Zihuatanejo, Mexico

Go with the flow down Mexico's west coast.

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"See-what?" Morgan Freeman asks Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. Zihuatanejo (see-whah-tah-NAY-ho), Robbins's character explains, is the paradise south of the border where the two will live happily ever after, once they blow prison. Zihua, as the locals call their sweetly ramshackle fishing village, basks in the sun where the Sierra Madre steps down to the Pacific. The bay waters are warm and calm, the pale-sand shore uncrowded—a siren's call to anyone in need of a great escape.

Or an easy escape. A weekly nonstop flight from San Francisco deposits you right in Zihuatanejo. Minutes after landing, you can be digging your toes in the sand. Taxis and water taxis are cheap shuttles around town or between beaches. Accommodations run from small family-owned inns to luxury hotels. Abundant marine life makes snorkeling, diving, and fishing popular. The local cuisine is seafood-rich.

Terrestrial creatures abound, too—watch for crocodile crossing signs. June through December, you can be a turtle midwife on Playa La Ropa, helping protect endangered sea turtle eggs from predators. And you get to release the hatched babies into the sea. Two lodgings on La Ropa facilitate the turtle program. Where the beach pushes back the bamboo and palms, the Hotel Villa del Sol fans out in a complex of casitas. You almost expect to find Freeman and Robbins sipping margaritas on the teak lounge chairs in the shade of coconut palms. Airy suites glow in tropical colors amid bougainvillea and hibiscus, their hammock-slung terraces facing the sea. A French chef oversees the restaurant; water threads the grounds in blue-tiled pools; and outings, from golf to horseback riding, make this a self-contained vacation spot.

A few paces down the beach, the Hotel Paraíso Real offers basic, comfortable lodging. Owner Juan Barnard, a marine biologist, can outfit you for snorkeling, kayaking, and diving. He'll show you the crocodiles in the nearby lagoon and herons nesting in the mangrove canopy.

Visitors and locals pack the Paseo del Pescador along Playa Principal. Fishermen tend to their wooden boats as their freshly caught snapper and tuna are snatched up by home cooks or restaurateurs. Thursdays here, people eat pozole, the tasty hominy stew garnished with chiles, tortillas, and limes, and served with shots of mescal. The local hot spot, open Thursdays, is El Profe , a pozoleria a few miles south of town in El Coacoyul. In town, pozole is served daily at El Cayita. 

Near the town plaza, don't miss the small archaeological museum, where the pre-Colombian collection includes erotic objects from a once-flourishing sex cult. Folk traditions abound at the crafts market, where bargaining is a must—for silver from Taxco, ceramics, wooden masks, and other art.

Four miles north of Zihuatanejo is Ixtapa, the made-for-tourism town with a highrise-hotel skyline and American-style malls. A few reasons to head there include two golf courses and an outdoor saltwater pool where you can swim with dolphins, who kiss you and pull you with their flippers. At Adventours, find guides to take you on hikes in the Sierra Madre or on a bicycle tour along a wooded trail to Playa Linda. From this beach, you can kayak (take a water taxi if you're lazing) over to delightful Isla Ixtapa. It has three beaches, where you can swim, snorkel, or nurse a long lunch under a palapa. And you don't even have to be a jailbird to appreciate the seclusion.

Alaska Airlines has one weekly nonstop flight from San Francisco International (its other flights stop in Los Angeles, no plane change). Rooms start at $240 at Hotel Villa del Sol, (888) 389-2645, www.hotelvilladelsol.net. Rooms start at $90 at Hotel Paraíso Real, (011) 52-755-4-3873. For the Delfiniti Dolphinarium: (011) 52-755-327-0, click here. Information on the area: visit www.ixtapa-zihuatanejo.org.

Illustration by Stefano Vitale

This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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