Despite its Bad Reputation—Acapulco Is Worthy of Your Love
In truth, it is a surprising place: unapologetically flamboyant and brimming at the seams with Mexican culture and history. And it is, unequivocally, stunning.
This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
It took me nearly five years of living and traveling in Mexico to make it to Acapulco. I didn’t really have a good reason for not having yet visited Acapulco, other than I typically prefer smaller beach towns.
When I finally found myself there, it was via a small Aeromar plane from Mexico City, flying so low I felt I could almost touch the capital’s nearby, massive volcanoes, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatepetl. The 45-minute flight was bumpy, loud and exhilarating, coming in hot over the Papagayo River and the Tres Palos lagoon, marveling at the jagged bays lining the Pacific.
That evening, as I sat on the balcony of the La Perla restaurant and its adjoining hotel, El Mirador, watching men in Speedos scale a 135-foot rock face barefoot, kneel before a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and then swan-dive or back-flip in formation into the choppy water; I knew I was in a place that is not quite like any other.
Acapulco’s famed cliff divers, arguably the city’s most beloved tourist attraction, is a show I had been wanting to see since as a child I gazed upon the spectacle gracing the cover of some now-defunct travel magazine in the early ’90s; the height of its international tourism fame. Performing five times per day or more, these professional divers do the unthinkable: dive 135 ft into a tiny crevasse of surf, and at night they do it with torches in their hands. Relying solely on the small entrance fees paid by tourists, the passion, star quality, and dare I say diva-ness of these divers was captivating. I watched three shows per night during my stay at El Mirador, in the city’s Old Town which still sparkles with Hollywood golden age flair.
Beyond being a beach town, Acapulco is now a major city in Mexico with a metro population of 1 million. In truth, it is a surprising place: unapologetically flamboyant and brimming at the seams with Mexican culture and history. The coves and bays that make up the city invite a plethora of experiences and possibilities. And it is, unequivocally, stunning.
A DOUBLE DARE THAT PUT A CITY ON THE MAP
Ask people around Acapulco, and the divers themselves, about the origins and the story goes like this: 86 years ago two fishermen made a bet—one bet the other that they could jump from the top of La Quebrada, the famous site of the cliff divers, and live to tell the story about it. The bravado characteristic of Guerrero’s coast was enhanced by familiar rivalry and a penchant for adrenaline. The first survived, so the second decided to match him. Thus began a tradition. In fact, I’m assured by the divers that no one has ever died making this dive. Though it seems hard to believe should a foolhardy and unprepared individual undertake it.
There’s only about 15 feet of churning water to dive into as the robust cliffs end the ocean’s advance. Younger divers, I’m assured, start small. And indeed kids as young as 12 participate in the show, diving from a much lower level. Minor head injuries are common, long-term hearing problems nearly inevitable. The excitement of youth finds a home here where tourists watch from a platform, the crowdedness and nationality of whom vary throughout the year according to which country has a vacation.
Ángel David is a 28-year veteran of the Acapulcan divers, a unionized group that has been immortalized in everything from Elvis Presley’s “Fun in Acapulco” to South Park’s spoof of Casa Bonita, a massive Denver restaurant with indoor diving modeled after the cliffs of Acapulco.
“For a lot of kids, it’s a family tradition,” David says. “It’s an art, what happens is that this becomes a lifestyle. I believe you need to have it within you. It’s something you have. With some technique and practice, it’s a passion. Not everyone can do this. When you get to the top of the mountain, and turn to see that everyone is watching you, you have to live that. The most exciting is when you get ready to jump. When you’re in the air, there’s no fear. But that impulse to jump into the air, you know you have no choice but to complete this.”
Speaking about a month before COVID-19 shut down most of the world as we know it, and temporarily obliterated tourism, David tells me of the changes that Acapulco has experienced in terms of tourism over the past decades of his diving career.
