Zihuatanejo: Mexico’s Hidden Jewel

By Gregory Michael Herman

Crossed by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and the mighty Potosi River winding through the state of Guerrero, lies one of the most important seaports and tourist destinations on the Mexican Pacific coast. Made famous by “The Shawshank Redemption,” where Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufresne escapes prison and heads straight to his dream paradise, Zihuatanejo (pronounced zeewha-tan-ay-hoe” and often shortened to “Zihua”)…forever putting this once sleepy fishing village on the tourist map.

In the 19th century, this small town was a favorite port of the Spanish explorers as they returned from the shipping routes of Asia. The region was introduced to the coconut palm tree that was brought over from the Philippines, and was considered a top producer in that region of Mexico for years into the future.

Zihua was almost untouched for another century, but in the mid-1970s the Mexican Department of Tourism (FONATUR) created a luxury resort masterpiece, just 10 minutes up the coast. Ixtapa includes the beach of Playa El Palmar, two 18-hole championship golf courses at either end of the beach, and a string of luxury resort hotels and condominiums for year-round living (or lucrative rental opportunities).

Adding a wonderful blend of Mexican heritage and the snappy touch for a more modern visitor, it’s no wonder this area is a favorite among nationals and globetrotters alike.

Retire in Zihuatanejo

Retire in Zihuatanejo
©Gregory Michael Herman

This area has become more and more popular because of its wonderful climate, especially for the “snowbirds” of the northern U.S. and Canada. The temperature falls perfectly between 85 F and 90 degrees F, with sea breezes everywhere from November to May. Rainy season (May through October), when you’ll be hard-pressed to find foreigners here, is hot and muggy, with high humidity that makes 85 F feel like 100 F.

Most expats come down for six months or so during the dry season and then retreat to a milder climate back home, or up in the Mexican highlands, such as San Miguel Allende or Guadalajara. For those looking for year-round rentals, it can be tricky precisely because of the snowbird situation. Owners are reluctant to lose their rental rates in high season (often three to four times higher than the rest of the year) by giving you a normal yearly rental rate. Many will not even do that. Be aware that you may have to negotiate your rent if you are planning on renting permanently in this area.

If you are considering purchasing a home, we recommend that you try the area out first. Rentals during low season for a fully furnished two-bedroom condo can start for as little as $400 a month, and go up as you climb the hillsides overlooking the bay. You may find ocean-view or ocean-access dwellings during low season for as low as $600. A couple can really live a wonderful life here during this time for around $1,500 a month. As the high season approaches, this amount can change drastically depending on where you live and how often you go out. Prices rise during high season for everything.

Buying a place used to be a real bargain if you wanted to live in Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa permanently, but prices are steadily climbing as more areas are being carved out as luxury living communities. An average range for a two-bedroom condo can start at $100,000 all the way up to a four-bedroom home in the $250,000+ range with spectacular views of the bay and mountains.

Lifestyle in Zihuatanejo

Lifestyle in Zihuatanejo
©Gregory Michael Herman

I visited an old friend many years ago in this sleepy fishing village. I have to tell you… until I looked it up, I didn’t even know where Zihuatanejo was. How would I have ever guessed that after spending 20+ years in the real estate industry in Southern California, that I would live in this wonderful spot. My friend’s invitation to come down and catch a marlin certainly changed my whole life. Who knows, maybe learning about this magical place might change yours too.

My very first day in “Zihua” was awesome. We went into El Centro (downtown), and visited the fresh fish market, where $15 paid for a BBQ on the beach for six people. Visitors have their choice of dozens of eateries in town. Ranging from $5 to $10 for two people with drink. The taco carts are even cheaper, with all your favorites including fish, octopus, chicken, carnitas, and a local favorite chapulines (fried grasshoppers you’ve just got to try).

A typical day for me is to go down to the local fruit and vegetable stand and get a fresh juice drink of my choice (I like carrot, celery, and apple). This sets me back about $1.50. I can have a nice breakfast for $3, or skip it, and wait until lunch and have my favorite choice of fish tacos with all the trimmings for about $5.

I was amazed at the dozens of fresh meats, fish, and produce stores that cost pennies on the dollar. Trendy restaurants, galleries, and the seemingly endless window-shopping make walking around town a lot of fun. If you want a little fancier dining experiences, I recommend the trendy Espuma or Embarc that are both high up on a cliff above the bay.

