On the Pacific Coast in the state of Guerrero, Zihuatanejo is a quiet coastal village on a protected bay near the built-up resort of Ixtapa.
The bay burrows deep inland, which leaves Zihuatanejo’s beaches with mostly gentle, aquamarine waters to float and snorkelling in.
The hinterland has the last summits of the Sierra Madre del Sur, and there are Mesoamerican vestiges close by at Xihuacan.
As opposed to Ixtapa’s high-rise self-contained hotel resorts, the accommodation is more boutique in Zihuatanejo, allowing you to see the bay under your own steam and with the help of water taxis from the main pier.
If you know the Shawshank Redemption you’ll recognise Zihuatanejo as the tropical idyll where Red meets Andy Dufresne at the end.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zihuatanejo:
1. Playa la Ropa
At more than 1.5 kilometres, Playa la Ropa is the longest in the Zihuatanejo Bay and has fine light sand on a gentle crescent.
The surf can be lively, but is rarely out of hand, while there’s a low gradient so children will be safe.
The warm water suits swimming and snorkelling and you try body-boarding on the thigh-high rolling waves.
Underwater you can spot a brilliant array of fish, and if you’re just resting on the shore a pelican will catch your eye from time to time.
There’s a multitude of beach bars and restaurants at Playa la Ropa, serving the sun loungers and also renting out water sports equipment.
As with almost every beach in Zihuatanejo Playa la Ropa has spa tents, and massagers roving along the shore offering their skills.
2. Playa las Gatas
In a small nook on the south side of the Zihuatanejo Bay, Playa las Gatas can take a while to reach on foot.
You might be better off catching one of the skiffs from the main pier on the resort’s waterfront, shuttling across the bay five times an hour.
Every inch of this narrow beach is traced by parasols and sun loungers, managed by the 12 beach bars and restaurants amid the palms behind.
Playa las Gatas is oriented towards Zihuatanejo and you can see the resort framed by the last peaks of the Sierra Madre del Sur.
One of the best beaches for swimming or just floating around, Playa las Gatas is lapped by low waves that graduate to small swells attracting a few surfers in summer.
There’s a lighthouse on the promontory at the entrance to the bay, reached by a winding trail.
3. Ixtapa Island
At Playa Linda you can catch a water taxi out to this unpopulated islet (50 pesos for a return). Ixtapa Island has four beaches, each with a different orientation, but all screened from the brunt of the Pacific Ocean.
The pick of the beaches is Playa Cuachalalate, which faces the mainland and has a shallow arc of dark sand, palm sunshades, sun loungers and five beach bars to the rear for fajitas, tacos and an ice cold beer.
Moments away on foot, Playa Coral is in a large cove with a reef that has vibrant underwater life, so remember to bring your snorkelling gear.
More remote, Playa Carey is loved by naturists, while the sandy Playa Varadero is a good alternative to Cuachalalate with the calmest waters of all.
Also known as La Soledad de Maciel, Xihuacan is an archaeological site not far along the coast to the southeast.
This settlement was occupied for more than 3,000 years by three different cultures (Tomiles, Cuitatecos and Tepoztecas), while excavation work only began as recently as 2007. A small museum has been set up on the site offering context about the monuments that have been uncovered so far, and presenting artefacts like steles, ball court hoops, jewellery and the contents of a burial chamber.
At the site there’s a massive ball court, possibly the largest of any Mesoamerican site, the base of a pyramid covering one hectare and a rise with rock carvings and what may be an altar for sacrifices.
With its warm seas and vibrant marine life, it’s no shock that Zihuatanejo is a big-time diving destination.
There are seven dive centres in the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo area.
If you’re new to the activity you couldn’t wish for a better place to make your first open water dive.
You could get your PADA certification in a matter of days, while kids can learn the ropes on a “Bubblemaker” course.
You may already have many hours of dives under your belt, in which case Zihuatanejo is a two-tank diving playground.
Underwater temperatures push 28°C from June to October, and diving in canyons and coral reefs you may see whale sharks, sea horses, manta rays, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and moray eels.
6. Water Sports
If you have a snorkel and flippers you can slip into the rockier parts of Zihuatanejo’s beaches to glimpse an incredible variety of underwater life just metres from the shore.
This equipment can also be rented, and almost every beach on this list also offers an array of gear, from jet-skis to kayaks.
The currents in the bay are light enough that you could embark on a half-day guided kayak tour.
You could combine this with snorkelling, to view the sea urchins and sea cucumbers that make their homes on the sea wall protecting the bay.
7. Paseo del Pescador
This waterfront promenade curls around the bay in Zihuatanejo, beginning at the municipal pier and ending on the east side of Playa Madera.
