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Rediscovering the Mexican Riviera

On Mexico's glorious west coast, you can work on your tan. You'll also find lovely churches, wildlife, and rich local culture.

the beach at Ixtapa, image
Photo caption
An idyllic beach at Ixtapa calls to travelers in search of a bit of paradise.

Fourteen miles off Mexico's Pacific Coast at Mazatlán, the quiet ocean suddenly boiled with life. Hundreds of spinner dolphins—named for their Baryshnikovian aerial rotations—surrounded our small fishing boat and began corkscrewing out of the water. Carlos, our guide, had steered us straight into the teeth of a feeding frenzy, and, as if on cue, the fishing poles mounted to the sides of the boat began quivering like divining rods. Wrestling with a reel as fat as a mason jar, I landed an emerald-colored dorado (also known as mahimahi), and Glen and Bernie, my two fishing pals, soon hauled in even bigger prizes—a yellowfin tuna and a thrashing five-foot-long hammerhead shark.

Unlike American charter boats so outfitted with sonar gadgetry that they resemble floating Nintendo games, Mexican vessels typically carry nothing more high-tech than a pair of binoculars. To find the fish, we had relied on Carlos's instincts and sheer luck. It was angling at its most Hemingwayesque, and we wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Mazatlán was the first of four ports of call I visited on a 10-day, 3,000-mile round-trip Holland America cruise along the Mexican Riviera (plus a bonus stop at Cabo San Lucas on the tip of the Baja peninsula), and already I was discovering that the region's turista reputation was both deserved and misleading.

Once a favorite haunt of Hollywood jet-setters, this curving stretch of Mexican coast was where Frank Sinatra came to party in the ring-a-ding days of the Rat Pack, where a young George Hamilton laid down his primer coat of tan, and where Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had a well-publicized affair during the making of the 1964 John Huston film Night of the Iguana.

The ensuing paparazzi stampede—in combination with the movie's depiction of the Mexican coast as a banquet of steamy, maraca-shaking sensuality—attracted tourists in such throngs that the region went from being a playground for the Hollywood crowd to a south-of-the-border alternative to Florida and Hawaii for the pasty masses. (Case in point: Bill and Hillary Clinton came here for their honeymoon.) Reflecting this change in clientele, the Mexican Riviera now abounds with so many franchise burger joints and souvenir shops that it can feel like a "MexicoWorld" theme park.

But peeking behind this tacky veneer, I found that the Mexican Riviera has also retained the things that brought the rich and famous here in the first place—Technicolor wildlife, Old Man and the Sea-style outdoor adventures, pristine beaches, and a melding of Hispanic and indigenous cultures that instantly sets this coastline apart from Fort Lauderdale or Waikiki.

Moreover, I couldn't have picked a better time to come: In winter, migrating humpback whales arrive to breed and nurse their young; stunning religious festivals punctuate the calendar; the May-through-October rainy season is long gone; and, in a region that lies at a lower latitude than the Bahamas, warm—if not hot—daytime temperatures are the rule.

The ship made it easy for me to take advantage of the best that the Mexican Riviera had to offer, because at each stop the Holland America crew arranged an assortment of optional shore excursions ranging in rigor from air-conditioned bus tours to physical pursuits worthy of Survivor. (To get in shape for these outings and regroup afterward, I turned to the ship's state-of-the-art gym and massage facilities.) Determined to dive into nature as much as possible, I opted for what amounted to a tropical pentathlon: fishing in Mazatlán; snorkeling in the coral-filled waters near Ixtapa; jet boating on the jungle-fringed mountain river above Acapulco; sea kayaking at Las Caletas, a string of beaches close to Puerto Vallarta that once served as John Huston's private retreat; and horseback riding along the beach at Cabo.

Imagine lap swimming at SeaWorld and you'll have some idea what it's like to work up a sweat along Mexico's west coast. Each time out, a Darwin's sketchbook of animals seemed to seek me out as much as I sought them. In the warm waters near Ixtapa, schools of iridescent fish ranging in size from toothpicks to dinner plates darted within inches of my face. In the bay adjoining Puerto Vallarta, a bouillabaisse of whales, dolphins, and manta rays with wingspans longer than a minivan bubbled to the surface. On Río Papagayo, where I went jet boating, fruit bats, egrets, and white butterflies as big as my hand turned the surrounding jungle into a tapestry of blinking eyes and fluttering wings.

On land, the sights were just as exotic. Most cities along the Mexican Riviera have split personalities—a walkable, cobblestone-paved downtown where the locals hang out and an outlying resort area with massive hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. To find "the real Mexico," I simply headed toward the belfries, since the downtowns typically have a towering cathedral as their centerpiece. In Puerto Vallarta, that strategy led me to the most unusual steeple I've ever seen: the Virgin of Guadalupe Church is topped with an enormous, ornate crown modeled after the one worn by the 19th-century empress Carlota of Mexico.

Photography courtesy of Luidger/Wikipedia

This article was first published in March 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.