We couldn’t stay away. We’re not getting any younger.
We booked our winter escape flight in July, got a good price from Sun Country. Booked our room at the Krystal using our loyalty coupons. This was just before the delta variant hit, before omicron. The hotel we could cancel with 24 hour notice but the airplane tickets would present inconvenience and probable cost to change them. Roxanne got us travel insurance in case things got bad bad. We got our booster shots and kept current with the covid protocols. We watched the trends and going into fall and winter it didn’t look good.
Neither of us nor did anyone in our immediate family get sick with coronavirus. The omicron variant was said to lead to milder symptoms among the vaccinated and less danger of serious illness, hospitalization and death. Roxanne said more than once, maybe we should just catch it, get it overwith and get on with our lives with more antibodies.
Our daughter Michel didn’t want us to go, but she’s a nurse and strict about covid awareness — she also worries about us getting kidnapped. Our son Vincent said to just go, you only live once. Michel realizes how much this midwinter getaway means to her mother and me so she gives us her qualified blessing. We promised to take every precaution. Still, two nights before our flight, after haggling with ourselves for months, we decided not to go. Too risky. Irresponsible world citizenship. Next day, after sleeping on it, we decided to go.
Are we glad!
From that first blast of subtropical air when we stepped out of the plane and those first dazzling rays of sunshine it’s clear why we choose to escape to this place from the cold, barren desolate ice and snowscape holding us siege at home in Minnesota in the middle of January.
It was good to be back in the heart of Mexico again.
My last words about Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero expressed my fondness in sadness anticipating what the future is doing to everyday life along this swatch of coastline along the blue Pacific, especially with the coming of the Covid-19 pandemic. We were last there mid-February 2020. Within three weeks the first cases in Minnesota were conformed. The lost year of ZOZO truly began. Looking back how serious the first wave of the coronavirus truly was it’s an ironic miracle it has been a mere two years to be vaccinated and boosted and trawled back into polite society already after such a public safety health risk. Pandemics like these tend to level populations at a large scale before the pathogen is identified and biologically contained. We would be mortified to think we might contaminate Mexico.
Whatever that means. Roxanne follows a web page called ZihuaRob to get a sense of impressions from winter expats from El Norte. To some contributors to the forums there is a link of responsibility to the markets in the USA for firearm culture and the appetite for drugs. Far as I know the guy who shot dead that kiosk vendor in the plaza hasn’t been caught or tried in court. The cartels and their wannabes who worried away the nice middle class gringo tourists were no match for the coronavirus in scaring away the bourgeoisie from North America. Nobody, it seems, wants to contract a severe case of covid-19 in Mexico any more than wants to get shot by a punk gangster in a public plaza.
Coronavirus panademia punched the pause button called ZOZO, the lost year. Pause and reset. The Mexicans endured a shutdown of their entire 100 days of vacation winter enterprise some of 2020 and all of 2021. Until the vaccines came out there were virtually no Norteno tourists. Somehow the community got by. The slogan of the city of Zihuatanejo employs the verb poder, which means to can, as in to can do, to be able, podemos, we can. It doesn’t appear to be a flagrantly leftist town or region, and it doesn’t have the feel of a police state either. Whatever social cohesion binds this community, it transcends politics and emanates from shared values of mutual survival and gratitude.
The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel takes about half an hour in Mexican minutes. The cruise through Zihuatanejo assures us nothing has really changed. The face of the city looks back in its authentic, homely way. Maybe a new coat of paint here and there. No pretense of urban renewal, no fresh monuments. The clock tower is still stuck at five minutes to one. Garage door tiendas open to the sidewalks along the streets selling what they sell — berries, furniture, tile — alongside car repair shops, scenes of time immemorial, not significantly different from how it looked the first time some twenty-odd years ago. If anything it doesn’t look any older, it looked this old all along, a consistent shabbiness of dignity and resilience and ultimate functionality. One of the newer landmarks, the Bodega Aurrera, the warehouse discount store on the city’s west edge (on its east side Zihuatanejo also has a Sam’s Club), has only been there about eight years and it too has that presence of being built much longer ago, nothing to suggest what used to occupy that block. Taxis and buses convene at its doors and there’s a pedestrian footbridge over the boulevard at the stoplight where the side street cuts out for side traffic directly in front of the entrance. It looks busy as ever. Only difference, everybody wears a mask.
The boulevard turns into a freeway as the roadway squeezes through a narrow pass going out of town and climbs along the steep jungle slopes hugging the coast and levels off at Ixtapa, the resort city. Along the transition out of Zihua and into Ixtapa the freeway overlooks the valley below the jungle slopes on the other side of the hills bordering Zihuatanejo, a residential neighborhood of tiled roofs and stucco walls. Up the terraced hills along the coast come the more exclusive hotels, condos and fine dining. As the roadway levels off and becomes a boulevard again there are gateways to neighborhoods like Casa Bonita on the in-land side of the boulevard, the soccer fields, the golf course and wildlife preserve (swamp). Nestled behind a fairway and a continuation of the wildlife sanctuary up against steep coastal cliffs on the ocean side of the boulevard begins the stretch of condos and hotels along the beach of Playa Palmar which graces the three-plus mile sandy shore of Ixtapa Bay, ending at a marina where another set of steep rocky cliffs cuts off the beach. Our hotel, the Krystal, stands about halfway on the beach.
“Tocayo!” says the voice of a bellman, masked and wearing a PPE shield on his face. He has the same name as me, only he spells his with one F, and so we address each other as Tocayo. It’s like we never left. Silver gray distinguished gentleman Alberto is still El Capitan of the bellmen. There is a new guy, Claudio, burly like Tocayo with a square jaw and similar complexion so that behind a mask and PPE he could be mistaken for Tocayo, who draws our taxi and totes our bags, leaving the real Tocayo a free minute for fist bumps and what short of abrazos we could express to see each other again, apparently safe and well.
From the beginning Roxanne and I were welcomed by staff people we knew and also from new staff persons, young, many who spoke little English. It came to me quick how much my Spanish lapsed in two years.
Add that to coronavirus restrictions at he hotels and commercial establishments and policies in force to keep the workforce disciplined and it seemed difficult to communicate clearly all the time, at least at first — five weeks got us acclimated, but it served as another woulda coulda shoulda reminder of more Duolingo lessons I could have done to resist depression on the ZOZO couch. Which reminds me, in my musing about Mona Lisa on the ZOZO couch I asked who wears hair nets anymore, and this is who: servants at the Ixtapa Krystal hotel. Men and women, everybody wears hairnets on duty like Mona Lisa. This is more a metaphorical symbol of restraint visible with the hospitality employees.
When I worked in corporate environs we talked about employee empowerment as giving workers responsibility and power to make decisions on the job based on their own trained judgment so as not to have to escalate every question to the next levels of management. The menu at the hotel restaurant is strict to nonexistent. Between covid and the trend towards all-inclusive the breakfast, lunch and dinner cuisines push towards the buffet, and since we do not go all-inclusive we tend to be selective of our meals and mind our budget and avoid the buffet unless it’s clearly worth it. Eggs and toast is usually enough — Breakfast Americano if there was still a menu — or a bowl of oatmeal (harina avena). Savvy veteran servants like Jaime, Martin and Jose remember the old menu. The chef, however, will not make their old chicken tacos for lunch — it’s buffet or nothing.
Jesus Calderon, all time master waiter and champion of service, retired during the ZOZO shutdown. Retired to his horses and cows farm in the hills. We missed his gracious authority. He was a philosopher and a gossip. I wondered if one day he might turn up, show up at the beach or hanging around the bar near the patio, just to check in. Nope. He would have been the one to turn to ask what’s going on, how did Zihua survive the pandemic and what will the future behold?
This for all vacationers who say they want to experience the Real Mexico: at any given hotel on the beach at Ixtapa your neighbors in the room next door are probably Mexicans. Twenty years ago, or even ten, the ratio of northern guests at the hotels to Mexican guests was about eight or nine to one. This year the ratio has reversed.
