These sister cities invite a headlong plunge into the golf of Mexico.

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.)

A new road fr om Acapulco had already stirred the narcoleptic fishing village. Now FONATUR would slap it awake with the newborn Ixtapa ("Place of White Sand") in pursuit of the best of all possible worlds: an international luxury resort, complete with purified water and good towels, just an avocado's throw away from a living, breathing Mexican community.

Building a place from scratch is an intricate task. Swamps were drained, roads laid, utilities strung in. Beachfront lots were parceled out to hotels. Zihuatanejo's toy-size airstrip gave way to a modern jetport. A golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the Campo de Golf Palma Real (also called Campo de Golf Ixtapa), was carved out of the jungle. In 1975, Ixtapa opened to the public.

The funny thing is, this bureaucratic vision has pretty much panned out as planned. Mass tourism, and the homogenization that follows it, remains concentrated in Ixtapa, allowing Zihuatanejo to preserve its quirky originality. (What other Mexican tourist town has a basketball court for a town square?) The two places are fraternal twins, to be sure, like DeVito and Schwarzenegger--different but somehow well matched. For people settled in at the Sheraton or Krystal, it feels good to know that Zee-wa is out there, waiting, even if they make it into town just once or twice. Beyond the generic buffets and fiesta nights at the high-rise hotels, an authentic, low-rise Mexico beckons, a three-to-four-dollar taxi ride away.

Though the area's population has grown to about sixty-five thousand, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo remains along the road less traveled on, and that makes all the difference.With fewer than a million annual visitors, there is no state of tourist siege here. Instead of color-by-numbers service, people actually take care of you. At Beccofino, an Italian restaurant in Ixtapa's marina area, where a second championship golf course opened in 1993, my pasta with seafood came dried out and oversalted. No sooner had I slid my plate to the side than a ponytailed man in jeans and loafers without socks materialized at our table. He insisted upon a substitution, touting the grilled sea bass with fresh rosemary and black butter. The fish was simple and perfect. My savior was Angelo Pavia, the owner and executive chef.

The Sign On The Fourth Fairway At The Campo de Golf Palma Real is small, subtle, aimed more to inform (or amuse?) than alarm: cuidado con los lagartos.

Watch out for the alligators.

The first handicap hole would be challenging enough without reptiles: a 583-yard par five with a dogleg right and a large sand trap protecting the left side of the green. You need to clear a shallow lake, ninety yards from the cup, to have any chance at par--and to avoid getting up close and personal with the toothy inhabitants. The alligators like to sunbathe on a small island in the lake, but they've also been known to crawl ashore. (Most people take a drop within a radius of fifteen feet.) One scaly fellow made it to an adjacent villa's swimming pool.

"They don't eat anybody," Sergio L—pez Garcia, the club pro, reassured me. He stopped his cart to watch an eight-footer floating on the lake; it bore the casual menace of the berg that sank Titanic. "The only time they're dangerous is in the summer months, when they lay their eggs at the base of the palm trees."

Created in the 1970s as part of the original city of Ixtapa, Campo de Golf Palma Real is named for the stands of mature palms that define the holes and offer shade for the players. Designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., the course is traditionally laid out, with broad fairways, short rough and slow, grainy greens.

The course rewards length over precision off the tee. It is also one of the most scenic places to play in North America, a rare parlay of mountain and sea. On the 350-yard fifteenth, a par four, an elevated tee stares straight at the Pacific. To the right are the Sierra Madres; to the left, the mother of all sand traps, the beach.

It's fitting that an area with fraternal twin cities should feature two very different championship courses. The area's younger layout, the Club de Golf Marina Ixtapa, is part of an upscale development that broke earth in the early nineties. A brackish lagoon was opened to the ocean, resulting in a network of saltwater inlets ideal for pleasure craft--and for a modern links course where water comes into play on thirteen holes.

Designed by Robert von Hagge, the course has relatively little vegetation; the palm trees are still young and stunted. But no shortage of hazards awaits, among them the water and the ubiquitous gators. There is also a profusion of gravelly sand traps guarding the greens, and von Hagge's signature moguls lining the fairways, some of them ten or twelve feet high. If your ball stops along the side of one of these humps, you may forget that you ever had a balance point.

At 6,781 yards, the Marina course runs about a hundred yards shorter than the Campo de Golf. Its undulating greens play faster and hold better, and cup placements are fair. "If I hid the pin, they'd shoot ten every hole and take six hours," former pro Oscar Fernandez said of his recreational clientele. Even so, low-handicap players often shoot in the low nineties here, especially on days when they are hitting--or thinking--less than straight.

