Although born of the same parentage, sibling resorts sometimes develop personalities as divergent as President Jimmy Carter and his beer-gulping brother Billy. It happened in Mexico.
In the late 1960s the government’s tourism arm, FONATUR, searched the country’s coastlines for potential beach resort sites. Two prime targets emerged. One was Cancun, a sandy, coast-hugging island along the Yucatan’s Caribbean shore. The other was near the Pacific Coast fishing village of Zihuatanejo (See-wah-ta-NAY-ho), 150 miles north of Acapulco. They envisioned that primed with enough pesos, both would blossom into bikini-magnet mega-resorts.
Cancun’s first hotel opened in the mid-70s, and visitors soon swarmed faster than mosquitoes to a nudist camp. Before long, the island and its environs burgeoned into what is arguably North America’s grandest beach destination. Loud, proud and boisterous, it sets the standard by which others are judged.
While Cancun was hatching to the east, its sibling was being born on the west. The government acquired a coconut plantation three miles northwest of Zihuatanejo, named the site Ixtapa (Eeks-TA-pah), and set their bulldozers to work. The first hotel opened about the same time as Cancun’s, but the throngs never materialized and growth lagged behind plans.
“FONATUR envisioned having 20,000 rooms here,” says retired Frontier Airlines executive Bob Schulman. “What dreams! Today, they’ve got maybe 6,000.”
Nowadays, modest size and divergent personalities make the neighboring towns of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo an attractive alternative for those seeking an uncrowded sun, sand and surf getaway. Its beaches may not have the sugary coolness of Cancun’s, but they still feel delightful underfoot.
“Cancun is Rome and Ixtapa is Florence, Italy,” says visitor Barbara Ashkar. “Cancun is larger, and it caters to the young crowd with lots of places to go and things to do. Ixtapa, like Florence, offers more of a hometown feeling. It’s small, low key, friendly and very beautiful.”
Nestled between mountains and the sea, the resort has developed along two fronts. On the Ixtapa side, widely-spaced hotels separate a boulevard from the beach, and a similar pocket of properties lines hills on the east side of tiny Zihuatanejo Bay. Ranging from contentedly comfortable to gaudily grand, they rival Cancun in quality if not quantity. Guests hail primarily from the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“In Cancun they get those European women who don’t wear tops. You don’t see that here,” observes Dennis Hickey, who visits Ixtapa annually with his brother-in-law.
For many, the big plus for Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is the weather. It remains generally warm and dry, especially during high-season winter months. Here, umbrellas grace drinks, not hands.
“I’ve been to Ixtapa 12 times, and I’ve seen it rain once,” says Hickey. “We always come back because the weather is guaranteed.”
Dry skies and warm evenings make alfresco dining the norm. For those not bound to all-inclusive hotel meal plans, Ixtapa’s resort zone offers numerous culinary opportunities. Fine restaurants line the main roadway and more can be found yachtside at the Ixtapa Marina. While menus feature a world of ethnic choices, it’s seafood that predominates with the catch of the day brought in by the fishermen of Zihuatanejo.
This community of 70,000 lies a ten-minute cab ride from Ixtapa, and here visitors can sample traditional Mexico. Kids dribble basketballs in the city square. Teenage lovers walk hand in hand along the beach. Mothers push babies in strollers down sidewalks. Cops direct traffic, their whistles blaring. Tourists flit from shop to shop searching for T-shirts and trinkets as well as crafts, leather goods and silver jewelry.
Down by the water, cafe/bars provide seating beneath canvas canopies and palm-thatched palapas. Beyond, open fishing boats line the sand. In this dinner-from-the-sea community, good beef is more difficult to come by.
“We’ve finally been able to put T-bones and New York cuts on the menu,” says Debra Mione, co-owner of Coconuts, a downtown Zihuatanejo restaurant. “We didn’t before because the meat kept coming in unfrozen and dried out.”
Mione is one of many Americans who have chosen to call Zihuatanejo home. She first visited in the early ‘80s and stayed for almost a year.
“As soon as I did go home, I got my best girlfriend from the Bronx and said we have to go back. We grabbed our money, and two weeks later we returned. I’ve stayed ever since.”
Another local expatriate is Owen Lee, a Floridian who once served as a diver with Jacques Cousteau on the Calypso. In the late ‘60s, Lee bought a wooden sailboat and set off for Tahiti. Displaying navigational skills reminiscent of Wrong Way Corrigan, he landed in Zihuatanejo. He leased land at the end of a beach and built five Polynesian-style bungalows to form the Las Gatas Beach Club.
“It started off as a nature study center,” he says. “I tried to create a place where people could experience living in harmony with the environment.”
Las Gatas beach, which can only be reached with a long hike or a short boat ride, is a popular retreat for locals. Kids sculpt sand castles, strolling musicians serenade sunbathers and adults sit at palapa-shaded restaurants, drawn in by waiters promising peso-pinching pricing.
Beer and burrito bargains also reign on Isla Ixtapa, an outcrop of rock and sand located about a mile offshore from the far end of Ixtapa’s hotel zone. The island offers some of the area’s best snorkeling.
“The waves are very quiet,” points out waiter Federico Perez. “The water is clear, and there are many different fishes and corals to see.”
While Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo lacks Cancun’s Maya and mangrove tours, it does not hurt for things to do. Divers can swim with seahorses, octopuses, manta rays and moray eels. Surfers will find some of Mexico’s best waves. There’s sailing, kayaking and windsurfing for the quiet crowd plus waterskiing, banana boating and personal watercrafting for those preferring piston power.
Deep sea anglers can troll for trophies, cetacean lovers can watch whales or take a dunk with dolphins, and of course, those who want birds’-eye views of the beach can don chutes and parasail above speeding motorboats. Away from the water, walkers, bikers and skaters can enjoy a paved pathway through Ixtapa’s tourist zone. Duffers will find a pair of 18-hole courses, one designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and the other by Robert von Hagge.
After dark, Ixtapa’s nightlife may not be as extensive as Cancun’s disco-until-dawn scene, but the resort certainly offers more than karaoke bars and Lawrence Welk reruns for
entertainment. In fact, many of Cancun’s signature top spots have sites in Ixtapa.
“I was over at Carlos ‘n Charlie’s the other night and I had a blast,” admits Vancouver bachelor David Parna. “I have to say that I met many beautiful tourist girls.”
The biggest difference between Mexico’s resort siblings occurs during spring break. While crowded Cancun draws camera crews ready to film the next fleshy episode of “Girls Gone Wild,” Ixtapa’s G-rated beaches could easily provide a backdrop for a Family Channel feature. Former mayor Jorge Bustos thinks the lack of college revelers has historical roots.
“Years ago, a group of hippies convened here,” he explains. “We gathered them up and brought them to the municipal court where we cut their hair and washed their clothes. Then we bought bus tickets and sent them to Acapulco. One of the kids was the son of a VIP in the United States. His father wrote a letter to say thank you very much.”
Bustos now takes pride in the type of people drawn to Ixtapa. Instead of a loud, proud and boisterous beach mecca, his home has matured into a family-friendly boutique resort that offers the comfort of modern hotels combined with a chance to experience a cultural slice of traditional Mexico. Cancun may set the standard, but for some beachgoers, bigger is not necessarily better.
“We’re here with our boys -- a 21 and an 18 year old,” says South Dakota visitor Laura Schmidt. “I want them five blocks away, not five miles away.”