Traditions Still Alive in Mexico's 'Twin Cities'

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Travel Weekly Crossroads' associate editor, Judy Koutsky, spent the holidays on a chartered cruise along the Pacific coast of Mexico. The following is Part Three in a series of reports:

ABOARD THE OCEAN MAJESTY -- We arrived in port about 8 a.m. on what was promising to be a beautiful, warm, sunny day. After taking the tender to shore -- about a 10-minute ride -- we were left to explore Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa. Zihuatanejo, population 80,000, has been around for over 700 years and used to be a fishing town. Ixtapa, on the other hand, has only 12,000 people and used to be a coconut plantation. It was converted into a tourist mecca, like a Pacific-coast version of Cancun, in the 1970s. Ixtapa translates to "white place," referring to their beaches; however, some locals say it refers to the gringos who are present everywhere.

I had signed up for the "off the beaten path" countryside excursion. We left the flea markets, the outside cafes, and the traffic and headed for the rural terrain. Our guide, Paco, was extremely knowledgeable and, to our amusement, told us stories and history in Spanglish. pineapples Our first stop was the plantations. Here, we sampled fresh coconuts, papayas, cinnamon and mangos right off the tree as Paco explained how they are planted and harvested. The best fruit, however, was the crossbreed of the orange and the grapefruit to create a delicious, nonsticky, refreshing treat.

The second destination was the tile village. Here, families make clay tiles, which are used to make the roofs and walls of the village's buildings. clay maker The man giving the demonstration was said to make 1,000 tiles by hand on a bad day. The village men seemed content with this laborious way of life, while the children patiently waited for the tourists to buy the handcrafted clay goods. Even though the sun pounded mercilessly, everybody in this village seemed friendly and patiently answered our questions, asked in bad Spanish.

What really surprised me, not only in this town but during my time in Mexico, was how few children begged the tourists for money. They doled out handpicked flowers to all the senoritas but never asked for money in return. They simply smiled sweetly, irresistibly -- and had tourists reaching for their pesos without hesitation. Paco said that throughout Mexico, there was a strong movement to get vendors off the streets and beaches and into centrally located markets. In the past, tourists would feel accosted and overwhelmed when peddlers confronted them on the sidewalks, pushing their touristy trinkets. Now it's a different scene; I wasn't approached once by adult or child begging for money or pushing me to make a purchase.

For those who want to shop, however, there were ample markets from which to choose. It's important to note that although bargaining is encouraged in most of Mexico, it's frowned upon in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. The asking price is the going price, as I found out when I tried to bargain for a painting. However, things are quite reasonable. Also most of the shopkeepers in this part of Mexico don't pressure people to buy but instead stand a good distance away, ready to assist if needed.

After buying our goods, we drove on. This four-hour tour took us to some remote areas and lived up to the off-the-beaten-path promise. Time went by quickly as our guide told us stories. We heard how many Mexicans like to eat iguana and armadillo on Sundays; Paco said they taste like chicken and are good for a Tequila hangover. We learned that for weddings, special tamales are cooked for days underground with banana leaves. Paco also said the economy never really recovered from the peso crash in '94 and tourism is more important than ever. All these stories were told as we drove past donkeys, colorful wildflowers scattered alongside the road, truckloads of families going to the beach and rural women carrying bowls on their heads.

The last stop on our excursion was a sleepy fishing village called Barra de Potosi, where for 40 pesos ($5) clients can take a half-hour boat ride through a lagoon that boasts hundreds of different types of flora, fauna and fish. boat That was probably the best five dollars I've ever spent: beautiful views of the montanas, birds swooping down for their dinner, fishermen throwing out their nets. This was a perfect way to cap off the tour.

Before heading back to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, many visitors to Barra de Potosi enjoy lunch or a coco loco, a potent drink served in a coconut shell that contains about five different types of alcohol. They say that, after drinking two, the Americans start speaking Spanish.

There is enough to do in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo to keep your clients busy. Active travelers will enjoy the area's beaches. Playa La Rope offers a nice view of the bay and many water sports, such as jet-skiing, parasailing, waterskiing and swimming. Playa Las Gatas is the best place for snorkeling (you can rent the equipment for 15 pesos a day; about $2) and shell collecting. Also popular, though expensive, is deep-sea fishing; while there, we saw one group catch an enormous marlin.

Of course, as in all of Mexico, there is much shopping to be done here, but it's important to remember that outside the flea markets, all shops close for siesta between 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Judy Goes to Mexico, Part 1: 'Little Boat' Makes for a Cozy Cruise to Mexico

Judy Goes to Mexico, Part 2: Acapulco Boasts Restored Infrastructure, Energy

Judy Goes to Mexico, Part 3: Traditions Still Alive in Mexico's 'Twin Cities'

Judy Goes to Mexico, Part 4: Creatures From the Manzanillo Lagoons

Judy Goes to Mexico, Part 5: Whale Sightings Start the Year Right in Baja

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