“Acapulco is accustomed to receiving people from all around the world, but that dropped for a while,” David says. “Now we’re seeing more Europeans, more Polish people, more French people. There’s a recuperation of that tourist market that reduced quite a bit.” Official numbers from the Acapulco Board of Tourism show that foreign interest was on the rise pre-COVID-19. In 2019, Acapulco received an estimated 103,350 foreign tourists and 10,994,000 national tourists, up from 66,370 international and 8,810,140 Mexican visitors in 2015. Still, the numbers show it’s a popular weekend and holiday getaway for Mexicans and far less foreign than other beach destinations.
Mariachi music blares in the back as the bonfire is lit with newspapers. David excitedly awaits my response to the spectacle. The lights are turned off and the divers jump by the light of the burning pyre. It is far more impressive than it is marketed.
“In Mexico, Guerrerense people are seen as very brave and courageous,” David says. “Here, we have a structure that is perfect for this. It has this peculiarity that it’s very high, and not very deep. If it were deeper, it would be easier. If it were wider, it would be easier. But here nature gave us this unique opportunity. You challenge yourself. We are aware that all extreme sports have a beginning and an end, like everything. And you have to know when it’s time to quit.”
Between 800 and 1,000 people have completed this dive in its 86-year history, though David doesn’t want his children to be part of it.
“I want my kids to do something else,” David says. “I prefer that my children study, rather than be divers. Because divers suffer. It’s cold. It’s hard on the body.”
CHOOSE YOUR (VERY MEXICAN) LUXURY
Shortly before I went to Acapulco, I met a gringo in Mexico City who told me not to go. But not for the typical parroting of violent crime statistics. “It’s like Jersey Shore,” he said. Clearly, we went to different parts of Acapulco. Actually, Acapulco is considered to have three major tourism areas: the in-progress, golf-course style developments of the Diamond area, the franchise-heavy and densely built Gold area, and the historic Old Town. There are super-private and exclusive accommodations à la Banyan Tree Cabo Marqués which occupies a privileged cliffside with a sharp drop into the blue depths and spectacular views. A couple of bays away, there’s the high-rise development area: where all-inclusive resorts offer “sun insurance”—a free night’s stay if, during the rainy season, it happens to rain more than 24 hours at a time during a guest’s stay.
The two-lane road from Mexico City that carried such famed Mexican characters as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and María Félix as well as foreigners like Salvador Dalí, was replaced in 1992 with a super highway that cuts through the winding, green mountains of Guerrero: halving the trek from Mexico City (and its skyrocketing population) to Acapulco from seven hours to about three and a half. Small planes do the trip in 45 minutes for about $100 round trip, flying low across the volcanic terrain.
Before that highway made for a doable weekend trip for Mexico’s growing middle class, Acapulco was a darling of the Hollywood elite. It was still, at its heart, a quaint fishing village and a dwindling commercial port with about 30,000 residents. Long gone were the days of being the biggest port city in the Western Americas, and the clout of being Mexico’s premier international tourism destination was already waning in the ’90s as Cancun, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta (among other beach destinations) started to cut ribbons, usurp limited water, bulldoze mangroves, and promote cheap, direct airfare from the United States and Canada.
“The gringos didn’t want to party with the Mexicans,” one Acapulco hotel owner told me when I asked how and why the sudden change in tourism demographics. Perhaps the largely white hordes were indeed much more comfortable being served by the locals than joining them in vacation revelry.
The same hotel owner, along with a tour guide who I spent time with, assert that there is a mismanagement of information that serves to promote other beach towns in Mexico over Acapulco as an ideal destination for international travel. International travel means money that comes in a different currency. Travel originating from a vastly different and comparatively privileged economy.
“I have visited so many places in the past years and I realize they have the same problems as Acapulco but nobody knows about it,” says Manuel Barrera, who is a certified Acapulco tour guide, renewing his license with 200 hours of culture and history coursework every few years. “Everything bad that happens in Acapulco, everybody knows about it. The bad news spreads fast. But there are many, many good things that happen here. I have lived here most of my life and I have had no problem with anyone. The problem is not with the tourists, not even the normal people that live and work here. The cartel problem is a fight for the territory that is a problem among them that unfortunately affects everyone through giving the place a bad reputation.”
