Saturday, April 1, 2006

Zihuatanejo 2006


Gerry's cell phone went off at exactly 12:01 AM on March 3rd. I had just drifted into heavy REM sleep. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my brain I was congratulating myself on getting the first decent nights rest ever before a trip. As the phone played through yet another round of perky ring tones I found myself stumbling across the pitch black bedroom seeking my electronic tormentor. I frantically pushed buttons and across the screen flashed Gerry's newly installed calendar, "VACATION STARTS NOW!". Thanks honey...I sure needed reminding.

We had decided to return, for a third consecutive visit, to Zihuatanejo, Mexico.This small Pacific coastal town is situated approximately 100 miles north of Acapulco in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. The three of us never repeat a trip but Zih is a saucy, sleepy eyed seductress who makes certain from the moment you arrive you are completely taken in.

Voluptuous hills flow down to caress the smooth, aqua skin of Zihuatanejo Bay. A heady, irresistible combination of color, scent and sound work by day to overcome any resistance while hot, steamy Zih nights weaken knees and ones resolve. All winter long Zih sends a persistant call Northward like a lover who won't take no for an answer.
And so, we were back.

Re-entry into Zih

Arrival and the Art of Social Kissing...

Again, we stayed at the eight unit, Bungalows Ley, located on Playa Madera. Returning for a third year in a row, it felt a little like coming back to your old Aunt Mary's dated but endearing beach cottage. It is clean, comfortable and roomy but lacking anything remotely close to resort ambiance. Over the last twelve months the owner, Gladys Gomez, had installed new air conditioners, redid the palms on the beach palapas and there was evidence of some fresh paint on the exterior but all in all it was (thankfully) the same. We stay in the Club Madera Suite # 1, a two bedroom condo with a kitchen and private bath for each bedroom. The real draw is not the rooms but the view. From the vantage point of our spacious tiled deck you can see the entire Zihuatanejo bay, Playa Madera activity, and as evening approaches, the spectacular nightly sunset show over Almacen hill.

We settled in, and after a heated debate as to whether Cindy was allowed to hang up all her clothes before the traditional "First Cervesa in Zih" we took off for downtown. We headed directly to Calle Cinco de Mayo home of Bandidos Restaurante and Bar (Jared's maps of Zihuatanejo). We walked through the door and were greeted by a rush of hugs and enthusiastic greetings. Cliche as it sounds, we truly feel like family here. I love this place and year after year they make it easy to want to come back. The three of us were giddy with the attention and felt very 'celebrity". But as is the case when I begin to swagger and prance I am always destined to embarrass myself. Marcos, the suave, handsome owner came gliding over to say hello.

After hearty greetings to both Gerry and Daniel he turned to me and in true Mexican fashion leaned in to give me a traditional kiss on the cheek. US culture cues being deeply ingrained in me, I instinctively turned my head anticipating a 'hug'. Based on Marcos' bewildered expression I'm sure he was wondering if this was some kind of odd Americano variation on the traditional social kiss - offering a head full of hair and an ear lobe rather than a cheek. Blushing mightily, I grimaced hello and pretended to examine something on the front of my dress. After a wine or three I managed to recover from my social gaff, enjoying a night of salsa dancing and perfect attentive service from our waiters Enrique and Miquel.

Boys will be .. Brats

First things first...

The next day we had breakfast at our favorite place to begin a Zih morning, Salvador's Restaurant. It is an unassuming cafe located by the canal bridge on Adellita. It features outside seating, bargain prices and a parade of some of the most genetically interesting Gatos in town. This years posse of cats seemed to indicate a strong Siamese influence had entered the mix. I am guessing that some Americano Seal Point had gone "Tom Jones" with the local feline population. On this, our first morning in Zih, we sat at our favorite table under the mango tree. Gerry ordered the first of many chilequille breakfasts , Daniel had his customary bacon con huevos and I had a rather generic meal of scrambled eggs and toast. It wasn't that Salvador doesn't offer more intriguing choices but I had vowed this year to 'ease' into the local cuisine. I have a love/hate relationship with Mexican food. I love it - it hates me. After a big meal of chile laced sauces my digestive system stands up and screams Aye Carumba! No, this was going to be the year that didn't happen. I had brought along fresh Acidophilis in my luggage and was going to be carefully monitoring everything I ate. I for saw myself as the grand inquisitor of waiters concerning the picante rating. In fact as the vacation progressed I would sniff, nibble and poke at every meal as if it were laced with cyanide. My regimen was to eat bland, albeit boring, food and spare everyone in my party the daily recitation of my 'gut' update. Breakfast was served. As Gerry and Daniel munched happily away, my plate of scrambled eggs congealed in front of me. I took one more look at Gerry's chilequiles, grabbed his plate and dove in.