Ixtapa used to be the refuge of aging baby boomers from the US and Canada seeking relief and recreation from the frigid and rigid winter conditions up north. Government travel advisories from the US State Department warning of dangerous Mexican gangster activities scared a significant number of would-be tourists away — I’m sure a big portion of the witnesses at the plaza or who heard the gunshots at the murder in 2020, and those who heard about it second and third hand (there’s no official tourist blog or rag sheet at Ixtapa but word of mouth, for what it’s worth, travels wide and fast) and decided not to come back. Delta Airlines discontinued direct service between MSP and ZIH at least five years ago, and Ryan Air quit before that. Then the coronavirus pandemic all but shut down the world, and Mexico offering such iffy, dodgy health statistics gave the remaining would-be visitors more reasons to find less riskier places to winter (Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Puerto Rico, Hawaii) or go nowhere at all.
Hotels like the Krystal have adapted their target marketing to the domestic Mexican market, the emergent Mexican middle class. They offer two and three day packages attracting visitors fromMichoacan, Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterey and towns down in Oaxaca towards the Guatemala border, attracting families, sweethearts, young professionals and gal pals and cool guys to a couple of days at the seaside — all inclusive. They arrive and depart on coach buses, drive their late model cars and family vans where they park at the hotel lot and along the curb of the driveway. Some fly in on regional airways. Families of grandparents, parents and kids. Mexicans.
Jorge, who for years I always hailed as Oscar, has a spot with a desk on the entrance to the pool patio where he books excursions for guests. For years he rented boogie boards, fins and snorkel masks. Now his booth rents kids floatie toys, water wings, circles and unicorns.
This is the Real Mexico. At the palapas on the beach playing Latin hip hop. Sometimes you need to ask them to cut the volume a little. They speak Spanish and sometimes seem to yell. All in all everybody blends. Everybody wears a bathing suit. We share the pool, the sand, the sun and the sea. And the restaurant buffet. Some of us stay for a month, so we notice the ebb and flow of guests from day to day, ever changing, while we establish our routine, invisible to the two or three day transients all around us. One can only infer that Mexican tourists just like gringo tourists bring with them their best manners, these being rooted in core humanistic values, and in this way vacationing side by side with real Mexican citizens is the easiest way to experience Real Mexico. Everything you van observe from them only adds to the discovery.
For example, there are at least three groups of troubadours who tread the entire beach, six miles back and forth, carrying their instruments in their hands seeking to set up and plays songs for people under the umbrellas and palapas to make a little money. They all wear cowboy outfits, hats, scarves, matching chambray shirts, jeans and cowboy boots. One guy walks solo in a nice western suit carrying his guitar, a handsome fellow we call the Mexican Leonard Cohen. Usually they are trios, a guitar a bass and a drum with cymbal, but sometimes violin (or fiddle if you will). This year one band had a woman drummer in her 20s, not too bad. Most bands are grizzled old guys. They know all the traditional songs. Their best audiences are the multi-generational families who like to hear the old stuff for grandma and mama. Sometimes young friends or couples will pitch in just to hear those old familiar tunes. Ay-yi-yi-yi …
To steal a line from Remi Boncoeur of Kerouac’s On the Road: there are sure a lot of Mexicans in Mexico.
And to be sure, there are many Anglos from El Norte who spend significant winter time along that Pacific coastline. Several stay in the condos or in gated communities. There is still a Club Med up towards Playa Linda. Las Brisas is a fortress unto itself amid the cliffs. People like us are peasant travel bumpkins counting coupons towards an affordable hotel room. We run into the other fellow boomer refugees from cold places in North America when we go out dining. Several restaurants in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo attract fine dining clientele which generally do not attract Mexicans in large numbers but rather the Anglos who like to dress up to eat upscale food. I’ll even toss on a Tommy Bahama silk shirt to visit El Galeon at the Ixtapa marina wharf to taste the lobster bisque at least one time.
What passes for fine dining includes El Faro, Coconuts, Il Mare, Daniel’s and La Perla in Zihua, and Soleiado, Sabrina’s and Deborah’s in Ixtapa, and Bogart’s and Cinque Terre at the Krystal if you believe the hype. You could also include Casa Elvira, La Portena and La Sirena Gorda on the Zihuatanejo promenade, and Lety’s, wherever she is now, if you strictly went by food quality and forgave the casual surroundings. In Ixtapa Casa Morelo’s serves reliable recipes, General’s good sports bar food, and Blue Shrimp, once everybody’s ace in the hole, has to build itself back up from scratch after all its people left at the pandemic and only assembled a skeleton staff the week we arrived.
The biggest change in dining was at the back of the plaza where Sergio Toscano, known as the Old Guy, died leaving his Toscano’s Ristorante to his widow, who fired everybody from the old restaurant except the pizza chef. So all the old staff from Toscano’s took over a space around the bend from Blue Shrimp that used to be a struggling cantina called Calabozo (jail) and turned it into a sidewalk Italian place with some of Toscano’s old menu items, including pizza. The call it Buona Sera. Last seen the widow Toscano was again arguing with a customer, perhaps the only customer under her awning, while the people at Buona Sera, blessed with a street lamp at their corner of the plaza, sets up tables to the edge of the alley and does land office business — the spell of Calabozo is broken. They plan to expand next year.
Another fine place to dine in Ixtapa is the Tiburon restaurant at the Ixtapa Palace Hotel, an obscure full service hotel located about a block away from the beach boulevard toward the gated condos. In an earlier day the Palace was a swanky hotel next to a water park with complex water slides and recreational pools. The water park has been dry more than ten years but it still stands next to the Palace, which still retains its swank. If the family friendly trend continues, that water park could be the next thing to revive. Getting back to dining, the Tiburon is a hidden gem. Hardly any of the Anglo crowd dines there. An excellent place to order a whole red snapper, either garlic sauce or veracruz style. All seafood excellent at a remarkably fair price.
Back to Zihuatanejo, the old town put some effort into refurbishing its waterfront along the bay during the ZOZO pandemic year and it looks beautiful and sustainable. The new concrete pier is finished, started in 2019, extended and more solid than the old. The promenade that moseys from the pier all along the fishing boat harbor to the main plaza at the famous basketball court and along Principal Beach to Madera Beach and will eventually connect to a promenade continuation along Playa Ropa has been repaved with a wider walkway made of trapezoidal shaped paver blocks that forms a pleasing looking pedestrian path all along the beaches at the foot of the hillside residences and cantinas of the town. All the switchbacks and ramps along the old way have been restored and the concrete and asphalt patchwork of the old promenade smoothed with the pattern of the pavers. Dozens of bistros, cantinas, bars and restaurants line the promenade above the beach and the Calle Adelitas, the next street up from Playa Madera. The neighborhood has seen some restoration and refurbishing and brilliant new paint. The rentals and small hotels beckon with balconies. We moseyed the promenade after breakfast on a Sunday. The beige pavers reflect light across the plaza and the pattern entices walking. It had been at least twelve years since we first followed the old promenade to see where it went and how far you could go. The city has enhanced the landscaping since then and the new paver promenade is a handsome pedestrian parkway linking the beaches of the bay. New vendor kiosks have been built along the harbor to give the sellers roofs and awnings and well lit displays and shelves. Beachside restaurants like Daniel’s have big palapa shelters where they can put eight or nine tables under a thatched roof out on the sand and provide lighted dining after sunset.
Until this little walking tour we deliberately avoided Zihuatanejo as a place to hang out, taking covid precautions. As everywhere we found Mexicans more rigorous about wearing masks than measurable gringos, which gave us assurance and confidence the times we took a taxi to Zihua for dinner. The remake of the plaza and the promenade made a longer visit desirable, when we gave in on late Sunday morning. In light of day the urban beauty and town vibrance says come on back and stay a while and as we emerge at a familiar corner of commerce in Downtown Mexico to hail a taxi back to Ixtapa it occurs to me we might never follow the promenade and explore Madera after sunset except now that we’ve seen it in daylight.
