This Pacific Coast Mexican Town Is Always the Perfect Escape
Zihuatanejo had called to me, like to so many people looking to escape. I wanted a place where I wouldn’t be hassled or hustled, where the culinary traditions remain strong.
This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
A day in Zihuatanejo starts before dawn. With bolillos de requesón (a salty Mexican cheese spread served on a fresh roll) and black coffee in front of the gas station at 6 a.m.
Under a moonless sky, the morning creeps in. Everything looks low-res in the limininal hours and we board a fiberglass panga boat as the sun begins to separate the water from the sky.
The fishermen are already coming in. They leave at sunset and return as the sun rises, on scant and efficient motorboats that will break your ass if you’re sitting down and catch a wave the wrong way. They bring back tuna, mahi mahi, and red snapper.
My guide, Arturo Mellín Mandujano, has been working on humpback whale research trips for years, south of Zihua in the small enclave of Barra de Potosí, known for its fish and its surf. The warm waters of Guerrero’s coast here, roughly four hours north of Acapulco, are an ideal location for humpbacks to breed, and the seas fill with them in the winter, as well as sometimes the orcas that hunt humpback calves. Pelicans dive into the water surrounding our tiny craft as we move into the lagoon of Potosí. Once breakfast has been caught, they sit at the tops of bright green mangroves, alongside high-soaring frigates and the seemingly impermeable cormorant; all warm under the golden orb sun which down here hits so hard the night barely has time to shake it off before it’s back up again.
When the sun creeps a few fingers above the mountains, we leave the tranquil waters of Laguna de Potosí and head for open swell. I stand so I don’t crack a vertebra as we thrash into the fury of Pacific waves racing toward the lagoon.
The dolphins find us quickly. They are swift and joyful. A lone Pacific Ridley sea turtle swims by; I am always so surprised to see them on the surface, even though it’s normal.
I didn’t grow up on the tropical seas, and no matter how many times I go out on a boat in these waters, I am always amazed by the marine world as if it were the first time. And I always get a case of the “tides.” The Spanish word for seasick (mareado/a) comes from the word for tides (mareas).
I breathe into the steadiness of what I can see from here: Guerrero’s imposing, green mountains and secret beaches, and islands that jut out of the infinite, alive and never-still blue existence beneath me. In these moments of everythingness and nothingness, the world is mine.
And I am something else. Something that is too great to be judged or measured. Something that belongs to the forces of the wild. There is no time in Barra de Potosí. Only the movements of the tides, the ferocity of the sun and the refuge of the moon.
Back at the beach in Barra de Potosí, I am greeted with fresh-caught huachinango, fried and also baked in chile sauce, guacamole, fresh tortillas and coconut water at Enramada Leticia, as the waves frequently consume the sand beneath our feet, and women wander past the tables selling seashell necklaces and loose cigarettes. This spot belongs to Arturo’s family, from where they rent kayaks and offer tours of the lagoon and the open swell.
I’ve come here seeking a low-key place to relax as I struggle with a health condition that appears to be difficult to diagnose. Zihuatanejo had called to me like many people looking to escape. I wanted a place where I wouldn’t be hassled or hustled, where the culinary traditions remain strong, where the people are proud and the natural world is seen as a companion, not something to exterminate. And I found it.
A place to wander and a culinary haven
At Marisquería Leo, which as the name suggests is a place for seafood delicacies, the owner will tell you that everything is great but the service. He has been fishing for goose barnacles (or percebes) for more than 50 years. His charming and rustic restaurant overlooks the bay from a distance, set back into the neighborhoods that climb the city’s hills.
A delicacy in Spain, goose barnacles live naturally on the sides of the sea where fierce tides crash into jagged volcanic rock, making the fishing process so hazardous it leaves Leo next to zero competition. Worth a small fortune in the Iberian peninsula, percebes can be had for locals' prices at his restaurant overlooking the bay.
I tried the seaweed salad, the tuna sashimi and the percebes, of course, washing it down with a bottle of Taxco mineral water and lime and salt. Hydration is something to take into constant consideration in these parts.
Coming down from Leo’s hill, into the sun-blazed bay of Zihuatanejo, I watch as hundreds of fishermen leave when the sun begins to sink. The beach in front of Paseo de Pescador is filled with boats, and people preparing their coolers for the nighttime catch.
