- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

ZIHUATANEJO, Mexico — It has been many decades since this medium-size resort town was best known for its coconut groves and fishermen. These days, visitors can’t walk along Zihuatanejo’s principal waterfront without being stopped by basket vendors or hailed by waiters.

Cruise ships carrying thousands of people anchor regularly in the harbor; tour buses sometimes clog the narrow streets. But low-key Zihuatanejo, a neighbor to the larger and more polished resort town of Ixtapa, is still a restful place for travelers seeking low-rise hotels and long, tranquil days on the beach.

The vendors who ply the city with jewelry and T-shirts generally are more polite than their brethren in larger resort cities such as Mazatlan, and the beaches usually are uncrowded.

Zihuatanejo’s culture is genteel by the standards of Mexican resorts. Civic leaders encourage traditional Mexican behavior — such as the wearing of clothing, not bathing suits, downtown.

“Here, the powers that be want to retain the modesty; they discourage nakedness by looks and frowns,” says Pedro Antu, who runs a cafe in town.

Local officials also strive to keep the large colony of Canadian and U.S. expatriates content.

“That’s why our garbage gets picked up seven days a week,” Mr. Antu says. “They finally realized American tourists don’t like garbage.”

After many decades of tourism, Zihuatanejo has also retained its identity as a Mexican town. Weekday mornings, the sidewalks are alive with children in school uniforms heading to class. You can hear the musical notes of the traveling knife-sharpener’s whistle as he wheels his sharpening contraption through the streets.

Small girls sell fresh traditional pastries from spotless stainless-steel pails. Fishermen still pull their boats onto the town’s main beach to sell their catch. On a recent late afternoon, swimmers and strollers on a downtown beach stopped what they were doing to watch as dolphins moved through the bay, beyond the surf.

On Sunday night, the town offers such traditional entertainment as music or dancing at the zocalo, a large beachside plaza. As in many Mexican towns, vendors sell affordable, excellent traditional food at these events, and small children play as their parents chat with neighbors. Visitors and locals mix easily in this setting.

Zihuatanejo’s main streets are laid out on a grid and are easy to navigate, and even though two large grocery stores — one owned by Wal-Mart — opened recently outside of the downtown area, the town still has a large, bustling, traditional covered market crammed with stalls selling everything from fruit and baked goods to blender parts and doll clothes.

On Playa la Ropa, the town’s most popular beach, small children dig their toes into the sand at the edge of a tall chain-link fence and gaze at three large crocodiles resting on the banks of an estuary. The fence is in poor condition and has huge gaps in it. Staff at nearby restaurants say the crocodiles, native creatures that live on turtles and fish, aren’t dangerous.

“They get enough to eat; they’re full,” says Carlos Gutierrez, a manager at the nearby Restaurant-Bar Cocodrilos.

Zihuatanejo’s small bay, forested hills and long, palm-lined sandy beaches had been attracting adventurous travelers for many decades when Fonatur, the Mexican government’s tourist agency, decided with the help of World Bank economists to make a nearby coconut plantation into the high-rise resort of Ixtapa in the early 1970s.

“This place used to be a dusty little fishing town with dirt streets,” says Edith Soberanis, a shop owner who grew up in Zihuatanejo.

All these years later, Ixtapa is still the place to go for the discos and luxurious resorts. Big-name hotels loom over its beaches, and its shops and restaurants offer American prices.

Zihuatanejo, a few miles down the coast, also has the T-shirt stands, parasailing operators and other trappings of beach resorts the world over. Restaurants line its beaches. Yet it has retained its identity as a town, and though it does have some luxury hotels on its hills, it also has many dozens of low-cost, family-run hotels and restaurants. Many of its visitors are Mexicans.

The area seems to be handling its success, but a new highway running between the Pacific coast and large inland cities such as Morelia is nearing completion, and residents of Zihuatanejo and neighboring towns wonder if traffic will increase and their place will change.

“The trip used to take 12 hours; soon it will take four,” Miss Soberanis says. Local leaders are preparing for development. There are associations to protect the water quality in Zihuatanejo’s bay. In nearby Barra de Potosi, a beach village that is still small and rural, residents are forming a group to plan for the future. Barra de Potosi’s beaches are lined with palm trees and not restaurants; the restaurants that are there still use old-fashioned wood ovens.

“This is still a village; the people still have their sovereignty,” says Laura Kelly, an American who is married to a Mexican and has lived in Barre de Potosi for more than a decade. Miss Kelly is leading a local charge to plan for development. She would like to see her town retain its traditional economy and have no more than 50 percent of its revenue come from tourism.

“We have to protect the physical ecology and the cultural ecology of this place,” Miss Kelly says. “If we don’t do this, somebody is going to come from outside and do it for us.”

• • •

Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa share an airport served by some major airlines. The airport is 10 minutes from Zihuatanejo by taxi and about half an hour from Ixtapa.

Zihuatanejo is an easy city to travel on foot. Most of the beaches, shopping, restaurants and hotels are a short walk from the center of town; some central roads have been closed to traffic and provide perfect routes for ambling along and checking out the restaurants and shops. There are frequent buses and water shuttles for those who don’t want to walk.

Zihuatanejo has many restaurants on the beaches and downtown, where a traditional hot lunch can cost $3.

Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Zihuatanejo, even at some major stores and restaurants. Banks with cash machines abound, however, and the downtown area has several foreign exchange places. Many vendors also accept U.S. dollars.

Zihuatanejo’s native and expatriate community contributes regularly to a Web site devoted to happenings in the area at www.zihua.net. A visitors guide put together by local businesses is at www.ixtapa-zihuatanejo.com.

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