The twin cities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo (sometimes the two are referred to as Ixta-Zihua) are anything but identical. If your idea of vacation heaven is a round of golf on a lush, green course followed by a leisurely lunch of lobster bisque and champagne, Ixtapa (pronounced eeks-TAH-pa
) is calling your name.
However, if you'd rather poke through an outdoor Mexican market and then amble over to the beach where fisherfolk are mending their nets, it's only 4 mi/6 km down the coast to Zihuatanejo (zee-wha-tah-NEH-ho). The lobster there might be in your tacos (washed down with plenty of cold cerveza).
Mexico's tourism-development agency dreamed up Ixtapa when trying to create a Pacific-coast Mexican resort area. Zihuatanejo, on the other hand, is a traditional Mexico fishing village that has been around for centuries. Whatever Mexican beach vacation you prefer, one of these towns should suit you.
Both towns attract more Mexicans than international visitors, especially families, who savor the tranquil settings. Ixtapa tends to have more high-rise luxury and mid-priced hotels while Zihuatanejo has more old family-style inns and bungalows with a few romantic, ultradeluxe hotels geared to honeymooners.
Driving at night on the highway between the resorts and Mexico City is not recommended for safety reasons.
Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo are situated between Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, on a tropical strip of Pacific coastline. Ixtapa is 4 mi/6 km northwest of Zihuatanejo.
Note: Some businesses in Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo are located on unnumbered streets and labeled as "s/n," or sin numero (without number).
Intent on creating a Pacific-coast resort similar to Cancun on the Caribbean coast, the Mexican tourism-development agency, Fonatur, came up with the master plan for small but stately Ixtapa. After extensive market research, they decided that a coconut plantation 130 mi/209 km northwest of Acapulco had just the right climate (balmy), beaches (creamy white sand) and scenery (where the Sierra Madre mountains meet the Pacific Ocean) to lure vacationers. And it didn't hurt that centuries-old Zihuatanejo was nearby to supply the ambience of a traditional fishing village. The Mexican government bought the coconut plantation, and Ixtapa was born in the early 1970s. Today, it's an enclave of high-rise hotels, modern restaurants and outdoor shopping arcades.
Zihuatanejo's known history, recorded in the form of ceramics and stone carvings, dates back 3,000 years to the Olmec civilization. In the 1500s, Spanish traders used Zihuatanejo as a port for commerce with the Far East. It later became a refuge for pirates.
Many of Zihuatanejo's modern conveniences—such as electricity—resulted from the creation of Ixtapa. There have been other changes, as well. Zihuatanejo's neighborhoods swelled to accommodate workers for Ixtapa, and residents created the pedestrian-only streets with decorative bricks to appeal to tourists visiting the glamorous resort down the road. But one thing is sure to remain the same: Zihuatanejo won't have the kind of high-rise buildings that line Ixtapa's beaches—the town's laws forbid their construction. Visitors will be able to enjoy easygoing "Zihua," as it's known, along with sophisticated Ixtapa for a long time to come.
Sightseeing in Ixtapa is mainly limited to admiring the beaches and tropical flowers. (It's primarily a corridor of beach resorts surrounded by lush foliage.)
Zihuatanejo, on the other hand, is full of charming neighborhoods and side streets that are a treat to explore. The only notable feature downtown is a church, Iglesia de la Virgen de Guadalupe.
Ixta-Zihua is not a big party area, and partygoers will prefer such places as Acapulco or Los Cabos. The big hotels in Ixtapa tend to be all-inclusive, so outsiders cannot patronize their bars or discos. However, several of them offer a sunset happy hour—it's fun to stroll the paseo
in front of the hotel zone late in the afternoon, then stop by at one hotel, or several.
There are also traditional Mexican fiestas, complete with cocktails, mariachis, handicraft bazaars and dancing. Discos are popular in Mexico, and Christine, in the Hotel Krystal, is Ixtapa's best.
Hotels in Zihuatanejo, by comparison, tend to be quieter—small and more family oriented. You can enjoy the sunset at the Panoramic Sunset Bar at Catalina Beach Resort or at Club Intrawest's classy pub (both are on the cliffs overlooking Playa la Ropa).
Dance the night away at Black Bull downtown or at Bandidos, which has live tropical music on weekend nights or nightly during vacation periods.
Most establishments capitalize on the catch of the day—depending on the season, that might be lobster, clams, oysters, giant crayfish or fish, particularly red snapper. Local seafood makes its way into many cuisines: Italian, French, Spanish and Japanese, as well as traditional Mexican.
Because Ixta-Zihua chefs are among the most creative in Mexico, many standard Mexican dishes have exotic international touches. Most truly Mexican restaurants are found in older Zihuatanejo, and the newer class of "international" cuisine is in Ixtapa. Small eateries dot the ever-growing strip malls going up. You can choose from casual places on or near the sand, or elegant resort dining rooms.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$120; $$ = M$120-$225; $$$ = M$226-$550; $$$$ = more than M$550
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