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I'm not sure what it is exactly about the country that attracts us, but we love Mexico. We've been going there for the last 19 years and we still find things about it that excite, amaze and amuse us every time we visit. I like to think we harbour few delusions about the country, and we approach our visits with open, uncritical eyes, but it's unfailingly interesting and compelling. Mexico is a complex nation, difficult to understand from the fragments of time we see it, but it has a rich, evocative culture that attracts us as much as the weather and the scenery. The history is convoluted, fragmented, even confusing - but always fascinating. It gets under your skin in a way we can't really explain.
Mexico is a mix of alluring beauty and appalling squalor. As tourists, we merely skim the surface, but we try not to apply our own standards and preconceptions on what we see. It's easy to criticize without understanding the background, and sometimes it's equally difficult not to judge. You have to take Mexico on its own merits to appreciate it and you have to break out of the restrictive all-inclusives and neatly-packaged resorts to even get a glimpse of the real Mexico. But all the years haven't dulled our appetite for it: there's always something new to discover. We start counting the days to our next visit from the day we return from our last one.
Perhaps the hospitality has a lot to do with it. The Mexican people we have encountered everywhere we've been have proven for the most part warm and gracious, polite and honest. They're industrious, with a keen sense of entrepreneurship that we Canadians lack. They seem unhampered by the obsessive bureaucracy and sometimes picayune rules that shape our municipalities and our daily lives. While a Mexican town may seem chaotic and unplanned compared to our own communities, it also seems more vibrant and alive. The townspeople seem to find almost every conceivable way and place to create work. I admire that quality.The past five years we have stayed in Zihuatanejo, a fishing village of about 80,0003 on the west coast, a couple of hours north of Acapulco. We eschewed the larger resort hotels (mostly in the resort area of Ixtapa) for a different, more intimate experience.
Through a stroke of good fortune, we met up with Señora Leonor Ramirez who lived in a private house on Calle Adelita, near Playa la Madera, with her husband Gonzalo1 and dog Turco2. They rented us a room in their home for the week, and it made our vacation even more enjoyable than we had expected. The room was spotlessly clean and well-kept, the linen changed daily. Their casa had a courtyard with its own small pool, replete with lime trees, coconut palms, avocado, breadfruit and others. We usually spend the hot afternoons by the pool talking with other guests or simply reading and relaxing with a cold beer (purchased at a local convenience store) and fresh wedge of lime (sometimes plucked from the courtyard trees). The owners and their housekeepers make all their guests feel at home, part of their extended family. We enjoy it so much that we've been back five times - and book a year in advance now, because it fills up that quickly!
Since they don't offer food where we stayed, in the mornings we head into town for breakfast. We usually stop at Cafe Casa, a small restaurant in a courtyard on Calle Adelita, run by a couple from Oregon, Johnny3 and Lorna, who, with their daughter Lisa and son Christopher, moved to Zihua and opened a bed and breakfast. That takes a lot of courage, just to pull up roots and move to another country. Johnny stands out on the street, enticing passersby with the promise of freshly-brewed coffee, something not always available in local restaurants where instant coffee is the rule. Johnny and Lorna provide good company and hospitality - they always take the time to chat with their guests and make them feel comfortable. If you get to Zihua, tell them we said hello and that you saw this reference on our Web site. And stop by for a coffee, too. They're justifiably proud of it... and don't neglect the conversation with the other guests. Cafe Casa is a great place to meet new friends and share travel experiences with other snowbirds who often live for months in nearby houses or small hotels. It's become a local meeting ground for people who love Zihua.
Lisa, by the way, is now married to a Mexican gentleman named Alvarado, who fishes in the nearby Pacific and sometimes helps in the restaurant. It was a real honour to meet him and join them for dinner - and talk a bit about fishing, motorcycles and their plans. They are expecting a baby in March, 2003. Our trips to Zihua are more like a homecoming now, as we get to spend a couple of evenings with Pedro and Lorna, chatting away like old friends over a meal in yet another astounding and delightful restaurant they introduce us to.
After breakfast, we wander into the town, usually walking 10-15 minutes along the boardwalk and the beach. We meander into the market, looking through stores, picking up odds and ends, finding newspapers or simply window shopping. We usually check the bookstore, Byblos, and the news stands on the main street. We pick up Mexican newspapers and Spanish-language magazines to read and practice the language. We enjoy just exploring the community, steeping ourselves in its sights and rhythms. When you travel to Mexico, your biggest worry won't be the water: it will be the traffic. As far as I can understand, the colloquial Mexican word for suicide translates into "pedestrian." But Zihua's downtown has lots of walking areas devoid of vehicles, where you can stroll without the constant need for alertness necessary everywhere else. In 2001, the town added several much-needed traffic signals to regulate the increasing volume of vehicles on the main street (Calle Benito Juarez).
