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Zihuatanejo: lose the map and get gloriously lost

I say this figuratively. But, sometimes you need to put down the map or guidebook and embrace a spirit of adventure to truly capture the essence of your destination. It happened to us.

Most people I talk to have never heard of Zihuatanejo. At least, they think they haven’t. But, Zihuatanejo is the place Red finally meets up with Andy working on his boat on a quiet beach in the final scene of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption”. Ah Ha! Now you remember.

My husband and I traveled to this somewhat remote destination and realized that this was truly a “relax like you mean it” getaway. Zihuatanejo or Zihua (zee wah) as the locals call it is located in the Mexican Riviera between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Sheltered by a stunningly picturesque bay and ringed by lush, green mountains, Zihau has successfully managed to remain a quaint, authentic fishing village. English is not widely spoken there so we buffed up on our basic Spanish. Fortunately, all we really needed to do was try. For the locals will gladly work with you to bridge the language barrier.
Las Brisas, Zihautanejo
Zihautanejo is not as easy to get to as some of the more popular Mexican destinations. We realized this after we booked our one week villa stay. Much to our chagrin, we discovered most airlines do not have daily flights here. Unable to change our existing reservation, we had an initial panic attack. A great room with no way to get there is not a good thing. But, we re-grouped, adding two additional days at Brisas del Mar, an enchanting Mexican beauty located on Playa Madiera. Gracefully terracing the lush cliffside overlooking the beach, its stunning views, Talavera-tiled staircases and thatched roof patios were an unexpected delight. The magic of Brisas del Mar set the tone for a genuine, tropical Mexican experience.

Later we settled into Club Intrawest for our “long stay”, which for us American working class stiffs is one week! Situated on Playa la Ropa, one of the best beaches in Zihua, this resort was equally impressive in its own unique way. But, this isn’t a story about resorts. It is a story about adventure and unexpected gifts. And the first gift was a 70-some year old man with a deep bronze tan, a sparkle in his eyes and a daunting smile. His name was Moses.



During my first solo stroll along Playa la Ropa’s soft, white sandy beach, I was quickly surrounded by several slick, handsome “hawkers” with their persistent offers of boat trips, sailing and fishing excursions. I politely dismissed their generous deals. Zihautanejo was new and foreign to us so it seemed the safest bet to stick with concierge recommendations. Then, I met Moses. He proudly carried a tattered notebook filled with faded pictures, testamonials and promises of unforgettable excursions to places tour guides did not frequent. His zest for life, excitement about sharing the love of his beautiful, native land and promise of incredible adventures had me from hello! I already knew before I walked back with him to our stretch of beach to meet my husband that I was “in”. Though I’d never met the man before, I knew in my gut, that I could not afford to pass up this opportunity. And were my instincts ever right.

On our first trip (yes, we booked another), we boarded an old fishing boat piloted by Moses’ nephew, Tio, for a half day snorkeling excursion. Truth be told, we unexpectedly swam out to meet the boat in shallow water. Moses took us to amazing snorkel spots rarely visited by the tour companies. We savored the best ceviche we had ever eaten proudly prepared by Moses himself. Throughout the trip, he entertained us with stories about his life adventures and the history of Zihautanejo as seen through his eyes. An added treasure was his sage advice about local foods, restaurants and not to be missed activities that would have otherwise been unknown to us.

Hike to Playa las GatasThe following day, on Moses’ recommendation, we hiked to Playa las Gatas (which means Cat Beach), named for the whiskered nurse sharks that once inhabited the sparkling, turquoise waters. Bordered by a long row of hewn rocks that creates a natural breakwater, its protected area with its coral reef formations provides excellent snorkeling. A water taxi can be taken from the mainland, but, why miss the adventure of a hike? The trail was not clearly marked, but not hard to figure out as the footpath hugged the coastal shoreline. We managed it fine in hiking shoes.