Certainly, Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and the Cancún/Tulum area have their fair share of problems, including human trafficking, drug trafficking, abhorrent degradation of natural resources and vulture capitalism run wild. Unfortunately, these despicable ills are broadly experienced in any major tourism center across the globe. Living in Mexico, you hear these stories. Occasionally one will stand out as particularly devastating in the Mexican newspapers. But rarely do they garner international media attention in the way that Acapulco’s murder rate has over the past decade.
Acapulco sits in the middle of a cartel warzone. It’s the largest city in the Mexican state of Guerrero, a state with the largest poppy-growing area outside of Afghanistan and Myanmar, producing the majority of heroin that reaches the United States. This is a well-known story to Mexicans and some foreigners. They go to Acapulco anyway. All the time.
MEXICAN CHARM MEETS RETRO LOS ANGELES
Acapulco’s Old Town presents what many visitors consider to be the best of Mexico: a traditional town square with a bustling zócalo and a colorful church. Street vendors sell cotton candy and balloons, lovers stroll hand-in-hand and Volkswagen Beetles rumble up the narrow streets. Elderly women monitor the neighborhood's comings and goings from a relaxed seat on their porches.
Swift waves break up against impossibly steep drop-offs. Standing at the edge of Los Flamingos, a Hollywood-era hotel formerly owned by John Wayne and Johnny Weissmuller of “Tarzan” fame, is like stepping back in time to the 1950s. From its impossibly high cliffside location, looking hundreds of feet down at the swirls of blue and green created by the ocean swells, it’d be hard not to feel enchanted by Mexico’s oldest beach town.
Acapulco’s Hollywood lore is fairly well known: Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley all spent quite a bit of time in this part of Acapulco. Without being able to freely travel to Europe, during WWII, Hollywood stars would come even by boat down Mexico’s splendid Pacific coastline all the way to Acapulco.
Wandering a bit farther off the beaten path, visitors can check out a lesser known attraction: Casa de Vientos, the house where Mexican muralist Diego Rivera created Mesoamerican cosmology-themed public mosaics that grace the hilly side streets of the Old Town district. Rivera spent his final years here at this studio, which tourists can visit today.
You can see these hidden Rivera masterpieces and visit the gallery La Quebrada, owned by local photographer Luis Arturo Aguirre who hosts a number of artists from across the state of Guerrero and, in normal times, concerts and workshops on the space’s rooftop terrace.
Just a short distance away is one of Acapulco’s renovated boutique hotels. Boca Chica may not be totally unique in its story here: A mid-20th century hotel remodeled in the early 2000s, keeping its retro flair, but it is one of the most stunning. At Boca Chica’s restaurant, businessmen in Guayaberas and aviators sip Scotch and feast on octopus at midday, the heat of the sun cooled by a humid breeze entering into the swanky, palapa style restaurant that overlooks the tranquil Caleta bay.
I eat the best Yellowtail sashimi of my life and marvel at how quiet it is here, so close to downtown. This is a part of Acapulco to visit if you don’t want to be caged into a resort: If you want to sample the myriad delicious restaurants, sit in the sand, and drink Micheladas.
Just on the other side of the small bay, at Cabaña Caleta, I ask for Guerreran specialities. My platter is full of fresh octopus, tamales, ceviche and mole.
FURTHER UP THE COAST
Forming part of Guerrero’s popular coast, visiting nearby and tourist-friendly Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo could complete a lengthy trip to Acapulco. But you don’t have to go that far.
Pie de la Cuesta is the kind of Mexican beach that many seasoned Mexico travelers are looking for: palapas with hammocks on the beach, where you can spend the day ordering coconut shrimp and fish tacos until being awestruck by the marvellous sunset. With a few rustic yet impeccably clean hotels, this is a true Mexican beach town, alive and well. A few artisans roam the beach selling jewelry and beach coverups, but mostly, you’ll be left alone with the sounds of open ocean and faint reggaeton coming from a nearby beach bar.
