Updated: Jul 13
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, March 9, 2008
I have to be honest. When my younger sister, Claire, called one dreary winter day last year and said that my mother’s dearest wish was to take the whole family on a trip to celebrate her 75th birthday, I thought: bad idea.
Let’s face it: My mom was pretty spry, but she said she wanted to go someplace hot even though she burns to a crisp in the sun even in full-body zinc. My dad, at nearly 79, well, let’s just say he likes his familiar routine of going to church in the morning and hanging out in his den in the afternoon. My mother loves to sit and talk; my husband is only happy on the move. There would be 12 of us. My older sister had two teenagers, and my youngest was 5. Where on Earth could we go that wasn’t already long booked, wouldn’t cost a fortune and wouldn’t make us want to kill each other? I figured I would bite my tongue and just nod sympathetically when Claire came up empty-handed and we decided to just go out to dinner.
Instead, there was a snowstorm in Portland, Ore., where my extended family lives. And for three solid days, my tenacious younger sister surfed the Internet and called hundreds of places until she found what we would all much, much later agree was about as close to perfection as you could get: a cliff-side villa overlooking a sky-blue ocean bay in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, for a week in March.
Pacific Vacation Villa Encantada & Villa Bahia
Zihuatanejo is an old fishing village on Mexico’s Pacific coast, about 150 miles north of glitzy, touristy Acapulco and just south of lower-key but still touristy Ixtapa. (Ixtapa was built by the government in the 1970s on an old coconut plantation just to draw visitors from El Norte.) I’d never heard of Zihuatanejo. Claire assured me that it was the place that the inmates of “The Shawshank Redemption” dreamed of going once they broke out of jail. Once we landed, I could quickly see why.
The winding, narrow streets of Zihuatanejo lead past the tree-lined Zocalo (town square), right on the ocean, up an impossibly steep cobblestone hill to the cliff-side part of the town called El Almacen. Our destination was toward the end of the cliff-side road: Villa Bahia, owned by a colorful European-Israeli expat named Andre Chen, who was to become a regular visitor and teller of tall tales.
The first thing we noticed when we walked into the tile- and thatch-roofed villa was the breeze. Zihuatanejo is hot, no matter what time of year. But local architect Enrique Zozaya, who carefully studies the direction of the wind and the way the tropical light plays on a piece of land, had designed the villa to take maximum advantage of the ocean breezes. The living room upstairs was completely open to the winds, and three of the four bedrooms had open terraces. Downstairs, the open-air kitchen led to a spacious patio, where cushy white couches were nestled under a palapa roof. There was an infinity pool, a teak dining table under a broad umbrella, and a stunning view of the bay. This was where we were to do most of our living in the next week.
Within minutes, we met the villa “staff.” Included in the price of the weekly rental was a cook, Gama; his wife, Judy, who would clean and do laundry; and Alfredo, who was our fixer and did everything else. It sounds luxurious, and it was. But with such a big group, we were able to spread the costs around. We paid $1,400 per night, or about $100 a person.
The first order of business was groceries. So, while my husband and kids jumped into the pool, I climbed into Alfredo’s red pickup for a trip to the market. I wasn’t expecting our first stop: Costco. Well, Comercial Mexicana. But it’s owned by Costco and has that company’s products. The big difference is what you can buy: limes by the hundreds and an assortment of pure Mexican agave tequila.
Alfredo then took me to wonderful local shops for such things as fresh coffee beans from nearby Atoyac, in the Sierra Madre Mountains, and an open-air farmacia where any medicine under the sun seemed to be for sale.
By the time the rest of the family arrived later that afternoon, the staff had squeezed the juice from the limes, made a gigantic pitcher of margaritas and put out platters of fresh guacamole, salsa and chips. The kids played in the pool while the adults caught up. Gama grilled the guachinango (red snapper) that had been caught earlier that day. And we ate by moonlight at the teak table out on the patio before turning in. We would end up eating all of our meals this way.
Bahia Suite in Villa Bahia
There were too many of us for the four bedrooms, so the sleeping arrangements were always in flux, with kids sleeping sometimes with an aunt, sometimes with a parent or grandparent, and many times on the couches under the stars on the patio.
