FROM LEFT: In Ixtapa

FROM LEFT: In Ixtapa

Ixtapa, Mexico

We didn’t know much about Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo when we booked a one-week stay at a beachfront hotel there earlier this year. We just wanted to get away from an extremely cold winter and any place that was marketed as being in the Sun Triangle sounded like it would do the job.

We didn’t know much about Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo when we booked a one-week stay at a beachfront hotel there earlier this year. We just wanted to get away from an extremely cold winter and any place that was marketed as being in the Sun Triangle sounded like it would do the job.

A relatively new marketing campaign known as Triangulo del Sol or Triangle of the Sun promotes Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Acapulco and the charming colonial mountain town of Taxco as Mexico’s new Sun Triangle.

The government is hoping the new marketing campaign combined with increased investment in area infrastructure and amenities will help spur travel to Guerrero State and bring it back to its former glory as one of the top travel destinations in the country.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Guerrero was the country’s top vacation spot as jetsetters and movie stars flocked to Acapulco, the proud Pearl of the Pacific.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Mexican government markets Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo as a single destination in the Sun Triangle.

Even though the two communities are only 6.5 km apart, they couldn’t be more different. Ixtapa (eesh-tah-pa) is a planned tourist city that was built on a huge coconut plantation in the 1970s by the government. Its beaches are spotless and ringed by high-rise hotels, restaurants and bars — the ideal setup for most beach vacationers.

Nearby Zihuatanejo (zee-wha-ta-neh-ho) took a more circuitous route on the road to becoming a popular travel destination. It evolved from a quaint fishing village into a backpackers’ hotspot and finally to a laid back holiday destination with small boutique hotels, galleries, shops and palapa-style outdoor seafood restaurants.

Though they are completely different, both destinations are great in their own way.

Shortly after arriving in Ixtapa, we took a walk along Playa el Palmar, the main beach in the hotel zone of Ixtapa. The long golden sand beach gets its name from the fact that the area was once a coconut plantation and since it was developed specifically as a tourist destination, the beach was certified as a Clean Beach by the Mexican Institute of Standardization and Certification. This means that there are many restrictions to protect it from pollution and to help conserve the biodiversity of the marine animals that live just off its shores.

Pollution was part of the reason the beaches near Acapulco lost favour with travellers in the 1970s and ’80s. Creating the largest certified coast in the country was one way for the state to assure vacationers that they were taking real steps to protect the environment.

It takes an hour or more to walk from one end of Playa el Palmar to the other and along the way we passed local fishermen hand casting from the shore, parasailing operators, watersport rental companies, massage stands, a few outdoor restaurants and countless other beachgoers — in the form of both locals and foreign travellers.

The waters just off this certified beach are clean and clear and the perfect place to cool off after a long walk on a hot day.

The next day, we decided to check out Ixtapa’s sister city of Zihuatanejo (Zihua) and caught a local bus just outside our hotel to the downtown area of Zihua. Travelling on local buses is always an adventure and we found ourselves sitting at the back of the bus with a man who had a large 12-litre pail of some liquid substance on his lap. You can’t help but feel slightly nervous when the bus goes over a big bump and you’re sitting next to the guy with the unidentified substance in his pail.

With only a small command of the language and no exact idea where we should get off, we exited the bus at a spot we figured would be somewhere near the downtown area and the beaches.

Unfortunately, we guessed wrong.

The result was a long walk through Zihua and a chance to thoroughly come to know it as we worked our way from the market area towards the area’s most famous beach — Playa La Ropa.

Zihua has a completely different vibe than Ixtapa. It feels more Mexican than its sister city that was made for tourism and you can still sense its ties to its roots as a fishing village. Still popular with backpackers, there aren’t any high-rise hotels or chain restaurants in the area.

The walk to La Ropa Beach was long and hot and there was a lot of whining from some of the travellers in our group before we finally crested the hill and looked down from the rocky cliffs at a postcard-worthy blue water bay rimmed by a golden sand beach.

Playa La Ropa means “Clothing Beach” and legend has it that this beach, which is the best in Zihua, got its name hundreds of years ago when a textile-laden ship spilled its goods and the silks washed up on shore. It isn’t as big as Playa El Palmar, but La Ropa has calmer surf and many more open-air seafood restaurants along its shores.

After cooling off with a quick swim, we found a table at one of the little restaurants beside the beach and spent the afternoon there.

When it was time to head back to our resort in Ixtapa, we decided to splurge on a $10 taxi rather than hoof it to the nearest bus stop where we may or may not have to ride next to someone carrying a large pail.

We spent the next week exploring this two-city destination that forms one corner of the Sun Triangle. It was kind of like getting two destinations for the price of one and although we haven’t yet visited the other corners of the triangle, we can say that Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is a great little corner of the sun.

If you go:

• There are several tour companies that offer direct flights and hotel packages to Ixtapa, Mexico. We travelled with Air Canada Vacations and stayed at the Emporio Ixtapa Hotel (www.hotelesemporio.com/ixtapa-ubicacion) mostly because we found a great price on the package if we went with the breakfast-only option.

• Whenever you are staying at a hotel that has a lower star rating than what you might normally book, consider upgrading to a higher room category. We were extremely happy with the superior oceanview rooms at this resort.

• Since we weren’t staying on an all-inclusive rate, we had plenty of opportunities to explore the local restaurants in Ixtapa and discovered that many of them only accept cash payments. Two of our favourites in the Ixtapa hotel zone were Emilio’s Pizza and Mamma Norma and Deborah’s restaurant (www.restaurantmammanorma.com).

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. Follow Debbie’s travels at www.wanderwoman.ca. If you have an interesting travel story you would like to share, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.

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