For a special lunch or dinner, try La Serena Gorda’s Mediterranean-style octopus tacos and signature ginger margaritas for around $10. For the cheapest and freshest produce, visit the central market right in the middle of the city. Need creature comforts from home? Shop in the huge Mega Soriana supermarket for fresh blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts. And if all else fails, there’s a Sam’s Club as well. You’ve got it all in Zihuatanejo.

For all you sun worshippers, the beaches that surround Zihuatanejo are fabulous. Go down to everyone’s favorite Playa La Ropa and rent a jet-ski ($20 per hour), take out a Hobie catamaran, fly with a parachute pulled by a motorboat, or enjoy live tropical Latin music on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. in Pirata’s beachfront restaurant. This palm tree-lined beach is rumored to have inspired a James Michener novel. The sand bottom and gentle wave action is ideal for the casual swimmer to enjoy the sights of the beautiful homes and resort hotels that cover the lush, green hillside. For another option, you can spend the day at Playa Las Gatas, where waves are practically non-existent, with the same line of charming (and great) beach restaurants and clear water just about Caribbean-style turquoise. Get here by boat taxi in 10 minutes from the municipal pier or walk the back way over the rocky coast from Playa La Ropa.

With Mexico City 45 minutes away by jet, or Acapulco a little over four hours by car, Zihuatanejo has great places to explore that aren’t so far away. Patzcuaro, a beautiful, real Mexican town founded in the 1320s lies just over three hours’ drive from Zihuatanejo and is definitely worth a day trip or overnight stay, especially if you like walking cobblestoned streets, eating traditional Mexican fare, and shopping for handmade textiles, ceramics, or baskets.

Cost of Living in Zihuatanejo

Cost of Living in Zihuatanejo
©Gregory Michael Herman

Depending on the choices you make, here is an example of a monthly budget for a couple living in Zihuatanejo. A single person can spend even less:

ExpensesCost $USD
Housing$475
Utilities$80
Groceries$250
Entertainment$200
Housekeeping$80
Medical$175
Public Transportation$55
Total1,315

If you are tired of driving, maintaining, and parking a car in crowded city streets, Zihuatanejo is the place for you. The public transportation system is exceptional. It might not be as rapid as your own vehicle, but if you are living in a beach town in Mexico, are you really in a hurry? Even if you have to take two or three buses, for some it is much better than having the headache of a car.

And for those of you who are vegetarians or vegans, or you just like eating healthy, Zihua will surprise you. Every Saturday morning, you can visit Market Eco-Tianguis Sanka near the main downtown street for fresh veggies; artisanal Mezcal; homemade sauces, jams, and kombucha; vegan snacks; tacos and wraps; handicrafts, and more. At 11 a.m., you’ll usually find a singer, poet, or professional talking about health or some other educational subject entertaining the crowd. This market is sponsored by locals of the Zihuatanejo Vegan Cooperative at the Plaza del Artista.

Beaches, restaurants, and bars abound. If you like live music, there are plenty of clubs (even in low season) to hear your favorite music. Go to Barracrudas for rock ‘n roll and expats, Bandidos for traditional Latin music for salsa or bachata dancing, La Cantona for Latin music, and the Canta de La Sirena for a place where people get together and jam or perform on stage with their special type of singing.

As you can see, Zihuatanejo has a bit for everyone. Even though most have not heard of this city when compared to the other tourist biggies, once you visit you may never go anywhere else in Mexico again.

Featured Image Copyright: ©iStock.com/arturogi

10 Things to Do in Zihuatanejo

by Bonnie Hayman

Zihuatanejo isn’t one of the best known retirement destinations in Mexico. But it should be. Between the cobblestoned, charming, and colorful Mexican city of Zihuatanejo and the slick, touristy resort town of Ixtapa just 10 minutes away, it really ticks all the boxes. The area also happens to be a beautiful place to live.

Here are my favorite things to do in Zihua:

1. Explore the Beaches

Playa La Ropa
©iStock/YinYang

Beach lovers, this place is for you. Swimmers, surfers, boaters, people who like to fish, kayakers, snorkelers, paddle boarders, parachute flyers, and whatever else I’ve left out can all feel comfortable doing their favorite pastime here. Just within the main bay itself, you can enjoy five different beaches. Whether you like chilling with friends, lying content in a hammock or under a palapa (palm roof structure), or experiencing a fishing day with the most modern equipment, look no further than Zihua.

