When you mention Mexico’s beaches, many think of the Caribbean — Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum. But one option you may not have heard of is in the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo area in the state of Guerrero.
Ixtapa, a planned tourist community created in 1968 by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism, offers all the glitz and glamor you’d expect from a place like Cancún: luxury hotels and villas, international chains and, of course, beaches.
Only five kilometers away is Zihuatanejo, a much quieter fishing village that’s oriented toward tourists but perfect for those wanting sleepier beach getaways. So close to each other, they’re often referred to as one place: Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.
Interested? Here’s a quick guide to fun in the sun in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo.
La Ropa Beach, Zihuatanejo
Think silky, spotless sands — not a crushed cup or can in sight. The gentle murmur of waves lapping on the shore and the green tropical hills surrounding Zihuatanejo Bay’s crystalline waters, announce that you are at La Ropa.
La Ropa’s 1.5 kilometers of swim-friendly beach are so pristine, it recently received the international Blue Flag designation for being clean and environmentally friendly.
It’s surrounded by a selection of beachside restaurants serving seafood and local dishes, including a wealth of fresh fish taco offerings. These restaurants also offer chaise lounges and beach umbrellas for relaxing or tanning in the refreshing ocean breezes.
My personal favorite among these eateries, El Manglar, sits nestled a few yards back from the beach in a mangrove lagoon. To get to El Manglar, you cross a small suspension bridge from the beach that takes you over the lagoon.
The mangroves here are worth a visit themselves, as they play host to a tribe of iguanas, turtles, birds and at least one colossal crocodile. Often the crocodile is sunning with his mouth open on a small island just inside the fence that separates his domain from the beach.
El Manglar is open on three sides giving diners a full view of the mangrove lagoon and its wildlife. Iguanas, large and small scamper over the branches of the mangrove trees. Turtles pop their head up for air as they swim along or laze on the small lagoon beach. Herons perch majestically on branches of the mangroves.
Walk the beach enjoying the sun, have an ocean-side massage, hop on a jet ski, paddleboard, or enjoy another of the watersport activities. At one end of the beach, a large outcropping of rock provides an excellent spot for snorkelers.
La Madera beach, Zihuatanejo
While La Ropa is my favorite and arguably one of Mexico’s best beaches — Condé Nast Traveler magazine once picked it as Mexico’s best — there are others in this area that deserve mention, like Zihuatanejo’s La Madera.
With darker sand and slightly rougher waters — it sits directly opposite the bay’s opening to the ocean — the beach is generally wider, ideal for Frisbee, molkky, or bocce ball games. Several inexpensive palapas line the beach.
A highlight: during the tourist season, the beachside restaurant Maderas serves an excellent, formal-style sunset dinner on linen tablecloths. The view here as the sun sets and the waves roll in makes for a perfect romantic dinner.
Playa Principal, Zihuatanejo
Follow Zihuatanejo’s boardwalk, known as the malecón, toward town from La Madera beach to arrive at Playa Principal. Before you hit the sand, you might check out the several shops and restaurants bordering this tree-lined path on the way. Stop at the artists’ plaza to view paintings by local creatives. The Costa Grande Archeological Museum also features artifacts from local digs.
Though pollution from fishing boats and a drainage canal that empties nearby makes this beach not recommended for swimming, it’s got a great view of Zihuatanejo bay. I love to sit and sip a mango margarita as I people-watch or watch the fishing boats going and coming.
Las Gatas beach
Across the bay, accessible by foot along a rocky path from La Ropa or by sea taxi, is Las Gatas, a favorite with families with small children or non-swimmers for its shallow waters protected from the waves by a rock-and-coral enclosure said to have been made by a king in pre-Hispanic times to protect his wives from the cat sharks that used to inhabit the area.
The waters in the enclosure, while shallow and clear, are scattered with rocks, some with sea urchins, so be careful not to step on them.
Playa El Palmar, Ixtapa
This is Ixatapa’s main beach, lined with resort hotels and condominiums. It’s a great beach to walk and experience the sand on your toes but generally dangerous for all except the most experienced swimmers due to its rough waters and strong undertow.
For a better Ixtapa beach experience, take a short water taxi ride to Ixtapa Island. There you’ll find clear, calm waters. A two-minute walk to the other side of the island has a coral reef teeming with fish — great for snorkeling!
Barra de Potosí, Petatlán
About a half-hour drive from Zihautanejo, you’ll find the small village of Barra de Potosí, home of a famous lagoon ringed with mangrove trees and a great place for a day trip. It hosts a variety of tropical aquatic birds, crabs, fish and some crocodiles. The diverse ecosystem of this shallow lagoon beckons bird watchers, kayakers and others who just want to relax near one of the many peaceful sand islands.
Horseback riding on Playa Larga beach, kayak rentals or just taking a long leisurely stroll to watch the pelicans and hawks swoop down to the water for a snack are activities you’ll find in this tourist-oriented but quiet village. During the whales’ winter migration season, you can charter a small boat to go in search of these magnificent animals.
After a long walk on the beach, head back toward the lagoon and one of the many nearby palapas for a cold beer or guacamole. All the palapas serve a variety of tasty seafood or Mexican dishes.
My personal favorite is fish served a la talla — a whole fish, often red snapper, that is barbecued with a special sauce. Usually served with salad, rice, beans, tortillas and more sauce, one order with beers will generally serve two people and cost about US $20.
Getting to Barra de Potosi can be half the fun. From Zihuatanejo, you can get there by picking up a bus to Petatlán at the depot in the center of town and ask to be let off at Los Achotes. The cost of this leg of the trip is pretty cheap and takes about 40 minutes.
Once in Los Achotes, pickup trucks converted to carry passengers to the beach on benches in the pickup section will jostle you through jungle-like roads bordering mango and avocado orchards as you careen towards Barra de Potosi. Hold on to your hat, or it’ll fly off!
From where the truck stops take only a short walk to the beach for a day of fun in the sun!
Robert Knight arrived in Mexico 25 years ago to teach English at the ITESM campus in Irapuato, Guanajuato. He has since owned a language school and is now retired, living as a freelance travel writer in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero.