I dig my toes into the sand and my fork into a supremely fresh shrimp cocktail, thinking about all the soul-stirring Latin music I’ve heard since coming to Zihuatanejo (Zee-wah-tah-NAE-ho). Music is everywhere here, all qualities, all kinds, including romantic bolero ballads, traditional flamenco and rhythmic salsa, DJ hip-hop and pop, blues and gringo-pleasing American fare like “Sweet Caroline.” (“So good, so good, so good.”)
Nicknamed “Zihua,” this once-sleepy fishing town northwest of Acapulco has held tight to its authentic roots as it grows into a lively city of artisan shops and galleries, sophisticated eateries, five-star hotels and bountiful live entertainment. Musicians come from across the country: Mexico City, Morelia, Guadalajara, Guanajuato. International musicians, too, have heard the word and joined the fun.
“This is a music town,” says Roberto Martínez Sellari, the emotive singer and bass player in Solo Tres. “You can always find a place to play here. Opportunities abound.”
So, on a good night, do tips, which can boost a musician’s meager wages. But for many musicians, the rewards here are artistic, not monetary. “If I see another musician playing better than I do, I will learn how he does it,” says Jose Luis Cobo, who owns the popular restaurant/bar El Canto de las Sirenas (the Song of the Sirens) and plays his expert guitar there, often jamming with top Latin performers late into the night. “We learn from each other. We share.”
Music is all about connection for Jossy Gallegos, a popular diva whose crystalline soprano nails every note. She works the music scenes in both Zihua and nearby Ixtapa, a government-developed high-rise resort town about four miles away. Her pitch-perfect, octave-jumping voice makes grown men cry, whether she’s singing clasica trova, a style of Cuban popular music from the 19th century, or putting a lovely Latin spin on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Gallegos says she wants her music “to make people love, feel, cry, remember, think, laugh, dance with it.”
Not all Zihua music is onstage. Mariachi bands and strolling balladeers in long-sleeved shirts, pants and classic sombreros wander beaches and wait for a glance and a nod to start a serenade. Most expect 100 pesos (about $5) a song. It’s a tough living — hot, hard work — and their numbers are sadly diminishing, says longtime American expat Robert Whitehead, a.k.a. Zihua Rob. “They are either simply getting old, dying and not being replaced, or they’re being displaced by restaurants that hire musicians, often from other places,” says Whitehead, who runs the informative website zihuatanejo.net, keeping his online community up to date on the latest local events and news, including coronavirus information.
Covid has hit the town hard. Even the wildly popular Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival held each March was canceled this year. “We’re just starting to recover,” says weaver Martin Hipolito Cruz, who works a rug loom at downtown’s Cielo Zapoteco, a shop of fine handmade linens and natural-dye wool rugs. He had to close it for six months. “This place was a ghost town,” he says, waving at the street outside.
Zihua, with a population of more than 125,000, has the Sierra Madre mountains at its back and the Pacific Ocean to its front, with beaches celebrated for their gentle surf, sweeping yellow-white sand and laid-back vibes. It’s so idyllic, Stephen King sent his escaped convict Andy Dufresne here in the novella that became the evergreen film “The Shawshank Redemption.” (The famous final scene was actually filmed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.)
But beach life is just one slice of this fascinating town, where the day can start with a breakfast of huevos rancheros served with live flute and sax music at La Terracita and end with a pulsing night of cumbia and salsa at downtown’s popular Bandido’s restaurant.
Mornings, before the heat hits, I head up and over the steep hill that separates my hotel on Playa la Ropa, a long, strollable stretch of sand regularly rated one of Mexico’s finest beaches, from downtown. After an elegant breakfast at Espuma mid-hill, I descend to the waterfront, where I run into Solo Tres guitar virtuoso Miguel Ángel Quimiro leading students through basic chord progressions. Asked what he charges for lessons, he gives a sweet smile and a shrug. “For free — or pay. It doesn’t matter. I just want to teach people to pick up a guitar and not a gun.”
I walk over the brightly painted bridge onto the newly expanded waterfront walkway, the Paseo del Pescador (Fisherman’s Walkway), where minstrels — some off-key, some on — serenade in restaurants. I’m hit with the briny funk of catches brought in that morning by the fishermen’s pangas that line the central beach. Zihua may be growing exponentially — locals point to the residential development creeping up its steep foothills — but fishing is still very much part of life here.
“The essence of this town always remains the same: It’s a place of fishermen, a place where we all know each other — and a place with amazing food,” says fourth-generation jewelry maker Carlos Alberto Ballesteros Vázquez, manager at Joyería Alberto’s.
