Laidback Luxury in Zihuatanejo, Mexico

By Nicola Bridges

Looking out at Zihuatanejo Bay through a frame of bougainvillea from our private pool is like viewing an understated Mexican Monte Carlo.

The steps to Playa La Madera in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, feature one of several angel-wing murals. Photo courtesy of Nicola Bridges.

Luxury boats moored in the bay lazily languish in the moist heat of the day, protected from the Pacific Ocean just visible between two headlands. But unlike the pizzazz and bustle of Monaco, Zihua (as it’s affectionately known) is a laid-back piece of paradise just 120 miles south of Acapulco’s high-energy nightlife and packed beaches.

The mode in Zihua — made famous as the meeting point for Tim Robbins’ and Morgan Freeman’s characters in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” after Robbins’ lead character successfully breaks out of prison and Morgan’s aging jailbird completes his time served — is siesta slow. It’s a place to rewind, relax and leave your energy behind. Yes, there are vibrant restaurants and a few dance venues in town, but at the end of a lazy day and full of a fresh-seafood lunch and drinking fish-bowl-size margaritas at one of the no-frills restaurants on the beach where the waiters pull back the tables on the sand as the tide flows in, we don’t have the energy to move.

I’m here with my husband for a long weekend of relaxation at Casa Quixote, one of a handful of private villas that dot the hillside around the bay, nestled between private homes and hotels that blend unobtrusively into the landscape. We spend our days rolling out of bed from Casa Quixote’s rooftop master suite (one of four suites sleeping up to 11 total) straight into the pool for a sunrise skinny dip. Then we head to the sand of Playa La Madera beach, just steps from the villa’s lower-level back door down a meandering pathway through exotic plants, passing a large iguana camouflaged in the high branches of a fig tree.

Zihua is a friendly and safe place, thought to be named from the Nahuatl (Cihuatlan) meaning for “place of women.” The name refers to the western paradise of the Nahuatl universe said to be home of the “goddess women” who arose from their day each afternoon to lead the sun to provide light to the dimension of the dead at dusk.

Waiters Jorge and Marcelo wave a cheery “Hola! Como esta? How are you?” as we cut through the beach tables at Restaurant Madera (where we’d enjoyed multiple margaritas and practiced our beginner Spanish the night before) to the boardwalk that hugs the entire bay and leads into town. On the way, we eat a breakfast of kings for very few pesos at La Terracita, one of several bayside restaurants and bars with direct boardwalk access: Mexican-style eggs Benedict, refried beans, tortillas, a colorful array of salsas, and fruit bowls of guava, papaya and figs with sweet, strong Mexican coffee. The view and breeze from the bay make us want to stay, but we’re heading to get groceries for our next meal.

The town of Zihuatanejo is a colorful maze of gift shops, street vendors, outdoor restaurants and cafes under palm trees in the sand around its beachfront town square. Waiters beckon us in, but “No gracias” — no thank you,” we’re looking to find the Mercado, a four-block rabbit warren of indoor market stalls selling fresh bread and pastries, meats, cheeses and fish caught that morning. From the pungent smells of the food stands, we wander through tightly packed stalls selling the tourist trinkets and wares that we all take home and wonder why we did: basket-woven pink purses in the shape of pigs, inexpensive leather goods and Mexican mariachi hats threaded with intricate gold designs. Each stall sells a variety of the same, with their sellers begging you to buy theirs.

We buy bread, avocados fresh from the groves, cheese, tomatoes off the vine and wine, then find a sidewalk bar-stand for some refreshing beers – “Dos cervezas, por favor” — and a few hours of people-watching. At the town square a crew is setting up a rickety stage and dance floor for a musical celebration that serenades us at the casa that night. Colorful murals of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, angel wings and butterflies adorn the town — Instagram moments for the many tourists who visit here in peak season, October through May, when the temps are high and the humidity low.

As we make our way back to Casa Quixote, waves crash against the boardwalk and spray a welcome cool spritz. At our beach, Playa La Madera, just a 15-minute stroll from town, we plant our groceries on a table under the waiters’ watchful eyes for a play in the calm, refreshing ocean. Local families and giggling kids play in the water as the day winds down and couples stroll the boardwalk, known as a lovers’ lane, sitting on benches to steal an ocean-view kiss.

Jorge and Marcelo twist our arms to stay for more margaritas and we do until our private pool calls us back to our weekend casa to watch the day disappear slowly over the horizon and a sparkle of bay lights decorate the dark.

Sunset skinny dip, anyone?

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