Take the 609-yard par-fifth eighteenth. Water runs along the entire left side of the fairway, with clusters of humps along the right. The passage between the two hazards can narrow to fifteen yards. Even a long hitter will need three shots to reach the green. The second shot, typically a three-wood, is especially tricky; too bold an approach will find the large sand traps that front the putting surface just as the hole doglegs left. Most players aim to lay up on a plateau to the right, even though that leaves them a long seven-iron to the green, against the sea breeze. Fernandez estimated that perhaps two in twenty players make par on the eighteenth. "When they made six, I'd say, 'You made your par.'"

Despite its difficulties, the Marina course has its partisans. People love Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo for its variety, and golfers are no exception. "It's a good mix," said a Santa Barbara developer in the Marina's clubhouse. "They're two different courses, and it's nice to have them both."

Ixtapa Is Not For Everyone. It Is An Early-To- bed place with a limited palette of action: golf, fishing, water sports and--did I mention golf?After dinner at Beccofino, my wife and I went for a drink at a nightclub at the top of a faux lighthouse. We rode an elevator almost ninety feet to find a bushy-haired fellow lip-synching to Elvis Presley's "The Wonder of You." Two couples swayed on a penny-postcard dance floor. We turned and left, grateful to find the skyful of stars where we'd left them.

Yet everyone we met, all week long, seemed content. They like Ixtapa because it is clean, safe, uncrowded and reasonably priced. The smallness that Cortés's scout found so contemptible is now a clear virtue; there are no traffic jams to speak of, no beach or restaurant more than twenty minutes away. There is no need to rush, no point in trying. At our hotel, USA Today didn't reach the gift shop until it was USA Yesterday. The New York Times was but a rumor. The most pressing issue lay in choosing between a mango margarita and a banana daiquiri.

My one difficulty?Finding a first-time visitor. When you reach Ixtapa, your wanderlust ebbs a bit. The happy regulars will tell you that Cancún and Acapulco are overdeveloped, Puerto Vallarta too polluted, Mazatlán too chilly and overrun by the spring-break crowd. Then they start acting like Oregonians, worried that they've said too much, that their secret will be out. "Oh, it's a terrible place, there's just nothing to do," a Wisconsin man insisted over a cold Superior after a morning round at the Campo de Golf. It was his tenth trip to Ixtapa. "The weather is miserable."

Ah, the weather: 340 days of sunshine a year. Even during the rainy season, showers wait politely till evening. In the winter, when Cancún lays hostage to the next deluge, Ixtapa rolls out one idyllic day after the next: afternoons in the eighties, evenings cool enough for a light jacket.

Typically, the rare sprinkle that had greeted us at the airport was gone by the time our cab climbed the cobbled drive to our hotel. A flat-topped pyramid banked into a hilltop, the Westin Brisas Resort Ixtapa stands above and apart from the town's hotel zone, a two-mile strip of beach opposite a string of dull shopping centers. The Westin is too big for its own good, and its food and drink can taste of the assembly line. That said, this is definitely the place to stay in Ixtapa proper--for its relative seclusion and most of all for the view. Each room looks out over Playa Vista Hermosa, the hotel's own pristine beach, framed by the Sierra Madres. Just after dawn, we'd slide open the glass door to our large, very private terrace, nestle into a lounge chair or hammock and watch the show. We might see flying fish breach the surface; or a formation of seagulls, trolling the shore for breakfast; or a silly flitting bird, some Dr. Seuss refugee with a flat, triangular head and outlandishly long tail. For background music, we had the brute song of the surf as it crashed against a jagged promontory.

The same view is on display at the Westin's lobby bar, packed every evening for happy hour, or from the nearby Villa de la Selva, one of Ixtapa's big-deal restaurants, where the fare wasn't quite worth the price. But we liked the view best in the morning, in seclusion, when we somehow felt close to the wild in the middle of a 423-room chain hotel.

Mornings Are Also The Best Time Inzee-Wa. At a small restaurant downtown, we sat out on a shady lane for a good breakfast: fresh eggs and potatoes, French toast made with orange juice. We lingered to watch the world go by. A lean-muscled housewife hefted a bag of fish in her right hand and cradled her infant in the left. Another balanced a plastic barrel of laundry on her head. Grandmothers strolled past on their way to market. Young girls in plaid uniforms giggled their way to school.

A place of women, indeed. If Cancún is a Latin theme park by Disney, where the only Mexicans one sees are in uniform, then Zihuatanejo is the anti-Cancún.

