Como Acapulco no hay dos. “There’s nothing like Acapulco,” the local saying goes. Or, to translate literally, there is only one.
For decades, this was true. Today, there are not one, not even two, but three vastly different Acapulcos, all wrapped around two sheltering bays on the Pacific coast of south-central Mexico. The First Acapulco is the one beside the famous bay Frank Sinatra sang about in “Come Fly With Me,” which is actually called Santa Lucía, but never mind that. This is the Acapulco of legend, the protected harbor planted firmly on the trade map by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in the 16th century, then rediscovered in the 1930’s by Mexico City’s elite, who traveled for a week on torturous roads to reach an untainted stretch of coast with lush forests, secret lagoons, and mythical beaches. Hollywood royalty soon followed, arriving on splendid yachts, along with a handful of Europeans escaping the Nazis. Together, they transformed a humble fishing village of 6,000 souls into a bolt-hole for the international jet set, a louche and enchanted destination populated by a raffish crew of playa pioneers.
The Second Acapulco, which came to be known as the Golden Zone, arose decades later, after the Costera Miguel Alemán extended around the bay, connecting the fashionable fishing village with the lush gated community of Las Brisas and, down the coast, the lesser-known bay of Puerto Marqués. Starting in 1955, with the inauguration of international flights, local and foreign holidaymakers descended upon the airport, then sauntered off to bathe in the warm blue waters of the Golden Zone’s palapa-strewn strip and marvel at the cloudless skies. The eighties’ commencement of a modern highway to the capital enhanced the coastal city’s appeal, and before long, Acapulco Gold was on the Spring Breaker’s hot list, with its towering tourist hotels and neon-lit clubs and restaurants, among them the local institutions Acapulco Charlie’s and Baby’O, the top dance club for a generation. They’re what most Americans think of now—if they think about Acapulco at all.
But in an all-too-familiar trajectory, the town’s spectacular success in the fifties and sixties—when the Rat Pack, John Wayne, the Kennedys, and young stars like George Hamilton were regulars—attracted the heaving crowds of the seventies and, inevitably, the overbuilding in the eighties. A severe recession stopped development cold, and Acapulco went into a kind of shocked paralysis in the nineties. What remained of the international set decamped for “newer” places such as Cabo San Lucas and St. Bart’s. The Mexican Riviera town’s future looked bleak—although that unintentional pause did keep today’s Acapulco (population about 780,000) from being further Cancún-ized into a completely generic resort.
But never mind that. What matters is what’s happening now in the city that encircles Santa Lucía and Puerto Marqués. What matters is the Third Acapulco.