Zihuatanejo or Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is the fourth-largest city in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Politically the city belongs to the municipality of Zihuatanejo de Azueta in the western part of Guerrero, but both are commonly referred to as Zihuatanejo. It is on the Pacific Coast, about 240 km (150 miles) northwest of Acapulco, and belongs to a section of the Mexican Pacific Coast known as the Costa Grande. This town has been developed as a tourist attraction along with the modern tourist resort of Ixtapa, 5 km (3.1 mi) away. However, Zihuatanejo has kept its traditional town feel. The town is located on a well-protected bay which is popular with private boat owners during the winter months.
There are two possible origins for the name Zihuatanejo. One origin might be from the Purépecha language meaning “water of the yellow mountain;” another possible origin might be from Nahuatl (Cihuatlán) meaning "place of women. Cihuatlán, or "place of women," refers to the western paradise of the Nahuatl universe, the home of the “goddess women.” According to tradition, these women arose in the afternoon to lead the sun at dusk to the realm of the dead, Mictlan, to give a dim light to the dead. "De Azueta" is in honor of José Azueta, who died fighting a U.S. incursion into the country in Veracruz in 1914.
Zihuatanejo spent most of its history until recently as a sleepy fishing village. The federal government's decision to develop the nearby resort in the 1970s has had major implications for both the city and municipality of Zihuatanejo. The area is now the third most-visited area in Mexico, after Cancún and Puerto Vallarta, and the most popular for sports fishermen. Zihuatanejo's population jumped from 6,887 to 37,328 by the early 1990s. Recently, a new highway called the "Maxipista Siglo XXI" was built to connect Zihuatanejo with Morelia, cutting the travel time from Mexico City to about six hours.
The bay and its beaches
The town of Zihuatanejo's main attraction is its bay, which is well-protected from the open ocean. It is a favorite place to moor boats from small private ones to large yachts during the winter months. The bay’s width varies from between 950 to 1,750 meters (1,040 to 1,910 yards) in width and averages 18 meters (59 feet) deep. It is mostly surrounded by beaches, most of which have gentle waves. On land, the bay is surrounded by the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. Development of this area has caused some environmental problems. The town’s five water treatment plants can no longer keep up with demand, with some untreated wastewater and sediment flowing into the bay. There has also been some wholesale destruction of the hills right on the bay to create development space, and there is concern about damage to the local coral reef. Some development projects, such as a dock for cruise ships and Punta del Mar (a complex of hotels, villas, pools and a marina) have been delayed due to the need for environmental impact studies.
The ring of beaches of Zihuatanejo Bay begins with the Municipal Beach which is in front of the town center and next to the port. From there, there is a cement and sand walkway that leads to Playa Madera (Wood Beach). It is a 2-kilometer (1.2 mi) stretch of light-colored sand between the municipal beach and Playa La Ropa. The waves here are gentle with the occasional wave. This beach contains a number of bay-view restaurants, bungalows, condominiums, and hotels, as well as a walkway that extends the length of the beach. Part of the beach is covered in pebbles.
Moving away from the town center along the bay, the next beach is called Playa La Ropa (Clothes Beach). The name Playa La Ropa (Clothes Beach) refers to the sinking of a merchant ship near the bay during colonial times. Its cargo of fine silks, belts, cloaks, and fabrics from Bombay washed up on this beach. This beach is about 1.2 km (0.75 mi) long and considered the best for swimming as there is little wave action. During the winter months, many sailboats moor here. Just behind the beach, the land rises suddenly into cliffs, which are dotted with hotels, large residences, and guesthouses.
The beach contains a very small fenced estuary which is home to several crocodiles. They have lived here for years and are well-fed by the local restaurants, although they are still wild creatures.
In a parking lot at the end of La Ropa Beach, one of the parking spaces has become a place of reverence for the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to local reports, an image of the virgin appeared on the bole of a plum tree on 27 November 2006. This is considered by many to be a miracle, especially as it occurred shortly before the Virgin's feast day of 12 December. The tree has a base constructed around it with stairs allowing visitors to see the image more easily. There are places to deposit candles and offerings and flowers have been planted around the tree. On 12 December, a mass and candlelit vigil are held here.
Playa Las Gatas (Cats Beach) is on the opposite side of the bay from town, is accessible only by boat as there are no paved roads that lead to here and a small, poorly defined, rocky footpath leading from Playa La Ropa. Las Gatas was originally named for a small cat shark that used to inhabit these waters. It is located at the entrance to the bay at a place called Punta del Rey (King’s Point). This leaves the area open to ocean breezes. Wave action is stronger, but not as strong as those beaches that face the open ocean as there are a coral reef and a man-made stone barrier in front of it. According to legend, Purépecha chief Calzontzin had a stone barrier built here to keep the waves down and the sea creatures out, creating a kind of swimming pool. Las Gatas is the most popular snorkeling beach in Zihuatanejo. Gear can be rented at Carlo Scuba, along with PADI instruction and certification. Colorful tropical fish can be seen along the man-made breakwater, as well as the abundant coral and sea urchins. At the far end of the beach, surfing is possible and a path leads to the lighthouse on the point of the bay.