Around the corner, along the palm-lined Paseo del Pescador, fishermen docked their boats and hauled ashore their catch on Playa Principal, offering their goods right there on the walkway: rockfish, catfish, dorado.

"I've lived in at least a dozen other towns in Mexico, and they weren't bad," reflected Ron Hunt, a native Minnesotan with a handlebar moustache, as he set up his watercolors for sale by the pier. "But they didn't have it all, like Zee-wa. First of all, it's small--there's no big downtown bustle. I find things more on a human scale. And then there are the busloads of people from Ixtapa, with money"--no small factor, Hunt noted, "in my particular endeavor."

Exactly. Zihuatanejo thrives not in pre-Columbian purity but as a place that sells its wares without selling its soul. Yes, there is a typical tourist market on the west edge of town, a numbing warren of stalls jammed with souvenir T-shirts and machine-made pottery. Blame it on NAFTA or the leveling effect of the tourist trade,but the quality of two Mexican street commodities has slid alarmingly over the last twenty years: coffee and crafts work.

We walked six blocks east to the real market, the Mercado Central on Avenue BenitoJuárez. Seafood stalls packed with shrimp, squid and octopus. A chorus line of freshly killed chickens, their necks dangling over a rail. Mounds of fresh blackberries, and papayas and persimmons and a Technicolor riot of chile peppers. And bustling throughout were townspeople haggling with butchers and fishmongers, or sitting down to a counter lunch of freshly baked tortillas and barbeque.

Here was Zee-wa's true pulse, and we didn't have to buy a thing. It was enough to put our finger on it and listen to it beat.

Southeast Of Playa Principal Lies Zihuatanejo's best swimming beach, Playa la Ropa, a crescent of light sand and gentle surf. There we found a cluster of beachfront lodgings and palapa (thatched-roofed) restaurants, among them two of the most fetching and elegant small hotels in the hemisphere: Villa del Sol and La Casa Que Canta. If money is no object, stay at one of the two. (Unless you have young children. La Casa Que Canta allows no guests under sixteen; Villa del Sol draws the line at twelve.)

We had dinner at Villa del Sol on our first night in town. The menu, a sort of nouvelle Mexican, was light and wonderful: fresh corn soup, mildly spiced; the last word on Caesar salads, with each matched leaf of endive set just so; red snapper enchiladas in cilantro sauce. Under the soft illumination of torches, we sat five yards from the sand, perhaps twenty yards from the spotlit surf.

Every so often a great wooden louvered door would swing open behind us for room service, and we'd peek in at the heavy carved furniture and yellow-washed walls inside. It looked impossibly romantic. A few days later, I toured it with Peter Koehler, the hotel's affable general manager. In the morning light, with its colorful quilts and pillows and lavish marble baths, the suite seemed even more inviting. The living room flowed into the beach; in Zee-wa, indoors and out are casual distinctions.

Where Villa del Sol is low-slung, La Casa Que Canta is dramatically vertical, a series of adobe cubes perched on a bayside cliff. There is a saltwater pool at sea level, and above, the famous freshwater infinity pool pictured in When a Man Loves a Woman jutting over the ocean. When you are in it, the whole world seems to be made of water.

Another compensation is the view. At dinner, as we tucked into fabulous tuna sashimi and jumbo shrimp, the lights of Zihuatanejo switched on below and around us, like a smaller, gentler ver sion of Acapulco Bay.

Yet this is not the meal in Zee-wa that I most pine to repeat. That distinction goes to a simpler Playa la Ropa restaurant called La Perla, where parrots guard the entry, and guests are sometimes serenaded by harp and guitar.

To my mind, there is one quintessential Mexican seafood dish: huachinango al mojo de ajo, red snapper with fried garlic. At La Perla it was served whole, as it should be, grilled to a turn on both sides, with a generous extra bowl of chopped garlic--moistened with oil, crisp but not burned. The price: eighty pesos, less than eight dollars.

I would gladly have paid twice as much for such real food in this very real town, a reminder that the best things in life are often nejo after all.

Where to Play

Campo de Golf Palma Real
Phone: 011-52-755-31062.
Fax: 011-52-755-31030. There are no reserved tee times except occasionally in high season.
Contact: Sergio Lopez Garcia.

Club de Golf Marina Ixtapa
Phone: 011-52-755-31410.
Fax: 011-52-755-30825. Call at least one day in advance.
Contact: José D'az.

Where to Stay

Westin Brisas Resort Ixtapa
Phone: 800-937-8461.

Villa del Sol
Phone: 888-389-2645 or 011-52-755-42239.

La Casa Que Canta
Phone: 888-523-5050 or 011-52-755-46529.