About 20 minutes north of the hotel El Mirador, Pie de la Cuesta features a long, golden beach on one side, with canals and the beautiful Laguna de Coyuca on the other side of Mexico’s Highway 200. Wakeboarding, birdwatching, crocodile seeking and fishing are popular on Coyuca, which is a haven for migratory birds and (fun fact) the actual filming location of “Rambo 2.” You can hire a boat for a day of fishing, or just a quick tour of the different islands and lakeside communities.
Tres Marías sits between the ocean and the lagoon, with tours leaving right from its dock. Traditional foods from Guerrero, like Pescado a la Talla, typically a full snapper or Spanish mackerel doused in an earthy sauce and baked. The tortillas are homemade and some of the best I’ve had in Mexico: thick corn patties that hold up to a saucy spectacle of food.
It’s Acapulco, but very much not. Hardly anyone takes me up on my recommendation to visit, which might be a good thing in terms of preserving its natural setting and Mexican-ness.
A HISTORICAL CITY
I sent a friend from Mexico City some photos of my time in Acapulco, a place he had visited many times. His favorites were photos of an exhibit on the importance of jaguars to Guerrero’s Afro-Mestizo coast. “I guess I’ve never really looked to Acapulco as a cultural destination, more like I just wake up from a party and find myself there.”
Indeed, Acapulco is a great place to catch a buzz. But that is a limiting perspective.
The history of Acapulco mirrors the tides, with ebbs and flows, rises and falls. It's the story of modern foreign travel in Mexico, and it was the impetus for turning Cancun, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta into what they are today. But it also has a deeper story to tell.
At the Fort San Diego museum right on Santa Lucía Bay, overlooking Acapulco’s beaches and mountains, I learn that while the terms "beach town" and "hallowed ground" don't often go together, they do in Acapulco. The original fort was completed in 1617, severely damaged by an earthquake and then completely reconstructed in 1783. Today, the building is incredibly well preserved, with climate control in each room, some of which were jails and barracks.
As the No. 1 trade destination between the Orient, specifically Manila, and the western Americas for more than 250 years, Acapulco moved everything from pottery and spices to animals and tragically, people. The city imported Asian spices and exported chocolate, vanilla and chili peppers, forever altering the gastronomy of both Asia and the Americas. We realize how much of "American" culture in the wider sense came from this city. Where would Mexican textiles be without the wool imported from other parts of the world? Where would Indian cuisine be without capsaicin?
This museum also tells one of Mexico’s least known stories. Acapulco was a major slave trade center, and today it's the biggest city on Guerrero’s Afro-Mestizo coast. People don't think of Mexico as an African diaspora country, but on the west coast (and parts of the Yucatán and Veracruz) it certainly is, and many of the ancestors of the people there passed through Acapulco under horrific circumstances.
With permanent and rotating archaeological and anthropological exhibits featuring everything from tribal artifacts to celebrating Afro-Mestizo cultural heritage to real, honest-to-goodness pirate lore, it offers a little-understood view into what colonization of the Americas entailed.
A COMPLEX CITY
I’m certainly guilty of romanticizing many things, and Acapulco is one of them. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not deserving of such accolades. Certainly, I am privileged, but not any more so than the average tourist. Acapulqueños are well accustomed to the needs and demands of foreigners and they will go out of their way to make sure you see the best side of what this city has to offer.
Since the early 1990s, Acapulco switched gears from catering to Hollywood stars and became a symbol of Mexican domestic tourism, where the Mexican lifestyle didn't have to bend to the whims and expectations of the foreigners. However, those searching for a more authentic Mexico than the highly sterilized environs of Cancun and Los Cabos major hotel areas have started to creep back into Acapulco, with early 2020 seeing the highest number of international flights arriving daily since the 1990s.
COVID-19 halted that, of course, but Acapulco is certainly worthy of being on a lot of travelers’ lists when they come out of their hiding places looking for a place that offers sun insurance, and much more.
Megan Frye is an independent journalist and translator living in Mexico City. She has a history of newsroom journalism as well as nonprofit administration and works with international and Mexican publications.