ZIHUATANEJO - TRANQUILO PERO PICOSO!

VACATION

1,311 words, with cuts to 650, plus two short sidebars.

ZIHUATANEJO - TRANQUILO PERO PICOSO!

By Paul and Lorie Bennett

When planning a trip to Mexico via the travel pages or brochures, one is
tempted to try the cruise ships which ply the Mexican Riviera, stopping at
resort towns just long enough for tourists to buy embroidered dresses or
silver earrings.

Or how about a tidy package holiday in an air-conditioned hotel on a beach
crowded with fellow tourists? These holidays guarantee a good time for a
fat wallet, but travelers are rather insulated from the ''Mexican
experience."

We prefer our Mexico tranquilo pero picoso - quiet but spicy. We love the
long, lazy days at perfect beaches, enlivened by a tangy ceviche (fish
cocktail) for lunch. Or an afternoon nap interrupted by the birth of
turtles under a beach chair (see sidebar).

Six trips to resorts along the Pacific Coast of Mexico have convinced us
that the community of Zihuatanejo, and specifically Playa La Ropa beach, is
a rare find.

''Zee-what," as the local gringos call it, is small enough to remain
low-rise, but big enough - with the help of regular cruise-ship visits and
the nearby high-rise resort community of Ixtapa - to support a range of
boutiques, artisan stores, fine restaurants and many outdoor activities.

Aficionados have been coming here for years - first the Mexicans holidaying
from their big cities, then others who discovered its charms in the '60s
and 70s and have remained loyal since.

It's a place where discerning - and sometimes just lucky - norteamericanos
come to enjoy the perfect holiday - which basically consists of a lot of
lying around on beaches under shady coconut-leafed palapa shelters,
reading, dozing or watching the local children at play.

We love to interact closely with the people. Ask any local about their
nios or nias (sons or daughters) and the discussion is instantly animated.
One afternoon, small birthday guests gleefully whacked open a Lion King
pinata, spilling candy and gifts onto the sand floor of a seafront
restaurant.

More active folk head into the clean waters of the bay to snorkel or try
various water sports. A quick dip periodically adjusts one's body
thermostat in the 30-degree Celsius temperatures.

As the day winds down, we head up through the many levels of our Hotel
Catalina/Sotavento to the Bar Panoramico for hora feliz - happy hour.
Sipping frozen margueritas, we watch the blood-red sun dip into the Pacific
in hopes of seeing the ''green flash" just after El Sol slips below the
horizon.

Then comes the toughest choice of the day - where to eat the evening meal.
The Sotavento-Catalina Hotel provides excellent cuisine, but for a change
we walk La Ropa beach barefoot in the dark to any one of a dozen beachfront
restaurants.

A bountiful platter of garlic shrimp, washed down with cervezas (beer) at
La Perla or La Gaviota, an elegant paella with Baja California vino blanco
at a white-tableclothed Spanish-style taberna and dancing on the
sand-encircled floor.

Zihuatanejo's siren call is the unsullied friendliness of the people, its
natural beauty and the cleanliness of the water and surroundings.

On a bay circled by rocky peninsulas, Zihuatanejo's several beaches are
lapped by gentle, child-safe waves.

Each golden-grey strand - Playa Principal, Playa la Madera, Playa la Ropa,
and Playa las Gatas - offers a different range of attractions to the
visitor. The names arise from the colorful history of Zihuatanejo in
precolombian and Spanish times.

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 The Playa Principal, which abuts the downtown zocalo (main plaza), is a
clean swimming beach with lots of maritime activity for the observer.

 Playa la Madera (wood beach) is reputedly the site from which the Spanish
took lumber to build boats and for export. It is the smallest and quietest
of the readily accessible beaches.

 Playa la Ropa (the beach of linen) got its name when the cargo of a
wrecked Chinese junk washed ashore there long ago. About 2.5 km long, its
clean golden sands are bathed with sparkling clear salty water that is
pleasantly warm. At the western end of the beach, a rocky outcrop shelters
a splendid snorkelling reef.

 Playa las Gatas is named after harmless catfish-like sharks that used to
swim the little bay directly opposite Zihuatanejo. It is accessible by
small boat from the main jetty downtown.

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The first three beaches have hotels in the moderate- to medium-price ranges
on the beachfront or within easy walking distance of the shore. La Ropa has
several rated as very expensive in the guidebooks.

(Since the loonie and peso are fluctuating wildly, prices are given in U.S.
dollar equivalents.)

Prices range from $45 to $150 per double per night for the moderate to
medium,  to $250 to $400 for a self-contained suite at the Villa del Sol.
Friends traveling on a budget found fine accommodation near Playa de
Madera for $30 a night, and an inexpensive campground for tenters is just a
few steps from Playa la Ropa.


Most of Zihuatenjo's water-sports action is on La Ropa, featuring rental
canoes, hobie cats with or without skipper, water-skiing, banana-boat
riding, parasailing and jet-ski rentals, all at prices that won't break the
bank-book.

Big-game fishing is big business with record catches still a possibility. A
boat and guide cost about $100 a day, with marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna
and dorado (mahi mahi) the main quarries. An elderly guest who came to golf
got hooked on fishing; went out three times during his week's stay and
scored at least one fish each time. His biggest catch was a 100-pound
marlin.

Choose from an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. course at Ixtapa Golf Club or
Robert Von Hogge's beside the new Marina Zihuatanejo at Ixtapa. Both are in
great demand, with tee-off recommended in the cool of dawn.

Ixtapa is 7 km from Zihuatanejo; a cab costs about $5, the bus only a few
cents. Apart from Ixtapa's hotels, many of which are virtually
self-contained communities, shopping malls feature international-name
boutiques and shops selling Mexican arts and crafts.

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Ixtapa hotels welcome visitors coming for a look, a drink or a meal, or to
use the beach (all beaches are free in Mexico, by federal law.)

These architect-designed mega-hotels may be the choice of those who want a
no-hassle ''resort" holiday, but if you want to sample the Mexican people
at their best, Zihuatanejo is the place.

A visit to the local market is a slice of la vida real  in Mexico.
Fishermen bring in their catch daily; some fish are still flopping when
sold. In the poultry section, plump chickens are sold with heads and feet,
and at the butcher's stalls, where beef and goat are the main fare, thin
strips of meat dry to become jerky.

The market offers just about everything you'd expect to find in a
department store at far lower prices, and it's far more lively and
interesting. On one visit, we watched a young man dancing the pure joy of
life beside his fruit stand.

Also downtown is the dock, where one may rent small boats to Las Gatas
beach or to another tourist attraction, Isla Ixtapa (Isla Grande). This
wildlife preserve has four beaches offering spectacular snorkelling and
diving.
There's a dive shop on the island and several inexpensive palapa
restaurants specialize in seafood. We found the camarones diabolozesty but
exquisite.

Twenty kilometres south of Zihuatanejo, Barra de Potosi comes alive at
weekends when the locals enjoy themselves eating, drinking or taking
siestas in hammocks strung among tables in open-air restaurants near the
lagoon. The beach is great for swimming unless the swells are strong.

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While all these diversions - and many more - are at hand, we ignored most
of them most of the time for the pleasure of quietly sitting under our
palapa reading a book and taking the occasional quick dip or snorkel in the
bay.

The writers are seasoned travelers who live in Victoria, British Columbia.



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