Another consideration for masking and not masking is that almost everywhere is considered open air and outdoors. Places with roofs such as restaurants have high ceilings and open walls or tables in an open plaza. Ceiling fans. Stores on the other hand require masks. Some admit only one person per family to enter the threshold. The hotel requires masks everywhere except the pool and the palapas and while eating or drinking in a designated area, but otherwise masks are required everywhere on the premises — not including one’s guest room, of course.
Cubre tu Boca is a familiar mantra on signs everywhere. So is Respeta tu Distancia. Recommended social distance is 3.5 meters, or roughly five feet. Much should be said that we encountered these risk restrictions in mid-January when many restrictions were just being loosened again. Leisure travel was a precarious venture. Two years ago the virus stopped the world. Vaccines came along last year. The Delta variant of the virus picked up where the vaccines left off, so boosters were introduced. Herd immunity seemed just out of reach. The Omicron variant set everybody’s health confidence back and forth to the CDC, and after a while it seemed that following the science meant it was safe enough to take certain calculated risks in this world so several of our fellow human beings insisted on possessing freedoms to decide what risks to take and to take all the risks they could take because, after all, somebody’s going to die anyway.
So essentially we are on the Honor System with covid-19 now, practicing however one sees fit to behave with regard to public health protocols such as masks and social distance. The hotel posted an illustrated sign at the elevators saying the passenger limit per car was 4 people (excluding of course small children and of course whole families of six people). Hand sanitizer applications were required to enter the restaurants and hand washing faucets and sinks and sanitizer stations were available and obvious at the hotel lobby. Off campus and in the open air most people unmasked unless approaching a crowd. Covid-19 will be a constant factor in our social equations for some time, and at this point in midwinter 2022 everybody was still too freshly scared of letting down any guard and still so tired of being on guard.
Most likely not to wear a mask unless absolutely required are gringo men, including me but not for pride or politics but simply to be able to breathe better and feel less chafed, as well as wishing away the specter of the virus. There is a gringo macho attitude of identifiable traits among some guys too cool for school who don’t make much eye contact anyway. In social situations the eye contact is all there is to establish friendliness, but sometimes being unmasked can show a face not happy or friendly — sin simpatico. Everybody wants a free open air excuse not to wear a mask but guys who wear their faces just to flout the prevailing customs come close to flaunting and taunting the limits of good manners to make a point of being exceptional. There are women who act that way too but don’t give a wink that you might judge them whereas the men dare you to judge them — and their women.
Playa Palmar the beach of Ixtapa Bay has always been Vacation Nation, a free state of no politics. Populated as it is in numbers and as mixed as can be of random people, you don’t see political slogans or T-shirts with partisan sayings or MAGA caps. You see sports teams. Fashion. Beer. Cabela’s. I can’t recall the last time (if ever) I saw a T-shirt with a portrait of Che Guevera. Lots of NY caps, as political as that gets. No BLM. Some Bob Marley. PINK and P!NK. And lots of skin. Tattoos yes but nobody screaming Kill The Mockingbirds. It’s crazy to assume so many people can have no political opinions at all and abandon heartfelt convictions en masse to indulge in innocent apathy. Yet here at Playa Palmar, theater of the beach, people leave their grudges and fighting words at the door and they commingle at the sea, under the sun, everybody minding their own business and having a day without antagonizing anybody else.
Conversations, however, can get heated between parties who overhear parties speaking between themselves. It’s not that there’s no freedom of speech. At a restaurant one night I gave the Stink Eye to a guy telling the Big Lie across his dinner table just to let him know he wasn’t just being heard by stupid gullible people. People tend to express opinions like the Big Lie among their own or those who appear to be their own. Sometimes I can be mistaken for one of them, I suppose by my age or my clothes, so sometimes I get told some crazyass shit out of the blue like some guy going on about shooting the lead cow because then the rest of the cows don’t know who to follow …
The past five years the biggest buttinskis in political conversations on the beach have been Canadians telling Americanos how well off the world would be if the US were governed by iconoclast authoritarian conservative populists, as if they themselves would subject themselves to such a ticket. In the spirit of leaving political agendas out of Vacation Nation, I’ll set mine aside and say no more.
It is the beach, after all, that epitomizes what I seek in a winter vacation. From a chaise recliner under the shade of a palm-thatched palapa I watch the sea. All day. It swells and rolls and breaks and floods the sand with churning waves and stops and sucks itself back and swells, rolls and breaks again. There were several days of six foot breakers erupting like white volcanic lava. The thunder roared and rolled up and down the coast. All day. All night. The blue water beyond the breakers undulates and mimics the breeze. All the way to the horizon the blue flickers with sunbeams. Beyond the bay the sea meets the sky and bonds with dreams. The ocean looks like eternity and it brings itself wave by wave to the beach. My mind measures time in waves. Between me and the sea the population dances and whirls and plunges and crawls into and away from the froth and the surges and the ebbs. Young and old, they embrace the ocean in their own way. Each drawn to the water’s edge to decide how deep to go, if at all. The water here is always warm, the shock may come from the intensity of the splash. Boogie boarders are rarely disappointed. Body surfers can get carried away. We like to walk the hard, smooth wet edges of the sand where it comes up to the ankles. It’s a huge beach accommodating crowds all day long, all drawn to the ocean, and I watch them when they cross my view of watching the sea.
All day. We take our walks. Swim in the hotel pool. Go somewhere for lunch if we didn’t eat breakfast. Sometimes we swim in the ocean on our walk down to the Pacifica resort where the surf is most gentle in the bay. Some times we go get a massage. I like to take a parachute ride towed by a boat at least once a year on a windy day. Other than these things we pretty much recline at the beach under our chosen palapa in the shade. Mostly we read. Engage conversations. People watch. And I stare at the sea.
Everything else is extra. All the women in bathing suits. The music they play at the swimming pool. Food. Hospitality. The mixing with interesting fellow guests and being allowed to be familiar with the local hosts. The chance to experience a place different from my home but still planet earth. Even the hot weather. Essentially why I am there is to be on the beach to observe the sea.
They say the sea and the sun are natural disinfectants. I’m sure they both are challenged by what toxins we ask them to solve, but given a spiritual task there might be nothing fresher than sunshine and saline water to enlighten and wash the soul. Nothing more cleansing than the ocean on a sunny day.
The vendors traipse by selling sweets and crafts and nuts and sunglasses, wraps and shawls, shrimp and coconuts, silver jewelry, hats and waterproof cases for cellphones. Hector the wood carver lugs his backpack of inventory one way and back the other every day. This time there is a family of whales in his hands, his most recent big one. He has a family of sea turtles too. We’ve bought a couple of things he’s made: a baby buffalo and a coconut palm tree. We get him to stop under our palapa to show off his smaller single pieces. Little sea turtles, small whales and dolphins. We happen to like one of the small whales and buy it. He says people like the big family ones but they just want to buy one of the babies. The detail he puts into the family groupings is worth the extra price, he says, for the small ones as well. I agree 800 pesos is a fair price for the whale family ($40 USD) but I don’t have fair requisite shelf space, so we stuck with the one small thing. His carvings are shapely and smooth to touch, even where detailed. He polishes the ironwood with shoe polish to hew a deep tan. I’ve been around enough years and seen Hector enough times to realize there are Hector collectors all over North America whose kids and grandkids will inherit his work unawares.
Victor, who used to sell newspapers on the beach but now vends starstruck magazines in Spanish and soccer T-shirts. This year he got me to buy a Mexico Copa Mundo team shirt, magenta and black with shimmering flecks. This year at last we bought tamales from the beach tamale lady Margarita. Finally a couple times she came along with her blue cooler right between breakfast and dinner. Delicious. Rojo o verde. Genuinely wrapped in banana leaf. 100 pesos — that’s $5 bucks. USD.
