As I lay in my hammock watching the sunset paint the sky behind the green hills that surround the fishing village of Zihuatanejo, I realize just how lucky I am to be living here in this tropical gem. The movie “The Shawshank Redemption” was what made this small village on Mexico’s Pacific coast known. The funny thing about that is that they only used the name Zihuatanejo (pronounced zeewhataneighho). The scenes of the place were actually filmed in St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands. There is a line in the film that says; “Zihuatanejo, that’s where I want to live the rest of my life, a warm place with no memory.” Since the film was released in 1994 hundreds of expats from the US, Canada, and Europe have come to do just that.
Today it has grown somewhat but still retains its small fishing village charm. The boats go out to sea every evening and return around 6 am with their haul to sell on the beach. The still flapping red snapper, dorado, tuna, and grouper are displayed on tarps thrown on the sand for the early morning buyers. You can linger at a coffee shop in front and sip your morning coffee while you survey the catch to select your fresh fish for lunch. The waves gently lapping on the shore induce a languid feeling which could put you to sleep if it weren’t for the coffee.
Later in the day walk over to La Ropa beach, arguably the nicest of the 5 or6 beaches within walking distance from the center of town. Conde Nast Travel magazine has called it Mexico’s best beach. La Ropa is a 1.5-2 kilometer stretch of white sand with crystal clear water. A large outcropping of rock at one end with a Mexican flag planted on top provides a great place for novice snorkelers to explore. It’s full of colorful parrotfish, pufferfish, blue tang, and often you will see a large sea turtle nipping at the coral. There are numerous ”Palapas”(small beachside restaurants) where you can rest on a chaise lounge under an umbrella while you sip an ice-cold Corona, have lunch, and just generally enjoy the tropical sun.
One of my favorites is Paty’s because the sun lounges and the umbrellas are free as long as you consume something and their prices are reasonable. Having said that, I should say it’s all relative. In any of the palapas you can have a good lunch and a couple of beers for under $10. I guess the thing that cinched the deal for me at Paty’s is that they bring your beers to you in a small bucket of ice which keeps them cold for a long time on the hot beach. Sometimes it’s those little things that make the difference.
Other favorites would have to include Arena where a large tribe of iguanas gathers at feeding time, which is anytime the chef gets a new shipment of lettuce. He tosses the ends up on the rooftop of the kitchen and an incredible number of iguanas hustle to feed. These animals look like dragons. I’m thankful they are dedicated vegetarians. Next door to Arena is El Manglar. As the name suggests it’s nestled in mangroves and provides some welcome cooling shade for a lunchtime meal. The same iguanas that flock next door to feed adorn the mangrove trees that overhang the estuary. Sometimes a crocodile or two can be spotted in the fresh lagoon water next to the restaurant. Further down the beach, at the far end, is the Sotavento beach club. Sotavento is near the snorkeling area I mentioned before. The water is generally clearer and calmer here. They also serve the best hamburgers on the beach. At this writing, the chaise lounges and umbrellas are free with minimum consumption.
All along the beach you will find offerings of parasailing, massages, paddle boarding, surfing, catamaran sailing, and just about any sort of water sport you can imagine.
While La Ropa is my favorite beach in town there are others worth mentioning too. La Madera beach is closer to town and while not as long, is wider than La Ropa offering more space for beach games like Frisbee, Molkky (see my blog on Molkky posted earlier), or Bocce ball. The sand is a slightly darker color at La Madera and the waves are larger since it faces the open sea more directly. Across the bay, accessible by foot along a rocky path from La Ropa or more easily by sea taxi, is Las Gatas. Las Gatas is a favorite beach for families with small children since the water is shallow and protected from waves by a rock and coral enclosure. Immediately opposite the main plaza with the basketball court is Playa Principal. While not generally recommended for swimming due to the fact it is more polluted on account of the fishing boats that come in and out from here, Playa Principal is also fringed by several very popular restaurants and is a great place for lunch or dinner with a breathtaking view.