Next we took our requisite shopping trip to the Mexicana Commercial and filled the cart with fresh tortillas, cheese, juice and wine. I had my annual Zih tantrum because the guys won't STAT WITH THE CART. As this is a gigantic supermercado, ala Walmart, I spent the majority of my time self-righteously stomping from aisle to aisle looking for two oblivious Americanos. I finally found them stationed at outposts on the opposite end of the store. They were both proudly clutching their treasures, Hot and Spicy Trail Mix and Ritz Crackers, which they insisted were integral elements to the success of our vacation. I couldn't wait to repeat this game of hide-and-go-seek later in our trip at "The Labyrinth" - the maze of shops making up the Mercado . I planned to bring a leash.

What to do.. What to do..

Eat, Drink...Repeat

Besides the day to day ritual of sunning, swimming and buying trinkets you neither want or need, Zih gives you many opportunities to eat well. Despite my 'gut wars' I eventually let my defenses down, put away the Acidophilis, and looked forward to our evening dinner forays. This year we visited many old favorites and tried new ones too.

Casa Vieja: Gerry discovered the "PORK" this year . If you are into huge slabs of dripping meat this is the dish for you. To me it looked like they presented a whole side of porcine. Other dishes are more traditional and dining takes place on a delightful outdoor patio. Located on Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez No. 7 - Madera neighborhood.

Margaritas: Next to Coconuts. Good breakfast, lunch and dinners for a reasonable price. Unless you are a carb fanatic leave the pasta alone. Mexican pasta is big on noodles, skimpy on sauce.

Sanka Grill: Usually has Guatemalan music in the evening.. consistent, moderately priced food. El centro Zih

Tamales Any: Breakfast... lunch... dinner... you cant go wrong. Good first-timer place for a Pozole virgin. On Calle Ejido.

Punta Arenas: A little off the beaten path (over the footbridge down by the marina and take a right) This restaurant is great! We were served and clucked over by a sweet older woman that we assumed is the owner. Dining took place on a charming quaintly decorated patio. Good prices - authentic Mexican dishes.

Bandidos: In addition to this being an amazing drinking and dancing venue it serves darned fine Mexican food. Ask your server what is good that night. If you are lucky it will be Enrique. This guy makes sure you are well taken care of...from tequila recommendations to dance lessons.

Salvadores: Cutest little sidewalk cafe on Adellita (Madera area). The prices are always more than fair. Two for one specials on drinks and cheap cervesa.

Zorros: A small sports bar in downtown Zih run by a gregarious American. Around the corner from the Hertz rental office. Don know about the food but the cervesa is cold and the owner is a cool guy.

Caprichos: Fine dining in a romantic courtyard. Prices were a bit higher this year and the portions a little smaller but we still love the menu and bar selections. For a 'chi chi' start to your evening, enjoy a glass of fine wine in the elegant street side lounge. On Cinco De Mayo next to the Church.

Ok.. I. Am. A. Slug.

Dog Day in Barra...

This year we planned to spend half of our time in the small village of Troncones. Located about a 45 minute drive north of Zihuatanejo, it serves as the winter home to many gringos and is known for long empty beaches and surfing. We rented a car as we wanted to have the freedom and means to explore. The day before we left Zih, we drove our newly rented (and embarrassingly flamboyant) PT Cruiser a few miles south to the beach side village of Barra de Potosi. Besides being the location of fashion designer Betsy Johnson's garish Betsyville B & B, it has an exotic meandering lagoon that could easily have been the on-location site of "The African Queen".

The waterway is habitat for a multitude of birds and fringed by a thick mangrove jungle. If we visit again we will probably rent kayaks and explore this vast estuary. However, this time our energy was sapped by the combination of an oppressively hot day and the persistant 'memory' of yet another late night of Salsa.

So from the quiet, shaded shelter of "Sylvia's Enramada" and supplied with a bucket of glacially cold cervesas we spent the day gazing wistfully at drifting, turquoise fishing boats and diving pelicans. We ate plate after plate of delicious pescadillos and searing shrimp diablo while contemplating the miracle of lime in a Pacifico.

Finally the heat, food and cervesas took their toll and I wandered off to enjoy a mid-afternoon siesta in one of the multitude of hammocks conveniently placed within stumbling distance of any given table

Saying Goodbye to Dad

Troncones: Long boards, Surf Talk
and Saying Goodbye...