While we love the mercado and shopping in the tiny shops and stalls there, for many visitors it's a trying experience (especially if your Spanish isn't up to the banter). Now there is a new outlet in Zihua - a Comercial Mexican store. It's a lot like the Wal-Marts of the USA and Canada: everything under one roof (familiar because, we were told, the Comercial is owned in part by Wal-Mart). The prices aren't the lowest, but it has so much of everything that it makes it easier for visitors and residents. But by all means explore the food market downtown first - especially the stores in the narrow streets behind the central market, where prices can be even lower. If you're cooking for yourself in Zihua, get there early and be prepared to shop aggressively. It's worth the experience.
By late morning the temperature is into the high 80s-low 90s, and it is like walking through a slow-bake oven. We return to the waterfront to find a restaurant with a table on the beach (the malecon on Playa Municipal, also called the Paseo de Pescadores) where we can feel a breeze coming off the water, and enjoy a couple of cold beer and maybe some lunch before returning to our room. Mexican beer is another reason to go south. We tried them all as far as we could tell - Tecate Light, Tecate, Indio, Pacifico, Victoria, Modelo negro, Modelo Especial, Corona, Bohemia, Dos Equis, and Sol, all served with a wedge of fresh lime. Maybe it tastes so good just because it's served cold in scorching hot weather at a beachfront table under waving palm trees. It doesn't get much better than that.
One of our favourite spots is Sirena Gorda - the Fat Mermaid. They make the best fish tacos in town! And here's a tip: got stomach problems? Probably common "traveller's diarrhea" - seldom serious, mostly uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing. Drink plenty of purified water and juices to rehydrate, stay out of the sun for a day or two, eat plain foods, and you should recover. We eat plenty of yogurt in Mexico to help our internal flora and fauna get used to change when we travel, and we start taking extra acidopholus tablets about a month before we fly. Mexican yogurt is very tasty and available in dozens of flavours and styles. We eat yogurt daily and we have never been seriously ill from food in all our years visiting Mexico.
For a change of scenery from the downtown, you can go to any number of other nearby locations. There are several beaches around the bay worth visiting, including Playa Madera, Playa La Ropa and Playa Las Gatos. At Playa la Ropa, the best local beach for swimming, we met an enchanting and entertaining native girl, Juanita, an 11-year-old who spoke English extremely well, not to mention Spanish and her own Indian tongue. She was effervescently friendly, laughing and teasing the tourists who sat under the umbrellas eating lunch while the sun baked the sands around us. She enthralled everyone with her lively spirit and the sheer joy she exhibited in living. She was selling the usual array of trinkets, but not aggressively. She seemed to be having a lot of fun just teasing us. Her smile and infectious laughter brightened the day for all of us.
The beach offers the usual tourist sports like parasailing and banana boat rides, but for us we just enjoy the food from the beach-front restaurants, the cold beer, the sound of the waves, and the hot sun. At the far end of Playa La Ropa, there are a couple of good eateries, one where you will often hear modern Latin music, including some good Cuban bands and performers (some new to me, which prompted me to find their CDs online when we returned). It's a good day, just lying in the sun, decompressing.
Playa Los Gatos is smaller and more relaxed, with a little offshore reef at waist depth that even neophytes can snorkel easily. There are thousands of small, brightly coloured fish in the warm water. There are restaurants, beach chairs and a few amusements like banana boat rides at Los Gatos. Watch for broken glass in the water near the shore - I picked up a large coffee-can of glass shards from the shallows around our chosen spot one day. It's mostly found around the mouth of the small stream about mid-beach, washed down from the hills. Also be careful of the small rays in the sand. They're not many, and they're not aggressive, but they hide in the sand and they don't like being stepped on! Their stings are not very poisonous, but can be very painful.
You can also go to Ixtapa for a visit, about 10 km away, but for all its charm, it seems sterile and contrived after Zihua. Outside the golf and tennis, there isn't much it has to offer that isn't in Zihua, but there are several good restaurants (Da Buffone is the best Italian restaurant within 100 miles. Senor Ito's is a Japanese-Mexican restaurant, plus there are a couple of reasonable Mexican restaurants with traditional fare). There are lively nightlife spots (Senor Frog's) plus some uptempo shopping for those who are after that sort of thing.
If you've never been to Mexico, Ixtapa is an excellent place to start. It's clean, safe and friendly. And there's a lot to be said for a swim-up bar! But make sure you take a day trip or two into Zihua while you're there. Try to avoid the timeshare sellers. They'll start up a conversation asking where you're from or ask you if you like Ixtapa, then after a minute or two, they'll lead into the pitch. They make it sound like it's fun, and you'll get free stuff out of it, just for a few minutes of your time. But it's a relentless, high-pressure marketing pitch once you get there, it takes hours to complete, and they make it difficult to leave without signing. If you're not looking to buy, then avoid the stress and just say "No, gracias," when approached. But if you're in the market, go for the tour. But make sure you exchange your time for at least a free meal!
Another tip: change your money in banks. Street money exchanges don't offer the best rates. They are okay in a pinch, but you get a better deal at banks. Besides, most banks are air conditioned, so waiting in line is nice and cool. You can also use your credit card for major purchases and get cash at bank machines with your debit card.
