While other Mexican surf towns have lost their rhythm, Zihuatanejo – a once-swinging spot on the Pacific Coast – is getting its groove back but still holding on to its wave-chasing soul
In the pantheon of Mexican holiday towns, Zihuatanejo is a hard one to categorise. I have visited it, and the nearby small Pacific Coastsurf towns of Sayulita and Troncones, a handful of times over two decades. Change here is rare and slow. The fact that this part of Guerrero – closer to Guatemala than the USA – isn’t easy to get to has surely played a role: unlike Cancún, it requires at least one stopover.
The terrain has also done its part. This swathe of the state is slammed up against the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, with steep cliffs and ravines blanketed by mangrove, oak and black olive, and tangled with subtropical shrubs, agaves and snaking vines. None of this is conducive to the type of sprawling hotels you find in flatter parts of the county. Zihua, as it’s thankfully shortened to, is especially hemmed in by nature – by the scooped-out bay to the west, with its sliver of silt-fine beach and palm trees, and by hills in every other direction. The small stuccoed places to stay, covered in magenta and egg-yolk-yellow bougainvillaea, and the thatch-roofed private homes that do exist are daringly set on dramatic inclines.
This is not to say that the place has stayed away from the babble. The historic cobblestone streets downtown are lined with restaurants and a scattering of shops catering to gringos looking to bring back a bottle of tequila or a bright woven serape shawl. But there’s also a bustling central market hawking everything from freshly plucked chickens to socks; for every bar announcing a happy-hour special, there’s a lunch cart selling steamed tamales that signposts everyday life in a way not seen in Mayakoba or Playa del Carmen. In the 1950s and 60s, it was this mix of escapism and grit, this world caught between holidays and real life, that attracted Hollywood actors and musicians who wanted sun and sea but not the scene of Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta. John Wayne, Lauren Hutton, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards all found their way to Zihuatanejo, and for a few trippy summers in the early 1960s, Timothy Leary took over the Hotel Catalina and set up a psychedelic training centre where students, in keeping with his counterculture credo, could ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’.
In the following years it became a little less rock’n’roll, but recently the
town has started to attract a groovier type of traveller again – surfers, artists, wandering entrepreneurs who, like the Sixties crowd, want the amazing beaches without the self-consciousness of Sayulita or Tulum. It was this total lack of pretension and slowed-down pace – the fact that you could share a ridiculously long left-peeling wave with local surfers without the hooting found at breaks that have been taken over by visitors – that initially brought me here.