Eleven years ago we planned our first trip south of the border this way:
Dan: Should we go to Mexico?
Kathy: Really? I'd love to, but I'm not sure we can afford it.
Dan: No, I think we can do it. Here, look at these brochures. It's not that bad.
Kathy: Oh, wow, yeah, you're right! This would be soooo cool!
Since I knew very little about Mexico or any of these destinations-- Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Playa del Carmen, etc.-- I had no idea where to begin. So I sorted by price and started with the least expensive trip. A lot has changed since then, but at that time, of the hundreds of options the Hotel Irma in Zihuatanejo seemed to be at the bottom (or top) of the list... depending on one's perspective.
I said to Dan, Yeah, we'll probably end up at the Hotel Irma in this strange place Zi-whatever. It's not even on the beach :-\. I said that because I knew we shouldn't spend a lot of money. I guess I'm a bit frugal, but I was also thinking maybe we should wait until we could do it "right." You know, sometimes the "cheapest" thing can be worse than nothing...
Then I found this article and I was so completely enchanted. I called Dan and said, I know where we're going! I can't wait! Let's gooooo!!! I didn't know then that booking on-line was an option, so we went to a travel agency. The agent, when hearing of our plans, blasted the location and suggested the "Qualton Club" in Ixtapa instead. She went all out describing how miserable we'd be at Zihuatanejo. We left there, and Dan was crestfallen. I told him, "No. We're going to Zihuatanejo. Sorry, but I know we're going to love it! Please trust me." And we went. Here's the article that drew me in (you had me at the title :-) and after a number of visits (sans any of the issues cited here), we've never looked back.
March 5, 1998
Zihuatanejo: Slice of charming, laid-back and 'real' Mexico
By M.L. LYKE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico -- Days wake up slowly in this laid-back fishing village.
Roosters crow half-heartedly and scrawny beggar dogs yawn beneath cracked adobe walls.
Down time-worn cobblestone streets, locals linger over huevos rancheros and fresh mango juice at outdoor cafes, and shopkeepers leisurely sweep sidewalks before putting out hammocks and serapes in vivid yellows, purples and reds.
Backed up against the jungled foothills of the Sierra Madres, it's a slice of Old Mexico, unhurried and humbly charming.
And for cost-conscious travelers, it's a slice of affordable paradise.
Clean, comfortable rooms can go for as little as $20 in this town of 40,000, set on a tranquil milewide bay with buildings stair-stepping up the cliffs.
A mere five miles away in the popular tourist town of Ixtapa, a luxury high-rise resort developed by Mexican entrepreneurs in the '70s, rooms can average $100 to $150. The stunning Hotel Westin Brisas Ixtapa charges $200 and up.
A cerveza at the upscale Ixtapa hotels can cost 25 pesos -- about $3 U.S.. The same bottle of beer costs less than half that in most Zihuatanejo restaurants -- but it won't be served in a galvanized bucket with ice, next to a pool with a swim-up bar, a restaurant with an American menu and a TV hooked up to ESPN via satellite.
That's Ixtapa, the New Mexico.
"It's not the real Mexico," one earnest taxi driver warned us sternly.
We wanted to go Mexican, and we wanted to go cheap. And despite a sprinkling of high-end hotels, including the architecturally exquisite La Casa Que Canta, we had dozens of budget to moderate hotels to choose from.
We picked Zihuatanejo's Hotel Irma, a favorite of Mexican tourists. The double room cost us approximately $40 a night, and the view from it was sweeping -- from the big blue waters of the Pacific to the downtown docks where sport-fishing boats daily bring in sailfish and black marlin.
It was those fish that led mano-a-mano trophy fishers such as Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway to this sleepy village decades ago, long before highways connected it to Acapulco and a municipal airport was built a short hop from downtown.
The Hotel Irma is no Westin. Despite two swimming pools on the terrace, linen tablecloths, hibiscus strewn across fresh-made beds and bougainvillea tumbling over private lanais, it isn't for the fussy. On our visit, plumbing was problematic, paint peeled on outside walls, the air conditioner leaked and the small TVs offered strictly Spanish programming.
Constant remodeling meant pounding hammers every morning. And we didn't dare drink the tap water.
But the Irma is remarkably clean, its staff exceptionally warm and friendly and the service prompt. Every day, away from traffic jams, cell phones and urban stress, we eased into its funky grace.
Mornings were spent wandering streets downtown, a half-hour from our hotel along a waterfront walkway. Early risers caught swimmers free-diving for pearl oysters and fishermen launching their fiberglass pangas on the beach, some crossing themselves as they prayed for a bountiful catch of tuna, dorado or roosterfish.
We found everything in Zihuatanejo within walking distance -- the folk art galleries, the small archaeology museum and the Mercado de Artesanias, a crafts market with fine goods from across Mexico. There we bargained for intricately designed Michoacan lacquerware, colorful Guerrero masks -- some frighteningly grotesque -- and everywhere, fine Taxco silver, stamped and priced by the ounce, at about a dollar per gram.
Afternoons, we headed to nearby sandy beaches, parking for the day beneath the thatched palapas of seaside restaurants. Attentive waiters served our every whim, bringing platters of fresh-caught fish, ceviche, delicious camarones al ajo -- shrimp garnished with toasted garlic.
We swam and snorkeled in the 80-degree water, played travel Scrabble, sipped cerveza and swung lazily in cotton hammocks, periodically serenaded by strolling mariachis or visited by Mayan peddlers with strings of beads, aloe cream and squash-stuffed pastries to sell.
One young girl, a clever little peddler who seemed to be everywhere at once, turned a heart-wrenching pout on tightwad gringos. We called her "Cry Baby."
A typical indolent afternoon under a palapa might cost us $10each.
Our favorite beaches were at Isla Ixtapa, a small lovingly preserved island reached by a $2 panga trip from docks just north of Ixtapa. A close second was the beautiful Playa las Gatas at the far reach of Zihuatanejo Bay. This "cat beach," named for small, whiskered nurse sharks that once inhabited its placid waters, is a quick boat trip from the downtown pier.
Just over the hill is Playa la Ropa, "the clothes beach," a milelong crescent of yellow-white sand that got its name when a 16th-century Chinese galleon full of fine silks was scuttled by the buccaneers who once called Zihuatanejo home.
In the heat of the day, from 1:30 to 4 p.m., the village closes up for siesta and lunchtime. But as the evening cools off, the action heats up. "Zihuatanejenses," locals say, love a good time.
And they're not talking Ixtapa disco.
We got a taste of local action our last night in town, catching a $2 taxi to town in search of spicy chiles rellenos and fish molé and margaritas grandes in salted glasses as wide as a human head.
In the streets, young villagers jammed into trucks, laughing and waving and singing, with stacks of speakers blasting Mexican rock 'n' roll. The pretty black-haired young women had very red lips and very tight purple dresses.
Lost in the simple magic of the evening, we followed the crowds to the Plaza de Armas town square on the waterfront. There, a young woman with a wireless microphone sang plaintive Mexican opera under the stars.for a crowd of a hundred villagers. She was a sidewalk drama queen, bent beseechingly on her knees.
The crowd hooted its appreciation, and we smiled.
This, we decided must be the real Mexico our guide had told us about.
We were only five miles from Ixtapa, but we could have been 500.
The (almost ;-) infinity pool at the Hotel Irma
Z - Irma Pool 2
Me at the Hotel Irma
At the Hotel Irma