Everyone has heard of Acapulco, the glossy beach resort that was the haunt of stars like Sinatra, Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor in the mid-20th century.
Backed by the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur, Acapulco has three tourist areas: Las Playas in the north, where the city first took shape, the high-rise Golden Zone on the arc of the bay, and the newer Punta Diamante, now emerging as a luxury escape.
One thing to mention about Acapulco is that its crown has slipped since the 90s.
That is all down to a cartel war, and while the violence rarely affects tourists it’s a serious deterrent.
But with luxury developments sprouting in secluded Punta Diamante, and a new tunnel easing notorious traffic congestion, Acapulco is hoping to regain some of its 20th-century sparkle.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Acapulco:
1. Fort of San Diego
Acapulco’s top historical monument is its star fort, first erected in 1617 to ward off pirate attacks.
At the time it was the strongest fortification on Mexico’s Pacific coast and was built to protect the Manila galleons, a fleet that sailed the Pacific trade route between Acapulco and Spanish-controlled Manila in the Philippines.
After earthquake damage in the 1770s it was rebuilt in a regular pentagonal shape.
In the following decades the fort saw military action, first during the Mexican War of Independence when it was besieged by insurgents, and then during the French Intervention in Mexico in the 1860s.
Available tour: Acapulco Walking Tour: San Diego Fort and Cliff Divers
2. Acapulco Historical Museum
Since 1986 there has been a museum inside the fort, detailing Acapulco’s past and explaining the fort’s role during important moments over the last 400 years.
Most interesting are the details about the Manila galleons, piracy in the Pacific Ocean, and commerce with Japan and China.
You can view a model of the galleons that crossed the Pacific and some authentic imported artefacts like porcelain vases.
The exhibition goes further back in time to document the pre-Hispanic Mezcala culture, which inhabited parts of the modern state of Guerrero between 700 BC and 650 AD, and is recognised by its highly distinctive geometric stone masks and figurines.
3. La Quebrada Cliff Divers
At La Quebrada, which means “ravine” in Spanish, there’s a narrow inlet walled by vertiginous cliffs where divers have been performing spectacular jumps for crowds since at least 1934. What makes the feat so difficult is the water they dive into: The divers have to wait for a wave to come in to ensure that the water is deep enough and avoid injury.
They’ll climb the cliffs without ropes and leap from ledges at 12 and 24 metres, and there are daily shows at 13:00, 19:30, 20:30 and 21:30. You’ll have to pay a small fee ($2.50 USD) to see the show from a platform, or get a table at La Perla restaurant on a terrace beside the cliff.
Recommended tour: Acapulco: Half-Day City Tour & La Quebrada Cliff Divers
4. Capilla de la Paz
You can arrange a tour to this monument, 400 metres above the eastern entrance to the bay.
The chapel sits on the hill “El Guitarrón”, one of the highest points in the city, and with a supreme view of the beachfront, cityscape and the Sierra Madre del Sur.
The chapel was commissioned at the turn of the 1970s by the developer Carlos Trouyet in memory of his two sons who died in a plane crash in 1967. The chapel holds Trouyet’s tomb, along with those of his wife Milly and sons Jorge and Carlos Jr.
The site also hosts a 40-metre-high cross and a sculpture of two clasped hands, “Las Manos de la Hermandad”, by Claudio Favier.
5. Mural Diego Rivera
One of Mexico’s great 20th-century artists and the on-off husband of Frida Kahlo left his mark on Acapulco when he stayed in the city in 1956. Diego Rivera’s work adorns the exterior walls of the home of Dolores Olmedo, the famous art patron with whom he had a long-term relationship.
The mural is one of Rivera’s final works before he passed away in 1957, and is a three-dimensional mosaic rich with pre-Hispanic symbols.
You can identify Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, lightning and thunder, and a xoloitzcuintle, hairless dog.
The dominant images are the two feathered serpents of Quetzalcóatl facing off on either side of the gate.
6. Punta Diamante
This new, fast-developing part of Acapulco is outside the main bay, on the sand bar in front of the Laguna de Tres Palos to the southeast.
And while Punta Diamante may not have the charm and buzz of Old Acapulco, what it does have is space and convenience.
The airport is moments away, and since 2017 journey times have been slashed by a new tunnel to the traditional prime tourist zone of Dorada around the bay.
Rolling out for several kilometres along the ocean is a continuous sandy beach, which is broad and shallow and has surf that breaks up to 100 metres out, so kids will be safe.
7. Barra Vieja
On the same beachfront as Punta Diamante, Barra Vieja is a few kilometres further along the sand bar.
Barra Vieja is the place to escape Acapulco’s crowds, as both the relatively far flung setting and the size of the beach allow room for everyone.
As with Punta Diamante, the beach is on a gentle gradient so even though the waves are strong there’s a lot of shallow water.
In high season you can choose from dozens of palapas (palm huts) cooking up fish like red snapper caught that same day.
