When I tell my friends I’m going to spend a few days in Zihuatanejo, almost everyone says, “Oh that’s the place Morgan Freeman goes in The Shawshank Redemption.” Yep, that’s the place, and who knows? Maybe seeing the movie years ago planted the seed for my trip. The other thing I like about Zihuatanejo is saying it. Try it. It just rolls off your tongue like your mouth is dancing the tango. There’s magic in it and hope and dreams.
So Peter and I board a plane in Mexico City and head west to the Pacific Ocean, a sea without memory, according to another quote in the film. We aren’t going to this tropical beach town to forget anything, however. Peter and I aim to spend a few days enjoying the sea, the sand, and the water. Throw in incredible Mexican cuisine, cold beer, and palm trees, and that’s the kind of getaway I’m talking about. Let’s go.
Our first stop isn’t Zihua, as the locals call it, but instead Ixtapa, a planned community north of Zihua with gleaming resorts and condos, bicycle paths and miles of pristine white beaches. When Peter and I walk into the Sunscape Dorado resort, the first words we hear are “Welcome home.” We love the relaxed ambiance and the carefree vibe of this all-inclusive-resort.
Our spacious room features nautical décor and a panoramic view of the Pacific. We change into our suits and head down to the beach to watch the sunset, stopping first for a cold beverage at a Tiki bar, of course. Ahhh. As East Coasters, we miss the magic of sunsets over the ocean. It’s majestic. The sea is a lighter blue, for starters, and giant rocks jut up here and there. The beach is shaped like a half moon, and it doesn’t take long before Peter and I jump into the water to cool off.
It’s über-hot and humid here. We’re visiting at the tail end of the sultry summer season, and the humidity must be 99 percent. Whew, it’s not my favorite type of climate, but with plenty of sparkling pools and the wide blue Pacific to cool down in, I think I’ll be OK. Then there are those cold beverages beckoning from the Tiki bars or, better yet, brought by a smiling server who calls me “Senora”!
But there’s more to do than lie around the pool in Ixtapa. Our first morning we meet Ana, who together with her husband, Pedro, owns a restaurant in Ixtapa called New Zealand. (Long story, but the short version involves spinning a globe and pointing a finger randomly on the sphere.) The food, however, is as Mexican as it gets. We sit on the shady terrace, and I try “divorced eggs,” a lovely dish with red and green sauce atop fried eggs separated by a pile of beans with crunchy tortillas underneath.
Pedro shows us around his 50s-style restaurant and tidy kitchen. We start talking about Mexico’s amazing fruit, and the next thing we know Pedro says, “Let’s go to the market and get some.” We hop in the car and drive 20 minutes or so to Zihuatanejo’s municipal mercado. It’s a whole different vibe in the center of Zihua—crowded streets with lots of shops and people everywhere. We hunt for Pedro and Ana’s favorite vendor and buy guava, prickly pear, and some others whose names I forget. All of the fruit is sweet, drippy, and delicious.
Back in Ixtapa we take a quick dip and then meet our guide for a tour of the area. Our first stop: lunch at a family-run restaurant called Carmelita’s, where we enjoy a parade of colorful, tasty food—some of the best I’ve had in my life. No wonder: Carmelita is a legend. Actually there are three Carmelitas: the grandmother, the mother, and the daughter. Carmelita, the charming mother, is known for her exquisite culinary skills. Photos of her with many of Mexico’s top chefs cover one wall in the covered outside terrace where we dine. Recently Carmelita was chosen to head up a Mexican meal by the embassy in Canada to celebrate Canada’s 150 anniversary—quite an honor.
Carmelita’s daughter and son, also charming, do most of the talking since their parents don’t speak much English. As each dish is presented at the table, I learn about its ingredients and the special touches Carmelita adds. Peter and I are eschewing meat these days, so the menu is vegetarian with a little seafood thrown in. I love the ricotta cheese with epazote, served with tortillas. It’s like eating cheesy, herbacious air.
From there it doesn’t stop: shrimp and mango tacos; best guacamole ever; cheese enchiladas; poblano peppers stuffed with squash flowers; a delicious fried fish served whole so we pick the juicy, sweet meat right off the bones; mountain chicken stew (we have to try a taste; it’s smoky and good); plus fried bananas and ice cream for dessert. Did I mention we also enjoy mezcal, fresh green juice, and fabulous reserve Nebbiolo from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe wine-growing region?
The best part is being welcomed as part of the family. During the meal, Carmelita’s two sisters arrive along with one of their husbands, who grows coconut trees and shares young, coconut meat with us. The feast is a highlight of our visit—can you tell? If you ever go to Zihua, do not miss Carmelita’s!
