Fishing Boats in Acapulco
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Acapulco may not be the Hollywood celebrity magnet it once was, but with its glorious beaches, jumping main drag and pulsating night life, this holiday resort still packs a punch. If the city has an iconic signature, it's the La Quebrada cliff divers, who thrill onlookers today just as they did decades ago when jetsetters like Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth and David Niven helped put Acapulco on the map.
With a population of 1.6 million people, Acapulco has been relentlessly developed, and there is little hint of its early origins. Longtime visitors may grumble that the area has lost its charm, but with its lovely, natural setting, rising from the blue bay up into the Sierra Madre mountains that frame it, Acapulco remains an undeniable scene-stealer.
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island • Ensenada • Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Monterey • Puerto Vallarta
There is no lack of artesano markets that sell embroidered textiles, hand-painted ceramic plates, masks of the region, wooden carvings and silver from Taxco, one of the world's silver capitals. To ensure its authenticity, make sure the silver is stamped .925. There are all manner of shops on Avenida Costera Miguel Aleman, the boulevard that hugs the bay. One popular market on the strip is La Diana Mercado de Artesanias. Be prepared to barter; shops, however, have set prices. There are also lots of souvenir shops in Old Acapulco. Sanborns, a chain well-known throughout Mexico, sells souvenirs and a host of other products. There's a store on Costera Miguel Aleman, three blocks west of the marine terminal.
Spanish. Surprisingly, little English is spoken, except in the finer hotels, restaurants and shops in the tourist district. Many eateries do, however, have English translations on the menu.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Mexico's currency is the peso. Visit XE.com for current rates. ATM's are plentiful and tend to be the cheapest way to acquire pesos. However, most taxis and vendors will accept U.S. dollars or euros, and guides are happy to be tipped that way. Credit cards are not generally accepted in small family restaurants or tiny shops. To be on the safe side, ask first.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships tie up at a pier in Old Acapulco -- just below the Fort of San Diego -- which was built in the 1600's. It's a terrific location; the center of Old Acapulco is a few blocks to the west, and the bay beachfront is just steps away to the east. An interesting factoid: Our ship rolled more at this dock than at almost any other time during our cruise of Mexico's Pacific coast. (It was gentle, though still quite noticeable.) You may not see them, but deep swells and impressive tides are characteristic of this magnificent harbor.
The marine terminal, which, overall, is quite unimpressive, has restrooms, a few trinket shops, an Internet station and kiosks offering guided tours. Basically, it's a walk-through.
The best thing about the cruise ship pier is that you can soak up a lot of scenery on foot. The fort, the old town and the beaches along Costera Miguel Aleman are all walkable -- 15 minutes at most. But, there's still a lot that is not -- the site of the cliff divers; the gorgeous hotels and beaches in the Diamante, or Diamond, district; and the far reaches of the bay are among those that are not stroll-worthy. The good news is that there's a public bus that runs the length of the strip for just a few dollars. And taxis, many of them Volkswagen Beetles, are everywhere -- and they are pretty affordable. A ride from downtown to a Diamante hotel should cost $15 to $20. Tip: Establish the price first. There are a number of so-called "authorized" taxi vendors at the marine terminal, but their prices tend to be higher than those you could negotiate by hailing a cab yourself. Also worth considering: You can hire a private, air-conditioned SUV for six people with an English-speaking guide for $60 -- $10 per person, per hour -- at the marine terminal.
Watch Out For
With Mexican drug crime a staple in the news today, it's no wonder that security is a cause for concern. What most foreign visitors don't realize, until they sample a place like Acapulco for themselves, is that tourist districts are under heavy guard -- and have been for years. Armed police are a huge (and, frankly, comforting) presence on the street, at the pier and in patrol boats that stand sentry over cruise ships while they are in port. That's not to say you shouldn't take the same precautions you would in any other city: don't wear flashy jewelry or watches or carry excessive amounts of cash, and steer clear of deserted beaches or streets after dark.
Acapulco is divided into three districts with very different personalities: Old Acapulco, the Costera and Acapulco Diamante. Each one deserves a good look. Old Acapulco has a wonderful zocalo, or plaza, which is the neighborhood's heartbeat. There, you'll find boys kicking a ball around; uniformed school girls sashaying through the square with studied moves; and old men reading the paper. On the far end of the zocalo is Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, a Moorish-style church, known for its blue and gold domes. Nearby are cafes, restaurants and shops. Old Acapulco has a nice, easy-going rhythm, while The Costera, a five-mile bayside strip, zings with energy. The boulevard is home to hotels, shops, restaurants and beaches dotted with thatched-roof bars and boats owned by fishermen who troll the waters for mackerel, snapper and sea bass. The Diamante is Acapulco's high-high-end enclave. Oprah Winfrey, Robert Redford and Sylvester Stallone, among other celebs, have hillside homes overlooking the bay. The city's grander, more expensive resorts are located in Diamante; they include Las Brisas, the Fairmont Acapulco Princess and Fairmont Pierre Marques. The beaches there, on the Pacific outside the bay, are stunning. In particular, Playa Revolcadero -- a gorgeous stretch of white sand in front of the Fairmont hotels, where watching the pounding surf amounts to high drama -- is breathtaking.
