Courtesy of Thompson Hotels
Photo by Alamy
Playa la Ropa, a curved expanse of white sand heaven, wants you to slow down and relax.
Zihuatanejo—a nearly undiscovered town—has a white sand beach, waterfront fish shacks, cool places to stay, and a laid-back vibe. This Pacific coast paradise is perfect for a quick escape from real life.
Zihuatanejo’s Playa la Ropa (the real-life fantasy beach from The Shawshank Redemption) could not feel further from the bustle of Mexico City, despite being just 40 minutes away by plane. The half-mile swath of Mexican beach running along a protected bay of the Pacific is a million miles away from the mass tourism of Caribbean-coast beaches like Cancun and Tulum. Zihuatanejo (called Zihua – “zee-hwa” – by locals) still feels undiscovered, despite its warm, tranquil waters, no-shoes-required fish shacks, white sand beach, and a sleepy, laid-back attitude.
The town has been on the hipster radar a long time—Andy Warhol, the Rolling Stones, and Jack Kerouac have all visited, and Timothy Leary organized an LSD convention on the beach in the 1960s. But, thankfully, for years the need for a Mexico City layover and mountainous terrain protected Zihua from resort developments and Instagram hashtags that would harsh its chill vibe. Direct flights from six U.S. cities as well as a smattering of new destinations in town like the Thompson Hotel and a cool surf café–art gallery have changed the landscape slightly, without edging out local beachgoers or destroying the area’s authentic flavor. Here’s our guide to making the most of a weekend visit.
Perhaps the best way to get acquainted with town is to head to Playa la Ropa and snag a seat at one of the many beachfront restaurants during happy hour. Kick off your shoes and order a beer or margarita and a whole coconut. When you finish drinking the coconut water, ask your waiter to “sacar la carne,” then go hop in the ocean for a dip. By the time you return, a plateful of coconut meat garnished with lime wedges, local sea salt, and Tajín spice will be waiting. Snack, sip, and watch families casting fishing lines at magic hour, lit by the magnificent sunset.
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For the adventurous visitor, there’s no lack of activities on the largely tranquil waters of the Bahia de Zihuatanejo, like parasailing, jet-skiing, and banana boating, among others. That calm water means you’ll have to travel for waves: Dozens of gorgeous area beaches are better suited for surfing—La Saladita, about 40 minutes north, is home to the annual Mexi Log surf competition and music festival. If it’s wildlife you’re after, El Manglar restaurant provides a view of a mangrove canal that’s excellent for bird- and crocodile-watching (although the food is nothing to write home about).
To get acquainted with the town beyond the beach, head to the Centro to watch the fishermen bringing in their catch to the marina, or go shopping at the Saturday Eco Tianguis, a weekly outdoor organic market. For more local flavor, check out the Mercado Municipal, with its maze-like rows of booths selling piles of tropical fruit, spices, beans, and sundries.
The newest addition to town is the Thompson Hotel, which brings its signature midcentury-modern-meets-local design to the building that was formerly the Viceroy. Most of the newly renovated 56 guest rooms and suites offer direct access to the coconut tree–lined beach or to one of two pools (an adults-only infinity pool and a family pool featuring a swim-up bar). Select suites offer private infinity plunge pools off their outdoor common patios. The hotel’s private swath of beach, smack in the middle of Playa La Ropa, is dotted with palapas that can be reserved by the day, with an attentive waitstaff serving beverages and food from one of the hotel’s two restaurants.
Although the mellow Thompson is hardly a noisy family resort, if you want pure romance, head to the adults-only La Casa Que Canta, considered one of the most romantic hotels in the world. Its secluded location, on the side of a cliff overlooking the ocean, may mean a hike down to the beach, but the sunset view from the infinity pool (as seen in the 1994 film When a Man Loves a Woman) can’t be beat. The property’s 25 spacious guest rooms (11 of which have private plunge pools) are full of local touches like adobe brick, palapas, and handcrafted wood furniture. Steps away from the main hotel, two private villas with infinity pools offer dreamy digs for up to eight guests each.
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Zihuatanejo’s Airbnb options offer a good variety, but the most fun listing is designer Betsey Johnson’s own villa, Betseyville. The house, which accommodates six to eight guests, is designed in Johnson’s signature wild style. Guests can enjoy the pool, gardens, and private beach access, along with a treasure trove of toys like a four-wheeler ATV, surfboards, and paddleboards.
The Thompson and La Casa Que Canta both boast their own high-end restaurants with fancy preparations and stunning views, but the best casual eating on Playa la Ropa happens at the mom-and-pop spots where just-caught fish is prepared in traditional style. Arguably the best of the beachside restaurants is La Perla, a 40+ year-old family-owned establishment that’s equal parts sports bar, café, and beach hangout. Grab an outdoor table and order the tiritas de pescado—a Zihuatanejo specialty similar to ceviche—strips of the freshest fish cured in lime juice and local sea salt and served with slivers of red onion, searing hot habanero pepper, and tortilla chips. Tame the spice with a glass of mezcal (the owner’s son has his own label) or a cold beer.
Down at the end of the beach, La Gaviota, another nearly 40-year-old restaurant, is enjoying a new burst of creative energy: The kitchen was recently taken over by the owner’s daughter. She turns out classics like coconut shrimp, and octopus in garlic sauce, alongside dishes invented by the family, like lobster meatballs and fish tacos al pastor. Watch pelicans dive for their lunch as you enjoy yours, seated on the patio at the top of the salt-encrusted steps.
Fulfill any hang-10 fantasies with a visit to Loot, a surf shop-cum-restaurant that’s currently the cultural epicenter of Zihua. The multistory building, splashed with bold murals and motorcycle eye candy, is also home to a barbershop, an art gallery, and an open-air rooftop bar. In the downstairs café, you’ll find hip comfort food hearty enough to fill an empty belly after surfing—think rye and chia pancakes with papaya jam or a tuna poke bowl with guava-serrano salsa.
Although some parts of the state of Guerrero, where Zihuatanejo is located, are currently unsafe (the U.S. State Department has given the state a Level 4 travel warning due to criminal activity), Playa la Ropa remains safe for tourists. Exercise caution, though, and avoid traveling on roads at night. Most hotels run airport shuttles or will help you organize transport to and from the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo airport (a 25-minute drive). If you’re not staying in a hotel, Sunnyside is a recommended car service.
>>Next: Find more escapes on AFAR’s Weekend Getaways Inspiration Page
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