The next day the three of us sardined ourselves and our mountain of gear into what I now privately referred to as the 'Clown Car', aka the PT Cruiser, and drove north from Zihuatanejo to Troncones. Gerry and I bickered heatedly and non-stop the entire trip about everything from navigation to watching for topes. Our sparring eventually ignited Gerry's Irish temper and culminated in him bringing the "C-Car" to a screeching halt in the middle of the highway. (not recommended) Daniel gently reminded us, while nervously scanning the stretch of highway behind us, that Troncones was very easy to find and that we had nothing to worry about. His soothing manner, as always, defused our escalating bad humor and off we went. By the time we hit the bumpy dirt road in Troncones Gerry and I were cooing and groping across the seats like young lovers.

We had booked our stay again at the wonderful Inn at Manzanillo Bay. Some new people were on staff this year including a very pleasant American assistant named Randall. He insisted on helping us haul luggage, boogie boards, coolers and at least 18 sacks of groceries to our bungalows. (Note: there are no kitchens in the bungalows - but I like to have a "few" snacks and beer and wine on hand) I was more than a little embarrassed about our undisciplined packing but Randall, though obviously struggling with our enormous pile of junk, was simply too polite to comment on it. We quickly got settled and nosed around the compound. A large group of older male surfers from Laguna Beach had rented the bulk of the rooms and a forest of long boards were oh so casually leaning up against every wall. Gerry, who has to settle for body boarding, was looking forward to some 'surf talk' with the California crowd.

While he tried to think of an excuse to join the cool gaggle of OC cast look-a likes Daniel sat smoking and engrossed in his book so I took off for a walk around Troncones Point. January of this year my father died. He and my mother were passionate fans of Mexico and for many years had wintered on the Baja. I had taken a portion of his cremated remains with me with the idea I would leave part of him in Mexico. As IÂ wandered along this stretch of beach, past the naked sunbather and the straggling line of riders on horses I eventually came across an isolated section of shoreline studded with huge boulders and crashing waves. A turquoise colored tide pool was adjacent to it and vivid blue fish swam and darted between the rocks. It was peaceful , beautiful and tears stung my eyes as I realized this was exactly the right spot. The next afternoon, Gerry, Daniel and I returned silently back to this place with a bottle of champagne and Dad. Incoming sneaker waves and unsteady footing made for a little comic relief in this somber moment but eventually I was able to reach a place on the edge of the rocks. I tearfully (and quickly) said goodbye and with glasses held high we all watched as the little cloud of white dissipated into the crashing waves. I will always think of my father when I return to Troncones Point and am happy in knowing he will forever be near a place I dearly love.

Lets go north!

Reality check and Troncones A Go Go

Our days in Troncones and Manzanillo Bay were filled with great body boarding (In front of Hacienda Eden is the best and safest spot) and exploring some of the local area. My surfer-wannabe husband had been campaigning to visit Saladita, a much ballyhooed surfer's mecca. One afternoon we set out in the C-car and after a few false turns eventually found the long dirt road to Saladita. For a half hour we dodged deep ruts and rocks the size of melons. Finally we came upon a small development of a few homes and some unappealing enramadas. We settled on Jaquelines and ordered a round of cervesa. There seemed to be a large contingent of surfers hanging about all in various stages of ill health. This place reminded me of a visit to Chetumal, a city on the border of Mexico and Belize - Americans walking around coughing..heads hung.. yellow skinned with Hep A or worse. As I scanned the beach I could see it was covered in beer bottle shards, plastic bottles and a lone ripped sun umbrella. The only redeeming quality of this depressing place was the surf. About a quarter mile from shore were huge perfect waves dotted with surfers. After convincing Gerry he risked certain death if he attempted these monsters we finished our drinks and headed back to Troncones.

The night life in Troncones is pretty limited except for the weekend shows put on at some of the area restaurants. On Saturday nights Mi Casa Su Casa has young college aged folkloric dancers from Zihuatanejo whose dinner show provides a very ambitious overview of Mexican history. The dances and skits cover everything from Mayans to early 20th century Mexican folk dance. We made reservations and arrived anticipating an exciting night. The troupe didn't disappoint. These kids were very accomplished dancers and they didn't leave anything out - sacrificial virgins, cockfighting, fire dancing, the works! I remarked to Gerry that this show would last about 10 minutes in the US before they were shut down not to mention the indignant letters of PC outrage pouring in to the daily paper. We kept an open mind though, even when Daniel was dragged up on stage to be an unwitting participant in a cockfighting exhibit and Gerry was encouraged to wriggle on the floor and try to bite some woman's hem.

