Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo are legendary Gold Coast destinations for cruising and fishing.
While 16th-Century pirates hid in Zihuatanejo Bay waiting to ambush Spain’s passing Manila galleons, they fell in love with the bay’s legendary identity: Cihuateotl, Place of the Goddess Women, daughters of the unconquered Tarascan emperor Calzontzin.
Drake, Anson, Cavendish and other pirates spread tales of the goddess women, attracting European colonists who built haciendas and coconut plantations here. After World War II, several boatloads of adventurers dropped anchor in this remote jungle enclave, seeking Mexico’s fabled beauties. It’s no surprise the population swelled and sits at 70,000 today.
This spring, so many recreational boaters arrived here that the 18th annual Zihua SailFest raised more than $100,000 for the region’s needy schoolchildren. This summer Zihuatanejo is building a big new cruise-ship pier to attract even more tourists to this twin destination now marketed as Ixtapa Zihuatanejo. Locals call it “Zehua” (zee-waa).
Lay of the Land
Mexico’s Gold Coast is a treasure trove of enticing destinations. About 200 nautical miles down the coast from Barra Navidad is a 10-mile long tropical cruising ground. Isla Ixtapa day park and prominent Punta Ixtapa and its pretty Barefoot Isle are visible from the northwest. They shield the lighted jetty entrance to Marina Ixtapa and its two sheltered basins. A mile of blazingly white beach is backed by glassy 15-story hotels, then another couple of miles of cliffs and coves. Three jungle-clad headlands separate to reveal the small enclosed bay of Zihuatanejo, ringed by beaches and a picturesque traditional fishing town. Sprinkled among all this splendor are numerous lesser islands, breaking reefs and tranquil fishing holes. And the goddess women.
What’s For Boaters?
Despite the contrasting personalities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, only six miles apart, both locales offer much to attract and satisfy hundreds of nautical visitors. For boaters, November through June is high season, not summer storm season.
Marina Ixtapa is one of the largest boating facilities in Mexico and Central America. Recently expanded and renovated, it provides 621 full-service slips to 160 feet LOA, located in two adjacent interior yacht basins. This is a very popular region for tropical sportfishing and billfish tournaments.
In the center of the larger East Basin, a 90-foot-long Pemex fuel dock is busy daily from 6 a.m. to dusk. At the north end of the narrow West Basin is a small boatyard with a concrete floor but limited dry storage room. However, it has a 100-ton sling lift, which is important to keep in mind for an emergency; it’s the only haulout between Puerto Vallarta (330 miles up the coast) and Acapulco (120 miles down the coast).
Along the West Basin’s southeast side is the marina office, a mini-mart, a dive shop, a travel agency, car rentals, boutique stores, several restaurants, a fl oating dinghy dock and the landmark lighthouse tower. It is similar in design to Marina Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta, which was built at about the same time. Taxis and golf carts with drivers usually line up below the lighthouse. A few crocodiles live in the marina and in the water channels that landscape the adjacent 18-hole golf course. It’s no joke, so use caution to keep pets safe.
Fancy dining, dancing and live-music nightclubs that boogie until sunrise are located a short walk away, in the hotel zone that begins 500 feet past the lighthouse tower.
Zihuatanejo Bay, less than 1 square mile, is fairly small for such an important cruising destination this far south on the Gold Coast. But its narrow dogleg approach between tall headlands helps shield the bay’s two main anchoring areas from southwest swell, which can occur even during the winter cruising months.
Head northeast to enter Zihuatanejo Bay. Straight ahead is Playa La Ropa, the larger, quieter anchorage area (10 to 33 feet of water over sand). Its half-mile beach fronts a dozen cantinas that welcome yatistas. Or, upon entering the bay, turn left instead and pass Punta Morro to explore the bay’s smaller and more tightly packed north end. Hard to port is the 300-foot-long navy seawall, often borrowed temporarily by locals when the warship is not in port. Next is a busy T-shaped excursion-boat dock. Note that this dock occasionally also sells small quantities of diesel if there is extra in the barrels. Marina Ixtapa is the more reliable source of marine fuel.
Dozens of pangas moor around the town’s big Municipal Pier, which is presently being enlarged for cruise-ship passenger craft. The pier expansion is slated for completion this summer. The port captain’s office (VHF Channel 16) and navy (VHF Channel 22) offi ce are at the head of this pier. West of the pier a low pedestrian bridge spans a narrow channel into a small-boat lagoon, which is fun to explore by dinghy.
Playa Principal, immediately east of the pier, is downtown’s handiest anchorage (10 to 30 feet deep over sand). Dinghy operators should aim for the beach near the landmark Meeting Tree. Behind the tree is a pleasant city park with shaded benches and the best walking access to Paseo de los Pescadores. Downtown is a mix of eateries, mini-marts and craft shops.
Anchorage is possible also off Playa La Madera (20 to 28 feet deep over dark sand and mud) just east of Playa Principal, but caution is mandatory due to reefs at both ends that emerge at low tide. A quarter mile of rocky shoreline at the base of Cerro La Madera divides this marginal beach from the north end of the commodious Playa La Ropa.
Feisty sailfish that weigh up to 175 pounds are abundant year round within five to 15 miles of shore, thanks to two submarine canyons that pump cold-water nutrients up from 1,000 fathoms. Yet only during spring, particularly March, do ample black and blue marlin migrate through here at the same time. According to a U.S. sportfishing magazine that studied this region, these marlin catches average 275 to 400 pounds, and some spectacular specimens boated have reached the 1,000-pound mark. Offshore waters yield yellowfin tuna to 300 pounds, also during spring.
Bronze statues of the legendary goddess women may be found submerged in several snorkeling spots inside and just outside Zihuatanejo Bay, thanks to civic leaders. Goddesses are a popular artistic theme for local sculptors, painters and jewelers. Fine silver jewelry is a big deal here, thanks nearby Taxco’s silver mines and jewelry studios.