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The tranquil town of Zihuatanejo, located on the Mexican Riviera, was largely neglected after the Spanish Conquest. With its ancient roots as a matriarchal society (the original name, Cihuatlan, means "place governed by women"), Zihua -- as it's affectionately known by locals and frequent visitors -- remained a sleepy fishing village until fairly recently. Inhabited by a few families, visited only by intrepid fishermen who moored in its protected harbor in the evenings, Zihua's charm and beauty was mostly undiscovered until the Mexican government decided to create a tourist paradise out of a nearby spit of land known as Ixtapa.
No building, by city code, is allowed to top four stories in Zihua, in order to preserve the "village look." Ixtapa, in contrast, has plenty of high-rise hotels and trendy shops. Zihua is a city with a municipal government; Ixtapa, a "created resort," is actually "governed" by a resort management company which oversees everything from traffic lights to law enforcement. Together they provide "two vacations in one."
At certain times of the year, while sailing to or from Zihuatanejo Bay, you might be lucky enough to see humpback whales as they migrate to their breeding grounds. And at other times, you might be able to assist in the preservation of the Green Ridley sea turtles as they lay their eggs in the sand along the bay's beaches. The ecological programs of the region include building pens along the beach where the eggs are placed until they can mature.
The nicest thing about a stop in the area is that there isn't much to see or do here, except to enjoy the natural charms of the locale. Young, hip, active and muy Americano, Ixtapa is where you'll find most of the water-sports vendors, the ubiquitous Carlos'n Charlie's, Senor Frogs and the other shops and watering holes that cruisers have come to expect. Zihua, on the other hand, is home to fishermen, craftsmen, small waterfront bars and cafes, and a more relaxed atmosphere.
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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
Spanish is the official language of Mexico. Most of the shopkeepers in Zihua and almost everyone in Ixtapa speaks and understands some English, so communication is not a major problem.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Mexican peso is the official currency of Mexico, but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted. Note, though, that the symbol for the U.S. dollar ($) is also used for the peso, so make sure you know which currency you are being charged for goods and services. The peso is currently trading at about 10 to one U.S. dollar.
Zihuatanejo has a few banks with ATMs in its "downtown" area, about a 15-minute walk from the dock. Ixtapa has several. Credit and debit cards are accepted in most locations for purchases.
Local pottery is an exceptional buy, as are rugs and hand-woven hammocks. There is an open market just a few steps from the tender dock in Zihua, and there are many upscale shops and boutiques in Ixtapa.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships anchor in Zihuatanejo Bay and tender to the small dock in Zihua; walking to the shops of Zihuatanejo is an easy three minutes; Ixtapa is approximately three miles away and is accessible by bus, taxi or shore excursion.
You don't need transportation to take advantage of Zihuatanejo, as everything you need is within walking distance. If you want to explore Ixtapa, taxis are readily available and not very expensive (about $4 each way). Several shore excursions feature bus transportation to Ixtapa. Buses have the destination listed on the front so you can easily tell which one to board. There are water taxis to the little snorkeling beaches of Las Gatas and La Ropa.
If you aren't taking an excursion or going off to the upscale shopping and hotels of Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo provides some fabulous "hanging around" spots. Just walk to the end of the tender dock, turn right on the Paseo del Pescador, and you'll see several small bars and bodegas fronting the beach. There's also an Internet Cafe and some shops. For serious shopping, keep walking to the end of the path that fronts the beach, turn left and walk about three blocks to the open marketplace.
In Ixtapa you can hang out at any of the beaches in front of the hotels or at any of the bars, or simply shop, shop, shop.
El Faro: This lighthouse, located at the end of Las Gatas beach, is about a 15-minute walk down a flagstone path from the Las Gatas Beach Club. The view is spectacular and includes the small islands in front of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo Bay.
Mercado de los Artisans: This open market in Zihuatanejo has hundreds of stalls with crafts people selling everything from blankets to ornate silver items. Unlike the shops in Ixtapa, real bargains can be found here.
Museo Arqueologico de la Costa Grande: Located at the end of the malecon (beachfront street) in Zihuatanejo, the museum houses artifacts from as early as 3000 B.C. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday; admission is about $1.
Sportsfishing: Any avid fisherman will love the region's incredible boasting opportunities. Just a few minutes at the dock in mid-afternoon will show you what is available as the small guideboats return from their excursions with gigantic marlin and sailfish. In fact, there are two hanging hooks, one on either side of the dock, for photo ops with your catch.
Playa La Ropa: Gentle surf and a family atmosphere surround the main swimming beach of Zihuatanejo. If you have time after a shore excursion, or if you just want a kicked-back day, this beach is accessible via a footpath (about half an hour's walk from Zihua) or by taxi (about 5 minutes and $3).
Playa Las Gatas: Accessible by water taxi from the main dock (about $3 each way), this protected inlet is also a great snorkeling spot. Have lunch or a cold one at one of the many beachfront restaurants or enramadas.
