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Saturday January 20 2018
Two Towns, Two Worlds: Ixtapa & Zihuatanejo
Nick Fox

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The key to understanding the difference between the two towns was made clear to me by a cab driver while sitting at a busy intersection. The driver turned to me and said in emphatic Spanish, “Ixtapa is for the tourists. But Zihuatenejo is ours.” Situated a few miles apart on the Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Guerrero, Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo seem to embody the tension and energy of the tourism culture as it doubles back on itself.

On one side are the gleaming hotels, bathwater swimming pools and all the night-sweat-soaked discos of Ixtapa. On the other side are the beach fishermen, local shops, building murals and restaurant-lined waterfront of Zihuatenejo – symbolizing a town determined to retain its individuality in the face of a monstrous tourist boom.

There is a tension here that exists below the beachfront’s gleaming face. A great deal of money is poured into this region every year by the tourists, many from the U.S., Canada and Europe, who are seeking a destination less crowded than places like Acapulco, which lies 120 miles to the south.

These tourists mostly stay in Ixtapa (which is a Nahuatl word meaning, “The White Place”), where they can explore the trendy shops of the city center and enjoy the four-star accommodations of the Radisson and the Riviera Beach Resort. For the more socially mobile crowd, there are familiar spring break destinations like Carlos and Charlie’s and Senor Frogs, as well as other bars that offer dance music, inexpensive drinks and the opportunity to begin a holiday romance.

But behind all of this is an inescapable fact: Ixtapa is an artificial city. It was created by the Federal Bureau for Tourist Development when the citizens of Zihuatenejo rejected the idea of turning their town into a tourist hotspot. Nobody lives there. And if nobody lives there, the people who work there are going to have to come from somewhere else – namely, Zihuatenejo.

The tension becomes apparent when a visitor witnesses scene after scene of local employees serving drinks, cleaning rooms and waiting tables for the gaggles of tourists. This is often as close as the two towns – two worlds come to meeting each other. Ixtapa could be anywhere; at least anywhere with hotels and beaches. It just happens to be here, where it is a sheltered cocoon from the world. It is a resort and only a resort. For the tourists who venture here, that may be all they want.

While Ixtapa could be anywhere, Zihuatenejo is clearly its own town. It couldn’t be anywhere else, and there is a sense of pride in the town even as tourism encroaches. You feel certain it will never completely capitulate to the boom. Tourists often venture out of the bubble of Ixtapa into Zihuatenejo. Many buy colorful woven wares at the innumerable shops. Others are simply looking for something different. What they find will depend on their state of mind. The town is not a difficult adventure. A lack of Spanish will not leave you high and dry. Nevertheless, it seems to be too much for some. One American tourist told me that Zihuatenejo was filthy, and that I was better off staying in Ixtapa. Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out a way to live in Zihuatenejo the next year.

For those who look, the pleasures of this town leave one very satisfied. There are no discos, and a drink on the shore can include a coconut mixture sold in a plastic bag with a straw. A stroll on the beach can allow you to watch a man catch a staggering amount of fish using a single rope covered in hooks. In town, there are museums of local history, streets that beg you to leave the sidewalk and stroll down the middle, and stores that advertise their air-conditioning.

Zihuatenejo does have the pricey hotels such as the German-owned Villa del Sol and the spectacular La Casa de Canta, which seems to be falling out of the hillside onto the beach. Zihuatenejo is a tourist town, but it is a tourist town on its own terms. It is not Ixtapa, nor will it ever be, in the same way that it will never become Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco or any of the other Mexican towns that have become little more than resort complexes, hardly distinguishable from one another. It has pride, that same pride that forced the building of its neighbor.

If you take a cab up into the hillsides, you will clearly see the large hotels of Ixtapa, but you will hardly notice Zihuatenejo. The people of Zihuatenejo would not want it any other way.


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