At 3 p.m. sharp as the sun blazes over the State of Guerrero, Mexico, we plant our red flag in the sand as a wobbly trumpet blares from up the hill. It’s not a tense moment of war but rather the start of a daily ritual. Trays of fresh tamarind, mango, lime, and watermelon margaritas float by, glasses hoisted with enthusiastic "salud"s. Perched steps from a crescent-moon shaped beach, it’s “bugle” hour—happy hour—at Acopio Restaurant in Zihuatanejo.
About 250 kilometres north of Acapulco and 700 kilometres south of Puerta Vallarta, the city of 60,000 of is a short drive from its sister resort, Ixtapa, but a world away. The Mexican government built Ixtapa in the 1970s specifically as a tourist destination. Zihuantanejo’s history goes back centuries; more laidback, the fishing village is the real thing along the country's west coast, which is sometimes called the Mexican Riviera.
"Zihua" gained notoriety in the mid-90s for being the place Tim Robbins's character Andy dreamed of going in The Shawshank Redemption.
More recently, it has drawn headlines for the occasional shark attack. In 2008, an American tourist and a Mexican resident, both surfers, died after being bitten. Just this past March, another American, was wounded after encountering a shark while swimming at a Troncones beach. (In a scene straight of Jaws, some media outlets reported that the mayor of Zihuatanejo tried to downplay the incident.)
Typically, however, sharks are not a particular threat in these waters; among the creatures you’re more likely to see are pelicans, pufferfish, orioles, and geckos.
If food is your preferred way to experience a culture, head straight for the mercados downtown, where you might see a travelling four-piece band amid the tamales, prawns, chickens, peppers, herbs, mangos, guanabanas, and other colourful, local produce.
Besides the poolside Acopio at Embarc Zihuatanejo, which serves classics like tacos, enchiladas, and guacamole, here are a few places to eat in Zihua when you’re not snorkelling, strolling, or gazing out to the turquoise sea.
- Patty’s: This is a spot where you can bury your feet into the sand as you dine, with many of the tables and chairs right on Playa Ropa. If you’re a hungry couple, order the paella, which requires one hour to make; served in a clay pot, the saffron rice is chockfull of shellfish, sausage, and even an entire lobster.
- Carmelita’s Café: The airy, modest, family-run resto is where’s where you’ll find friendly staff, freshly squeezed juices served in globe glasses, terrific grilled meat and whole fish (cooked on a small grill right outside at the entrance), and other comida tradicional, like tiritas (Zihua’s signature ceviche, with lemon juice, serrano chilies, and red onion), chiles rellenos, and tortillas made by hand right in the dining room.
- Restaurantes Mexicanos Any: In business for close to three decades, Any specializes in bright décor as well as pozole, a traditional soup of pork or chicken, coriander leaves, mild chili peppers, and hominy (processed corn with the germ removed) that can be rojo, verde, or blanco. Any’s serves accompaniments on the side, including radishes, chili powder, dried oregano, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, lime, avocado, and chicharrons. It’s a fantastic dish to share, along with an order of enchiladas with green or red mole.
- LOOT: A one-of-a-kind hub founded by Mexico City-designer Andrés Saavedra, this sleek and sexy space is a “surf and lifestyle store”… and an art gallery, barbershop, bar, café (that serves breakfast and lunch), rooftop (for fine-dining dinner), and party/concert/dance/creative/cultural/anything-goes venue, all surrounded by lush plants and a free-spirit vibe. Food is contemporary Mexican meets Kitsilano: for breakfast, for instance, think chia-and-flaxseed hot cakes with hibiscus jam or smashed avocado on thick house-made bread topped with alfalfa sprouts.