Two Faces of Mexico: Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo

Ixtapa Bay


It calls itself a two-town destination but, in fact, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is a split personality. Tourism is what links the two but Ixtapa, “the white place,” in Nahaut, one of the many pre-Columbian dialects of the land, and Zehaut: “the land of women,” are nothing alike.

And why we should care is just this: Zihuatanejo is nearly untouched old Mexico – what Mazatlan was like in the 1960s. It’s an old fishing village on undisturbed shores of the Pacific where you can still find a wedding in the town church happening on Saturday nights, right across from the crafts market that delivers stall upon stall of Mexico’s finery and colors in a sleepy covered maze. Drive another 25 minutes north and find Ixtapa, a town of few residents and thousands of tourists with 1980s-style hotels lining the white washed boulevards, mostly offering an all-inclusive hospitality to families, honeymooners and cold climate escapees.

But in an odd way it makes a beautiful whole. The tourists fly into Ixtapa on mass marketed packages via Delta or Westjet or Alaska, Continental or Aeromexico and then hit the party scene, the family scene, and the romancing along Ixtapa’s beaches and cliffs. Neighboring Zijaut is there if you want it – a $15 taxi ride (or $2 bus ride) away along uncrowded streets (except when the cruise ships come in).  You don’t have to feel like a tourist if you don’t want to. People are friendly, prices are fair and there are NO hawkers hustling up the cobbled byways trying to sell you a swamp-facing condo.

Ixtapa got its start in the 1970s when Funatur, the government arm of tourism development, took a place called “stinky beach,” (that’s another story – more about a beached whale than anything else) and turned it into a paradise of whale-sized hotels flanking meandering kids-themed pools leading up to a crowded beach. Since that time, super luxury stays edged into the cracks with such gems as Capella Ixtapa (59 cliff suites – each with its own ocean-view terrace and dipping pool, and a precious spa right above the rocks and breaking waves, starting at $475/night), Las Brisas, and Loma del Mar Thalasso Spa & Resort.

A new spanking white marina, the largest in Mexico, gleams with cafes overlooking the skiffs (Fisher’s is the recommended choice for fresh catch and cervezas) and a few shops adding to the mix. For nightlife and café culture in Ixtapa you’ll have to hit the central square. This is a hodge podge of tony and casual cafes and bars, a few dress shops, a tobacco shop where you can get some Habanas for under $10, and a variety of mariachi acts playing in the gazebo. It is also the focus for Ixtapa’s winter celebration called Fun & Sun on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through April 8 — when sundown brings artist kiosks, Mexican dance classes, live music, food and shows into the sprawling square.


Happening March 26-28, the FOOD & WINE Festival brings superchef Rick Bayless (Frontera Grill Chicago, RED-O in Los Angeles) to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo for three days of cooking demonstrations, tastings, seminars and intimate tours of the local culinary community under the theme, “32 tastes, one history, one soul.”

In November, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added a few new items to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Things, they said, that are cultural treasures worth preserving. Among them was Spanish flamenco, traditional gastronomic meal of the French and traditional Mexican cuisine. UNESCO specifically cited the importance of the food of Michoacán to Mexico’s cultural identity, purely a move for protection of an ancestral way of life.

Flights land at Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo International Airport (IATA: ZIH; ICAO: MMZH)

For more information visit


3 comments on “Two Faces of Mexico: Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo

  1. Scott says:

    I have wanted to go to Zihuatanejo ever since I saw Andy DuFrain (sp?) escape there from his Shawshank prison cell – beautiful undeveloped pacific coast beaches…..oh yeah! one day I will…

  2. Freda says:

    Great post, would love to attend the food and wine festival. Thanks for sharing

  3. Anonymous says:

    One of the things about Ixtapa that I most liked was the color of the water. Cristal clear. I can’t explain it, you have to see it for yourself. I had a great time there, and hopefully will return this year to practice some surfing. The waves are quite big and riding them is a lot of fun!
    Madison Compton

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