It won't take you long to find nature in the raw in Ixtapa. Five minutes out of the airport, your cab will be zipping past donkeys and cattle, orange groves and tamarind trees. Two-thirds of the way in, the four-lane highway peters out into a two-lane cliffside road. To the left, an explosion of white and purple bougainvillea, then a sheer drop. To the right, a road crew bites into rock with steam shovels and jackhammers, chewing their way through the mountain to finish a new highway.
That taxi ride is a fair introduction to Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, twin cities with a split personality. The planned and the natural. The new and the ancient. The efficient and the carelessly beautiful.
Legend has it that this most underrated Mexican resort was christened--and at the same time disparaged--by a scout of Hernán Cortés. In 1522, shortly after conquering the Aztecs, Cortés sent one of his captains, a man named Juan Alvarez Chico, on an expedition to the Pacific coast. Chico found a serene little bay, a haven of white sand and calm water, that the Aztecs knew as Zihuatlán, or "Place of Women," named after the matriarchal society that lived there.
Chico was unimpressed--of what use could such a small harbor be in trade, or war?"Zihuatlanejo," he sneered, tacking on a demeaning Spanish term for "little." The broader-shouldered Acapulco, 150 miles to the southeast, eventually became Spain's sole port of entry on the Pacific. Zihuatanejo, losing a consonant in translation, went back to sleep.
Flash forward about four and a half centuries. In the early 1970s, the federal tourism agency known as FONATUR created two beach resorts on sites selected by computer. The first cyber paradise, the larger one, would rise from a sandbar in the Caribbean. You know it as Cancún.
The second development would gird a wild stretch of Pacific Coast where the Sierra Madre foothills plunged straight into the sea. At the time, Palmar Bay was uninhabited and just about unknown. There were only rocky cliffs, coconut palms, huge cacti, choked mangrove swamps--and, four miles down the coast, Zihuatanejo. By then, a fair number of the community's four to five thousand residents were American expatriates: artists, renegades, aging beatniks and more than a few bail jumpers with stunning tans. (When Tim Robbins makes a new life after his jailbreak in The Shawshank Redemption, it is in "Zee-wa," as the town's Anglo citizens like to call it.)