, washing the chile poblanos and other ingredients. We worked through the process of burning-off the skins of the chiles, cleaning them, removing the seeds, and filling them with cortija cheese. The chiles were powdered with flour, covered in whipped egg batter and fried in oil.

Finally, we chopped tomatoes, garlic and onions and made a sauce and re-cooked the chiles in that sauce. Then came the best part – eating our own creations.

My chile relleno was the most delicious, of course, but everyone enjoyed their own. Definitely a great cooking class for home-made Mexican cooking. See Claudia’s website for details.

Tamales y Atoles “Any” Restaurant
The manager greeted us personally, and we noticed that she greeted all the diners, most of whom were foreigners, and made everyone feel quite welcome. We were there on a Thursday night, which is the traditional night for pozole in Zihuatanejo. My father and I decided on white and green pozoles, my mother tried the chile relleno, and my wife chose the taco and tamale combo. The food was great, plenty spicy like my wife and I like it, but a little too picosa for my parents. While we ate, we were serenaded with romantic ballads by a talented guitarist. The place was brightly decorated in Mexican colors, the food was delicious.

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La Perla at La Ropa beach
Located right in the middle of La Ropa beach, La Perla is perfectly located for those day-long excursions into the sea and sand. The owner, Franscisco Ibarra, greeted us personally and introduced us to his mother, Doña Raquel and the rest of the family, Rocio, Pepe, and Carla. Carla and Doña Raquel are also the chefs, and I watched them in action on the seafood spread that we ordered.

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And what a spread! We sat out on the sand under a beach umbrella and started with fresh coconut chunks with lime as our appetizer. The main course was spiny pacific lobster tail with beans, rice and salad; tiritas de pescado (marinated fish strips) with orange and avocado slices; whole mojarra (sea snapper) with salad; all washed down with a smooth, sweet white wine and fresh coconut juice. While we watched the waves, swimmers and parasailers, La Perla’s cranky parrot watched us, screeching on occasion as we stretched our feet out in the sand, enjoying the breeze and the delicious seafood.

Carmelita’s Cafe
We had seen several recommendations of Carmelita’s Cafe for breakfast, so we popped-in one morning. We were served by Doña Carmelita herself and her son, Victor, both taking the time to sit and chat with us. My wife and parents chose conventional Mexican breakfasts, but I wanted the signature dishes: aporreadillo and pig’s ribs. We began with an appetizer, requeson guisado epasote, a soft cheese mixed with herbs, then dug-in to our selections. I had ordered two plates and couldn’t stop eating until they both vanished. Delicious.

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At the next table, a business man attacked a scrumptious plate of shrimp with avocado, tomatoes and chile serranos as if he hadn’t eaten in days. Doña Carmelita circulated around the tables with a big basket of sweet breads, just right with the after-breakfast coffee.

Mariscos Lety’s
Each time we asked expats in town about good seafood, they recommended Mariscos Lety’s coconut shrimp. We were served by Lety herself and Tany, both friendly and gracious. We each chose a different dish plus an extra coconut shrimp. My wife tried the fish fillet, my parents chose the chipotle shrimp and chile relleno, and I ordered the coconut shrimp. Everything was delicious and we were happy to split the extra coconut shrimp among us.You need to try Mariscos Lety’s.

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Children of Old Ages

Many vacation destinations present problems for older travelers, but Zihuatanejo is not one of the problematic places. If you are able to get around walking, you’ll be fine. Both towns, Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, are flat with even sidewalks and good lighting. Zihuatanejo has a compact center, and it’s easy to walk around to the points of interest. There are few steps and they are well marked and lighted. Roving taxis are easily found if you get tired. Even wheelchair folks ill have few problems as most streets have several ramps. Ixtapa is better suited for automobile exploration, with plenty of free parking everywhere. The restaurants in both towns often have menus in English and English-speaking waiters. To provide the outstanding views of the beaches, most vacation rentals are up on the surrounding hills, but there is road access everywhere and taxis are available with just a phone call. And, of course, the beaches are flat and seem to go on forever, perfect for exercise walking. Being children doesn’t make us spring chickens.

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Mike Anderson

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