By the end of the show we all realized that the roosters were just for looks and the sacrificial virgins would live to dance another day. We all applauded wildly. The next day, Sunday, we had been instructed to 'not miss' the show at Burro Barracho, another beach side Troncones restaurant. Although we had been told the local kids performed, apparently this evening was a departure from schedule. It began as yet another folkloric show with adult dancers. But then they put their own 'twist' on the evening entertainment as in between demonstrations of handkerchief dances and skits a DJ played modern pop music. The night we were there the place was packed and so was the dance floor. It degenerated into a pretty wild affair and by the time we left conga lines were snaking merrily through the tables and the margaritas were flowing.

Hidden Zih and Beyond

Some "Don't Miss" Stuff...

A new spot worth visiting in Troncones is Present Moment Retreat, a Yoga and Meditation center located near town on the beach side of the road. Now before you get worried I've gone 'woo woo' on you, let me explain the draw. First of all the buildings and grounds are fabulous. Everything is newly constructed and blends in with the ocean front location. A half moon of upscale palapas ring a naturally landscaped pool. A large outdoor yoga platform sits adjacent to the beach and serves as the outdoor venue for yoga classes and other events like the nightly drum circle. (I KNOW, I KNOW.. stay with me now) The big draw though is a really great bar/restaurant that is elevated right above the sand and a stones throw from the water. They serve fine wines (!!) and nicely prepared cali/mex dishes. On their website they call it Spa cuisine..I would say it is MUCH better than anything I have had at any spa. And I would also add that it certainly isn't the vegan-whole grain (chew chew chew) menu you would expect to find at your average yoga retreat. Heck, they even have a full bar with a bartender.

So after getting in touch with their inner 'chi' the yoga crowd would stroll over to the bar and down a few mojitos to help things along.. only in Mexico, kids. The prices aren't what you have come to expect in Mexico but the ambiance is great. We returned there several times and watched a whole series of great sunsets while enjoying super chilean chardonnays and yummy before dinner munchies.

Another place that I am just "sold on" for food in Troncones is Inn at Manzanillo Bay.. I became addicted to the Papaya/Banana smoothies and Daniel wouldn't dream of starting his day without the 'Surfers Special'. - a homemade waffle and bacon combo. I didn't actually see any surfers order this but I'm sure they would if they weren't up and at the waves so darned early. Gerry was all over the place in terms of the menu but by the time we left he definitely qualified as a star member of the 'Clean Your Plate Club'.

Finally, the romantic atmosphere of the Inn always puts the perfect finishing touch on a wonderful stay in the Zih/Troncones area. If you get a chance rent one of their beach side palapas (#1 or #8). The helpful but unobtrusive staff and the beautiful grounds make this a wonderful place to rejuvenate your relationship or get to know one another better. (Yes, we have booked for next year.)

Random Memories of Zih...

* Crowds of excited locals milling around the impromptu "Raw Bar" on the end of Playa La Ropa . Fisherman doing a fire sale business dishing up heaping plates of raw mussels, oysters and other shellfish accompanied by chile sauce and limes.

*The resident dog at the beach side Rossy's Restaurant whose sneaky lounge chair territorial antics are infamous - and scary. Daniel's yearly 'dog whisperer" counseling sessions with said dog.

* Watching two college aged gringos comb the beach at Las Gatas for their lost silver ring. Me knowing instinctively where it was and walking 100 feet down the sand directly to it. Happy, appreciative and flabbergasted young men.

*Searching out and finding the hidden 'pirate cemetery' in the overgrown empty lot at the end of Calle Adellita... the delicious feeling of being frightened in the middle of the day.

*The odd night spent listening to our upstairs neighbors engage in a loud spanking game accompanied by occasional shouts in an unknown foreign language.

*Giggling shop girls at the local fabric store trying to figure out what I meant by a 'hook and eye".

*The uncanny resemblance of Bandido's sweetest employee, Carlos, to Bobby Darin

And Troncones and Beyond...

* Sitting with Juan the low key beach vendor who seems to enjoy talking about his family and life as much as trying to sell you something.

* The mystery of the $4.00 USD beers at the Tropic of Cancer Full Moon Party.. was it something we said?

* Amazing towel folding skills of Dindia, the ever cheerful housekeeper at Inn at Manzanillo Bay.. and her sincere and earnest goodbye when we packed to go.