Zihuatanejo, Mexico

Jest a few miles south of the high-rise resort of Ixtapa, a Mexican fishing village relaxes with easy charm.

Zihuatanejo's premier beach, Playa del Ropa

Swim, sun, or practice your Spanish on Zihua's premier beach Playa del Ropa.

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First there was the 6 a.m. alarm, then the traffic jam, then the puddle incident, and now this: the Monday meeting. As the boss drones on, you stare listlessly out at the drizzle and try to disassociate from your wet socks. That's when the fantasy hits you. The one where everything is sultry and beautiful and you are gliding across a tropical ocean. Atop a giant inflatable banana.

If your next impulse is to speed dial a shrink, don't. You're simply suffering from the ailment known as winter. And the cure—far cheaper than therapy—is Zihuatanejo, a sunny Mexican beach town where you can swim, snorkel, sway in a hammock, and, yes, ride an inflated piece of fruit around the warm waters of a tranquil Pacific bay.

Situated 150 miles northwest of Acapulco, along a languid curve of Guerrero's Pacific coastline, Zihuatanejo (see-wah-tah-NAY-hoe, or Zihua for short) owes its miraculous powers of rejuvenation to geography. Its latitude—1,380 miles nearer the equator than San Francisco—means mid-80s temperatures in January, hot enough for piña coladas to replace eggnog as the winter drink of choice. Zihua's proximity to Ixtapa—a modern megaresort four miles north—is also a benefit. Planned and built from the ground up in the 1970s, high-rise Ixtapa brought reasonable airfare and nonstop flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles to the region, as well as golf, tennis, waterslides, amusement rides, shopping malls, and discos.

But you came here to find Mexican authenticity, the sort still found in Zihua's fishing village charm and paradisiacal sands. One look at Playa La Ropa, the prettiest of the town's four beaches, and you'll understand why Zihuatanejo was the dream destination of Tim Robbins's character in The Shawshank Redemption. Here, parasailers glide lazily overhead as swimworthy swells lull sand castle builders and sunbathers. Rows of lounge chairs invite the tired, huddled masses to crack open paperback novels, order fish tacos, and polish their tans—assuming they're not already enjoying an hour of shiatsu on a beachside massage table.

Ultraposh La Ropa resorts, such as the famed Hotel Villa del Sol, are a study in this sort of indulgence. But even those unwilling to pay a cool grand for a night in a penthouse suite (other rooms are less expensive) can breakfast on $6 macadamia French toast at del Sol's restaurant—and then skip up the hill to the less pricey La Quinta Troppo, where eight luxurious rooms and an intimate palm-shaded pool create the feel of a honeymoon hideaway.

Travelers seeking even bigger savings with the added convenience of being a 10-minute stroll from town should consider staying at a hotel on the more central Playa la Madera, another sandy Zihuatanejo beach popular with swimmers and Boogie boarders. Among the many hillside hotels here, the terra-cotta Hotel Brisas del Mar is a standout, with hammock-slung balconies stairstepping all the way down to the sea.

From la Madera, a walkway leads past rocky outcrops and necking teenagers to Playa Municipal, the beach fronting downtown. Here, local fishermen still set out before dawn in weather-beaten boats and return to the morning fish market with a bounty of fresh yellowfin and snapper. Visitors with their own deep-sea aspirations can charter sport fishing trips with locals and do battle with acrobatic marlin weighing as much as half a ton. Most types of billfish must be released, but if you manage to hook a succulent dorado, many beachfront restaurants will grill and serve it to you on the spot.

Except for the tiny Museo Arqueológico, cultural experiences in downtown Zihua are mostly about strolling the bougainvillea-shaded streets, sipping a cantaloupe licuado, and listening to a lone minstrel's lilting lament. Nestled amid the bakeries and markets are several shops that sell quality regional handicrafts, including silver jewelry, embroidered blouses, and whimsical painted animals.

At the lively central market a few blocks inland you can pick up coconut and tamarind sweets for the 40-minute taxi ride north to world-class surf breaks at Troncones ($25 to $30 one way) or the 35-minute trip south to the bird-watching haven of Barra de Potosí ($25 one way). Both are excellent field trips.

For culinary excursions, you needn't leave downtown Zihua. Just make a beeline for Los Braseros, where for 35 cents you can buy a taco al pastor with freshly carved rotisserie pork basted in onion and pineapple juices.

A nearby bistro, Tamales y Atoles Any, is best for a bowl of pozole—a rich hominy and pork soup typically eaten on Thursdays. Waiter José Ramón considers this delicacy "the most especial tradition of Guerrero" and will gladly explain how to enjoy it: Garnish with lime, avocado, fresh cheese, diced onion, and radish, then wash it all down with a shot of mezcal.

This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

After your feast, waddle down to the pier to catch a boat to Playa las Gatas, Zihua's fourth and most remote beach. Remote is relative: While las Gatas has only one hotel, the shore is lined with cabanas serving rum-filled coconuts and fresh-caught lobster. Back in the 1400s a Tarascan king built a royal bathing pool here, and the remaining breakwater makes for superb snorkeling, with colorful angelfish, sea urchins, and the occasional turtle visible in the warm waters.

Indeed, sultry las Gatas is the place to fulfill all your tropical fantasies. Including—yes—that one. Just pay the operator the equivalent of $4, climb atop a giant banana, and prepare for a giggle-inducing, spirit-lifting tow around the bay. As you bounce along, you'll be thankful you put your feet up on your desk, peeled off those wet socks, and dialed a travel agent. Perhaps you're not so crazy after all.

Photography by Jan Butchofsky-Houser

This article was first published in January 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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TO DO AND SEE
On las Gatas, Carlo Scuba (www.carloscuba.com) offers snorkel gear and dive trips. Whisky Water World (www.ixtapa-sportfishing.com) has sport-fishing excursions at $50-$90 per angler, which covers bait, tackle, and license. Club de Ski, on la Ropa, will hail you a Jet Ski, a parasail, or a banana. Casa Marina, just west of the plaza, houses several crafts boutiques. The Museo Arqueológico on Paseo del Pescador traces the history of older cultural artifacts.

EATS
Overlooking la Ropa lagoon and its shy resident crocodiles, El Manglar features specials such as tuna steak in 27-spice teriyaki sauce ($8) prepared by California-trained chef Apollo Rohkohl. In town, Tamales y Atoles Any (Ejido 38) and Los Braseros (Ejido 21) dish up authentic Mexican fare, while El Buen Gusto bakery (Guerrero 11) serves sweet rolls and fresh tapioca. La Sirena Gorda (Paseo del Pescador 90) grills thick burgers and any fish you catch.

SLEEPS
On Playa la Madera, Hotel Brisas del Mar (www.hotelbrisasdelmar.net) offers ocean-view suites for $122 in peak winter months. Also on la Madera, Hotel Irma (www.hotelirma.com.mx) has simple rooms ($57-$99) and two turquoise swimming pools overlooking the bay. On the beach at la Ropa, the tidy, family-friendly rooms of Hotel Villa Mexicana (www.hotelvillamexicana.com.mx) go for $86-$113. Nearby, La Quinta Troppo (www.laquintatroppo.com) offers luxury for $145-$225. Or sleep like royalty at Hotel Villa del Sol (www.hotelvilladelsol.net), where rooms start at $330.

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