Once a fishing town, Zihuatanejo’s slow growth has led to a simple layout incorporating the eventual need for tourism. Easy to navigate, Zihuatanejo Bay is a short distance from all major points of interest. Those staying near these areas are greeted by a variety of boutique hotels with sometimes a big national brand and, of course, the beach – which is the big draw for visitors.
Ixtapa is also on the bay, just a short taxi, car or bus ride away. The town has a different vibe to Zihuatanejo as high-rise hotels sit side by side and popular hits play over loudspeakers. Small kiosks are a few meters from each other, all offering excursions and options to enhance your stay. The walk goes in two main directions: out of town or into town.
The two areas complement and oppose each other. Go to Zihuatanejo for its more authentic, stripped down and serious experiences, or go to Ixtapa for its glitz, glamour, luxury and excitement.
Pitting them against each other is unfair. They sit side by side, making transit between them so quick and interchangeable that staying on either side is down to personal preference.
So my goal is not to show you which side is better. Instead, it’s about highlighting what each part of the whole has to offer.
As mentioned, Zihuatanejo began as a fishing town. Its name comes from the Nahuatl word “Cihuatlan”, which means “country of women”. Various indigenous tribes lived on its shores – from the Cuitlatecs to the Tarascans – all laying claim to the area at one time.
After the arrival of the Spaniards, the region welcomed an influx of people from the Empire, as well as adventurous Filipinos, sailors, and various other travelers who brought Asian influence to the region. The greatest example of this influence is the Shinto gate in the center of the city.
In the 20e century, the area served as a port of entry for goods throughout the state of Guerrero. As tourism became a focal point throughout the country, the region slowly transformed into an economic tourist destination.
Unlike well-known destinations such as Cancun, Cabo, and Puerto Vallarta, Ixtapa is a lesser-known destination created in the late 1970s to meet tourist demand.
Its name also comes from various Nahuatl words meaning “white” and “salt”. The area was previously a coconut plantation and a mangrove estuary. Its fame came from the Mexican celebrities who lived in the area and being the setting for a telenovela named Marimar in the mid 1990s.
Exploring both regions requires either a guide to take you directly to these destinations, a taxi, or if you’re adventurous, take the intercity bus or walk. Buses have several stops in Ixtapa, while in Zihuanajeo the main departure/stop point is the craft market on Calle 5 de Mayo. I would suggest using all of these options to get to these different places quickly.
1. Zihuatanejo Bay
The differences between the two areas are based on how they were built and then rebuilt. Everyone has a walk (My lesson) parallel to the bay within the city limits. As you walk along the boardwalk you will see small homes and businesses as well as romantically themed seating areas above the water and rocks below. Small bridges allow quick access to the city.
Ixtapa has beaches adjacent to many hotels and a few restaurants. A dolphin-themed water park and marina provide easy access to a watersports golf course. It is a perfect choice if you want an activity close to the beach.
Both have numerous beaches extending into areas away from other visitors. Ixtapa has Playa Las Escolleras near the marina, Playa Thalia and Playa Tulipanes. Zihua has Playa Las Gatas and my favorite beach, La Ropa Beach, named after the ships that ran aground and the sailors who abandoned them, leaving much of their clothes to wash ashore.
2. Partenon Del Negro Durazo
In a hard-to-reach location, this decaying Greek-style mansion was once the home of Mexico City’s corrupt police chief. Arturo “El Negro” Durazo Moreno held the position from 1976 to 1982. During this time, his temper, kickbacks, and a cocaine smuggling ring made him very wealthy, powerful, and feared.
One of the ways he laundered his money was by building many houses, the most notable being this one. As it is a hike to reach this place, the ideal option is to take a taxi to the bottom of the hill and have them wait for you to return. Head up a deteriorated driveway and pay the gardener a few bucks to look away while you explore the mansion.
At first glance, you might think it’s a hotel, but the pools, rooms, and faux statues tell a different story. You can see the effort put into building it. The views of the bay below make the hike interesting.
3. Crocodile Farm
Near Playa Linda is a crocodile farm which is also a tourist attraction. It is an ideal brief stop to see the special creatures that live in the estuary, such as iguanas and other lizards. The visit is free.
4. Ixtapa Island
There are two ways to visit Ixtapa Island. The first is to book an excursion that includes transport to and from the island, plus a meal and drink. The second is to take a taxi behind the Club at Playa Tulipanes, then flag down one of the independent boat owners and negotiate the cost to get to the island.
Whichever you choose, the tour is a fun mini-excursion from the mainland. The small island has a smooth side where most travelers stay and a rocky side which is completely covered in small rocks so not very passable. On this side, however, you’ll find fewer people, better views, and most restaurants.
These restaurants form a buffer between the two halves of the island. The staff stands ready to look for signs that you are interested in something to eat or drink. They will try to wave you into their restaurant.
The beach is small, so it gets crowded in the late morning. A few hiking trails stray from the main areas, but most visitors stay near the water and relax.
If you have decided to travel on your own, you will need to negotiate with one of the boat owners to bring you back. Tour groups will only give you about 2-3 hours to have fun before heading back out.
5. Xihuacan Museum (La Chole)
About 45 minutes outside of Ixtapa/Zihua is the Xihuacan Museum. Newly formed, the museum contains more than 800 pre-Hispanic pieces displaying a wide range of objects that give a comprehensive view of native life.
The best way to visit the museum is via a guided tour. Once there, you’ll learn about the indigenous Nahua people who were first in the area, as well as the Aztecs, Toltecs, Xochimilco, and other groups.
An added bonus of visiting the area is a visit to the pyramid. There, you can see the area through the eyes of its former inhabitants and get stunning views of the surrounding area.
6. Gourmet culture and craft beer
Although Ixtapa has many good restaurants, I felt they were aimed at tourists who wanted meals with a bit of Mexican flair but closer to what they ate at home. The most glamorous and upscale restaurants can be found in Ixtapa.
What interested me was the fare on the Zihua side. These meals were popular with the locals – simple food, large portions and reasonable cost.
The best overall destination to try a wide selection of local dishes while having fun is at Mercadito Zanka, which is only open Wednesday through Sunday evenings. This is where you can try a bit of everything in one place.
Pasteleria La Boquita offers delicious breads and pastries whose smells will attract you to their location.
Mercado Municipal (City Market) has a number of food stalls in the surrounding area. My favorite is Taqueria Las Esquinita, which has become my late breakfast and early lunch spot. My local fast food restaurant is and always has been Taqueria El Buen Pastor. In fact, I salivated as I walked past. My late night date was Mr. Lalo Hamburguesas Al Carbon. For drinks, I visited Capricho del Rey for the craft drink selection and friendly staff. When I crave pizza, it’s Pizza Locas.
I prefer to visit the beach shortly after sunrise. At that time, the crowd did not arrive. You can have a quiet moment to enjoy the surroundings. The sand is cool. The sun fills the bay, and that’s one of the best features of Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa.
These two distinct towns were rebuilt to cope with the tourism boom after the 1970s. Yet far from tourist destinations, these areas still retain their local charm and off-the-grid feel.
Your free time should always be spent having fun and relaxing. Paso del Pescador (Zihua) and Paso Ixtapa (Ixtapa) offer you good opportunities. The rest is up to you.
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