Back in the 1970s Ixtapa was a government-planned tourist area on the Pacific coast of Mexico that started around the same time as Cancun on the Caribbean side. It never took off the way Cancun did, perhaps because of the competition from Puerto Vallarta to the north and Acapulco to the south. Custom-built with irregular city blocks and long, high-speed streets, Ixtapa has welcomed tourists while remaining a small town with a population under 10,000.
We visited over New Year’s a couple years ago and found it to be very different from other places such as Cancun. The tourist numbers weren’t overwhelming and there was more of an authentic Mexican culture and lifestyle. Although it didn’t have the same level of Mayan history on display as the Quintana Roo region on the Atlantic side, it had some interesting sights along with a lot of charm.
Apart from Ixtapa, the city of Zihuatanejo is directly to the south. It’s much larger than Ixtapa, but like the tourist town it still retains a laid back feel. Our hotel was on Hermosa Beach, and it was more than enough for us. It was halfway between Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo with easy access to both. The beach seemed as popular with local families as it was with tourists and we didn’t mind at all. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
On New Year’s Eve they had a fireworks show on the beach and I have to say they put on an great show. They let us get really close to the area where the fireworks were set off–perhaps a little too close as I heard that one firework went through the balcony of a nearby beachfront hotel and set a room on fire.
During our stay we did a tour of the surrounding region, making our way south through the coastal part of Guerrero province. Our first stop was a small museum in the small town of La Soledad de Maciel (population 400).
Besides farming, the town is best known for tobacco production, something we discovered when the locals did their best to sell cigars to us. Apparently they are considered to be of good quality, so any cigar aficionados might want to try them out as the prices seemed reasonable. But our interest was in the ruins. We were told that part of the town was built over a major archaeological site called Xihuacan, and the site has only begun to be excavated.
The museum was small but very modern and presented the excavations well. All the signs and explanations were in Spanish but our guide, who studied Archaeology in university, was able to translate and explain everything.
After visiting the museum we went to a local home. Our guide grew up in the village and knew many of the locals. When the village was going through excavations some of the locals kept items that were discovered because they felt the government (through the museum) wasn’t compensating them properly for the upheaval. The government also didn’t pay much for any artifacts the locals had found so as time went on the locals starting keeping some for themselves. For us, it meant a look as some nice items that didn’t find their way into the nearby museum.
It was a special experience seeing the items up close. They let us hold them, which bothered the archaeologist in me but I also knew that most tourists before me had done the same thing and these pieces weren’t going into a museum anytime soon. And who could resist holding authentic Mesoamerican artifacts?
It was time to see the ruins of Xihuacan so we drove a short distance away. On the way the guide suddenly stopped as we noticed people shelling coconuts just off side of the road. We watched the workers in action, amazed at their efficiency. It looked dangerous as they basically forced a coconut down hard onto a metal spike once every 10 seconds or so. Each time they did it Kim and I worried about the worker slipping up or missing the spike, but these guys seemed to know what they were doing. All went well, and we both enjoyed a fresh coconut.
We finally arrived at Xihuacan. Pieces from the ruins had been found since the 1930’s but excavations didn’t start until the 21st century. It is considered to be the largest site in the region but only a portion of the site has been reconstructed. A large portion is still being excavated and will likely take many years to become more complete.
From there we made our way to see the ball court. Similar to the Mesoamerican ball courts we had seen in the Yucatan, we were impressed by their design and how popular they were throughout central America. Over 1300 have been discovered by archaeologists.
After visiting the archaeological site we went to the nearby town of Petatlán, site of a popular church called the Padre Jesús de Petatlán Sanctuary. The church is a popular regional site housing an image credited with many miracles. It is busy with pilgrims most of the time and was crowded on the day we visited.
We did a day trip to Ixtapa island, which was worthwhile as a getaway from the mainland. We made our way by water taxi to the island, a trip that took about 15 minutes in total.
After making our way on shore we wandered around the small island and found various beach restaurants and other services. It was very walkable through paths that went throughout Ixtapa Island. Eventually we found a nice spot near the beach and enjoyed a drink or two. Front time to time we enjoyed the water–the beach is not among the top ones we’ve seen but it was more than enough for us.
While sitting at our beachfront table we discovered something else about the island. Apparently the island has a thriving rabbit population so they had no problem hopping through the sand looking for handouts from the tourists. We had a bunny go under our table and make his intentions known very quickly, so we just had to give him the food he was expecting.
We went to the other side of the island, and along the way we saw various restaurants serving different local foods as well as more island wildlife. Although popular with tourists and locals alike, it was a nice island to visit and generally clean and well maintained.
We really enjoyed our trip to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, and found it a nice alternative to the usual places in Mexico. We could see why it was popular with domestic visitors, but hope it stays under the radar for international travellers for a long time. And who could resist those sunsets?