Thursday, April 1, 2004

Trek Trio

Zihuatanejo 2004

I should never pack a book when I travel to Mexico. No reading takes place. Too many sights, too many sounds and not enough time to take it all in.

And this trip once again my book lay untouched in the suitcase. The book had no chance, Zihua was the kind of Mexico I had always searched for. Like they say, It had me at 'hello" (or "hola" in this case). Zihua charmed and seduced me like no other Mexican city had..I was completely and utterly taken in. But enough of my musings - On to the report.
Our base...

We stayed at Bungalows Ley, Club Madera Suite. My husband and I were on a budget this year so along with our good friend Daniel we rented a two bedroom on Playa Madera with the expectation that we would be "sacrificing". But we found, like others before us, clean, comfortable accommodations with what has to be the largest private terrace on the Playa. The view was magnificent and the staff of Carlos and Elizabeth were always helpful and cheery. We woke every morning to the sound of Elizabeth's beautiful, lilting Spanish in the office below (she has the most unusual, musical quality to her voice) and fell asleep to the sound of crashing, hissing waves. I felt as if I had come home.

An added plus was the happy hour that began every afternoon around 4PM in the terrace above ours at Hotel Brisa del Mar. Great Mexican music drifted down to us and Frederico the bartender, from his perch above, always waved and greeted us like long lost cousins. (and, yes, the music was off by 7 PM every night)

For those of you who want the details, the rooms both have double beds and private baths. There is a couch in one of the bedrooms that could be used as another bed if you have a child or small adult along. A large couch is in the living room that could also be used for sleeping. The kitchen is equipped with tons of storage, plates, pans etc., a dining nook, frig and a stove. (no oven.. but who cares??)

The terrace is the highlight of the suite. It is gigantic and is third from the top in the complex so catches the sea breeze quite nicely. (we never used AC) It comes with lounge chairs, dining table set, hammock and a million dollar view. They have tastefully decorated it with potted plants and a few art objects.

We spent most of our time (when we were home) living on the terrace. Bungalows Ley also has a beach area equipped with a few lounge chairs and palapas. It is close to Brisa del Mar's bar and a bit further away is MJ and Ritchies. We made friends with the bartenders at the Brisa bar and before the trip was over were included on their drink order rounds... (a hint.. we tipped well).

And yes.. I have already made our reservations at Bungalows Ley for next year.
Morning Routines...

Breakfast was usually Casa Cafe run by a gregarious American from Oregon named Pedro. He probably wins the award for the most enthusiastic American in Zihua. He greeted everyone who wandered down the street with a boisterous "WELCOME TO PARADISE!". This energetic guy puts out a decent consistent breakfast menu that is served up by his adult children, wife and friends. Located at the foot of Cerro Madera, we ate there often. We also ate at Brisa's beach side restaurant. (good chilequiles) and Bananas.

Next stop money. ATMs are everywhere. There is a convenient one downtown at the Bancomex on Juarez. Even with the policia and others cutting in line it was still easier than the teller windows. Next time I wont bother with travelers checks. Spent over an hour in line at the bank to cash mine... never again.

Internet. Checking my email was sometimes on the agenda. I didnt check it every day but because of our business we needed to stay in touch at least every other day. A good internet access office is at the end of Nicholas Bravo close to the Artisan's Market. (my husband has the name if you need it) They have terminals available but we were allowed to plug our laptop into their network. Unlike other internet cafes, they are on satelite so the connection was quick and reliable. The charge was about a buck an hour.

Groceries and shopping... We bought supplies at both the Mercado and the big modern Commercial Mexicana. The Mercado is worth experiencing but confusing while the Commercial Mexicana carries groceries, has a pharmacia and other items ( clothes etc.) It is comparable in price to other stores. If you go, take a cab - it isnt near town. We bought souvenir items at both the Artisan Market stalls and private stores. Mario's Leather (Next to Mexicana Airlines on Vincent Guerrero) has very high quality leather goods. He carries purses, belts and other items.

We bought cigars and wine at a number of places including Acuariano on Nicholas Bravo. One day we were lucky enough to buy direct from a master cigar roller from the Veracruz region who had set up a table and was rolling to order. The cigars were so fresh and damp they advised us to wait a day to smoke them. I bought silver bracelets at many different stores. The only advice I would give is to window shop for a day or two before you buy. The first day there I impulsively bought a bracelet and regretted it after seeing the large selection elsewhere.
Afternoon Adventures...

Mexico is the only place I have visited that I allow myself to have cervesas at noon. Somehow it feels ok.. not too decadent and helps set the stage for the next few hours. We would spend lazy afternoons at the beach and tried out quite a few of the playas.

La Ropa.. ok.. it IS pretty (palm trees and nice sand) but it seems very slick and over concious of itself. I had a vaguely uneasy sense the entire afternoon that La Ropa was not Zih. Maybe it was the surly bar help or the hordes of Americanos preening and prancing up and down the beach. To me it was too much hoopla and not enough Mexico. Perhaps Ill give it another try next year.