Afterwards we see a few sights. I love Zihua’s cute waterfront with colorful fishing boats pulled up on shore. Their names read like poetry: Edelmira, Estafania, Fortuna, and Esmerelda. These fishing boats are integral to the local economy, hauling seafood to shore daily—fresh and tasty and local.
The next day we go on a snorkeling excursion to Ixtapa Island with Dessirée, who works with the tourist office. The sea is a bit choppy as we ride in a tiny boat to the palm-tree fringed island, but the sun is shining and the sky is blue and I’m happy to be on the water. We make our way to an idyllic cove, perfect for snorkeling, and soon we are in the water with masks and fins. The current is strong, so we go out with a guide and a boogie board we cling to so we don’t float away. As soon as I poke my mask under the surface, I see multi-colored fish darting among the reefs. It’s a whole new world down there.
After a break, Peter goes out for more snorkeling, and I opt to have a relaxing massage in an open-air rooftop cabana. As I melt under my therapist’s gentle strokes, I feel the breeze wash over me and listen to the waves lapping the shore. For an hour I enjoy this sensuous experience and dream about leaving everything behind and moving here to live barefoot among the palm trees.
As if the day couldn’t get any better, Dessirée orders a giant seafood platter for lunch—think grilled lobsters, fish, and shrimp—at Bar Restaurant Lili Cipriania right on the beach. The smoky seafood tastes great, especially with a cold beer. We also sample one of the region’s specialties: tiritas, a simply prepared ceviche that’s oh-so-good: thin strips (almost spaghetti-like) of fresh-from-the-sea fish, thin slivers of red onion, lots of lime, cilantro sprigs, and a few very thinly sliced hot peppers to add interest. It’s heaven. Trust me.
Further north a dreamy low-key beach town called Troncones is our next stop. We are staying in Villas on Troncones Beach, part of small oceanfront enclave of homes developed by a guy named Dave in Colorado, who fell in love with Troncones. The beachy wooden and stucco villas vary in size. Ours is a one-bedroom with an open-air kitchen and living space—and a quiet AC unit in the bedroom, thankfully. Even though the heat and humidity linger, we love the open-air lifestyle: feeling the breeze waft across our living room and listening to the roar of the surf just steps away.
The beach here is a bit wilder than in Ixtapa. Rocks abound, and I hear sting rays like to nestle under the sand just offshore. Plus the surf is up—way up—and the huge waves look seriously powerful—perfect for muscled surfers, but not so appealing to me. No worries. The Villas on Troncones Beach has a fabulous infinity pool overlooking the ocean, so Peter and I spend many hours cooling off in the pool, and each evening we admire another magical sunset.
It’s shoulder season, and the only other occupants at the Villas are a 30-something couple from Colorado enjoying a few days in paradise—a belated honeymoon gift from a relative who owns a timeshare at the Villas. Bill and Laurie also love hanging out in the pool, so we spend time getting to know each other over a few cold beers. Time seems to be slowing down here, which is exactly what I need.
One morning Laurie and I take a yoga class nearby on an open-air platform facing the sea. It’s a magical spot, and our instructor leads us through challenging poses. At one point a pure white butterfly flutters by in front of me, a playful reminder of the beauty of nature and why it’s important to be aware. Thanks to the humidity and the challenging poses, I sweat prodigiously, but at the end, I feel elated and calm.
Later Peter and I take a stroll on the beach. The surf is so loud, we have to yell to hear each other. We read about a turtle hatchery in Troncones and stumble upon it—a sandy plot covered by a tarp with sticks jutting out of the sand marked by dates. Under these sticks, eggs are incubating. We meet Juan Carlos, who takes care of the eggs. He shows us a little hatchling, which he lets us put in the sand by the ocean’s edge. The baby turtle’s back legs look a little malformed, but he manages to get down to the water and, after a couple times tumbling around in the frothy waves, is swept westward, and we never see him again. On the way back to the Villas, I find a few keyhole limpets, my favorite shell, and a beautiful rock. I am finally relaxing.
Our last evening we dine at a restaurant called El Toro del Mar. It’s right on the beach at the end of a dirt road and looks deserted. We sit at a plastic table, our feet in the sand, and see a few surfers catching waves in the cove before us. Nearby fishing boats fan out on the shore, and in the distance a group of kids swim in a calm inlet. Before us the sky changes hues like a kaleidoscope—streaks of orange, salmon, pink, violet—and then both the sea and sky become pale silver like a shiny minnow, and finally dusk descends.
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing,” says Tim Robbins’ character in The Shawshank Redemption. “And no good thing ever dies.” Maybe this movie brought me here for a reason. Is Mexico in my future? I can’t seem to stay away. Another quote from the movie comes to mind: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” What’s your choice?