And while Zihuatanejo is a paradise for seafood lovers, it is also the home to three stellar vegan restaurants.
At La Casita Ecovegana, I dined on pozole (a Mexican corn stew, in this case with mushrooms rather than pork) and enfrijoladas, tortillas doused in a flavorful black bean sauce. The agua fresca, or fresh fruit water, was flowing that day and the outdoor picnic table seating made for the perfect relaxed ambience.
Finding a quality vegan restaurant in a Mexican beach town is not a given, and to find three is something special. EntreZankas (Zanka being a colloquial term for people from Zihua) and La Raíz de la Tierra in neighboring resort town Ixtapa. There’s also a weekly organic market downtown where local farmers and producers bring all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as homemade healthy foods. Eating vegan in Mexico can mean eating pre-Columbian, before massive trade with Europe and Asia altered the cuisine of the Americas, and vice versa, for ever more.
Later that night, I stopped by Angustina Mezcal y Cocina for a sampling of mezcal from their wide variety of menu items, and a few delicious eats such as zucchini and cheese tamales and tlayudas, a giant, fresh corn tortilla filled with smoked meat, cheese and vegetables
The mezcal was a highlight, as would be with any trip to Guerrero–a state renowned for its take on this smoky agave intoxicant. Whether infused with cardamom, bottled with a scorpion or simply the Cupreata, a rare agave species native to the highlands of Guerrero, the effect is the same. A warming sensation, bordering at times a hallucinogenic trip. Guerreran mezcal is special.
Before calling it a night, I stroll along the newly renovated malecón, where people jog, lovers stroll and kids on skateboards and rollerblades playfully race alongside La Playa Principal.
The lights of Zihuatanejo shimmy across the waters, from Playa Las Gatas (accessible by boat) and from Playa La Ropa, where Andy Dufresne famously worked on his boat after escaping prison in “The Shawshank Redemption,” a famous Stephen King novel and box-office film based on said bestseller.
Even though the famous last scene of the movie wasn’t even shot here, mention the name “Zihuatanejo” to any movie buff and they’ll know exactly what you’re referring to; perhaps more a feeling than a place. But what they may not know is that it is a real place with a great deal of history and lore of its own.
Into the blazing light
In the mornings, the fishermen return tired. Cigarette smoke lingers on a scorching summer morning as dozens of people come to the market, buying fish from the many vendors.
Not many women go out fishing, this is a job that has been strictly delineated by binary gender. But women dominate the selling and buying. They take the fish to their homes or to the many restaurants, markets and hotels in the Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa area.
Around downtown Zihuatanejo are sculptures and murals dedicated to the region’s women. The name Zihuatanejo comes from Nahuatl and can be translated to “land of adorned women” in honor of the jade, shell and obsidian jewels that women would have worn in pre-Columbian times. Another legend tells of goddesses that would rise in the afternoon to guide the sun into the realm of the dead each night.
The rest of downtown is nearly silent this early. The bars won’t open for several hours. People wash the sidewalks outside their homes and businesses, as the heat of the day begins to overthrow the misty morning calm.
The fish market begins to wind down by 9 a.m. and across the walkway, Magdaleno Flores a collector of handmade masks from across the Mexican state of Guerrero, is opening up his shop, Arte Objeto (at Paseo del Pescador #9). Stepping into his store is akin to stepping into a museum of indigenous, Afromestizo and other forms of Mexican art.
Each mask has a different significance, some of them are used for dances, battles, ceremonies and other festivities. Others are for decoration. Others are for protection. Many are highly religious in a synchronistic relationship between Catholicism, Mesoamerican and African cosmologies. Some still are simply representative of the times and popular culture, even resembling an extraterrestrial antagonist from a Hollywood blockbuster.
Many of the artisan villages are nestled deep in the sidewinding mountains of Guerrero, requiring a 10-hour bus trip east of Zihua, through territory that is currently marked by insecurity due to the international drug war.
Flores used to make the trip regularly to buy directly from artisans, but the threat of violence has prevented him from doing so for the past three years. A painter himself, Magdaleno also sells works of his own design such as the canoe depicted in the final image.
"We are Catholic,” Flores says. “The Nahua religion, the indigenous communities are very religious. For that reason, the festivities that they do often are representative of the fight between the Devil and Archangel Michael: the battle between good and evil."