Friendly shop owners along the waterfront and the narrow cobblestone streets behind it are happy to chat about their beloved city, which advertises itself as the Ciudad de Todos, the City of All. Here, everyone is welcome, say locals, who take great pride in the cleanliness of their city, its safety (federal and local police patrol regularly) and the merging of people who gather here from around the globe: locals, Mexican tourists, gringo expats and tourists from Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere.
“There’s a good interaction,” says Mariana Sanchez Zoletto, owner of the fine-clothing store Metztli. “The people who come here want the real experience of Mexico.”
Keeping it real is a shared goal. “We don’t want another Ixtapa here,” says Zihuatanejo native and painter Magdaleno Flores, genial owner of El Jumil, an artisan shop of Oaxacan pottery, fantastical figurines, boats he hand-paints and Indigenous masks that cover walls. Nearby, I find the Suazo Art Gallery, where popular Zihua painter Celerino Suazo’s moving portraits capture the dignity and cultural heritage of his country’s people.
Several blocks away, I stumble onto the Cultura Tropical boutique, where I meet Zayury Jiménez, one of the new-generation Zihua creatives who have studied elsewhere and returned to add new twists to old family traditions. In her case, the tradition is mezcal production. In a predominantly male field, Jiménez and partners have opened the company Mano y Corazon and introduced handcrafted mezcals with sophisticated taste profiles of floral, anise and cinnamon; vanilla, citrus fruits and banana; chocolate, banana and wood.
After a day of wandering — with a stop at the sprawling Mercado de Artesanías to check out Mexican craftworks — I grab a cab and head back to Playa la Ropa and the innovative Tritón restaurant in time for a bright-orange sunset, a perfectly made margarita, exquisitely prepared food and the romantic voice of Juan Rubén Antúnez, a.k.a. Juanito Zihua.
It’s the sweetest of sunset hours: dining on a photo-worthy beet carpaccio with blue cheese, sprouts and mango, and listening to Antúnez’s lovely voice float atop a waterfall of guitar notes as waves splash steps away. “Bésame, bésame mucho,” he sings on request. “Kiss me, kiss me much.”
It’s almost time to pack up and head home. I know where I must spend my last hours: back at El Pirata for Sunday afternoon salsa dancing to the masterful Latin music of the Zihuana Band. The region has some excellent dancers, and many show off their moves here, hips rolling with ball-bearing ease across the floor.
The star of the dance floor is Renaissance man Bernardo López Muñoz. Most days, he’s on the beach selling his family’s sought-after Oaxacan cheese. On parade days, he’s the handsome rodeo acrobat doing a headstand on horseback. Here, he’s the Fred Astaire swirling partners with commanding footwork, firm hands and sinewy arms. “Dancing is my passion,” Muñoz says.
He gives private lessons, “but here is free,” he says, waving around El Pirata, his eyes searching out a new partner. He finds her, takes her in his arms and moves her sideways, step-step, around, over, back and forth as the band layers perfect harmonies atop the intoxicating beat. When the music shivers to its end, Muñoz bends his partner and dips her almost to the floor.
It’s the perfect Zihua finale.
Carretera Escenica S/N, Playa la Ropa
Five-star luxury beachfront resort with multiple pools, on-site spa, tennis courts, beachside palapas and tropical gardens. Good restaurant and bar (try the mezcalita, a mezcal margarita) with live entertainment. Rates, depending on room and season, from about $300 per night.
A modestly priced, well-kept hotel steps from Playa la Ropa. Small pool and gardens, some rooms with kitchens, terraces with hammocks. Some rooms have ocean views. Rates from about $60 per night.
Eva Sámano de López Mateos S/N, Playa la Madera
Handsome boutique hotel above Playa la Madera. Close to downtown action and restaurant-and-music-packed Adelita Street. Haute cuisine restaurant, terrace bar, pool, beach loungers. Some rooms with kitchens. Rates, depending on season and room, from about $150 per night.
Carretera Escénica-Playa la Ropa, Lote 100 B, La Madera
Everyone has a favorite breakfast spot, and mine is this elegant, affordable hilltop restaurant with a sweeping view of the city and bay. The presentation is beautiful, and the food delicious. (Try the divine French toast.) Open daily 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Breakfast from about $4. Lunch, dinner and lodging also available.
Calle 1 LTE 91A, Playa la Ropa
Innovative restaurant with beautifully prepared dishes such as sesame-encrusted seared, fresh tuna and thinly sliced beet carpaccio. Open Wednesday to Monday 1 to 9 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Entrees from about $4.
Popular downtown restaurant with made-to-taste salsa prepared tableside. Super cheesy chile rellenos and tasty cocktails. Live entertainment with a spacious dance floor. Monday, Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Wednesday 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Dinner entrees from about $7.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.