Over the next few days, we both explored as a group and split into smaller parties. We sisters began every morning by climbing down the steep stairs to a rocky platform near the water’s edge to do yoga. The kids started in the pool. My husband figured out where he could walk every morning to buy an English-language newspaper. And my parents quickly learned how to say huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs) when Gama asked what they wanted for breakfast. (The huevos rancheros, on a crispy tortilla, were a great way to start the day.)
One day, we rented a fleet of taxis and drove to Troncones, a 3¿-mile-long surfing beach about 40 minutes north. We parked ourselves at the Inn at Manzanillo Bay, a simple, palapa-covered ocean-side bar and grill, and ordered rounds of quesadillas and fresh fish tacos for the group (and told our waiting taxi drivers that lunch was on us). The adults and teenagers went boogie-boarding in the waves. My parents sauntered along the beach looking for shells, and the kids poked around in the tide pools on the rocks.
We made another group trip to Isla Ixtapa, an island just off Ixtapa, reached by water taxi from Playa Linda. Alfredo came with us to make sure we got settled with a friend of his, Pepe, who ran a rustic place on the far side of the island called El Paraiso Escondido — Hidden Paradise. We took over hammocks, tables, chaises and umbrellas on Coral Beach, which is reached by a small path from the main beach. The snorkeling here was fantastic, with huge, colorful fish hanging out in the shallow water right off shore, close enough for our 5-year-old, who didn’t want to snorkel, to see. We spent the day swimming, eating, exploring tide pools, reading, playing in the sand, getting massages and examining shell necklaces, hammocks and other crafts that the locals sell up and down the beach. We even got my mom out snorkeling for the first time in her life.
When we heard about a bird-watching kayak trip through the mangroves at Barra de Potosi, a four-mile-long saltwater lagoon preserve, we knew it was a day to split up. The sisters, husbands and most of the kids covered up every inch of our skin with hats, sunscreen and sarongs and paddled with a guide through tunnels in the mangroves in search of exotic birds. Meanwhile, Alfredo took our parents and my 5-year-old to Petatlan, a village in the mountains about an hour south of Zihuatanejo that is a famous pilgrimage site for Mexican Catholics. During Semana Santa, the holy week before Easter, thousands of pilgrims walk up the 50 or so stairs to the church on their knees, reciting the rosary along the way.
Another day, several of us snorkeled in the unbelievably clear waters off deserted Manzanillo Beach for the day; another group went shopping along the Paseo de Pescador, or Fisherman’s Walk, stopping for a drink on the way up the hill in el Almacen; and a third group stayed at the villa, inside my dad’s air-conditioned bedroom, watching sports on TV. Everybody happy.
We did try one last group event. My dad wanted to go to church for Palm Sunday. Alfredo gave us the Mass schedule, and we walked into town early to try to watch the procession he’d told us about.
We got to the little open-air church of Santa Maria de Guadalupe just as it was filling up. The plaza outside was packed with local artisans weaving palms into intricate statues, braided crosses and designs. But then it was announced that the priest couldn’t make it and Mass was canceled. So we ate breakfast at a little cafe across the street, then piled into taxis to the larger open-air Iglesia Angelus, or Church of Angels, close to the center of town, and sweat through a lengthy noon Mass.
While the others returned to the villa for a dip in the pool or a nap, my sister Mary and I explored the Mercado Municipal, a covered warren of shops and counters. We bought tubs of different kinds of mole and Mexican shopping bags. Mary, an interior designer, found unique folk art at the artisans’ market and gorgeous sterling silver jewelry.
By the end of the week, my mother was indeed fried to a crisp, but I had never seen her so happy. And amazingly, everyone else was happy, too (especially when the sons-in-law discovered the store that sells Cuban cigars). There had been beaches, fun and gorgeous views. But there had also been time to talk. There had been time for Granddad to retell the tales to his grandchildren that he used to tell us as girls, and for cousins who live on opposite coasts to share an adventure.
