The Acapulco alternative: Cacti, birds of prey and the rusting hulks of automobiles punctuate the desert landscape of Baja California. Phil Davison discovers the Pacific-coast village that is Mexico's best kept secret

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The Independent Culture
YOU'VE developed a taste for margaritas in your local tapas bar, you've heard they taste even better in Mexico, but you can't make up your mind whether to head for the glitz of Acapulco or the hammock-swaying tranquillity of some sleepy, tipico fishing village. Torture yourself no more. Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is the solution to your dilemma.

You may not be able to pronounce it, but this twin package on Mexico's Pacific coast offers a unique combination of a modern beach resort, Ixtapa, modelled after America's Fifties favourite, Acapulco, and the centuries-old fishing village of Zihuatanejo, only three miles down the coast. The latter is believed to have been the port from which the Spanish conquistadores, gradually wising up to the fact that this was not yet Japan, set sail on the historic 16th-century voyage that was to get them closer to the mark, namely to the Philippines. It was also a notorious haven for pirates in later years, as trade with the Orient grew. But the local seafarers now mostly content themselves with relieving visiting gringos of their greenbacks by taking them on fishing, scuba-diving or snorkelling cruises at sub-Californian but super-Mexican prices.

Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo (pronounced Icks-tapa-Zeewah-ta-nay-ho) lies just over 100 miles up the Pacific coast from Acapulco, favourite of the Mexican jet set, in the otherwise largely neglected state of Guerrero. Until the Eighties, the fishing village was a well-kept secret, even in Mexico. Its name means 'Land of the Women' in the ancient Perpecha language of the Tarascan Indians who used to roam its coconut groves and banana plantations. Those original natives may have long since been wiped out but you'll still find plenty of Mexican Indians plying their wares today. They are Nahuas, Otomis, Mazahuas and others from the central highlands who have flocked to the coast to claim a share, albeit small, of the tourism cake. They eke out a living selling silverware, jewellery, T-shirts or papier mache ornaments on the beaches or outside hotels and restaurants, retiring to shanty town homes in the nearby hills at sunset.

Don't miss the exquisite fresh mangoes, peeled, sliced and lightly seasoned with paprika to balance their sweetness, sold on the beaches around the village by broad-smiling Indian women carrying their latest offspring on their backs. In sharp contrast to Zihuatanejo, the resort of Ixtapa is almost brand new. Built in the Seventies and Eighties, it was one of several tourism projects aimed at creating 'new Acapulcos' along hitherto untouched beaches on Mexico's Pacific and Caribbean coasts. It is basically a strip of a dozen high-rise hotels, numerous restaurants, shops and discos, built on what was formerly a 4,500-acre coconut plantation behind several miles of golden sand. A mini-Acapulco, and one that has not yet developed the sleaze of its once-illustrious predecessor. Aimed at anyone who could get there easily, and could afford it, that meant for Ixtapa a clientele largely made up of Americans and the wealthy middle classes of Mexico City and other urban centres.

If you've never run into the latter, try to catch an episode of any Mexican TV soap opera, such as the now- renowned The Rich Also Weep, which is glueing audiences to their screens even in the living-rooms of Moscow and Peking. I used to call them 'the Presidente set', since you'd see them in every Mexican TV ad for the local Presidente brandy: usually blonde, always beautiful, invariably of European origin, the women caked in make-up and dripping with kitschy jewellery. Anyway, you won't be able to miss them in Ixtapa. The women wear stiletto-heels with bikinis. The male equivalents wouldn't be seen without a full bottle of brandy, and some coke or soda to wash it down, on their restaurant table.

Don't let that image put you off. I wouldn't have lived in Mexico for five years had I not fallen in love with the land and the people. Jet set, Indian or simply in between, they're equally friendly and open, particularly if you can make the communication breakthrough. Ixtapa is tiny. You'll know its few streets, its hotel bars, restaurants and shops in a day or two. But it boasts a lush 18-hole golf course that can only be described as a golfer's paradise. There are excellent tennis courts, too, used by John McEnroe and other big names in a colourful exhibition tournament. A couple of years back, McEnroe called his opponent, Spain's Emilio Sanchez, a 'spic' - not guaranteed to win over the local hearts and minds. But the Mexicans forgave him the moment he hit that first cheeky-angled drop volley.