Our favorite beachwalker at Playa Palmar is a guy named Benny. Big Ben. Pudgy cheeks and paunchy strut, he stalks Playa Palmar all day meeting up with prospects for his sportfishing business. He has three boats. His excursions don’t cost much and include a shore lunch at a cantina at Isla Las Gatas. He can also arrange for motor guides to places like Troncones or Petatlan, or just a boat ride up and down the coast looking for whales and dolphins. We’ve been on Benny arranged excursions a few times and always been taken good care of. We’ve gotten to know him well enough we don’t hide from him when we see him on the beach (we’ve gone fishing enough) and ask how things are going.
This year he was hard to recognize. Same Cabela’s baseball cap and tropical style shirt but so slim and trim. His face looked years younger. And his stature seemed to have shrunk a couple inches. He looked like a Benny Junior, or a younger actor portraying him, taking over his life
Had the covid, he told us. In hospital two months. Almost died. Sick six months. Grateful to be alive.
Having a good season, he said when asked how this Hundred Days were going. At least one booking every day. Considering there aren’t so many white people any more. (His term.) He says Mexican tourists don’t book fishing. He says he loves Minnesota people, they are the most loyal customers. He says this because he knows where we’re from and he’s consummate PR man, and we know he values the Canadians too and is conscious Minnesota people are competitive with Canadians, but one thing about Minnesotans they aren’t hard to get to pay in US dollars, whereas Canadians haggle over the cash conversion to USD down to the last loon and try to get it cheaper. Benny prefers payment in USD, even to pesos. It’s nobody’s business if he’s a currency speculator or what, he grew up on the dollar and stayed in the habit. When he was young the gringos never carried Mexican money, so going to the bank to change the money he got used to, along with figuring out the equivalences in Mexican pesos. He probably pays his agents, guides, boatmen and drivers in cash too, possibly cuts of the USD.
He says he learned at a young age the best way to make any money in the world was to know English, and he wanted to make money. He says his covid treatment cost him $10 thousand dollars and was worth every dollar. He says that as a way of boasting he actually had the money. What he means is he’s grateful to be alive, on the beach, and he says he isn’t so worried and tense any more because when you’re so sick you think you’re going to die and then you get well, it feels so good doing the basic things and being able to enjoy every minute doing what you love, making a living.
True enough he seemed becalmed and almost charmed, not that Benny ever showed stress. I’ve always admired him as a hard working savvy and honest entrepreneur and man about town. He seemed more than that this year. He had elevated himself unwittingly to guru of the playa dispensing wisdom and faith while greeting gringos passing by. He reminded me of Bernie Horowitz back home, namesake proprietor of Bernie’s, a delicatessen restaurant in St Louis Park, where he always seemed to be host, his own maitre d, a guru of hospitality. Playa Palmar was Benny’s Bernie’s.
The most visible greeters on the beach were still the waving women from the huts who offered massages. Up the beach from the Krystal, which is located at midpoint, past two other hotels, the dolphinium and two former night clubs now reinvented as daytime cantinas, a row of seven cabins side by side, each the size and shape of a one car garage and constructed of basic lumber materials with open walls stood at the inner edge of the beach. Between the huts, or cabanas, umbrellas shaded plastic pub tables and cheap plastic chairs where the masajistas could take breaks outdoors and shelter from the sun. And they could wave from their beach chairs and wave from the doorways of the cabanas at everybody walking the beach towards the marina. Each cabana had four massage tables. At least five women worked at each cabana. When the masajistas weren’t working a client or taking a break under the umbrellas they walked down to the water line, a decent fifty yards, to personally greet the beach walkers and offer their massages.
Every time I see this sight or walk into the reception line and greet them in return I think about what these encounters look like to observers who have never encountered the waving, greeting masajistas before. The scene reminds me of scenes from a western movie McCabe and Mrs Miller set in a mining town where the women of the brothel in shanties at the edge of town would come outdoors to wave hello at approaching cowboys. I am ashamed to associate Las Masajistas de Playa Palmar with porno in my own head but this reflects how I grew up. And it seems to occur to some browsers who hit upon my earlier essays looking for something juicy on the beach. The resemblance with the women in the movie ends right there. The masajista will escort you across the sand to the wooden stairway where she will wash your feet and talk you upstairs into the four table parlor, where she will direct you to lie face down on a table, without a shirt, hands at your sides, and the next hour she will massage your body, segment by segment, ask you to turn over and lays a cloth across your eyes so you can zone out, and a massage is what you get. An exquisite massage. Nothing kinky. Nothing obscene.
One full hour. Starts with the back. Neck, spine. Ribs, shoulders. Lumbar. Arm. Return to the back. Apply stones left in a basket in he sun to get hot left to cool off on the spine. Leg. More back. Other arm. Other leg (Get that calf again please). Back again — remove the stones. (The masajistas always seem to click the stones together before and after they apply them. It’s customarily quiet in every massage cabana, very little whispering, so maybe it’s a way to express rhythm.) At some point she’ll ask you to turn over and with a clean linen across your eyes she’ll work you over again. She’ll offer a facial.
All the while that hour the sea rolls in and out and the breeze through the open walls carries distant laughter from the beach and the quick conversations in Spanish outside the huts. If you are mindful of each compression and stroke and squeeze of your muscles and tissues you will find yourself enchanted by how much you are learning about your senses, especially touch.
We have been frequenting the beach masajistas since they first started, about twenty years. It first started in what resembled medical tents, and the third year they constructed the frame huts. Who trained and continues to train the masajistas I do not know. I will say, and Roxanne will back me up, we have encountered massagists who possess a gifted talent they have developed with skills and fused the science with art and provided consistently exceptional massages. Sorry to say we’ve had some who barely phone it in. We have been lucky. Over the years we have been sort of adopted by pairs of masajistas who claim us and make appointments for us and try to take care of us exclusively if we allow them. They charge 300 Mexican pesos. We tip 100 pesos. In USD that’s a $15 massage and a $5 buck tip. For a full hour. For in my estimation a massage every bit as good as any I’ve had at a classy spa back home (or at Disney World) costing scores more money and only lasted 45 minutes.
The conditions at Playa Palmar are sanitary. Always changing the linen for clean linen. Granted, they employ used towels and sheets but they launder them, you can smell the Zote soap.
This year with covid-19 we were especially timid about visiting the masajista cabanas, as opposed to our last habitation in 2020, when I feel we booked a massage just about every other day. We weren’t alone in our trepidation. Years past you might have to wait to get a walk-in or make an appointment in advance. This year even the known gifted masajistas might be available any time of day. My favorite the past few years, Isabel from cabana #2, was away on maternity leave, that is she was expecting a baby. A good year to take off and take care of personal things, I guess. Zuliema, the deaf mute with the gifted touch and her cohort Eva provided the bliss for me at cabana #7, and Roxanne says her massages were exquisite. They wore masks but we didn’t have to since we were either face down or face up for a facial. The end is near when they introduce the aromatherapy, a spritz of lavender, melissa and mandarin. Open your eyes and they wiggle their fingers to fan the aroma. 300 pesos. 100 pesos tip. Cash. For one solid hour of heavenly massage listening to the sea and Spanish laughing whispers in the air. Most times Roxanne and I were the only customers in the four table hut. For that and all due consideration we are grateful. There is high vulnerability in the intimacy of massage where so much trust is exact and vitality an objective at complete rest and surrender to manipulation. Las Masajistas de Playa Palmar rule the soul of Ixtapa. They are the convent of holy masajistas.
Next winter should be better. 2022 wasn’t bad. With certain mitigation we learned we can vacation and stay healthy and avoid spreading infectious disease. One hopes it gets better and better, which leads to a normal we can live with to everyone’s mutual enjoyment. The omicron spike has crested and abated. Always on guard for the next mutation, barring something so fiendishly lethal it defies all state of the art predilection it seems reasonable to think that SARS-COV-2 variations from here to Z will weaken against a fortified human immunity. Humanity will go along its course and seek its leisure.
Ixtapa Zihuatanejo still exists. Exactly where it left off.