I asked my mother the other day if it was the birthday she’d envisioned. “Other than the sunburn,” she said, “it was perfect.”
Washington Post Page 2
DETAILS: Zihuatanejo, Mexico
GETTING THERE:Continental has the best connections and fares from Washington to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo. Round-trip fare in early April from Reagan National or Dulles is $409, and from BWI, $455.
GETTING AROUND:We used taxis rather than rental cars to get around, reserving a fleet for the whole group for the day when we took excursions to Troncones and other places. A taxi ride from Zihuatanejo to Troncones is generally about $30 plus tip one way; same for Barra de Potosi.
WHERE TO STAY: Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo have an abundance of hotels, motels, inns, B&Bs and villas to choose from in virtually all price ranges. We found our villa through Pacific Vacation ( https://www.staypv.com) and reserved through owner Andre Chen. Villa Bahia, with gorgeous views of the bay, an infinity pool, outdoor terraces and patios, four bedrooms, five bathrooms and maid and chef services, cost us $1,400 a night in high season, or about $100 a night per person, with laundry service thrown in. For more information: Andre Chen, 214-808-5551 or 972-241-0624, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO EAT: In Zihuatanejo, Coconuts (Pasaje Agustin Ramirez No. 1. El Centro) sits off a cobblestone street in a whitewashed old building, the oldest in town, built in 1865. The private garden, shaded by coconut palm trees, is a real oasis from the heat and noise of the city’s central shopping district. It’s lit by soft lantern light in the evening. Try the gazpacho for lunch ($5) or the shrimp tacos (tacos de camaron) for about $8. La Sirena Gorda (on the Playa Municipal next to the pier on the Paseo del Pescador) is a great place for breakfast, with everything from eggs and omelets to yogurt and granola ($2-$5.50). Casa Bahia (El Almacen), with its roof deck and open-air bar and restaurant, has one of the best views of the city and the bay and is a great place for a sunset cocktail.
WHAT TO DO:
* Snorkel. At Manzanillo Beach, guide Hector Olea runs tours out of Zihuatanejo. Ask for him down at the pier or look for him at Casa Marina in the mornings or at Coconuts (see above), his unofficial office, in the evenings. Our day of snorkeling, with unlimited drinks and lunch included, ran us about $40 each for the adults and teens, plus tip. It was free for the two younger boys.
* Kayak. Zoe Kayak Tours (011-52-755-553-0496, http://www.zoekayaktours.com) offers guided kayak trips through Barra de Potosi for $80. Guide Brian Roach has an encyclopedic knowledge of local birds, history and colorful characters.
* Beach it at any one of the gorgeous white-sand beaches. Parasailing, jet skis, catamaran cruises and party boats are big in Ixtapa and at Playa La Ropa in Zihuatanejo. Snorkeling is best at Las Gatas in Zihuatanejo, nearby Manzanillo Beach and Isla Ixtapa. Ricardo Rojas or one of the therapists with Sanrick’s Massage give great beach-side massages for about $30 to $40. For surfing, take a taxi to Troncones; lessons are available at the Inn at Manzanillo Bay (011-52-755-553-2884, http://www.manzanillobay.com).
* Petatlan, in the mountains an hour south of Zihuatanejo, has beautiful gold and silver jewelry, as well as a famous Catholic church.
* Shop. We liked La Zapoteca (on the Paseo del Pescador) for colorful woven rugs and hammocks; Casa de Tierra (Heroico Colegio Militar No. 120) for furniture; Abel & Julia (Calle Nicolas Bravo 33) for sterling silver jewelry; and the Artisan’s Market and Mercado Municipal (Artesanias Mexicanas, 1 Avenida 5 de Mayo) and Arte Mexicano Nopal (56 Avenida 5 de Mayo.
INFORMATION: Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa Mexico Visitors Guide, http://www.zihuatanejo.net. Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, http://www.ixtapa-zihuatanejo.com. Visit Mexico, http://www.visitmexico.com. Or check out the local English-language magazine, Another Day in Paradise, http://www.adip.info.
This is reposted from the artical published Sunday March 8, 2008. We have updated the telephone numbers and links to vendors.