Strolling past several colorful beachfront restaurants on Playa las Gatas, we found Otilio’s, the one highly recommended by Moses. Its friendly, engaging owner, Franco, promptly set us up with our own palapa, beach chairs and cold, refreshing Coronas. After some wonderful snorkeling surrounded by swirling schools of multicolored fish, we relaxed on the beach. Unparalleled views of Zihautanejo lay before us with the tall, verdant green Sierra Madre Mountains as our backdrop. Franco’s family prepared delectable, tantalizing lobster, shrimp and local seafood as we enjoyed the camaraderie of our new-found friends. After a thoroughly delightful, lazy day at the beach, a water taxi transported us back to our resort (we wisely decided not to hike back after a few additional Coronas). Back at our villa, we celebrated yet another incredible day. Good people know good people. That’s why you get to know the locals.

Our second excursion was a trip down the coast to Barra di Potosi, a lush, tropical, beachfront paradise bordering the wildlife preserve, El Refugio. An unusually heavy surf that day made it impossible to disembark in calm shallows like we often do in the Caribbean. Instead, with cameras and wallets in zip lock bags, we abandoned ship, timed our leap of faith into the ocean and swam madly with Moses to shore to avoid the strong crashing waves. Tio, our skillful and trustworthy boat pilot, stayed safely beyond the surf line.
Barra di Potosi
Once ashore, a dripping Moses delivered our freshly caught seafood to yet another friend who owned a small, thatch-roofed restaurant reminiscent of Gilligan’s Island. As lunch was being prepared, we walked the shoreline and boarded a small dinghy for a private tour of the wildlife refuge. Dense mangroves and emerald green waters hosted thousands of birds of varied species along with iguanas, native fish and other sea life. Its aura of peaceful tranquility- seductive.

The tantalizing aroma of Baja shrimp, lobster and accompaniments greeted us when we returned to the beach. Grilled to perfection in butter, garlic and Mexican spices that titillated the palate, our savory repast was incredible. And to think, this mouthwatering Baja feast came to a mere six dollars per person plus drink and tip. Muchas gracias, Moses. Ice cold Coronas and fruit-infused sangria perfectly complimented an unforgettable meal. Siesta time on the beach hammocks followed. Hey, isn’t this why we are here? Reclining and smoking his fresh Mexican cigar, compliments of Moses, my husband remarked “does life get any better than this”? Well, yes, because then, it suddenly did.

Flocks of pelicans, gulls, terns and frigate birds began to circle just outside the surf line. The surface of the dark aquamarine water suddenly appeared agitated. From an azure blue sky, birds from everywhere plummeted like missiles, plunging madly into the water.
030315Birds feasting at Barra di Potosi (500x353) (3)Suddenly, our quiet beach front exploded into a frenzy of action. Coming virtually out of nowhere, locals sprinted for the water with nets in hand. The white crashing surf flashed silver as thousands of fish were tossed into the air. Birds, fish, nets, people. Total pandemonium. We watched in utter amazement as bulging nets full of fish were pulled ashore by at least two or three people. The bounty harvested from the surf ranged from small pan-sized fish to larger ones weighing up to five pounds. The villagers were ecstatic.

Getting back to the boat was every bit as exciting as our debarkation. Wading out into the surf line, we swam with Olympic fervor and determination through warm, crashing waves. With every two strokes forward, the powerful surf drove us one stroke back. Once safely aboard our vessel, exhilarated and exhausted, we were convinced that the chaotic beach episode and epic swim back somehow made our day hysterically perfect.

030315El Refugio Seabirds (640x253) (3)Each day upon return to the resort, we casually interacted with other guests in the pool and swim up bar who were curious about our adventures. They would always ask “so, where did you go today?” and inquire time and again how we made the arrangements. And we would regale them with our exciting exploits of the day. For a vast majority, our willingness to bypass the concierge was well beyond their comfort zone. Most would either remain within the safe confines of the resort or at most book one or two of the concierge recommended tours. These can be good, we know. We have booked these excursions in the past, but, most are merely photo opportunities and few make for truly lasting memories. The stories our fellow guests shared with us paled in comparison to the grand adventures we shared with Tio and Moses.

Andre Gide once said “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Doing the safe thing and following the map will get you to your destination. But following your instincts and taking that chance leap into the unknown may lead to magnificent places and unforgettable adventures.

More by this author on her website and facebook page.

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