Or more so, it never stopped. Look away a couple years and what seems like reassurance everything’s the same reveals how much everything has aged over all. The essence of a maturing generation of young adults among both the vacationers and the working population of the hospitality industry shows the turnover of ages. The gradual extinction of baby boom winter vacation residents is taken up by upswinging millennials seeking exotic havens to work from home. It’s a foregone premise my generation will fade from the planet, so there’s no surprise we unclutch the secret of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo as an ideal place to spend January and February of the northern hemisphere of North America.
Zihuatanejo as a city never ceases to evolve ahead of survival. The new waterfront promenade of pavers and landscape along the walkway and through the plaza infuses a new aura of yellow brick road between Playa Ropa and the new, fortified pier. They say it did not hurt either the paving trail or the building of the new pier that the current mayor of Zihuatanejo is a concrete and cement industry magnate. If he had any say in the design and execution of either project it certainly contributed taste and economy of scale. It frames the downtown seafront plaza in timelessness to last generations hence. The fresh look bespeaks a pervasive attitude of sustenance. There’s no pretense of restoration to an epic era, only organic touches of vitality showing the city’s best face as it faces itself, modestly and with confidence it will keep going. The new pier reaches into the rocky western heart of the bay to attract ocean cruise shoppers on day trips who can shuttle ashore on tenders from the mother ship — someday when the pandemic ends and ocean cruises are pleasurably less risky. The pier serves as a bridge over the bay to allow the sea to wash underneath to keep the water from stagnating either side of a wall. It was almost fortunate to complete the pier replacement and the entire paver promenade along Playas Principal, Madera and along the edge of Playa Ropa in one year — ZOZO, the year of missing time, the lost year. During this time which stood still for so many and sometimes crashed to the ground for others, Zihuatanejo kept going.
There is new paint. Restored brickwork. Modern windows. Nobody I overheard said anything about gentrification. It isn’t that groovy. Local architecture sticks to the basics of cement, stone and rebar. The Spanish colonizers left a penchant for archways and tile. Colors reflect a respect for the sun. The pavers respect the rainy season balancing runoff with absorption. Old Town spreads across the backstreets behind the promenade, tidy rows of tiendas, shops, cantinas and galleries go sideways and across the blocks to the markets and banks and farmacias of everyday commerce where the locals all live up close. It is safe to walk these back streets during daylight — as anywhere, Minneapolis or Paris, be aware of your surroundings — and likely after twilight as well, there aren’t pirates hiding in the shadows preying on pedestrian tourists. Even on the bleakest looking streets, it’s only bleak looking because it is so plain nobody bothered to design it fancy beyond functional, not scary ugly just plain.
Perhaps it needs to be pointed out how clean and sanitary a city it is. You don’t see litter or trash — no basura — in the streets. On the sidewalks. The promenade. The pier. Between the markets and the stalls. Vacant lots. No trash. Like the beaches. Clean. There are bins and receptacles for trash and recycling everywhere.
So there is nothing backward to visiting this place in Mexico. For a vacation it could be fun times at a remote beach resort, or it could be a sojourn to an exotic tropical town. Luxury is attainable at beachside condos and villas for rent through the usual website agents. All level of bargains for lodging can be found for frugal travelers. There are bakeries, grocery stores and a central fresh market if you get a place with a kitchen. Restaurants abound — more than I can know. Seafood is excellent everywhere, and so is chicken. There is cell service and wi fi. It’s a small enough city easy to navigate. The social hospitality is polite, simpatico and welcoming and at the same time people mind their own business. All the locals have cell phones — they pick up and say, “Bueno.”
When Roxanne and I started coming here we used to buy prepaid phone cards at the farmacia so we could call home from a pay phone on the boulevard to stay in touch with our kids. Then came email and we found a couple of cozy internet cafes where we could write the kids back home. Then came hotel computer stations. Then the hotel got wi fi, we got tablets and iPhones, wi fi at the hotel got good, then better, and we can text home, even face chat in real time. There is no sense of falling off the face of the earth being in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.
Still, don’t expect glamour. It’s shabby in some ways without chic, but very tidy. There is no fabulous history connected tenuously to Spain. The ancient people kept a low profile and continue to prefer to be left undisturbed in the surrounding hills, where Spanish is a second language. Zihuatanejo takes its name from the ancient language as the place of the women. A legend tells that a king ordered breakwaters arranged from local volcanic rock to calm the waves at the beach at the cusp of the bay at a peninsula called Isla Las Gatas where the king’s several queens would sunbathe. Other tidbits about the past tell of quality hardwood timber being harvested in the hills and trekked to the bay to be shipped by the Spanish from Madera Beach. Otherwise the Spanish regarded the outpost as an afterthought with Acapulco harbor but a hundred miles away. The biggest event in the bay’s historic memory was the result of a storm in the 17th Century that wrecked a ship on the rocks outside the bay. The cargo floated in bales and washed ashore on the beach. In the bales were clothing and other textiles from Asia — some say India, some say China — bound for the European markets. The locals found the bales and picked through the garments until there wasn’t a stitch left on the beach. Thereafter the beach was named Playa Ropa, clothes beach, and the people of Zihuatanejo were the coolest dressed people in the western hemisphere in the 1660s.
Stephen King chose Zihuatanejo as Andy and Red’s place of rendezvous after getting out of Shawshank, but it was chosen by Andy because it was a nondescript fishing village on the sea and by King because it was a real place with a cool five syllable name. They say Al Franken’s movie about alcoholic love was filmed at a hacienda high on the hill above Playa Ropa, starring Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan.
Ixtapa on the other hand has no such history or myths and only existed as cropland, swamp and coconut palms until the 1970s when the federal Mexican government designated the coastline of the state of Guerrero northwest of Zihuatanejo as a tourism destination. All you see of Ixtapa is less than 40 years old. Most of it is newer. Unlike its counterpart in the Mexican tourist zone project Cancun, Ixtapa was not a runaway hit, but it built a sturdy economy. Proximity to Zihuatanejo — the big little city, Downtown Mexico — was an asset when the bedroom community along the beach hotels went to sleep, but eventually Ixtapa grew its own restaurants and clubs and for a year of so even had a casino. Finding night life was not a risky problem under most circumstances. Unrelated and sadly connected the casino attracted armed robberies and a gringo surfer got killed outside a stripper bar — in backstreets Ixtapa, not KISSES in Zihuatanejo — about 2:30 in the morning, where he came to call out a pimp for providing an unsuitable prostitute and demanded his money back — shot once in the chest, they say. This incident helped the raising of the risk factor in the advisories the US Department of State gave out to the public against travel to Mexico. We were there when the casino in every neon way was open for gaming, and then all of a sudden the second year the sign went dark and two or three cop cars were parked out front, police tape across the doors. Gradually the cops stopped parking there. The tape came off. The casino sign came down. It never reopened.
The son of Sergio Toscano, known as The Old Guy at Casa Toscano’s Italian restaurant at the west end of the plaza in Ixtapa, told us once about his big plans when he eventually took over: market Ixtapa as an eternal Spring Break party town destination, woo hoo. Old Sergio wanted none of that and soon dispatched his son back to Venice Beach, California. It’s not so much that Ixtapa isn’t capable of ramping up to raucous revelry — they say Eastertime the streets and plazas overflow with fun seekers as if it were the mirror of Mardi Gras. The sustainability of hyperactive fun risks behavior out of bounds with decency, and even dignity. Vice taints recreation to extremes offensive to average people. Loud fun finds its niche market in the background. The casino never attracted big crowds during its best nights, always lots of open slot machines, maybe a couple of tables playing cards in the glass enclosed room. It didn’t catch on with the tourists, most of whom came there for other reasons than to play neon games of chance. When the premises attracted armed robberies they shut down. Nobody will ever know if gaming could have changed the marketing of tourism in Ixtapa.