Playa La Ropa is the favorite of families and swimmers. This mile-long beach includes about 15 restaurants and every fun beach sport. Catch some thrills on the banana boat or Brawler rides. Fly up in the sky in a parachute pulled by a fast motorboat. On Saturday and Sunday, be sure to head for Piratas Restaurant from 3 p.m. until 6 p.m. for some authentic Latin live music, great seafood, fabulous margaritas, and a fun time.

Playa Las Gatas will remind you of a Caribbean beach. Snorkel in the turquoise/green clear water at the reef that protects the beach from large waves. Over a dozen restaurants here serve fresh seafood dishes as well as plates for those who prefer not to have fish. Take a walk on the short trail for some good photo opportunities.

Thirty minutes away from Zihua in either direction, you’ll find even more intriguing beaches. Head north in the direction of Puerto Vallarta and discover Playas Troncones and La Saladita, the two beaches known for surfing. Troncones has a bit more in the way of nice hotels and restaurants than its counterpart. La Saladita is a bit more primitive and a great getaway if you want more peace and quiet.

Drive or take a bus south of Zihua to arrive at Barre de Potosi, a combination mangrove estuary/ocean area with tons of restaurants waiting to give you fabulous service. Here you can rent kayaks, small rowboats (called pangas), go fishing, or take a water tour to a small island that you can see from shore. Other beaches may call you, because plenty exist. So if you’re a beach lover, you may never leave Zihua.

2. Enjoy the Culture

It is rare to find a museum in a Mexican coastal area, but Zihuatanejo has a modest archeological museum made with love by the local government and citizens. The Costa Grande Museum of Archeology offers six exhibit rooms that house pottery, weapons, and clothing from its pre-Columbian history. Exhibits are in Spanish but you can ask for an English pamphlet that explains what you see in each room. Entry is by donation (they hope for at least 10 pesos) and is run almost exclusively by volunteers who wish to keep knowledge of their culture alive. The museum is located along the fisherman’s walkway in front of the ocean.

For another look at local culture, stop by around 7 p.m. every Sunday night to enjoy music, dancing, poetry, or whatever local cultural event the Casa de Cultura has planned for the evening. Families and tourists gather in the amphitheater called La Cancha—referring to the basketball court also situated there. Watch this event in front of the ocean on the Fisherman’s walk toward the municipal pier.

3. Go to the Clubs

Go to the Clubs in zihuatanejo
©iStock/quavondo

Even in low season (May through October), various restaurant/bars grab the attention of those who like live music, want to dance, or just like to get out where they can listen to sexy rhythms and drink those great margaritas.

Barracrudas’ live rock-n-roll band on the weekends gets expats onto the dance floor with those great oldies.

Bandidos is a great place to listen to salsa, bachata, and other Latino music on the weekends. With a dancefloor right in front of the band (Rico Son), this is the premier place to go to feel the Mexican vibe. Their octopus tacos are fantastic.

For those who would like to hear a more improvisational Latino sound, go to El Canto de las Sirenas, whose musical lineup changes every week. When owner/host and local legend, guitarist José Luis Cobo López headlines, you’ll love his smooth voice and wonderful Latin ballads.

If you are downtown, Overtime bar offers dancing as well, serenaded on the weekends by a singer basically singing Karaoke-style, but doing it well.

La Cantona, across the street from Barracrudas, is for real Latin music aficionados as the bar is upstairs, quite small and dark. Yet the live band there belts out some Latin music favorites for dancing and other songs that will get your toes tapping. Go to La Cantona if you really want to see how locals spend their evenings.

4. Volunteer Your Services

One great thing about Zihuatanejo is that there are plenty of volunteer opportunities—even in low season. At last count, several organizations like the Animal Humane Society help animals in Zihua.

Or you can contact Elizabeth Brady, ([email protected]), a long-time resident who runs philanthropic projects in five areas: art and culture, disenfranchised groups, nature conservation, pet protection, and economic development. Ask Elizabeth about her “Art in Dark Spaces” project.

If you have a skill (math, crafts, singing, English, musical instrument, dancing, Zumba, yoga, etc.), contact the Fundación Tina Blanco to work with disabled children of the community. The organization has a school and looks for volunteers to teach classes.