Playa el Palmar: The main beach in Ixtapa, it's nicely groomed and usually crowded with hotel guests as it runs along the strip that houses the high-rise hotels.
Been There, Done That
Troncones: Located about 16 miles north of Zihua, this rugged coastline is known as one of the best surfing spots in all of Mexico. It's also a site of sea turtle nests, virgin beaches and tidepools. Above the beaches are rugged mountains; a short hike up the mountainside takes you to La Majahua caverns and the zipline platforms, where you can soar above the jungle on rope harnesses.
Barra de Petosi: This seaside village is home to the region's most important ecological preserve, the wildlife sanctuary lagoon. Located approximately 15 miles south of Zihuatanejo, it also boasts the balmy beach of Playa Larga with over nine miles of unspoiled coastline, and family-run beachfront restaurants (enramadas) where you can enjoy fresh fish and a beer. Horseback riding in the surf is also available here.
There are many, many lunching spots in both Zihua and Ixtapa, depending on the food and atmosphere you desire. Take your pick of an upscale restaurant in a five-star resort in Ixtapa, or a little "enramada" hut along the beach at Playa Larga or a small botega open to the Playa Principal in Zihuatanejo. Some picks:
La Rana Rene, Sirena Gorda or El Mediterraneo (Paseo del Pescador): Located facing the Playa Principal and Zihuatanejo Bay, these three restaurants are open to the sea breezes, a great view of the fishing boats coming in, and your ship at anchor. It's a perfect spot for fish tacos, fresh guacamole and a couple of Dos XX or Coronas.
El Pueblito (Ave. Morelos #249, Zihuatanejo): This local Zihua eatery featuring regional specialties -- pozole on Thursdays and barbacoa on Sundays -- gives you the taste of real Mexico. Try their marrow soup or Lengua con Mole.
The Inn at Manzanillo Bay (Troncones Beach): If you're going to Troncones for the day, have lunch here on a breezy porch overlooking the ocean. True gourmet fare is served, via a classically trained chef, who incorporates local produce, seafood and recipes into his creations.
El Galeon (Plaza Marina Ixtapa): In Ixtapa's small boat harbor, housed in a replica of an ancient sailing galleon, this restaurant and bar is very popular. The food is eclectic with some regional specialties.
Casa Morelos: Located in La Puerta shopping center in Ixtapa, this restaurant serves fine regional specialties.
La Perla: On Las Ropas beach, this restaurant serves only fresh oysters, tuna, dorado, octopus and other daily catches plus fresh meat and poultry. Palapas and umbrellas line the beach, too. But this place really comes alive on weekends because of its satellite television sports bar, where locals and gringos meet to cheer their favorite teams.
Zipline Adventure: A fabulous experience for the fit and unafraid! Take a motorcoach to Troncones, where you will hike for about an hour to the Majuahual Caves and the zipline, which has you soaring (in a harness) above the treetops to three different platforms. Children must be at least 8 to participate. Average cost: $125 per person, kids and adults.
Deep Sea Fishing: Plenty of cruise vacationers who love to fish bring their own rod and reel for exactly this activity. And when you see the fishermen returning with their catch in the early afternoon, you'll know why. Huge marlin, sailfish and bonita are to be found in these waters; the small boats leave from the dock early. Equipment is included. Average cost: $120, adults and children.
Sail and Snorkel: Board either a schooner or catamaran for a sail around Zihuatanejo Bay and to Manzanillo Bay, where you can snorkel and play on the beach. Light lunch is served and there is an open bar on the return for domestic Mexican beer and tequila. Average cost: $70 adult. $45 children.
Beach Break: Take a water taxi to Las Gatas beach, have lunch and relax in the sun, or rent snorkeling equipment. The return trip is at your leisure; the water taxi departs every half hour or so. Average cost: $65 adults, $45 children.
Ixtapa Resort Tour: Take a motorcoach to the planned community of Ixtapa; all of the hotels are lined up along the beach. This tour gives a great overview of the area and allows for some shopping and beverage breaks. Approximately $27 - $32 per person.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are abundant in Mexico and this area is no exception. Reasonable prices ($3 or so for 15 minutes) are common; most locations have ISDN or DSL lines. Ixtapa hotels have centers in their lobbies, most of which cost more than the local outlets in Zihuatanejo.
Cyber Internet Cafe (Plaza los Patios #105): Open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. only.
Xtapa Connection (Ixtapa Plaza #15): Also serving coffee and cold drinks; half an hour of service is about $5.
Casa de Larga Distancia: Long-distance service in Zihua, not far from the dock at the corner of Calle Pedro Ascencio and Calle H. Galeana. Make phone calls, check e-mail, send and receive faxes.
For More Information
On the Web: Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo Convention and Visitors Bureau
Cruise Citic Message Boards: Mexican Riviera
Independent Traveler: Mexico Exchange
--By Jana Jones. San Diego-based Jones, who is the creator and editor of Sleeping-Around.com, the lodging-oriented Web site, is one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.