Fun is in the eye of the beholden. There’s golf — best tee off at sunrise and complete your round by 11, 11:30, it gets humid rapidly. The sea and the beaches offer fun all day. The General’s sports bar offers husband day care where wives can drop off their guys and go shopping and pay their bar tabs later when they pick the guys up. There are similar arrangements one can make at any cantina on the coast if it’s drinking you want. The hotels all have bars. You never have to drive. Most daytime fun takes to the water, pool or ocean. The Krystal sponsors organized beach volleyball, water volleyball in the pool, water polo, water aerobics and salsa lessons on the patio deck. The Krystal Kids Klub keeps the kid guests busy. I like to read under a palapa on the beach and walk the beach during the day. To people watch: tossing bolos, passing American footballs, young couples practicing pickleball, playing catch with frisbees and aerobies. Flying kites. Chasing surf. Pickup soccer matches. Joggers. The Girls from Ipanema practicing their Glamor Shots. The beginner surfers trying the waves down towards the marina. The people so pale who barely get outside in front of the condo to stand with their feet in the sand and stare out at the sea in transfixed awe. The ones who spot whales and dolphins in the bay. People who want to be by themselves, and people who like to be so deep in the mix they’re like Benny.
Of all the beach vendors my favorite is a guy named Rafael. All these years — longer than the masajistas — Rafael has managed a team offering parachute rides ten stories in the air towed behind an inboard speedboat back and forth along the beach within Ixtapa Bay. I met him when he managed the team located on the unseen seam on the beach between the Krystal and the hotel next door, the Tesoro. On the average there are four parachute sailing vendors operating across Playa Palmar and depending on demand there can be three speedboats floating beyond the breakers with tow ropes extended to the crews on the beach. Rafael’s crew was owned by a guy I used to call the Dutchman because he looked Dutch and his parachute was a big advertisement for Hollandia ice cream products. He owned at least half the parachutes on the beach and maybe all the boats. Rafael was the Dutchman’s main man and his crew in front of the Krystal was by far the busiest bunch on the beach, sometimes employing two chutes, rotating them in and out fast as Rafael signed them up and outfitted them in vests and harnesses.
I’ve gone up a bunch of times. I like to say every year but I’ve skipped a couple. Probably didn’t go up my first year or two — it cost 300 pesos then — but I studied it, how they took you up and mostly how they got you down. Last time around Rafael’s crew was named Lalo, Daniel and Ismael. They are always burly guys in their twenties with deep tans, except Ismael was a teenager. Rafael himself is slight and skinny and the deepest tan of all, his face almost crisp. Sometimes her wore so much zinc he looked like a mime. This year I went to where they launch. Parachute idle on the ground. Rafael wasn’t around. A new guy was boss of a new crew of just one guy. They said Armondo (the Dutchman’s real name) sold the business to the new guy and Rafael was gone.
Later on our first beach walk we found Rafael with a new crew at a new location alongside the Bayview condominiums and the Barcelo hotel. Abrazo, abrazo. The Dutchman had indeed sold his holdings in the beach parachute sailing business and the guy who owned this particular locating hired him for a better commission. The outfit also rented out rides on Jet Ski watercraft and tow rides behind the speedboat on a big water wiener, a giant yellow ducky and an easy chair called the Big Brawler. That day he said business was way, way down but they were getting by. That seemed true all up and down the beach, the aftermath of covid and the year of ZOZO.
Rafael told me his record day was 153 flights. I can almost remember that day, or ones like it, watching from under the palapa.
For the first few days, I might have said, Ixtapa was quiet. Timid. In a few days more, though, it got busier. More guests arrived, even some Anglos. Soon the national holiday Constitution Day weekend arrived and guests poured in. Fun resumed. People rode the parachute, rented the Jet Skis, and got towed behind the boats on the big wiener, the ducky and the Brawler — somebody always falls off in the middle of the bay and they have to remount and start over. Benny booked fishing trips, which include shore lunch of the catch prepared at a cantina at Las Gatas. He goes by Big Ben if you look him up on the web.
Nightlife fun is out of my ken. I don’t usually stay out late at night any more looking for entertainment. I will say the Senor Frog’s and Carlo and Charlie’s franchises have fizzled in Ixtapa, one because it hasn’t caught on with rube Americano college students and the other due to noise considerations in the hotel zone. There are no doubt some swinging night clubs in Ixtapa as well as Zihuatanejo, when they are open and free of covid restrictions. Next to the Krystal is a club called Christine which wasn’t open at all this year — it’s a completely enclosed premises (not open air) subject to being closed to all patrons. In past years it has been open on special nights from 10 pm until dawn and most recent years has had a food truck outside the patio serving tacos. Maybe twenty years ago Roxanne and I paid the nominal cover charge and the two drink minimum and went inside. Billed Latino Night, it was probably around 9, way too early for anything happening but I learned that Christine has one of the best sound systems I ever heard and I discovered a song called “Amargo Adios” (bitter goodbye) by Inspector, the best Mexican R&B song ever. I can see how Christine could be a premier dance club. And yet I cannot speak for night clubbing in Ixtapa or Zihuatanejo in general because we don’t go clubbing. It’s probably fun but by the time it gets going I’m done for the day. I know, I could take an old fashioned disco nap but that’s not how I roll. I’m 70 and partying all night has lost its allure.
There’s no shortage of evening entertainment. A handful of restaurants in both Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo provide musical accompaniment for dinner. They have tip jars onstage. Otherwise roving troubadours set up their mics and speakers in public spaces at the seams between outdoor cantinas to render short sets of songs and doff their hats to the patrons at the tables for tips. Singers, guitarists, Andes pan flutes, unlike the beach cowboys the evening entertainers mostly play medleys of Anglo pop standards, though somewhere comes along a classical guitarist or a voice of original songs. The talent ranges from annoying to competent among the troubadours and from competent to surprising among the restaurant gigs.
Hotels like the Krystal feature nightly entertainment at stages within their premises. The Krystal has a grassy lawn backyard they call the jardin where the Kids Klub plays soccer by day and at night they set up chairs facing a permanent stage where performers act out pre-recorded musical numbers in mime and dance three nights a week from nine until ten. The shows are themed and the theme is posted on the chalkboards in the lobby and near the towel shack by the pool. International, Pan-Mexican, Latin American and Disney are recurring themes. Lately the chairs are filled. One favorite of the crowd is a solo diva who performs lip-synching Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. The traditional Latin American dances are choreographed lavishly and the costumes express flair. The Disney numbers are cute, all sung in Spanish. Other nights the Krystal at 9:00 features Karaoke or featured acts from the cream of the club and restaurant entertainers at the patio outside the bar adjacent to the pool patio and the Jardin (the bar like Christine an indoor venue was closed for covid protocol). The karaoke ranges from clever to entertaining and is always in Spanish. The musical groups rock out Latin dance beats and the singers belt Spanish ballads. It all ends around ten, although karaoke sometimes runs a little late. We’re usually upstairs reading and unwinding and we listen through the open balcony door and can watch the Jardin stage shows from the balcony.
One night the music from the patio intrigued me more than anything I had heard since “Amargo Adios” by Inspector on Christine’s sound system. A woman with a clear, melodious distinct voice and a relentlessly phonetic acoustic rhythm guitar with just a touch of percussion. Songs I never heard before. Songs like “Blue Bayou” I recognized but she sang in Spanish. Shakira’s “Dia de Enero”. I learned later it was a duo called Cactus, as we caught them again weeks later playing Valentine’s Day dinner at Soleiado. A black haired woman in loose black dress played her own guitar and sang with a kind of passion almost disaffected by self-consciousness of playing a patio of dinner guests. The accompanist wore a plaid shirt, his blond hair in a bun and a five day beard, a floor tomtom between his knees he muted with an embroidered dish towel and kept good time with a drumstick and wood block and tiny cymbal alongside the tom.
So I discreetly as possible approached the tom player between songs to learn the titles of two or three songs they just played so I could look them up later. At first the drummer said he didn’t speak English so he didn’t know how to reply, but the singer lady overheard me and answered. I ate dinner slower than ever that evening, and Cactus kept playing without a break. In the future I will make an effort to seek them out and not just wait by chance they return to the Krystal or Soleiado..