No visit to Acapulco would be complete without watching the La Quebrada divers' swan dives off of a 135-foot cliff into the surf. It's quite a spectacle. The divers, typically six in all, first pray at a small shine -- and then they preen. It's like performance art. They stretch, they shake and then strike a pose -- their muscled arms outstretched -- waiting for the wind and the waves to deliver the perfect second to launch. Local fishermen started the practice in the 1930's, and today, it's their family members who continue the tradition. The best viewing platform is the verandah of the restaurant at Hotel El Mirador, once a Hollywood hangout. Don't be surprised if the divers ask for a tip after the show.
Been There, Done That
The resort towns on Mexico's Pacific coast developed more because of water sports and sportfishing then for its culture. But, history buffs should make time to explore the Museo Historico de Acapulco at Fuerte de San Diego. The fort, built to protect the city's wealthy commercial harbor from pirate attacks, was constructed in the form of a perfect pentagon. The museum has 11 rooms that trace Acapulco's lineage, from its earliest Indian inhabitants to the nation's independence from Spain in 1821. Of special interest are the displays detailing Acapulco's importance as a hub in the trade route between New Spain and the Philippines. Signs are in Spanish and English. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. It's closed Mondays. Tickets cost $3.50. There is free entrance on Sunday.
Senor Frogs, the ubiquitous bar that populates virtually every Mexican resort, has a slogan that is spot on: "Sorry. We're open." One thing Acapulco is big on is chains, especially American outposts, which include Burger King, McDonald's, KFC, Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Starbucks and Hooters.
On the plaza in Old Acapulco, La Flor de Acapulco has been offering basic fare since 1939. A local's favorite, the second-story, open-air restaurant is a terrific spot to people-watch while sampling the catch of the day or other popular items like tacos or enchiladas. Lunch costs about $10. No credit cards are accepted -- cash only.
Spend any time on Costera Miguel Aleman, and you can't help but notice 100% Natural, a good-looking eatery that features light, healthy foods. It's popular with residents and tourists alike, and there's a beach location on the strip, just east of the cruise ship pier. Credit cards are accepted.
As for the Diamante, many of the hotels have fine restaurants, but it's hard to beat the Fairmont Acapulco Princess for its gorgeous scenery. There's a handsome, open-air bar near the reception desk, where you can enjoy the view and grab a quick lunch. Later, take a walk over the bridge, and enjoy the ponds, waterfalls and the magnificent beach beyond.
Staying in Touch
Internet access is easy to come by in Acapulco. The marine terminal, with 10 computers and plugins for laptops, offers rates of $5 for 60 minutes, $3 for 30 minutes and $2 for 15 minutes. There's also international phone service: $1.20 per minute to call the U.S. and Canada and $1.50 per minute to phone Asia or Europe. Most of the Internet stations in town charge $8 per hour.
Best Overall Introduction: Because Acapulco is so spread out, first-time visitors especially should consider an excursion that takes in the city's three districts and a cliff-diver performance. The sightseeing tour up into the steep hillside shows off Acapulco's stunning landscape and also dishes up a lot of the celebrity lore that has made it so famous. The outing typically lasts four hours and includes a stop at one of the Diamante hotels for a complimentary drink. One added bonus: The tour gives visitors a good sense of the important sights located near the cruise ship pier -- and what's walkable and what is not.
Best for Archaeology Buffs: It involves an extensive amount of walking, but the half-day tour to the Tehuacalco archaeological site is well worth it. For starters, the one-hour drive lets visitors enjoy the classic beauty of the Mexican countryside. The site itself dates back to 750 A.D. and is one of the most recent important archaeological discoveries on Mexico's Pacific coast. Tehuacalco once served as a ceremonial center dedicated to the cult of the water and mountains. Among the 15 structures to be seen are a pyramidal base that's roughly 65 feet high; the remains of a 23-foot-wide staircase; and walls, patios, engravings and petroglyphs. The walking tour lasts about two hours over uneven gravel, dirt and grass.
For More Information
On the Web: VisitMexico.com and Acapulco.com.
Tourism Board: 1-800-44-MEXICO
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mexican Riviera
The Independent Traveler: Mexico Exchange
--by Ellen Uzelac, a travel and finance writer headquartered on Maryland's Eastern Shore