Mexico's original seaside resort, Acapulco has enticed vacationers since the 1930s. The Kennedys and the Clintons honeymooned there, Elizabeth Taylor was married there, Placido Domingo has a home there, and other film stars have been relaxing beneath its palms since the heydays of Errol Flynn and Frank Sinatra. These days, Acapulco is bigger and, in some ways, better than ever.
The coastal city of Acapulco is also a backyard beach to residents of Mexico City (the national capital is just 250 mi/400 km away). As a result, Acapulco feels more authentically Mexican than other resort towns such as Cancun or Los Cabos, which are tailored to vacationers from abroad.
A playground that never sleeps, Acapulco is home to dazzling restaurants and decadent discos. Dine on sushi one night and posole (a regional specialty) the next. And if heavy metal and pulsing techno are not your thing, belt out a song at a karaoke bar. But don't expect to get much sleep. The way to experience Acapulco is to dance all night, sleep half the day and fuel your body with sun and spicy foods in between.
Acapulco Bay lies on the Pacific coast of Mexico—the so-called Mexican Riviera. Towering over the bay and its beaches are condominium towers and once-magnificent hotels, most of them built in Acapulco's mid-20th-century heyday and beginning to show their age. At night, the bay's crescent-shaped shoreline resembles a movie star's glittering necklace. By day the view is dominated by the high, verdant mountains that wrap around the port, sealing it off from the interior of the country.
The stretch of coastline on either side of the Acapulco Bay inlet runs roughly east to west along the Pacific. About 5 mi/8 km from the Acapulco airport, which runs along the ocean east of the city, you'll find an area called Acapulco Diamante. It has four golf courses and an ever-growing number of luxury hotels.
Carretera Escenica (Scenic Highway), the road from the airport, heads west, hugging the shoreline before turning toward the mountains. It passes lovely Marques Bay, with its luxury hotels and elegant villas dotting the hillside, before reaching Acapulco Bay, where it becomes Avenida Costera Miguel Aleman (usually called "Costera" for short). The arching stretch of beachfront and hotels that lie along the bay is sometimes called the Tourist Zone or Golden Zone.
The Costera passes west by Papagayo Park and then dips southwest into the older part of the city. That's where cruise ships and freighters tie up below Fort San Diego, which was completed . Beyond lies the Zocalo, or main plaza, which is the center of the downtown area. The Costera continues south around a hook-shaped peninsula toward a pair of small bays, Caleta and Caletilla, whose beaches are favorites with budget vacationers. Acapulco's first hotels, now inexpensive places to stay and popular with Europeans and Canadians, were built in the hills above these bays.
If you turn inland from the Costera (heading north from the shore) you'll find neighborhoods marked by poverty.
Note: Some businesses in Acapulco are located on unnumbered streets and labeled "s/n," for sin numero (without number). The addresses are described using the closest intersection.
Acapulco was an Amerindian fishing village until it was settled by the Spanish in the early 1500s. It then became a major port for Spain's trade with Asia. After pirates began plundering the area, the Spanish erected Fort San Diego, which was completed in 1616, to protect their ships. Later, toward the end of the Mexican War for Independence in the 1800s, the fort was the site of a Mexican victory over the Spanish.
When the Spanish left in 1821, the town's importance declined. Then, in 1927, a road over the mountains linked Acapulco with the rest of Mexico, and the first hotel opened seven years later. Acapulco evolved as a resort because it was the closest beach to Mexico City. The trip there is downhill almost all the way—the altitude drops more than 7,000 ft/2,100 m to sea level during the drive.
Following World War II, Hollywood discovered Acapulco, and it became a fashionable hideaway for those who had the time and money needed to get there. Direct international air service began in 1964, bringing with it the jet set and a boom in hotel construction along the bay. The dollars that tourists squandered so freely inspired the Mexican government to promote the development of "more Acapulcos" from the Caribbean to Baja California a decade later.
In the years that followed, these competing destinations caused Acapulco to suffer, and it fell into disrepair. Rejuvenation efforts began in the 1990s, but Hurricane Pauline slammed into the city in 1997. It caused deadly mud slides in the hills surrounding the city. The damage highlighted the great economic chasm between the glitzier hotel zone and the rest of Acapulco, which is poor, crowded and polluted.
Renovations in the resort area have resumed, resulting in the development of Acapulco Diamante—an upscale resort area along Marques Bay that replaced a shantytownlike beach. More condominiums, which are rented out as accommodations, were built near the airport. Luxury hotels continue to spread out along the Diamante area near the airport, and Old Acapulco in the downtown area is constantly being improved. The latest effort is a multimillion-dollar renovation program headed by Mexican businessman Carlos Slim (one of the world's wealthiest people) that will take several years to complete. Slim's plan includes the development of a retail center that will feature high-end shops, restaurants, movie theaters and a casino.
