Published On: Mon, Jan 8th, 2018

A Slice of Undiscovered Mexico


Many people we talk to have never heard of Zihuatanejo. At least, they think they haven’t.

However, in iconic movie The Shawshank Redemption, Zihuatanejo is the idyllic beach where Red finally meets up with Andy working on his boat in the movie’s final scene.

Zihautanejo, or Zihua (zee-wah) as the locals call it, is situated on the Mexican Riviera midway between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Throughout the years, this unpretentious and charming destination—with its protected picturesque bay ringed by lush verdant mountains—has somehow managed to keep its small-town fishing village feel.

A visit to this somewhat remote destination is unforgettable.

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Charming Beach Resorts

We divided our 8-day stay in Zihautanejo between two incredible beachfront resorts, each with its own distinctive flavor and charm.

Aura Del Mar is a 30-room cozy and authentic Mexican beauty located on Playa Madera. The boutique hotel exudes flavors of Old Mexico in its colorfully-tiled lobby and guestrooms, easily making us feel as if were drinking in a taste of real Zihuatanejo.

Bougainvillea and other exotic flowers line private pathways to the pool and beach areas. Tropical intimacy, hospitality and true charm resonate here—especially when chilling in one of the hotel’s relaxing hammocks while being serenaded by native birds and caressed with soft ocean breezes.

Though Embarc Zihautanejo (just up the hillside from Aura) is a larger resort, there’s no denying it is magical. Located on Playa la Ropa and one of the very best beaches in Zihua, the thatch-roofed Embarc is tiered into the landscape. Breathtaking views of the bay abound from everywhere on property, including cascading infinity pools that overlook the ocean.

Villas at the resort are attractive and roomy, and ours included a mini-kitchen, living room, outdoor shower and large balcony with a cooling plunge pool.

Incredible Snorkeling Spots

Getting to know the locals is so important. It was for us when an elderly gentleman walking along the beach near our resort told us about Playa las Gatas (Cat Beach), named for the whiskered sharks that once inhabited the area.

Water taxis from the mainland service the beach, but we decided the adventure of a hike was worth it. Following the rocky footpath that hugged the shoreline, we were treated to unparalleled views of Zihautanejo with the tall, green Sierra Madres as our backdrop.

Bordered by a long row of hewn rocks that create a natural breakwater, its protected areas with coral reef formations provided excellent snorkeling. Sparkling turquoise waters were filled with swirling schools of multicolored fish, much to our delight.

Delectable Local Seafood

Strolling past several colorful beachfront restaurants on Playa las Gatas, we found Otilias, which was highly recommended by our local confidante. Its friendly, engaging owner promptly set us up with our own palapa, beach chairs and cold, refreshing libations. We were even invited to the back of the restaurant to shower off the sand and salt water before sitting down to lunch.

Otilias chef proudly prepared and presented a tray of fresh-caught, tantalizing lobster, shrimp and local seafood at a fraction of the U.S. mainland cost. Coronas were even thrown in for free.

With stunning sunset views, dinner at La Terracita was one magnificent experience. The name translates to The Terrace and is just that. Perched precariously on a hill with stunning panoramic ocean views, La Terracita features fish brought in daily by local fishermen and was sensationally prepared.

As darkness settled over Zihautanejo, the lights of the city sparkled magically in the distance, and a starry sky was served up for dessert.

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Exploring a Wildlife Preserve

Once again by local suggestion, we headed by chartered boat down the coast to Barra de Potosi—a lush, tropical beachfront paradise resembling Gilligan’s Island, bordering the wildlife preserve, El Refugio.

Barra is a small beachside village nestled at the southern end of Playa Larga with 9.5 miles of pristine, unspoiled shoreline lined with rows of palm trees and dotted with small thatch-roofed seafood restaurants.

Once ashore, we boarded a small dinghy for a private tour of the bird and wildlife sanctuary located within a 4.5 mile saltwater lagoon. Dense mangroves and emerald green waters here are home to thousands of birds of varied species along with iguanas, native fish and other sea life. The aura of peaceful tranquility was serenely seductive.

The preserve isn’t well-known to visitors and, as a result, we ended up being the only boat traversing the waters. Views were spectacular as the wildlife seemed almost immune to our presence.

Horseback Riding on the Beach

After visiting the preserve, we did the thing we’ve always wanted to do in Mexico—horseback riding on the beach of a tropical paradise.

Accompanied by the backdrop of a lush coconut plantation and palapa-thatched roofs, our guide paired our small group of four riders with well-mannered steeds. Even those with no riding experience found the one-hour trip to be amazing.

To our utter surprise at the end of the ride, the quiet beach we were on exploded into a frenzy of action. Flocks of pelicans, gulls, terns and frigate birds began to circle just outside the surf line. The dark aquamarine water suddenly appeared agitated. From an azure blue sky, birds from everywhere plummeted like missiles, plunging madly into the water.

Coming virtually out of nowhere, locals including children sprinted for the water with nets in hand. The white crashing surf flashed silver as thousands of fish were tossed into the air. Bulging nets full of fish were pulled ashore.

The villagers were ecstatic—and we were speechless.

Turtle Releases

While strolling the beach one evening, we happened upon a group of college students participating in an international volunteer program to rescue and release endangered sea turtles.

Programs like this are set up in many coastal Mexican towns so unhatched eggs aren’t taken by the shorebirds. The eggs are carefully removed from the sand and then placed in incubators until they hatch. The young hatchlings are nurtured in holding tanks until they gain enough strength to be released at the water’s edge. This increases survival against predators and natural elements.

Because this nest had been undiscovered, the eggs were already hatching and the young turtles were at immediate risk. Volunteers quickly hand-carried the miniscule turtles to the water’s edge. Children and adults alike cheered with excitement as each turtle was safely carried away by the surf. For us, it was an opportunity to be remembered.

READ MORE: Mexico’s Bold New Message for the World

Historic Fishing Village

One of Mexico’s treasures is the centuries-old historic fishing village of Zihuatanejo. Its abundant blessings from the sea put this oceanfront destination on the map. Today, fishing continues to be the lifeblood for many families here.

The heart of Zihua is the waterfront walkway Paseo del Pescador (Fisherman’s Path) also known as the Malecon. The tree-lined pedestrian walkway meanders along the municipal beach between the archeological museum and fishing pier.

Playa Principal beside the municipal pier turns into a lively market as soon as the sun rises. Fishermen who’d been out all night return to port, their boats loaded with snapper, tuna, wahoo, mahi-mahi and more.

El Centro is the main part of downtown with old-fashioned narrow streets made of paving-stones. Small groups of wandering mariachi bands can be found strolling through quaint local restaurants serenading customers with age-old Mexican ballads. And artisan markets sell everything from huaraches to hammocks and blankets.

An unknown author once said that “Paradise is not a place but a state of mind.”

While this may be true, it’s impossible to call Zihautanejo anything other than a piece of unspoiled paradise with many treasures yet to be discovered.


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