Las Gatas.. The boat ride over was a true highlight of the trip. We were accompanied by a school of jumping dolphins that were so perfectly beautiful that it made my eyes tear up. Las Gatas beach itself is a long expanse of water side restaurants and baking bodies. Be sure to wander down the sand before choosing where you will 'park' for the afternoon. The cervesa and food pricing is extremely competitive with the better values being found away from the dock area. It is also much more pleasant to be away from 'snorkeling central' located near the pier.

Playa Larga.. We caught a combi downtown across from the Mercado and for about 8 pesos each got a ride south to Playa Larga. You yell to the driver when you want to stop (there is a large sign on the main hwy near the turnoff to Playa Larga) After you get off you will find another combi parked in a turnoff on the road to the beach. He will shuttle you down past old Coconut groves to this stretch of pristine white sand. It is dotted with a few beachside restaurants and has a long shoreline of incredible, wild waves. We decided on the second restaurant to the south of the parking lot. The afternoon was quite wonderful.. great food, attentive service and a terrific keyboard player that inspired us to dance on the sand.

And finally...Playa Madera... This beach seems to be one of great debate on the boards. Yes, it has darker sand and isnt as gorgeous as La Ropa. But the water was pretty and clean (good boogie boarding), the people watching was a constant fascinating parade of activity and we met many wonderful, 'real' people there (both Americanos and Mexican). This beach is smaller than the others and has an intimacy that I think you wont find elsewhere in Zih. The best example of this stemmed from our experience when my husband suffered a boogie boarding accident. While being tossed by an especially wild wave Gerry's head scraped on a rock. He emerged from the ocean bleeding profusely and stumbled up to the palapas.

Within seconds the entire beach flew into action. The bartenders at Brisa came running with ice and limes (eeeek!), the vendors dropped their goods and ran over to offer advice and sympathy, and while I ran to our room to retrieve gauze and neosporin the 'Braid Lady' took over. She cleaned the wound and while I stood sheepishly by, barked orders like a surgeon to his scrub nurse. She ended up spending a great deal of time cleaning, medicating and dressing Gerry's wound. The waiters all stood by anxiously urging him to go to the hospital or a doctor. After she was satisfied with her work the Braid lady gave Gerry firm and specific instructions to stay out of the sun and take it easy, warning that she would be by the next day to check on him. She spent the rest of the afternoon a few palapas over and never took her eyes from him - a watchful and concerned sentinal.The rest of our stay everyone that worked on the beach came by daily to check on Gerry's recovery. It was both touching and inspiring to have such concern shown. Fortunately, Gerry's wound wasn't serious and he was ready to roll within a few hours.

As night falls in Zihuatanejo you can almost hear it sigh in anticipation. The town at night has the potential of a juicy paperback. Harlequin novels couldn't ask for a better setting for it's 'bodice rippers". Steamy.. erotic..the night features a cast of characters who run the gamut from drunken Elk Club types to intriguing, enigmatic souls on barstools sipping expensive tequila.

We would set out each night never knowing what was in store, and always hoping for the unexpected. Now I must admit, I am an adventuresome person and occasionally push my luck in order to tip the scales toward a more 'interesting time'. But even without any help, Zih provides a wealth of opportunities for memorable evenings.
And so... the Nights...

We ate at a different restaurant every night usually beginning with drinks somewhere and moving on to dinner about 8. As has been reported many, many times on this board, food is good here. Everywhere. Consistently good. Guerrero cuisine seems to have the most ubiquitous amount of chile use I have experienced in all my Mexico travels but it is appropriate and delicious. In fact I liked the food so much I am going to attempt Pozole myself this weekend. Restaurant ambiance, however, varied wildly in our dining experiences.

One night we had an excellent meal at Tamales Any but the backhoe and construction was holding forth till almost 8PM on the street. We never did get that street name down instead dubbing it "the Broken Street". Our taxi cab drivers always enjoyed that one.. We dined at Sanka Grill and admired not only our host's fine food but his new Rottweiler puppies. We also tried Porto di Mare (nifty wood oven), Casa Elvira, La Bocana, Los Braceros and many others for both dinner and/or snacks and drinks.

I must make special mention of Coconuts. Yes, we had a very nice dinner in what is a quite magical garden setting. The waiters were attentive and the food exceptional. All told, over a three day period we visited Coconuts three times, twice for drinks and once for dinner in the process spending a large amount of money. I will, unfortunately not be back. Despite warm, efficient staff (especially the bartenders) the American host made us feel oddly unwelcome. Without going into gorey details, on our 4th visit his additude became too much of an issue for us and we left the bar without ordering. Perhaps it was a bad week for him...I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

The evening was salvaged though as we ducked into JJ's next door. Humberto was a perfect host and we enjoyed two bottles of wine, fondue and a number of rousing games of pool in their back room. By the way, JJ's has a GREAT slate table.. and wonderful sound system. We had the room all to ourselves and felt like it was our own private party. As we danced and played pool the kitchen help peeked at us thru the windows. They seemed quite entertained by our exuberance and perhaps because a woman, all 5 feet of me, was struggling to make decent shots on this gigantic table. But we felt extremely welcome and will certainly be back.

After dinner we usually went looking for the 'heart of the night'.. music or what have you. Some of these forays were more successful than others. One night I was determined to try out Zih's Karaoke scene. We went to a couple of 'Canto bars' and found that we were either too early or they simply weren't enjoying the same popularity as those back home. The 'boys'", Gerry and Daniel, finally convinced me I was not going to give my rendition of Patsy Cline to the masses and we moved on.

Baracruda... young... very young crowd. The guys loved it... I didnt. Nuff said. Daniel's... nice bartenders...

Casa Elvira.. had a reallllllly drunk crowd there the night we were there (and for ME to say that .. hmm) but hey.. live and let live.

We also visited Rick's Bar on several occasions. I like his bar. I like it alot. Maybe Im biased because I was invited to sing backups with Josie Kuhn and got a nice response from the crowd on open mic night but I still think it is a hellava bar. Rick makes the strongest Margaritas in town, he is both interesting and friendly and the crowd is diverse as they come. You dance, you sing, you drink.. what more could you ask for?! Yep, We'll be back Rick! (whether you want us or not...)

We spent our last night in Zih at Bandidos. A band played latin music and Gerry and I danced till my arms felt limp. It was one of those kind of nights you wish would never end. The cervesas flowed and the strolling mariachi band played heart wrenching romantic tunes. We talked till almost 3 and only left because the chairs were being stacked around us. Ahhhh... what a night. By the way, was it just the cervesa or does Bandido's owner, Marcos, bear an uncanny resemblance to Johnny Depp? :)

Finally a few whines... observations... and highlights...

Cruise ships.. ack! Go AWAY! One afternoon I smelled a hideous toxic diesel odor. I attributed it to some kind of cleaning solution used by the maids. I looked out on the bay and saw a Celebrity Cruise Liner belching huge clouds of black smoke. Running down to the beach, I thought I could get some cleaner air and found the smell was worse. It took over an hour for the stench to clear and two advil to get rid of the nagging headache it left behind.

Nude Sunbathing... One day on Playa Madera we saw an attractive woman wandering around by Bungalows Allec's palapas sporting a thong bottom. Immediately all beach goers were staring in her direction. But then the show "kicked up a notch" as she let her top drop and casually laid back on her towel. Vendors stopped in their tracks and gawked. All work was forgotten by nearby bartenders. Tourists struggled to quickly adjust telephoto lenses and I found myself anxiously scanning the sand for the next sweep of Policia. As it turned out, she and her husband were from Italy and probably didn't know better. She never did it again although I saw her daily on the beach. Perhaps someone warned her.

ReBar.. This is one of those little recurring topics of discussion we had. Why in this part of Mexico was there a disproportionate amount of uncut rebar sticking out from the roofs? I theorized that it was for earthquake stability but Gerry and Daniel thought maybe the tools weren't available to finish it when construction was taking place. Not a criticism.. just a curiousity.

Naranja Cats.. Orange cats have the definite monopoly down in Zih. They were everywhere. All other varieties were obviously in the minority. I wondered who brought the first orange one down and why his genes took over..apparently a dude with mucho machismo.

Fred and Ginger..One night as we were dining at Porto di Mare, Daniel (our resident dog fanatic) decided to play 'dog whisperer' to these two homeless perros. The restaurant owners weren't happy about these dogs taking filet mignon from Daniel but it was a high point of his trip. No.. I dont understand it either...

Josie Kuhn... What a great talent. If you have a chance to hear her while in Zih make a point to seek her out. Wonderful, soulful singing and heartfelt, sincere song writing.

And last but not least...

Antonio Baeno Librado.. One day on the beach yet another young boy came by my lounge chair selling chiclets. As I squinted up at him ready to shoo him away, something about him made me stop. He was looking with concern at Gerry's forehead gash. In broken Spanish I explained what happened and he nodded solemnly. We began, as best we could, to converse and before the afternoon was thru, chiclets were forgotten as we poured over my spanish translation book. He looked at the pictures and I searched frantically for the phrases that would allow me to understand what he told me about about his life, his mother and his many brothers and sisters.

Over the next few days I found myself looking out toward the walkway to town wondering if he would come wandering down to sell gum today on our beach. I hoped he might come by to help me with my Spanish and brighten my day with his cheery demeanor. On his return visits he always seemed surprised I was so happy to see him as he greeted me with a shy smile and a fresh box of chiclets. On my questioning I found out he was too poor to go to school, which saddened me as he was extremely bright. He was able to quickly pick up the english phrases we taught him and was fascinated with the books we had brought. The day before we left friends of mine explained to him that I would like to have his address to send him photos and presents. My hope was to somehow be able to help him afford school.. He agreed that he would bring back his address the next morning, a Sunday. He never showed up. I was extremely disapointed but assumed he was attending Mass and couldn't make it.

My hope is that next year I will run into my amigo, 'Tonio, and that he will be well and happy. But more importantly I would like a chance to thank him for offering this gringo his friendship and leaving me my most poignant memory of Zih.

2004 photos