The main beach along Ixtapa bay is of fine, soft sand, excellent for sunbathing but not so hot for swimming. Like Acapulco, though less so, it falls off sharply at the waveline and has powerful back currents, making it dangerous for children. A faded red flag - No Swimming - is hoisted most days though no one seems to take any notice and there appears to be no one around to enforce it. Unlike Acapulco, the sea is still pretty clean. Most Mexicans opt for the hotel swimming pools, themselves beside the beach and closer to the supply of cuba libres.

But there are perhaps 15 other beaches in the area, some of them on islands, and all are safe, quick to reach and match the best in the world. It's mainly for the picturesque, palm-backed Playa de la Ropa (beach of clothing) in Zihuatanejo that I have returned here time and again. Local legend has it that the beach got its name when a Spanish galleon returning from the Orient ran aground here, spilling its cargo of fine silks along the sand. Ask the question in a different bar and local legend will tell you it's where Tarascan Indian women used to come from the hills to wash their clothes. That's what legends are for.

Zihuatanejo retains its fishing village feel, with narrow cobbled streets, but may not for long. When I first came down in the Eighties there were only a few 'snowbirds', retired Americans who had bought property here to spend a cheap and sunny winter. Now there are hundreds of them, and unattractive condominiums are springing up. But you don't even need to buy property. It was almost a mile out to sea that I bumped into Art, or Arturo as he calls himself here, a retired 'snow- widower' from Montreal. He was resting on his windsurfer before making the final tack for home, with a special back harness to ease the strain on his arms. 'I don't look 80, do I? I've never enjoyed life more,' he told me as we sat drifting on our boards, our feet dangling in the warm ocean. 'I spend six months a year here, live in a pension for dollars 15 a night and am still better off than when I spent the winters in Canada. That's less than dollars 3,000 for the entire winter, with breakfast, while I let out my house back home.'

I can think of few greater pleasures than gently swaying in a hammock slung from two palms on the sand that forms the terrace of Zihuatanejo's La Perla seafood restaurant, sipping a real pina colada or a coco loco. Afterwards, perhaps, some almejas rojas (red clams). Any doubt about their freshness is cast aside as, between mouthfuls, you watch young men pluck them from the gently lapping Pacific waves. Be adventurous, skip the Dos Equis and try a tangy Bohemia beer or a light Carta Blanca to wash down your camarones a la diabla, prawns in a sauce which can only be described as muy picante and will ensure you're up early the following day for a cooling dip. Mariachis stroll along the beachfront with the lethargy of the tropics, using their instruments as sun-shields until you call them over for a tear-jerking ranchero. Try the hammock at sunset - a magical, fleeting tropical moment of flaming orange, red and purple while the mariachis wail their way through the Cancion Mixteca: Que lejos estoy de la tierra donde naci yo . . . (how far I am from the land where I was born . . .) Far, indeed, but a man could die happy here.


GETTING THERE: Ixtapa- Zihuatanejo has its own airport, which can be reached via the US or Mexico City. British Airways (081- 897 4000) is introducing the first direct flight from the UK to Mexico City from 28 March, from pounds 603 return (booking 7 days in advance, minimum stay 7 days); carry on to Ixtapa with Mexicana (081-440 7830), from dollars 144 return (around pounds 84). Fly with Continental Airlines (0293 776464) from Gatwick to Houston from pounds 295 return, then carry on to Ixtapa with Aeromexico (book via Continental) from dollars 311 return (around pounds 190); or fly with American Airlines (081-572 5555) via Miami to Mexico City, then carry on to Ixtapa with Aeromexico or Mexicana (book via American Airlines), from pounds 668 return, both flights booking 21 days in advance, minimum stay 7 days. British Airways will be offering flights to Tijuana via Mexico City after 28 March, from pounds 788 return (booking 7 days in advance, minimum stay 7 days), or fly via Los Angeles for a seat-sale price of pounds 309 return and carry on to Tijuana with AirLA (book via BA) for around pounds 183 return.

TOUR OPERATORS: For tailor- made tours contact South American Experience (071-976 5511) or Mexican Tours (081-440 7830). For package tours contact Sunset Travel Holidays (071-498 9922), two weeks in Ixtapa from around pounds 930, including flights, transfers and five-star accommodation.

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Mexico Ministry of Tourism, 60-61 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS (071-734 1058).

(Photographs omitted)