Other volunteer groups exist to help the community or you are welcome to start your own.

5. Eat to Your Heart’s Content

Octopus Taco zihuatanejo
©iStock/Jacopo Ventura

If you like Mexican meals, you are going to think you died and went to heaven in Zihua. I haven’t had a single bad meal…even in the smallest places. Go to Rossy’s on Playa La Ropa for breakfast and Embarc, Espuma, or Il Mare for elegant dinners overlooking the ocean. These upscale places are located on the road up toward La Ropa. Try La Sirena Gorda on the fisherman’s walk near the pier for the best Mediterranean-style octopus tacos. Octopus happens to be the specialty in Zihuat and you can find it in every restaurant—cooked five different ways or as a cocktail. If you haven’t tried octopus in your life, this is the place to do it. I’ve never tasted better.

Many more restaurants dot the streets of the city. Try OhBio! for lunch if you like home-made hummus, smoothies, and other healthy fare. Hot dogs, hamburgers, quality Italian restaurants, and other interesting international eateries can also be found by asking.

6. Take Classes

Have nothing to do and want to learn a little more about Mexico? The locals love music. They love dancing. They love eating. So enroll in the various classes that interest you. Take guitar lessons (given by the Casa de Cultura); or classes in salsa, Zumba, folklore dancing, or local cooking. If you don’t see a class that you are interested in, start asking people and I bet you can get someone to teach you.

7. Water Sports

Watersports in zihuatanejo
©istock/HT-Pix

All of the main beaches have everything, with some promoting their “particular” specialty. For the best snorkeling experience, go to Playa Las Gatas. They have many other water sports, but the clear turquoise/green water and the protective reef of Las Gatas hails as the best place to view the colorful fish of the ocean here.

Mile-long Playa La Ropa is the most popular beach in the area, so it has it all. On top of all the many thatched roofed restaurants, you can go parasailing, rent boogie boards, small catamarans, paddle boards, kayaks, banana boats, basically any beach toy/boat/thrill ride that you want. Prices are very reasonable. If you like to spend the entire day at the beach with tons to do, Playa La Ropa is where to go.

8. Take the Walking Tour

The charming city of Zihua houses around 100,000 people. Many streets are cobblestoned with colorful shops and local restaurants, giving it your typical Mexican feel. Walk around and discover artisanal mezcal and coffee stores; some high-quality stores selling rugs, table runners, purses, and more—woven by hand. Stop at the artists’ handicraft market that goes on for blocks at one end of town to get hammocks, hats, silver jewelry, ceramics, things you’ve never imagined and even more than that.

9. Stroll Through the Eco-Tianguis Sanka Organic Market

Every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., enjoy a stroll around this wonderful organic market located near the archaeological museum in Zihuatanejo.

Local farmers, artisans, and craftspeople sell their vegetables, mezcal, salsas, coffee, and handicrafts to the public. In addition, this sociable market has tables set up so you can purchase veggie wraps, vegan tacos, and healthy drinks and then sit down with your friends or make new ones while you listen to live music.

You may also get to experience eco-friendly talks about how to start your own organic garden—even if you live in a small apartment. Or ways to live a more eco-aware life. Each Saturday the entertainment and what you’ll find at the market varies, so frequent visits are the norm.

10. Visit Nearby Ixtapa

Ixtapa
©iStock/arturogi

Only a 10-minute drive from Zihua, once you cross over the bridge separating Zihua and Ixtapa, you’ll see manicured lawns, beautifully landscaped living areas, and one huge, immaculate resort hotel after another sitting pretty on a several-mile strip of perfect beach.

Two 18-hole golf courses reside in Ixtapa as well. Many people prefer Ixtapa to Zihua because it is more like home.

It depends on the vacation you are looking for. In Ixtapa you will find world-class restaurants, fancy nightclubs, and discos, basically the type of vacation you would find in San Diego, California if you stayed in a beach hotel, only much cheaper here.

Most expats who own homes or condos in Ixtapa are snowbirds; they visit their properties from November through April and either rent them or leave them empty for the next six months. Which means business is really low from May through October and you won’t see many foreigners during this time.

People who live in Ixtapa drive to Zihua for many of their basics: groceries in the two largest supermarkets or the municipal market, SAM’s Club, etc.

Ixtapa is the beach vacation. Zihuatanejo is Mexico.