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A Drive Down Mexico's Pacific Coast

Fortified with pastry, Brian, Joaquín, and I hit the road again, with me driving south through the state of Jalisco. The scenery looks distinctly northern Californian, with pines and tall evergreens along the high, serpentine road. Closer to sea level, near La Cruz de Loreto, we encounter fields of blue agave, and wetlands leading to Hotelito Desconocido. An environmentalist resort, the entire property is a nature preserve; on a brief tour we see armadillos and bright pink spoonbill herons. The bungalows are named for playing cards in the Mexican picture-bingo game, Lotería. There are suites—some with their own rowboat, for crossing the lagoon and reaching the oceanfront beach—appointed accordingly: El Tambor has decorative drums; in La Sandía, the stones in the shower are painted pink and black like a watermelon.

After a few more hours on the road, we arrive at the posh, palm-covered El Careyes resort—but too late for dinner. The hotel has, however, thoughtfully left box lunches in our rooms.

Driving trips, like the roads they traverse, often throw you curves; after you hit an unseen speed bump, you have to readjust and keep rolling. Today, the best-laid plans steer us directly into detours and delays. We are headed to Manzanillo, where we hope to see Casa Arabia, a cliff-top villa overlooking the Moorish-style resort of Las Hadas (where Dudley Moore ogled Bo Derek in 10). After filling the gas tank, however, we are left peso-less.

We go to Barra de Navidad, a breezy town between the ocean and Laguna de Navidad, with a simple agenda: Find an ATM. We do, only to discover Calle Sinaloa, a pedestrian mall lined with bodegas. My compadres' eyes light up; they've traveled much of Mexico and know good buys when they see them. We discover hand-painted wooden toys—such as the smiling burro trimmed with horsehair that I select—colorful string hammocks, belts with a design that resembles sixties Courrèges. Our shopping trip stretches out over several streets and eventually leadsto San Antonio Church, where Cristo del Ciclón (Christ of the Cyclone) stands guard from the crucifix, arms at his sides. Legend has it that when Hurricane Lily hit in 1971, the statue's arms dropped from the cross, stilling the winds and sparing the town.

No such providence delivers us in a timely fashion to Manzanillo. It takes a couple of hours to reach the town, via a semicircular stretch of road that sweeps past beaches reminiscent of 1920's Malibu. We arrive too late to see Casa Arabia and without any hotel reservations; our next stop is at least 10 hours away. Hotel desk clerks confirm certain disturbing facts: the road to our next stop, Zihuatanejo, is challenging even during the day, and there are few gas stations and fewer hotels ahead.

Seeing Mexico not as typical tourists but as where-the-day-takes-us adventurers, we discover, sometimes means having the very experience we had been trying so hard to avoid. Employing the Bedspread Rule of Travel—everything you need to know about a hotel is reflected in the linens—we hunt down the hotel with the least offensive coverlet and head quickly to bed.

On the map, Manzanillo and Zihuatanejo don't look all that far apart. Natives swear they've done the trip in eight hours. Don't believe them. Skipping breakfast before this trek is not a good idea, either. From Manzanillo, it's 30 miles to Tecomán, the next big town. Thinking we have a lot of ground to cover and that we'll find a spot for breakfast along the way, we stop only for La Michoacana agua frescas, a sweet, fruity drink that locals often sip from plastic bags. Unfortunately, we do not stock up on road food in Tecomán. Crankiness ensues. After battling the sudden onset of allergic sneezing, which causes slight swerving, I am banished from the wheel to the back seat.

Although short on amenities, this 155-mile stretch of Highway 200 is long on views. Running almost entirely beside a shoreline of sparsely populated coves and pounding surf to the west, it is lined with tropical fruit trees. I can see the emerald peaks of Sierra Madre del Sur to the east. It takes hours to reach Zihuatanejo, particularly because we drive past the town and wind up reaching the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo airport a good 36 hours before our scheduled flight home. We pull into a gas station to obtain directions and double back to town. The steep brick road to the Playa Ropa at La Casa Que Canta has one of the most punishing speed bumps yet, but our jangled, road-weary nerves begin to uncoil at El Murmullo (the Murmur), a four-suite oceanfront villa recently opened by the hotel. My garden suite, El Sueño Guajiro (the Impossible Dream), could very well be one of the most stylish casitas in Mexico. The linen top sheet of my bed appears to have the most extraordinary embroidery, but it is actually two extravagantly plumed birds "painted" with evergreen stems and flower petals. I consider napping on the sofa so as not to disturb a single leaf.

No need. Returning from a dinner of gourmet tamales and chicken in an apricot-pine nut mole at the hotel's outdoor dining room, I discover that the birds have flown; the turned-down bedspread is decorated with a heart made of rose petals. I sleep soundly, lulled by the sound and the scent of the ocean outside and the knowledge that there will be only a few more topes on the road to the airport, and my way home.

DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.


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