The Tres Vidas Golf Courses is an 18-hole championship course on a slight elevation with invigorating ocean views.
8. Playa Pie de la Cuesta
Northwest of Acapulco the city starts to thin out and after about 10 kilometres of twisting coastal roads you’ll come to Pie de la Cuesta.
Quiet, laid-back and clear of traffic, this village is at the easternmost point of another sand bar between the Pacific and the expansive Laguna de Coyuca.
To relax you don’t need to go further than the beach, which goes on for miles and is very accommodating.
There are palapas behind with restaurants or you could just order a cocktail like a coco loco and watch the boisterous surf.
The ocean is a little too powerful to swim in, but is stunning at sunset, and during the day youngsters can go for horse rides along the shore.
9. Isla la Roqueta
This lush, undeveloped island is just south of Las Playas at the western entrance to Acapulco’s bay.
The main beach is a tranche of golden sand facing back towards Acapulco, fringed by restaurants and lapped by gentle, transparent waters.
You can get there from Playa Caleta, either by boarding a tourist boat or catching a ferry.
And while the tourist boats can make things easier, providing food, a tour of the island’s waters and even a show, you may prefer the freedom of making your own way across by ferry and being able to go where you want.
One of the main sights is the Virgen de los Mares, a submerged image of the Virgin Mary, while there are two reefs Piedra de Elefante and Piedra de Hierbabuena, loaded with vibrant underwater life.
10. Our Lady of Solitude Cathedral
Conceived by the architect Federico Mariscal, Acapulco’s cathedral was built in the 1940s and 50s.
Its predecessor had only been started in the 1900s, but was toppled by an earthquake and subsequent hurricane.
The cathedral’s architecture is unique in Mexico, fusing Art Deco, Moorish and Byzantine styles.
The two towers, crowned with colourful domes clad with mosaics look more like the minarets of a mosque than traditional church towers.
The apses inside are lined with blue and gold tiles, beneath geometric stained glass windows.
Acapulco’s central plaza, at the foot of the cathedral, offers a rare snapshot of local life.
All of the signatures of a Mexican town square are here, from the bandstand (gazebo) and fountain to the clipped Indian laurel trees, shoe shiners and balloon sellers.
Visit on Sunday afternoons when families take their “paseos” and you can catch a concert by Acapulco’s municipal band.
On a normal day you’ll also find street food stands and souvenir stalls, and there are cafes, restaurants and an ice cream shop on the square’s borders.
12. Laguna de Tres Palos
The lagoon behind Punta Diamante and Barra Vieja has become an important ecotourism destination and is probably the best place to glimpse Acapulco’s tropical birdlife.
Guided boat tours are available, conducted by fishermen who work and live on these waters.
They’ll point out the herons and diversity of other waterfowl that nest on the lagoon.
From the boat you’ll see mangroves and giant lilies with exquisite flowers, and countless fish in the water.
You may also get the chance to try a facial scrub from mud on the lagoon, and sit down in a cabaña to a lunch of grilled seafood and “pescado a la talla”, caught that morning.
Horseback rides are also available on the lagoon’s southern shore.
Recommended tour: Tres Palos Lagoon and Turtle Farm Tour
13. Puerto Marqués
Between Punta Diamante and Acapulco Bay is Puerto Marqués, lying in a smaller bay.
There’s no indication today, but archaeologists have found Mesoamerica’s oldest stone pottery in this bay, dating back 3,500 years.
The beach at Puerto Marqués is frequented by Acapulco’s residents, and is either very hectic or sociable, depending on your point of view.
Puerto Marqués is one of the best places to try real cuisine from Guerrero, though many restaurants have touts who will do all they can to get to you to dine at their establishments.
The bustling beach has a narrow strip of golden sand, and its crystal clear water is possibly the best for swimming in the Acapulco area.
A brief walk up the slope from the beach is the Laguna Negra, well-known as for its crocodiles.
14. Playa la Condesa
One of the defining images of Acapulco is this beach in the Golden Zone, in the arc of the bay and traced by towering hotels and apartment blocks.
Playa la Condesa is a public beach with coarse golden sand.
The surf can be treacherous at times but is most mostly safe.
Being in the beating heart of Acapulco, the beach is always full of life: Vendors trail to and fro along the sand, there’s a multitude of bars and restaurants close by and activities like jetskiing, parasailing, windsurfing and waterskiing are available.
15. Local Food
As hinted earlier pescado a la talla is when you can select your own fish fresh from the ocean (normally red snapper). This will then be filleted, seasoned with salt and chilli and grilled.
Made roughly the same way, pescado al mojo de ajo has a thin garlic sauce.
Ceviche is a well-known Mexican and Caribbean preparation, and in Acapulco it’s small pieces of fish or seafood marinated in lemon and served with herbs, onion, avocado and salsa picante.
To be really authentic try pozole guerrerense, a maize-based broth with chicken or pork, eaten either on Thursdays or Wednesdays and Sundays depending on whether you have the green version (verde) or white (blanco).