“You can snorkel, surf, sail, ride horses, scuba dive, explore lagoons by boat, mountain bike along ocean cliffs, and drink yourself silly (all in one day if you want). Or you can soak up the sun and read a book...”
This must be some sort of set-up, I thought as I read the opening paragraph of Lonely Planet’s guide to the Pacific Coast of Mexico. It was as if Tony Wheeler himself had been eavesdropping on my conversation the previous evening. “I really want somewhere we can surf, scuba dive and drink ourselves silly (all in one day if we want),” I’d said to my girlfriend. This was how I find myself heading out of Mexico City with a New Year’s Eve hangover and a desperate urge to dive into the remedy of the cooling Pacific.
Mexico’s Pacific Coast is more than 2000 kilometres of pristine beaches dotted with tourist traps and secluded escapes. With only three weeks to explore, we decide to plot a course down the less touristy trail – away from the resort towns that fill with floral-shirted gringos from Mexico’s northern neighbour – and through the real Mexico where we could drink tequila with hombres rather than Homers.
The gateway to our beach haven is Acapulco, a town apparently still hungover from its famously hedonistic Hollywood holidays of the 1970s. John Wayne threw week-long parties at the Hotel Los Flamingos (still the best place to catch the sunset) and the rich and famous tanned themselves on the soft sand of Acapulco’s protected bays. While the hangover still lingers in the decor of that era, the dance music pumping these days from the streetside restaurants and bars reminds me of the atmosphere at Bali’s Kuta Beach. Acapulco is a place best embraced for just what it is: foam parties in nightclubs that spill onto the beach, street buskers, ritzy cocktail lounges and kerbside beer bars. Acapulco’s nightlife still lives up to its hype, with something for everyone.
Among the neon and nuisances in Acapulco are the La Quebrada cliff divers, whose daily shows are definitely worth seeing. Basically, twice a day a group of crazy but highly skilled Mexicans plunge off a 35-metre cliff (that’s more than three times higher than the high diving board at your local pool) into a narrow cove below. It’s quite an extraordinary spectacle, and to give you an idea of the risk, the divers pray at a shrine before plunging. Yes, there are plenty of tourists, but it’s well worth it anyway. Be wary though: the divers themselves prey on tourists afterwards for tips, although I’m almost certain a couple of the budgie-smuggler–wearing locals hustling for money were not the ones diving earlier in the day!
We decide to fully embrace Acapulco by stepping right back into the 1980s, and so stay at Las Brisas, a pink monstrosity that sits on the southern hill facing Acapulco’s main beach, Playa Icacos. The Las Brisas lobby still has the preserved handprints of famous guests, Sylvester Stallone’s being the most prominent. Sly stayed at the hotel while filming Rambo: First Blood Part II nearby. While frighteningly kitsch – think guests driving pink golf carts – the continuing allure of Las Brisas lies in the rooms, all of which are perched on the cliff face with their own private pools. There is something quite special about eating a breakfast of fresh fruit served poolside while watching the hustle and bustle of Acapulco below.
But our trip to Mexico isn’t about the confines of hotels. We have a goal – to find the perfect Mexican sunset. We head north for a daytrip to Pie de la Cuesta, about half an hour north of Acapulco’s overcrowded and apparently polluted waters. With quiet beachside restaurants and bars and a perfect beach stretching into the distance, Pie de la Cuesta gives us a taste of what to expect once we move south, away from the tourist hordes. A bucket of margarita (make sure you ask for Jose Cuervo 1800 tequila), freshly barbecued squid and the sun sinking into the Pacific was exactly what we wanted and, after only three nights away, we wonder if it can get any better.
With the tourist experience behind us, we venture south down Highway Mex 200, along the long stretch of never-ending beach, with the Lonely Planet confined to the boot and a determination to stay where we want for as long as we want without any preconceived perceptions. When we see the sign for Playa Ventura, it evokes nothing more than a memory of a Jim Carrey film, which in our wandering frame of mind is enough motivation to turn off the highway.
The next three days are a blur of sun, sand, surf, seafood, Corona and tequila. Time seems to disappear when you while it away on your own beach, the only stress a hot sand shuffle as you stroll to the beach bar. In the evening, the local square livens up with a few restaurants and La Jaladita, a bar run by Arturo, whose English and margaritas are more than entertaining. Ever the entrepreneur, Arturo also runs the local nightclub, which I think is his living room decorated with some neon and strobe lights. Nevertheless it proves to be a great spot to mingle with the locals, who all seem to venture back here.
Next stop Puerto Escondido – a town famous for its gnarly pipeline and surfer attitude. Busy like New York when compared to Playa Ventura, Puerto Escondido still has a certain charm. Beach bars and restaurants stretch along the sand and the buzz of excited surfers creates a lively atmosphere in the evening, with bands playing until the very wee hours of the morning. For a few pesos, you get a lounge on the beach and a waiter bringing you frozen margaritas all day. This proves to be irresistible and we stay a couple of extra days, contemplating a sky dive as we watch the parachutes float down in the afternoon sun. Thankfully the surf in Puerto Escondido is not at its most ferocious in January, so we’re able to swim in the crystal-clear water, diving under the odd larger wave that rolls through.
Highway Mex 200 winds south from Puerto Escondido through some surprisingly lush green countryside with scatterings of small villages. There mustn’t be any liquor licensing laws in Mexico, as it seems all one needs is a Corona banner and a table and chairs and you can run your own bar or restaurant. Corona banners line the roadside offering afternoon thirst-quenchers. Some of the bars even have staff dancing on the road to grab your attention. I’m not sure this tactic is entirely successful.
Our final beach visit is to Zipolite, a long stretch of sand backed by craggy cliffs and cacti. Like one of the three bears, Zipolite seems to fit perfectly between the slightly touristy Puerto Escondido and the nearly deserted Playa Ventura. We check into the stunning El Alquimista, a ramshackle collection of quite luxurious beach bungalows scattered around a beach bar resembling an old boat, then wander down to the beach, where a slow swell rolls in each afternoon. We rather quickly wander back off the beach, feeling slightly overdressed. There are no signs explaining that Zipolite is a nudist beach, nor are there warnings of nude frisbee players, nude surfers and nude conversationalists.
We decide the following day would be better spent on a snorkelling trip to the surrounding deserted bays, and are quietly thankful when the other passengers arrive with clothes. Halfway out of the first bay, our captain suddenly dives into the Pacific, only to surface bear-hugging a giant turtle. The boat empties as we all take the opportunity to swim into the depths with the turtle, who doesn’t seem overly happy with the extremely non-eco-friendly behaviour going on.
The turtle encounter, among others, illustrates the charm of Mexico’s south. In some ways the whole area still seems slightly lawless. There are bars that stay open until you finish your last drink, nightclubs in someone’s living room, bonfires on the beach and turtle-wrestling men – all set against the backdrop of sipping tequila as the sun sets.