When I came home I researched the songs they told me and I found every one. What I had not considered but quickly learned was that as interesting as each song was, it was not interesting to me enough any more because it wasn’t sung and played by Cactus. And of course Cactus hasn’t got a CD — the cost of the rights to any songs they might record, even “Besame Mucho” would exceed the revenue of paltry sales to music rubes like me. So if I want to hear “Mi Grande Noche” or “Sabor O Chocolate” the way I remember, I’ll have to hear Cactus live.
This brings me back to thinking about the future of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. We will go back. No dissuasion by government agencies or political persuasions have made us uncomfortable, and so far as we can tell we are sincerely welcomed by the locals as long as we want to return. The future of this place does not depend on me or Roxanne or what we think, or even what this community thinks of us. We are ambassadors of course, diplomats and informal delegates of our country spreading peace and harmony among our peoples, behaving with good manners and practicing the Golden Rule as we would at home, or in Europe, wherever we might go. We’re Americanos. This is Mexico. We are guests.
We’ll go back as long as we’re welcome because we believe there will be somewhere to go back to. There’s reason to believe Ixtapa Zihuatanejo will survive into the future as a center of hospitality. There is no bad reputation to overcome. It isn’t an overly famous reputation to live down or live up to. Like it or not the resort industry cannot completely fortify this community’s place as a regional economy of its own. Villages and towns all along the Pacific coast and deep into the hills and mountains depend upon Zihuatanejo as a coherent and stable center for merchandising, communication, education and civil politics. The networks of civic cohesion beneath the surface and behind the scenes keep this place alive and ahead of the curve beyond tourism. Stable and prosperous habitation is the weave that binds the culture that lives here. A culture that treats its own people well will welcome strangers and often let them become one of their own. A subtle underground expatriate citizenry has taken residency in abidance of local mores and folkways (a few might even describe themselves as ex-patriots) who seek refuge from more than terrifying weather seeking whatever it is Zihuatanejo means to its own people, that whatever je ne sais quoi is in Spanish, what ever bonds this community so cohesively from generation to generation exists invisibly uncommercialized inside the soul of modern small town Mexico using tourism and hospitality as ways to keep up with the world and experience a wholesome life.
If we have noticed changes in the 20-odd years we’ve visited Ixtapa Zihuatanejo it all seems to come down to age. Kids who were just born when we started to come down are coming of age. Their parents are now middle aged. Their parents’ parents are our age. Those kids we used to see in their school uniforms when we used to walk around and explore the backstreets behind the plazas. The high school in Ixtapa tucked back behind the old movie theater past the closed-down disco back where that enchilada place with the bathtub in the lobby … La Melinche I think … do high school kids know what Melinche means, or find it ironic to name a restaurant that? Where do the high school kids go afterwards?
The adult workforce, of course. Some via higher education. The military — Zihuatanejo has a navy base in the harbor which keeps a low profile. Obviously there are jobs in hospitality but not for everybody. Technicians are needed in keeping the infrastructure going. Mechanics maintain the cars. Storekeepers sell clothes. Carpenters and masons construct buildings. Everyone needs to eat. Fishers fish and haul their catch to the market. The vegetables come from fields somewhere up the highway. Rice and beans are universal drygoods. Flour. Chickens and eggs. Families extend together. Some send their kids to university at Guadalajara or Mexico City, say the taxi drivers who brag about their kids. Some of them grow up to be professionals. Like any home town it may seem hard to keep the best and brightest from escaping to greener pastures and skipping off from their haunts of childhood, though as it turns out as Mexico goes it might seem a much cooler place to be if they could take advantage of it to make their dreams come true.
It’s probably similar to feeling what it might have been like growing up in Wausau, Wisconsin or Freehold, New Jersey in 1969.
On the beach under the palapa closest to the shower Roxanne and I found a display of little palm sized amulets and brooches made up of tiny collages and mosaics, miniature visual tapestries, each unique though similar motifs and imagery. Several different butterflies. Tree of life. Modest 16th century faces of Italian goddesses. They looked so exquisite we wanted to touch them, arrayed as they were on a cloth on the beach recliner. A lady in her thirties came to us from the sea to show them to us. Her father made them. His studio was in a town of Queretaro, somewhere north of Mexico City and not far short of San Miguel de Allende, an art community I’d heard of. Her father moved there from Italy, Liguria, where she said she lived. (Cinque Terre? I asked and she said no.) We examined the amulets and she priced them, averaging 300 pesos each. We said we’d think it over. We didn’t have that much money on us at the beach anyway. As we packed up for the day and went to our room we talked about our favorite amulets and decided to go back and get two, one each for our teenage grandkids, Clara and Tess. We went back down to the beach and met the lady’s father, Rudi, the artist. We chose a butterfly and a tree of life, disagreeing between us at the time which one we would give which kid. Each amulet came in a dainty net bag tied with a ribbon and included a small certificate of authenticity.
Never know what treasures you may find by chance and what they might mean on vacation.
If doing the same thing again and again expecting a different result is insane then perhaps doing the same thing over and over expecting the same result is exactly sane. That’s how I feel about Ixtapa. Maybe I feel I owe something to this place for helping me get through some winters when I didn’t realize just how stressed out I was until I’d been there a week to thaw out. The weather is always hot and it hardly ever rains. Sometimes cloudy, usually not. Predictably red sunsets across the sea. Very good food almost everywhere you go the more you like shrimp or mahi mahi. Or something Italian.
Roxanne says if she were to open a restaurant in Ixtapa she would serve Mexican food. It appears the Krystal plans to show her up by turning the main floor space that was a bar and lounge into a restaurant serving Mexican recipes from eight different regions of the country. They plan to call it Paseo por Mexico, Restaurante de Especialidades. When we were there the bar was closed due to covid because it was an enclosed space — the Christine thing. It’s enclosed by glass — windows and doors facing the hotel lobby on the inside and the Jardin on the outside. Sort of soundproof against the bar entertainment from carrying up the open court atrium to the upper floors. The use of the space for a special restaurant will go well and I can’t wait to try the menu next year. The indoor bar, when it reopens will relocate behind the fancy wooden doors to the back room behind the atrium, where the sales office used to be located and currently the hotel medic conducts covid tests for those of us who have to pass one to go back to one’s home country.
Before going home I brought 500 pesos down the beach past the Bayview to see Rafael. I made an appointment with him on a walk the day before. He recommended 11:00, when the wind would get strong. He welcomed me with abrazo when I showed up. They weren’t quite set up yet. He had to send a guy into the water to get the tow line from the speedboat just past the breakers. The parachute lay on the sand like clothes washed up on the beach. I was obviously the first ride of the day. I was a little disappointed the chute he was using that day was not the one crowned with panels of primary colors and the words TE AMO BEBE. A guy closer to my age and older than Rafael unfurled the purple chute from the ride harness and letting the cords and cables stretch out with the breeze. He did the work of an assistant but his calm expertise bespoke a vested experience in the business. The chute said VOLT, so I asked the man what’s Volt mean, and he said it’s an energy drink — “You’re advertising an energy drink,” he said with a nod and a wink maneuvering the harness so I could step in while Rafael secured my floatation vest and I signed the consent contract. I read the part of the contract that said I was obliged to follow the instructions for landing and I remembered watching a guy riding from about this same spot who refused to follow instructions to land and the boat had to take him around three times while the ground crew yelled and waved flags and the crew boss blew a whistle and still the guy remained in the air. I recognized the guy helping Rafael as the main boss from that day the rider refused to land because he was pissed the guy kept forcing the boat to keep him in the air for another circle approaching the beach and the boss saw me standing there watching this and showed me the contract and said he was going to charge him for the extra rides even if he had to go to his hotel. This was the owner of the concession now outfitting me, buckling me in.
Rafael very patiently went over the procedure. The idea is to relax in the harness and enjoy the ride. Hang on to the straps but no need to grip it or go white knuckles. Enjoy the view. “Remember you’re not getting off at the Krystal. Watch for the Fontan, then the Bayview. I’ll have the whistle and the red flag. When you see me wave the red flag, you reach back with your hands to take the strap with the red ribbon annd pull it down to your chest, right over your heart. When you see me drop the flag, let go.