As you go you’ll happen upon handicraft shops, restaurants and bars, all under the shade of coconut palms.
If you want a real slice of local life show up early in the morning, between 06:00 and 08:00, when fishermen lay out their catches on tarps.
This can be anything from snapper to shrimp, crabs, swordfish or tuna.
Later in the day you could take the weight off at an outdoor cafe table and watch the fish leaping in the bay.
8. Playa el Palmar
No two beaches in Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa area are the same, and Playa el Palmar on the main drag in Ixtapa is the most commercialised of all.
This can have its advantages, especially if you’re in one of the all-inclusive hotels beside it and only need to take a few steps to be on the sand.
Playa el Palmar is more open to the Pacific than the other examples on this list, so children will need to be supervised as the undertow can be sharp.
The upside is that if you can handle yourself in the water you can body surf on the waves, and you may catch sight of a humpback or grey whale from the shore between November and April.
9. Playa Quieta
Away from the tourist drag, Playa Quieta is 15 minutes west of Zihuatanejo, looking out towards Ixtapa Island.
Unlike most of the others on this list, tourist development is so low-impact you may not even know it’s there.
Playa Quieta has little more than a branch of Club Med towards the southern end.
The remainder of the beach is just open sand, with little palm shelters behind where people come for picnics.
You’ll need to bring your own provisions, or make the short walk up to one of the restaurants at the nearby Playa Linda.
10. Costa Grande Archaeological Museum
Right on Paseo del Pescador is a small museum chronicling the pre-Hispanic settlements and cultures on the Costa Grande, which includes a 325-kilometre stretch of coastline but also large tracts of the hinterland.
In six rooms there are pieces from the Mexica, Olmec, Tarascan and Teotihuacan cultures.
Among the fascinating artefacts is a bracelet of copper bells and a decorated conch, which would have been used in ceremonies.
You can also pore over obsidian utensils, clay figurines and ceramic vessels, and find out about the sophisticated trade networks that connected the modern day Costa Grande with the rest of Mesoamerica.
You may not want to pass a whole holiday lazing in the sun, so beginning at Marina Ixtapa is an eight-kilometre bike trail through a nature reserve containing rainforest.
There are a couple of businesses in both Zihuatanejo and Iztapa offering cycling tours on this trail or simply bike rentals if you want to go self-guided.
Take the Ciclopista Ixtapa at an easy pace and you may be overwhelmed by the profusion of natural life that shows up.
You may see roseate spoonbills, iguanas, herons, parrots, cardinals, lake turtles and armadillos, as you coast through ceiba and parota forest where the trees get up to 40 metres high.
Also on the trail are crocodiles, kept safely behind a fence!
12. Whale Watching
November to April there are thousands of humpback and grey whales off Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Mothers make a long migration from Alaska to Mexico to calve in these warmer waters.
After the calves are born the pods stay close to the coast from around January before beginning the long journey north a few months later.
At this time of year you can sight these pods just by standing on the shore at one of the more open beaches like Playa el Palmar, Playa Blanca or Barra de Potosi.
You could also charter a yacht or contact one of the diving companies like Dive Zihuatanejo for a whale watching expedition, when you may get to see one of these creatures breaching close by.
Golfers are well-catered for as there are two 18-hole courses barely ten minutes away in Ixtapa.
Palma Real Golf Course, currently the most popular one, arrived in 1977 when the resort was first developed for tourism.
This par-72 6,898-yard was designed by the famed course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. and is set in a former coconut plantation.
Marina Ixtapa Golf Club is also a par-72 and poses a tricky round, with a network of canals for water hazards and dunes for sand traps.
As you’d guess, the gastronomy in Zihuatanejo is centred on the ocean and there’s a host of tasty specialities to sample.
The hallmark dish might be tiritas de pescado.
These are raw skipjack tuna or mahi-mahi fillets, cut into strips and accompanied with lemon juice, onions and chillies.
Shrimp is abundant in Guerrero, and comes in mojo de ajo (garlic sauce) or in shrimp tacos.
You could also get some red snapper in mojo de ajo or with a Veracruz-style tomato, garlic, pepper and cinnamon sauce.
15. Zihua Sailfest
This annual maritime event began in 2002 and its main aim is to raise money for Zihuatanejo’s most disadvantaged children.
Over the last 16 years it has grow into one of Mexico’s top sailing events.
There’s a week-long programme comprising a dance, gala dinner, chilli cook-off and benefit concert.
On the water, sunset cruises take place all week, and the main event takes place on the Saturday when there’s a flotilla on the Zihua Bay.
Proceeds from the Sailfest have gone towards local schools, building classrooms, kitchens and playgrounds.