Manzanillo may be short on style, but it's long on substance. While it doesn't have the glitz of other ports of call on the Mexican Riviera, it offers a straightforward, what-you-see-is-what-you-get look at a community that hasn't yet been transformed by a touristy do-over.
Manzanillo -- located between Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta -- is the country's largest commercial port. The port and nearby tuna canneries and seed and grain silos give Manzanillo an industrial, gritty feel.
But, thanks to world-class deep-sea fishing, pleasant beaches, an almost pueblo-style town center and -- of all things -- the Bo Derek movie "10," Manzanillo has gained cachet as a tourist destination. Still, it's relatively untouched; it's refreshing not to see Hooters or Senor Frogs dominating the landscape as you pull into port.
Overall, the town isn't going to win any beauty contests; its appeal lies more in its remarkable hospitality quotient, evidenced by welcoming smiles and friendly faces.
Ships dock at the commercial port during the October through May cruising season.
There are no services where ships are berthed. Passengers walk down the pier to leave the port area, and taxis and shore excursion providers are plentiful near the exit. There's also a small market set up when ships are docked; it features local arts and crafts like pottery, crocheted items, wood carvings, dolls, cigars and soaps, as well as consumable products like coconut candy and organic coffee.
Manzanillo is located in Colima, said to be the safest (and most highly educated) state in all of Mexico. Here, as in other tourist destinations throughout the coast, there's an obvious police presence. Tourism is the area's third-largest economic contributor, after the commercial port and iron ore production, and officials want to keep it that way by making sure the port is safe. That said, it's always good practice to avoid wearing flashy jewelry or watches or carrying excessive amounts of cash. Also, when you are on shore, it's best to steer clear of tap water or ice and to observe the cardinal rule when it comes to street food: Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.
By Taxi: Taxis line up just outside of the port gates. Drivers generally speak decent English and can take you to most points of interest -- including beaches, resorts and shopping centers -- for no more than $20 each way, depending on the distance. Fares aren't set, so be sure to negotiate and settle on a price before getting into the cab.
On Foot: Avenida Mexico, the main drag, is perpendicular to the waterfront malecon, or walkway. Within walking distance are a church and lots of little restaurants and shops. The Monumento el Pez Vela is located just outside the gates to the pier -- about a five-minute walk from the ship.
By Shuttle: An independent tour company runs shuttles directly from the pier into town for just a few dollars and to Miramar Beach for less than $15. The local guides onsite can also make arrangements for deep-sea fishing, snorkeling and kayaking expeditions.
Mexico's currency is the peso. Visit www.oanda.com for current rates and a handy conversion chart that fits neatly into a wallet. ATMs tend to be the least expensive way to acquire pesos, and there are several in the town center. However, there's no need to bulk up on local currency. Most sidewalk vendors, taxis, restaurants and shops accept U.S. dollars; some even take euros. Credit cards are widely accepted, as well. (Note: On our 10-night cruise along Mexico's Pacific coast, we used dollars and a credit card exclusively -- no pesos.)
Spanish is the official language, but at least some English is spoken by vendors, cab drivers, restaurant owners and shopkeepers in the area near the port.
Food in Mexico usually focuses on combinations of fresh beans, chopped vegetables and ground or pulled meats, often packaged with some sort of corn formed into tortillas, chips or taco shells. Most restaurants in the touristy areas of Manzanillo will have menus with English translations (but bring a phrase book just in case). Be wary of the water (and ice) in non-resort areas, as well as fountain drinks that contain it and raw vegetables that might have been washed in it.
Hotel Colonial: The grand dame of the town center, Hotel Colonial has been the place to see and be seen since it was built in the early 1940s. It's got some great architectural details: yellow-and-blue tile wainscoting, decorative wooden latticework and ornate wrought iron chandeliers. It also serves a decent lunch at its restaurant, Los Candiles. Diners, seated at tables with festive yellow and blue tablecloths, can sit indoors or in an open courtyard. (The choice of the green, Astroturf-like carpet in the otherwise lovely courtyard is regrettable.) Lunch entrees include fresh dorado, fajitas, octopus Gallega-style, paella, sandwiches and salads. Tortilla chips -- served hot, right out of the oven, with guacamole and salsa -- are a meal in themselves. The hotel is located near the intersection of Bocanegro and Mexico. The restaurant accepts dollars and euros, Visa and Mastercard. (Calle. Fco. Bocanegra N.28, Valle Dorado, 28200 Manzanillo, Col., Mexico; +52-314-332-1080)
El Fogon: Located on Boulevard Miguel de la Madrid near the Soriana department store, El Fagon is the hands-down favorite of locals and ex-pats alike. It's inexpensive and delivers the goods when it comes to authentic Mexican fare. It's known for its handmade tortillas, fine-cut roast beef and shrimp. Unlike just about everything around it, the red-tiled-roof restaurant is hugely traditional -- built around a fagon, or open-air oven, where much of the food is cooked. El Fogon, a 15-minute cab ride from the town center, opens at noon. (Blvd. Costero Miguel de la Madrid Kilometro 9.5, Viveros Pelayo, 28869 Manzanillo, Col., Mexico; +52-314-333-3094; open daily, 1 p.m. to midnight)
Mariscos Carlos: This restaurant focuses on fresh seafood dishes that incorporate shrimp, fish, lobster, oysters and crawfish with rice, avocado and other sides. (Leon Marino Lote 7, Villa Oceano, 28219 Manzanillo, Col., Mexico; +52-314-336-5458; open daily, except Tuesdays, noon to 7 p.m.)
Restaurante Juanitos: This traditional Mexican venue serves up shrimp, enchiladas, fish, chicken, tostadas, fajitas, hamburgers and other sandwiches, as well as eggs, omelets, enchiladas and chilaquiles for breakfast. (Blvd. Miguel de la Madrid km. 14, Santiago, Manzanillo, Colima, Mexico; +52-314-333-1388; open Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., all other days 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Manzanillo isn't exactly a shopper's paradise, but you'll find beachwear, pottery, T-shirts, baskets and the like in souvenir shops adjoining the waterfront town plaza and more unique items like local honey and coconut oil, handmade soap and organic coffee at a small tented area of vendors that's set up as you leave the port area. A bottle of rompope also makes a great take-home memento. The Miramar Flea Market at Miramar Beach has a lot of souvenir stands, as well. Meanwhile, there are two shopping centers -- Plaza Manzanillo and Salagua, with a Soriana department store -- on Boulevard Miguel de la Madrid.
Tequila is the quintessential alcoholic beverage of Mexico, and margaritas are one of the most common mixed drinks made with it. Another interesting beverage is rompope, an eggnog-like drink that's also used as a dressing for desserts. If alcohol isn't your thing, try agua de Jamaica (hibiscus water); it's made with hibiscus flowers and is basically the Mexican equivalent of iced tea.