In addition to the beaches and beach activities, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in Zihua. As a fishing village, many of the boats will take you big bill fishing. Every year there is a major fishing tournament for sailfish and marlin. Early February sailboats from all over arrive for Sailfest, an activity sponsored by the boat owners to raise funds for the schools. You can take Spanish lessons at the language school. Play Pickleball at one of the courts. Salsa, Yoga, Mexican cooking, and guitar lessons are readily available. Of course, if you just want to lie on one of the five beaches working on your tan while you sip a mango margarita, you can do that too. If you need a city with a little more in the way of cultural activities like concerts and live theater or just more upscale shopping, the interurban bus service is frequent and inexpensive to larger cities like Morelia or Acapulco. Mexico City is only a 45 minute and $78 plane ride away.
Everyone knows that Mexico is an inexpensive place to live or vacation compared to many other parts of the world. Zihuatanejo (or Zihua as the locals call it) is particularly cheap. I live in a fully furnished two-bedroom apartment, just an 8-minute walk from the beach. My rent, which I have elected to pay year-round, includes all utilities as well as high-speed internet, is only $200 dollars per month. Other friends who rent long term pay $400 per month for a two-bedroom with a spectacular view of the entire bay, only steps from the beach. For the more affluent there are some lovely resorts that will pamper you day and night for considerably more cash. Personally I’d rather save the money and pamper myself with the difference.
Restaurants abound. You can find Greek, Italian, seafood, steak, oriental and, of course, Mexican food everywhere. I found the best pizza I’ve eaten anywhere only a short walk from my apartment at a place called D’Maria. We had a pear salad to begin and ordered the house special which turned out to have oven roasted vegetables, prosciutto, oodles of great cheese and topped with baby spinach. We ordered the medium, but it was so huge that we couldn’t finish it and took home the leftovers for the next day. The whole meal, including two glasses of wine and tip came to under $25 dollars.
Another great advantage of Zihua is that you can walk virtually everywhere. A motor scooter might come in handy but, public transportation is plentiful and very reasonable (about fifty cents for a bus or two dollars for a cab). We usually walk to the supermarket and take a cab home with the week’s groceries. Shopping at the local Mercado can also greatly reduce your food bill and is an adventure in itself. The Mercado is very large and extends over some 10 or more square blocks in the center of town. You can find everything there from souvenirs to cow’s heads and chicken feet. Fresh avocados, mangos, pineapples, and bananas are everywhere. Small restaurants serving local Mexican dishes are throughout the Mercado. The inviting aroma of corn tortillas cooking on a grill entices your taste buds to enter and try their offerings even if you don’t know exactly what it is. It smells so good it surely tastes good too. Go ahead, go in, try something different, be adventurous and you’ll surely come back for more.
The government health service (IMMSS) is available to all residents and the cost is extremely low. A Canadian friend of mine, Mike, 69 years old, pays around $600 US annually for complete coverage. Mike had a kidney removed at the regional hospital in Acapulco and his cost including all tests, the operation, hospital stay and medication was ZERO. I accompanied Mike for his operation and found the hospital to be very clean and modern.
Many of the expats that live here have traveled all over: Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico. They selected Zihuatanejo as the place to settle for the same reasons as I have. Zihuatanejo weaves a magical spell around you from the first time you experience it. I asked my friend Gabi why she decided to settle in Zihua. Her answer was, “As soon as I saw the place I knew this was where I wanted to be”. Gabi has lived here for the last 15 years and regarding safety, she says, “I have always felt safe here, even as a single woman”. Another friend, Ron came here after seeing the film and never left. He now owns three bars. He has married a local woman and is raising a family. Ron says, “I don’t think I would ever go back.”
The Shawshank Redemption may not have been filmed here, but the peace and tranquility, and the tropical magic the protagonists sought is definitely present in Zihuatanejo and continues to lure new residents and visitors to this Mexican fishing village. Come and see for yourself.