The rustic area west of downtown called Pie de la Cuesta, with its Coyuca Lagoon, has developed more small inns that cater to travelers looking for a quiet, laid-back ambience, far from the high-energy hotel zone.
In recent years, Acapulco has been hit by several hurricanes and tropical storms that resulted in hundreds of fatalities, revealing that the geography and infrastructure of the area still make the resort town very vulnerable to weather events of this type.
True, Acapulco is better known for its beaches and bars, but its cultural heritage does give the city a rich and traditional feel. It has its fair share of Spanish architecture, scenic barrios and historic monuments. As far as resort towns go, this one feels much more Mexican than others in the country.
There is a certain amount of interesting historical detail remaining, found primarily on the west side of the bay—in the downtown area known as Acapulco Viejo or Old Acapulco. There you will find the Zocalo, the town's traditional square, and Fort San Diego, the nearly 400-year-old garrison that once protected the city. There are even pre-Hispanic ruins.
More common are modern, family-oriented recreation projects, such as the impressive Papagayo Park and CICI, the beloved water-oriented amusement park. For budding naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts, a visit to the mangrove swamps at Tres Palos might provide welcome relief from Acapulco's more manufactured forms of fun. One spectacle that should not be missed is the cliff diving at La Quebrada.
Finally, it should be acknowledged that the real city of Acapulco sprawls inland. Few tourists see these congested and poorly maintained communities. Although much of what draws travelers to this coastal region is an impressive display of glitz and glamour, visitors should be aware that there is a wider reality to Acapulco.
Acapulco and its state of Guerrero have also been affected by Mexico's drug cartels, and violence has been known to affect tourists. Innocent bystanders have been caught in crossfire in recent years, raising questions about safety for visitors.
Much of what makes Acapulco special occurs after the sun goes down. If you retire to your hotel early and stay in after dark, many would say you're missing the whole point. Acapulco's bars, clubs and restaurants tend to be concentrated along the main part of the Costera, especially between Avalon Excalibur Paraiso and the Navy base at the foot of Las Brisas hills. Beachside restaurants (which change names and themes often) usually get rowdier as the night goes on. Blaring rock 'n' roll, cheap beer and tequila work the patrons into a frenzied state.
Where the nightlife really hits its peak, though, is in the discos—Acapulco's most celebrated form of revelry. These truly lavish clubs, which are becoming more numerous, can be as exclusive and elaborate as those in Rio, New York or Los Angeles. If you go, dress well (no jeans, shorts or bare feet) and be prepared to stand in line, pay a steep cover and stay out all night. Cover charges vary depending on the season and night. They can be as low as M$200 and as much as M$400. Cover charges for women are generally lower than those for men, or free on certain days of the week.
The scene in Acapulco doesn't hit its stride until 1 or 2 am, and most clubs have no set closing time. Those in the know eat a late dinner, dance off the calories until dawn, breakfast at their hotels or at all-night coffee shops on the Costera and sleep until afternoon.
Dinner often is the high point of a day in Acapulco, with choices ranging from local specialties to Japanese gourmet fare. The good hotels all have their specialty restaurants, and the Costera itself has many outstanding establishments. Others are up in the hills—where the views are spectacular—and out along the scenic highway. Dress in the spiffy places is "elegantly casual," and unless you're dining at a beachfront palapa
, shorts are generally frowned upon as acceptable attire.
Breezier, youth-oriented, open-air cafes are found along the Costera, as are many U.S.-style fast-food places. Newer restaurants tend to offer fusion fare, most with an emphasis on Asian influences.
No matter where you wind up or what time you get there, consider sampling the house seviche, an appetizer of uncooked, lime-marinated fish served with tomato, onion and chilies. Acapulco's version—which has the consistency of chunky cocktail sauce—is different from the dish served elsewhere in Mexico.
Good local beverages include Mexican beers, licuados (nonalcoholic fruit drinks), agua de jamaica (a hibiscus flower drink) and horchata (a refreshing rice water). Restaurants that cater to tourists mostly use purified water for drinking and washing food, but it's always smart to ask. You can order either mineral (carbonated, called agua con gas) or natural (noncarbonated, agua sin gas) bottled water.
Breakfast is usually eaten around 8 am. Lunch, considered a light meal, is served about 2 pm. Most people don't eat dinner until 9 pm or so, although many restaurants open for cocktails at 6:30 or 7 pm. Hotel restaurants, which cater mainly to tourists, typically begin dinner service around 6 pm.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$200; $$ = M$200-$300; $$$ = M$301-$400; and $$$$ = more than M$400.
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