The mask of a tecuan, in this case a tiger, is made of cow skin leather, painted by hand with natural pigments from various endemic flora. The mask is protected by a lacquer made from chia seeds, which are a common crop in the region. Tecuanes in Guerrero are associated with shapeshifting as well as with deities. Other masks are made of coconut shells and various types of wood. Horse and boar hair is also used to complete the design.
"The leather is very hard and very rigid, but they have a trick. The first time they use it, they drink mezcal and blow it into the center of the mask. It makes it very flexible."
The festivities for which this mask was made, specifically in Xalitla, Guerrero, take place in August and are an offering to the gods to ensure healthy crops.
As is common throughout much of Mexico, each village has its patron saint which is honored through food, dance and community festivities, which sometimes include orchestrated battles that fight with the goal of bleeding.
Guerrero, afterall, is the Spanish word for warrior.
Above the shop, Flores’ wife, Christina Rodriguez, operates a shelter for street dogs and cats, where people can volunteer to walk the dogs, or of course, take one home.
In the house of warriors
On my last day in Zihuatanejo, I had a situation. Although the early June heat was intense even at 9 a.m., my body began to overreact.
As I toured the beautiful, waterfront Museo Arqueológico de la Costa Grande, learning about the history of the area’s original people’s and also the tragic events of colonization, including the slave trade industry, I began to feel overwhelmed by heat. I struggled to hang on, to breathe, to sit down, but couldn’t shake the discomfort. I had to ask for help.
I approached Liliana Pineda Nieto, assistant to the museum’s director. I was invited into the air conditioned office and offered a bottle of water as Liliana graciously fanned me with my palm-leaf sunhat and applied a cotton pad with rubbing alcohol to the back of my neck (a local trick for helping with symptoms of heat stroke). Pineda Nieto is a professional folklore dancer who attends folkloric dance conferences across the country. Being in her presence was a delight.
When I was feeling well enough, I figured it would be a good idea to eat something and the one restaurant that had been most highly recommended to me by locals and foreigners alike, Camelita’s Café, seemed like the best option.
I was greeted by owner Carmelita Ramírez, and two of her children, Paco González and Carmen González, pastry chef at the splendid Rol Coqueto.
I told them about my situation and received a traditional Mexican suero: an ultra hydrating drink consisting of lime juice, salt, baking soda and honey. Within a half hour, I felt well enough to engage in conversation with Carmelita and her family, and was able to dive into the tremendous spread that Carmelita had recommended for me.
While I wasn’t able to finish everything, I was fortunate enough to sample a variety of dishes, most of which are unique to Guerrero. My favorite was pork ribs and country soup with corn, squash and plantain. It’s amazing what a good, home-cooked meal can do for a person.
About a month after returning to Mexico City, I would receive a diagnosis of a chronic illness, likely brought on by the natural aging process and also pandemic stress. I was in a crisis, and these incredible people came to my aid. While I recover, I dream of the next, and hopefully much longer - as in months - time I will spend in Zihuatanejo.
Where to stay
Cala del Mar Resort & Spa is a classy resort with breathtaking views, seated atop a cliff overlooking the rocky Pacific shore. Excellent sashimi, room service, superb obsidian stone massage, plunge pools and chic minimalist design make this one of Zihuatanejos’s most luxurious stays.
Get a room with a hammock and a private pool at La Casa que Canta and call it a life. This opulent hotel overlooks the entire bay of Zihuatanejo and all the activity therein, with epic sunset viewing to boot. It is within walking distance of the city’s downtown beaches and restaurants.
In downtown Zihuatanejo:
This area became popular in the 1950s, and much of the architecture in the older hotels lean toward a preserved retro style. To stay in the heart of it all, Hotel Casa de la Palma Bed & Breakfast, offers balconies and a pool to retreat from after a day of wandering around the city.
In Barra de Potosí:
Hacienda la Rusa is a romantic, palm-thatch-roofed Mexican villa steps away from a lengthy beachfront and a devastating view of the Guerreran coast. This bed and breakfast is within walking distance of the small town of Barra de Potosi for activities and snacks , and would be the place to go and forget about literally everything.
North along the coast:
Love everything you read above but don’t want to stay near the city? ZIhuatanejo is the jumping off point for exploring Guerrero’s northernmost beaches such as nearby surfing hotspot Troncones and into the lush and nearly unpopulated beaches of Michoacán.
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.