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Mexico Guru

Back to Basics:
Doing Acapulco the Old-Fashioned Way

A vacation in Acapulco sounds exotic, glamorous, exciting, and even a bit old-fashioned. Mexico has newer, more modern resorts. So foreigners who choose Acapulco over Cancun or Ixtapa are looking for something beyond miles of sugary sand and margaritas decorated with tiny sombreros. Many are searching for an idealized version of the Mexican beach resort experience. Will they find it?

There’s certainly romance to be found in the newest, ultra-ritzy resorts at the southeast end of the bay, where the Princess and Pierre Marqués indulge guests at chic spas and five-star restaurants. Honeymooners have long favored the pink-and-white suites and amazing views of the Las Brisas. But five-star resorts come with correspondingly high price tags.

Far more prosaic are the highrises that line the Hotel Zone, AKA the Golden Zone (Zona Dorada). This stretch of real estate along the deepest part of the bay is where the majority of middle-income vacationers end up. The pool areas and beaches of tower resorts like the Crowne Plaza and Fiesta Americana are perfectly respectable places to lounge away the day, but the zone is more pedestrian than sexy. The busy highway, called simply “La Costera,” is lined with pharmacies, mini-marts, and T-shirt and souvenir shops. It has a distinctly “urban jungle” sort of feel.

So where’s a hopeless (and budget-minded) romantic to stay?

How about a trip down Old Mexico way? Acapulco’s original party central is the no-longer-fashionable old quarter due west of downtown, but it’s got two of the sweetest beaches on the bay, and the calmest water for swimming. In the 1950s, John Wayne, Johnny Weissmuller, and Errol Flynn did for Acapulco what Liz and Dick did for Puerto Vallarta in the 60s: they put it on the map. Hosting parties in hotels like the Flamingo (owned by Weissmuller and friends) and in private homes that seem downright modest by today’s standards, they enjoyed this thoroughly Mexican enclave of uneven streets, busy markets, and beautiful Pacific vistas. Visitors can do that today at a fraction of what they’ll pay in the Golden and Diamond zones.

The hotels on and around La Caleta and La Caletilla beaches aren’t fancy or striking but they do offer value and a chance to hole up in historic---and for some, yes, romantic---old Acapulco. Lie on the beach, float in either of the twin coves, or take a glass-bottom boat tour to La Roqueta Island for more beach time. Or head downtown. Get your shoes shined in the shade of an enormous ficus tree in Acapulco’s pretty, open main plaza. Buy flowers from the flower lady or light a candle at the round, relatively modern church. Then shop for tropical tunes or souvenirs in Sanborn’s, a pleasantly air-conditioned chain department store, or take a break in its comfortably familiar coffee shop. A few blocks uphill, Acapulco’s wonderfully restored old fort offers excellent exhibits, with artifacts from pre-Hispanic people, pirates, and colonists. Next door, the mask museum showcases the varied ritual masks of Guerrero state.

Hotels like the Flamingo are a taxi ride up in the hills behind downtown, but have great bay views. Hotel El Mirador’s tangle of rooms creep up the hills (the highest up accessible by their own little cable car) and a large, waterfall-fed swimming pool. Stay here and you can watch the famous cliff divers five times a day at no charge. More accessible to city buses, the beach, and downtown are the Acamar, Boca Chica, and Caleta hotels. In addition to enviable locations right on the beach, these moderately priced accommodations offer air-con, restaurants with room service, swimming pools, cable TV, and balconies overlooking the sea.

Acapulco’s old quarter isn’t for everyone; these hotels are basic and serviceable rather than sexy. But then Old Acapulco radiates a romantic appeal all its own, at least for budget-minded and adventurous travelers.

---Jane Onstott