Spanish explorers first showed up on the beaches of the Mexican fishing village of Cihuatlan in 1522, records show. They scoped the place out, figured it didn't amount to much, tagged ejo (meaning "of little importance") on its name and then sailed away, presumably to look for more important spots.
After that, things remained quiet around Cihuatlan-ejo - or Zihuatanejo as it ended up on the Spanish maps - for a hundred or so years.
Until the pirates moved in.
The brigands, mostly Englishmen, found the town's cozy, mushroom-shaped bay was a great place to lay in wait for Spanish treasure galleons heading down the Pacific coast to their home port at Acapulco. So ships sailing under the skull and crossbones became a common sight at the bay, including the Jolly Rogers of scofflaw superstars like Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish.
The pirates pulled out of the bay in the mid-1700s when the plundering business began to peter out. And Zihuatanejo (pronounced zee-wha-tah-NAY-ho) again went back to being a sleepy fishing village.
A New Neighbor
In 1970, the Mexican government announced plans to build a luxury resort just down the road from Zihuatanejo on a 2-mile-long strip of golden sands edging an old coconut plantation. The development was named Ixtapa (eeks-TAH-pah).
The resort's first hotel, the Aristos, debuted in 1974. Today, Ixtapa's palm-lined beaches are dotted by dozens of tropical palaces including such upscale brands as Las Brisas, Barcelo, Capella, Azul, Sunscape Dorado Pacifico and Krystal.
The Charm of 'Zihua'
Lining the main beach at Zihuatanejo (or Zihua, as the locals call it) are dozens of al fresco eateries where visitors can enjoy some cool ones, snack on ceviche (marinated raw seafood) and soak up the town's crown jewel: its picture-postcard bay. Meandering outward for 12 or so miles from both sides of the village, most of the bay's beaches are overlooked by hills peppered by small luxury resorts, bungalows, condos and vintage villas.
It's about a 15-minute ride by water taxi from the city's municipal pier to the secluded swimming and snorkeling areas (and not-so-secluded wall-to-wall restaurants) on Las Gatas beach at the southern tip of the bay. Along the way the taxis skirt the beach at Playa La Ropa (which means "beach of the clothes" after the fine Chinese silks that drifted ashore there after a Spanish galleon, loaded with cargo from Asia, blundered into the bay - right into the blazing cannons of a pirate fleet anchored there).
The hills above Playa La Ropa today feature a cluster of "Special Category" hotels (Mexico's supreme luxury rating). One, La Casa Que Canta, is where Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan burned up the screen in the 1994 hit movie, When a Man Loves a Woman.
What the Names Mean
Ixtapa means "white place," after a nearby stretch of salt-bleached beach. Cihuatlan and Zihuatanejo translate to "land of women," possibly because the area's first known rulers, the Cuitlatecas, had a matriarchal society. One legend has it that the tribe was entrusted by Cihuateotl, the goddess of women, to watch over an immense temple on Playa Madera, the beach next to Playa La Ropa. There, the spirits of women who died in childbirth were said to return to earth after five years of having acted as a sort of honor guard for the setting sun each evening.
Women cacicas (chiefs) ruled these parts for hundreds of years until about
1400, when the Cuitlatec lands were invaded by fierce Tarascan warriors.
Spanish troops conquered the Tarascans in the 1520s.
Four centuries later, sparked in part by the enactment of Prohibition north of the border, Zihua and its picturesque bay saw still another invasion, this time by foreign glitterati. Silent movie stars, Texas oilmen, corporate titans and others in the silky set came to Zihua to bunk down in hillside villas. One of the newcomers was Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books - among which were stories of a supposedly fictitious tribe of Amazon women.
Old-timers around Zihua will tell you that Burroughs got the idea for his Amazons right here, from tales of the Cuitlatec matriarchy.
Photos by Bob Schulman