“Now walk to the ocean…”
One, two three steps and I was in the air. Not just gradually elevated above the surf but soaring high above everything. The shimmering sea below, the bay blue as the sky, breakers like white curls, people so tiny in slow motion. Higher than the rooftops of the hotels and condos the view skims the valley behind the residences beyond the plaza and the mountains terraced and folded green and wild to the horizon. In the bay the blunt domed rock islands gleam white from bird poop. The ocean horizon seems no closer but further away. The haciendas and villas built among the rocks along the sea like stacked hideouts. The boats in the slips at the marina neat and trim and idle. The way back hovers over the massage cabanas and I waved down to the masajistas who are all unaware I’m sure. Same to the beach inhabitants and the palapas at the Krystal and anybody else who might be looking. You can’t see their faces from that high. Nobody waves back. After the Krystal there’s the Amara, the Emporio … the Fontan stands out as the most populated beach and even tough it is only six stories, its balconies are painted bright blue and stand out like those travel photos of Santorini. Next the Bayview residence condos, the best looking architecture in Ixtapa, a twelve story wedding cake of archways, balconies and wrought iron. I spotted Rafael with the flag and heard the whistle, reached up above my left shoulder and took hold of the strap with the red ribbon, pulled it down to hold against my chest. For a second I hovered above the beach, I heard the whistle and Rafael dropped the flag and I let go of the strap and then slowly descended straight down. Rafael and a younger guy sort of caught me as my feet touched the sand. Wow.
“Nice job,” said Rafael as the young guy unbuckled me. Good teacher, I said.
When I bid somebody like Rafael good bye until next year it’s personal and I really mean it. These people have affected my life with a kind of unconditional love I only know as Ixtapa Zihuatanejo’s graciousness. I have come to their town a depressed, stressed-out mess and gone home to my real life much much less. Over the years and through time I’ve connected the people and this place to my life like I went to second grade here, as if here I return to review and renew my life and check myself for inhumane tendencies. Examine my conscience. I go into exile to meditate. No it is not exactly a mendicant retreat, I know that, but adjusted for inflation and given my pagan heathenism and middle class Americano white privilege and factoring my relatively bumpkin IQ there’s an awareness of a universality of inspiration to humbly hang out and watch the surf and contemplate how lucky I am to have a place like this to go to in my life which is always nice, simpatico, where I am nobody and respected anyway, and where I can practice life skills in appreciation of the dynamics of a culture of kindness among themselves as to strangers.
Roxanne and I are not celebrities and do not socialize among whoever pass for big shots along the Azueta coast. In all honesty, none of them have approached us or invited us to spend time with them or dine. It’s a lot like home. The people we’ve made friends with who are locals tend to be among the servants and members of the hospitality workforce. People we come in contact with every day we exchange words with and know by name. Conversations extend over years. Facebook unifies in this way. Emails link us. Some of us. I’m not on Facebook, and even so Roxanne is and we didn’t realize Jesus Calderon was retired until he wasn’t there — it would be nice to say good bye. Maybe next year we’ll look him up. They say his wife runs a taco shop a block up the hill from the foot bridge at the street across the boulevard from the Bodega Aurrera.
Hasta proximo ano, we say on checkout day. It’s all contingent on the world not ending, for any of us. The lost year of ZOZO gave us all a scare, but can safely say it’s 2022 now and we’re still standing and the accoutrements of life we have relied upon to gratify us and spring us onward on this mortal coil will await us into the foreseeable future. That’s the catch, the foreseeable, but if I might repeat myself, if doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is insane, then doing the same and expecting the same result must be sane. We will return next year anticipating el mismo, the same good weather, good food, good service, good graciousness and good music as there ever was. It’s safe to say it’s safe. Foreseeably.
This year two new restaurants started up on the plaza in Ixtapa. One is the Buona Sera created by the refugees from Old Man Toscano’s old staff. Another is called Casa de Abuela located deeper into the old plaza near the old hotel, where the famous chef Lalo moved House of Lalo after moving out of that seemingly cursed location up the grand staircase above the farmacia and convenience store that used to be the Lobster House, next to the disco. Casa de Abuelo serves home cooked meals. Out of Lalo’s old kitchen at the hotel they serve about a dozen tables in the open air under umbrella’s and a string of bulbs at an edge of the inner plaza. Hosted by Nemo trying to attract diners to the new place, which is run by Dany, formerly of the Blue Shrimp and father of Dany Boy, the youngest restaurateur in town, whose place Dany Boy’s was the new one two years ago and still somehow survives at the old space of Mama Norma’s. I look forward to dining again at Grandma’s house because I sense they want to be known for good meals. What bugs Roxanne about them is that one string of light bulbs doesn’t cut it for her to see her dinner after sundown, so I would implore Dany and Nemo to rig up at least one more string of bulbs for next year. They also serve lunch and breakfast. Their dinner menu lists its version of shrimp, mushrooms, cheese gravy sauce with butter and sour cream flambee for the chef inventor, Lalo’s Shrimp.
Lalo was a good guy. He deserves memorial.
Zihuatanejo has statues of bronze along its pedestrian promenades, mostly figures of women representing the culture, history or industries of the state of Guerrero. They remind me of the statue of Molly Malone in Dublin, very tasteful. One statue of public art however stands out as one of the most intimidating figures a town can offer, and it is placed facing the public pier where everyone arriving sees it. The figure is Jose Azueta, hero of the Battle of Veracruz, where he lost his life in 1914. He was a Tactical Lieutenant of Artillery in the Mexican Navy at the age of 19 when, in the middle of the Mexican Revolution, the United States attacked and occupied the seaport naval base at Veracruz to attempt to force a regime change in the Mexican government. Azueta manned a machine gun and faced the advancing American troops. Wounded in the battle, he died nineteen days later of his wounds. The official name of the city is Zihuatanejo de Jose Azueta. His image appears on the city coat of arms. The pier is connected to the Mexican navy base, so it is totally appropriate to place the statue in its vicinity.
The image and his pose stare straight down the center of the pier greeting everyone arriving by boat, a man in uniform with wild eyes and a mouth captured shouting, his left arm in the air in rallying motion and his right cranking a machine gun with a full belt of bullets mounted on a tripod and aimed down the center of the pier. Right between your eyes.
It sets the wrong tone opposite the true hospitality expressed by the citizens. The statue embodies wrath for indignities suffered from an America exploiting its economy in the era of Woodrow Wilson. Mexican patriotism today expresses scant resentment for past misdeeds. Its future emulates the USA in pursuit of the same life and liberty and happiness and recognition for its self worth as a sovereign nation and relevant culture of its own and an economy sustaining and supporting its emergent middle class.
The future of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is the future of Mexico. The young adults now who were schoolkids not long ago are coming of age. It remains to be seen whether they will write off their old hometown as Nowhere, En Ninguna Parte, and go away to bigger cities for education, work, cosmopolitan opportunities. The community would suffer if the best and brightest kept emigrating, unless bright migrants from elsewhere moved in. In the age of the remote satellite work station there is no excuse for tech savvy Mexicans to forego this place to live and work. Nothing prevents it from developing its own art scene and entertainment venue. Seeing the dozens of dancers and performers in the hotel stage shows tells me there’s young talent. What’s more, the community will need doctors and other professionals. Mechanics. Retailers, wholesalers and tradespersons, architects and bus drivers. Teachers. Not just waiters and servants. Not just carnival workers.
They do not need crime or cartels — as neither does Minneapolis, Minnesota. (It’s unfair to superimpose ideals on another’s town you can’t live up to at home.) It’s up to the generation coming of age to determine the course of civility in civilization. The next generation could account for great reductions in violence, just as it could advance environmental sustenance and social justice. In a generation there could be choices made to put cartels out of business. From what I experience of the young ones of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo it will be worth it to keep going down there every winter to visit with their parents.