There are other places to visit nearby. A 30-45 minute, inexpensive bus ride will take you to the beach across from Isla Ixtapa. You can take a boat over to the island and swim, snorkel or dive the reefs, or you can stay on the land side and enjoy the water and food. There's also a nature reserve filled with crocodiles, safely behind fences, but very close. In February the river is filled with hundreds of thousands of small fish coming upstream to spawn. They attract many birds to feed off them, which perks the crocs' interest... it's a nature show worth catching. And beyond that area, there is Trocones and its beach, or on the south side is Barra de Potosi ... so much to see, so little time. By mid to late afternoon, we usually head back to the room for a shower and a light siesta. For more adventurous visitors, you can take a bus into the hills to visit Petatlan, a small community about 45-60 minutes away to the south. Very traditional place, with a large gold vendors' market in the zocalo and a massive church that dominates the town (the region's largest).
Later in the day, when the sun is lower and starting to set over the Pacific, we leave the hacidena and stroll back downtown to find a place for dinner. Along the beach, we see pelicans wading ashore to catch tidbits tossed to them by the fishermen bringing in fresh catch for the day and preparing for the next morning's work. Pelicans are large, ungainly birds on land, but once airborne, they soar over the waves with a remarkable grace, all awkwardness lost. We sit at a table on the shoreline and watch them in the fading light. As the day wanes, they settle on some of the boats anchored in the shallows, their strange silhouettes bobbing in the gentle swell. Wandering musicians perform at tables nearby and we can hear the strains of "Malaguena Salerosa" and other musical favourites drift our way. The romance of Mexico is a daily occurrence.
The waterfront and the downtown core offer a wealth of culinary experiences, albeit a bit pricey in places. We had great seafood at Casa Elvira, La Sirena Gorda (the best fish tacos in town!), Daniel's, Tata's and further uptown at Huachinango (Spanish for red snapper - now sadly closed). One night we generally go to Da Buffone, in Ixtapa, an excellent Italian restaurant with a good wine list and a marinated octopus that is superbly melt-in-your-mouth tender. It's worth flying 3,000+ miles for and certainly worth the trip from Zihua!
We also ate great Mexican food at Tamales y Atoles 'Any' which offered "comida 100% Mexicana" - generous servings of tasty fare (make sure you eat real Mexican food at least once when you go there - and try to avoid the steak-and-potatoes routine). El Mango is another good place to eat, just a few blocks from the beach - unpretentious but good, hearty food and very inexpensive.
Almost everywhere we've had good food and excellent service that has made for many memorable meals. There are enough good places to eat that we have many more to experience the next year. Don't be afraid to try some of the smaller places away from the main tourist zone. Prices are usually reasonable and the food good. Besides, they all have cold beer.
For more upscale meals and impeccable service, go across the marina and up the hill to Casa Bahia where they have superb cuisine. Will also offers an excellent selection of tequilas and even ages the local mezcal to make it deliciously smooth. A popular place among the yacht set is Coconuts - excellent food albeit pricey for the visitor on a shoestring. Or enjoy a modest Italian meal (including some uniquely Mexican pizza combinations) at Emilio's above the street across from JJ's.
Thursday nights are pozole nights in Zihua and you can enjoy a bowl of this typically Mexican stew at most local restaurants. John and Lorna introduced us to Ricomar, a tiny place tucked away in an alley across from Mango's (great place for a simple, filling meal). It has, they say, the best pozole in town (Thursday is pozole night). And so much you can barely eat it all! We had the green (chicken - the red is pork) pozole and it was delicious and filling - plus inexpensive. The place was packed with locals and visitors alike enjoying their meal. Another good dish you can get at the corner restaurant just up the alley (on Nicolas Bravo) is posima, or chicken soup.
We're investigating business opportunities, trying to determine if we can find or create suitable work for us. A business plan is percolating in my head already. And if not, well maybe we can retire there (any place where you can ride a motorcycle every day of the year is worth serious consideration!). Who knows - maybe open an MBE franchise? In the meantime, we're counting the days until we return...
(PS. As usual I brought back some fine tequilas and premium mezcals to sip at my leisure at home... but there are many new brands available and more choices to ponder. I face this unexplored territory in tequilas with a sense of excitement. Click here for my comments on tequila, its history and production.)
(PPS. If you want to learn more about the heart and soul of Mexico, not just the tourist stuff, read Carl Franz's wonderful book, 'The People's Guide to Mexico' published by John Muir Press. It's entertaining, witty, informative and thoroughly delightful. Even if you don't plan to go south, read it just for the sheer fun of it. The latest edition is the 30th anniversary edition.)
Click here to see flying over Ixtapa.
Notes for 2003:
www.zihuatanejo.net/ Includes a message board
Here's a picture of the winter we leave behind. Maybe that's part of the reason we love Mexico so much. But it's not the only reason. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to add your two cents' worth.
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