The Ultimate Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo Beach Vacation

Travel to the twin beach towns on Mexico's Pacific Coast for some much-needed downtime. 
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Travel to the twin beach towns on Mexico's Pacific Coast for some much-needed downtime. 
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The state of Guerrero, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, is uneven. I don’t just mean the seemingly endless mountains that ripple below on the the necessarily short flights over the small state. Guerrero is simultaneously one of Mexico’s most economically deprived states and one of its naturally richest. Its green ranges host both a booming trade in heroin poppies, and such beautiful historical treasures as the stunning colonial-era silver-mining town of Taxco. Though its luster has dimmed in recent years, Acapulco still looms large in the Mexican psyche as a splendid ideal of beachfront luxury and relaxation. 

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The paired beach towns of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, less than an hour flight from Mexico City, are twins of the fraternal variety. Like the rest of the nation, they are rich with division, and, taken together, add up to a delightful and consistently surprising whole. From the airport, a charming shed-like affair, my girlfriend and I rode through Zihuatanejo (Zihua to locals or out-of-breath foreigners) along a typical Mexican boulevard: tire shops, convenience stores and families enjoying the sun from the back of an aged pickup.

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Developed with federal money in the 1970s—much like the better-known Cancun on the opposite coast—Ixtapa is a set of striking, if dated, hotel towers grafted onto a stunning tropical valley. (At this point, and during a brief downpour on a jungle road later that afternoon, the theme from Jurassic Park came to mind.) 

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We were heading for the Azul Ixtapa Grand, an all-inclusive resort with a contemporary feel. The is the Vegas-Cancun-wristband life: limitless piña coladas at the private beach or in the waterfall grotto attached to the infinity pool. Jacuzzi tub in the room, stunning views from the private balcony, and a lunch buffet both satisfying and guilt-inducing. For foreign travelers on the hunt for an “authentic” taste of Mexico, this might not fit the bill, but consider: while Tulum is overrun with foreign tourists talking to each other in trendy bars and cafes, the Azul Ixtapa Grand is wall-to-wall Mexican travelers. Couples snuggling on the daybed at the adults-only pool, bros getting a buzz on in the hot-tub, and families carving out a corner in the shade. Turns out, it’s an incredibly relaxing feeling to recline with mojitos served up with friendly service, whether you’re coming from the bustle of New York or Mexico City.

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If the sublime poolside isn’t for you, consider Zihuatanejo as a more crunchy, beach-town counterpoint to Ixtapa’s government-sponsored resorts. There, walking around the bustling beach where the town’s small fishing fleet unloads and sells its fresh-caught fare or taking in a basketball game at the charming local court that forms a sort of central plaza, the feeling of downtown Zihua as a tranquil and lovely seaside town is palpable. Fresh mango or tamarind juice margaritas paired with delicious and creative takes on Mexican recipes at restaurant La Catrina. In contrast to Ixtapa’s towers, Zihua is replete with boutique hotels, including the Casa que Canta (featured in the 1994 film When a Man Loves a Woman) and the sleek Viceroy.

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Better yet, put the complementary vibes of the two towns in balance with one another, and when you’ve had your fill of both, treat yourself to a surf excursion at one of the several broad beaches around town or even outside. Troncones, a chilled-out surf town beckons up the coast, and though we didn’t make our way all the way up there, Zihua locals Leo and Edgar from Catchalola surf school showed us how to catch a wave or watch one another struggle to scoot about on stand-up paddle boards. (Its harder than it looks!) To rest your weary arms after hopping up on the surfboard all morning, catch a ride to the Isla Ixtapa, a small, wild-feeling island just off the coast from our hotel. There, we hiked to the secluded Playa Carey to make the most of own private beach, snorkeled in the tropical water, and nestled ourselves at the beachfront Tres Sirenas restaurant for coconut fried shrimps and tiritas de pescado, a locally-beloved take on ceviche.

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Eventually, though, you have to return to reality. Walk back to the dock, ride a boat through turquoise water back to the hotel, grab your bags and cab back to the airport and catch a flight back to wherever. For many Mexican visitors to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo (and this author) the destination is Mexico City — an already-hectic city made that much more overwhelming by several poolside afternoons with daiquiri in hand. And for those with more ground to cover, perhaps back north to a wintry U.S., rest assured that the memories of the coast will last at least as long as your sunburn.

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