Most people – even if they’ve not the remotest idea where it is – have heard of Acapulco, yet few know what to expect upon arrival. Bordered by the rugged Sierra Madre to the east and beautiful Acapulco Bay to the west, the city is considered by many to be the grande dame of the Mexican tourist industry. Acapulco is no tropical paradise – it’s a major city – but the truth is, as long as you don’t yearn to get away from it all, you’ll find almost anything you want here, from magnificent beaches by day to restaurants, clubs and discos by night. That said, getting from one side of the city to the other can be a very time-consuming and frustrating experience, with perpetual gridlock, grime and choking exhaust fumes. Seething humidity also adds to the oppressive atmosphere, as can the persistent hawkers. For lone women in particular, the constant pestering of would-be gigolos can be maddening, while derelict back streets can be dangerous at night for anyone. Drug killings in Acapulco started to make headlines in 2006, and came to the fore in June 2009 when sixteen gangsters and two soldiers were killed in a single shoot-out. Acapulco is much safer than these admittedly horrific incidents suggest; the situation is improving and it’s extremely rare for tourists to be affected.
What Acapulco undoubtedly has going for it, is its stunning bay: a sweeping scythe-stroke of yellow sand backed by the white towers of the high-rise hotels and, behind them, the jungly green foothills of the sierra. Even though the town itself has a population of over one and half million and hundreds of thousands of visitors come through each year, it rarely seems overcrowded. There’s certainly always space to lie along the beach, partly because of its sheer size, and partly because of the number of rival attractions – everything from hotel pools to parasailing to romantic cruises.
Acapulco has played an important role in the country’s development since being founded by the Spaniards in the 1520s. The shipping route between Acapulco and the Spanish colony of the Philippines, on the other side of the Pacific, was once among the most prized and preyed upon in the world. From Acapulco, goods were transported overland to Veracruz and then shipped onwards to Spain. Mexican Independence and the direct route around southern Africa combined to kill off the trade, and in the nineteenth century Acapulco went into a long, slow decline, only reversed with the completion of a road to the capital in 1928. In the 1950s Acapulco became the poster child for exotic glitz and glamour, the playground for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Liz Taylor. Elvis Presley immortalized the resort in the movie Fun in Acapulco, and JFK and Jackie spent their honeymoon here. Though American Spring-Breakers still occasionally pile down here in March, it’s largely thanks to the toll highway from Mexico City and a burgeoning Mexican middle class that Acapulco has experienced something of a resurgence in recent years – unlike Cancún, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta, 75 percent of Acapulco’s visitors are Mexican tourists.Read More
No one comes to Acapulco for the sights. By day, if people aren’t at the beach, drinking cocktails with umbrellas or asleep, they’re mostly scouring the expensive shops. If you only do one thing in Acapulco, though, make sure you see its most celebrated spectacle, the leap of the daredevil high divers.
In the old town the zócalo is a shady, languid place, but other than cheap places to eat and drink, lacks character – even the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is a modern construction from 1950, with a slightly bizarre blue dome that resembles a Russian Orthodox church. About the only place in Acapulco that gives even the slightest sense of the historic role the city played in Mexico’s past is the Museo Histórico de Acapulco (Tues–Sun 9am–6pm; M$41, free Sun) a short walk away inside the Fuerte de San Diego. This impressive, if heavily restored, star-shaped fort was established in 1616 to protect the Manila galleons from foreign corsairs but was severely damaged by an earthquake in the eighteenth century – what you see today dates from the 1776 reconstruction. The building’s limited success in defending the city against pirate attacks is charted inside the museum, where displays also extend to the spread of Christianity by proselytizing religious orders, Mexico’s struggle for independence and a small anthropological collection. Air-conditioned rooms make this a good place to ride out the midday heat, and you can pop up on the roof for superb views over Acapulco.
The only other cultural diversion in the centre is La Casa de los Vientos (“Exekatlkalli”), on Cerro de la Pinzona, near La Quebrada, where Diego Rivera spent the last two years of his life with his former model and partner, Dolores Olmedo Patiño, who bought the vacation home in 1951. Rivera spent eighteen months working on five grand murals here between 1955 and 1957, several preserved in his studio on the grounds; sadly the house has remained in private hands since Olmedo’s death in 2002 and off-limits. At the time of writing, the government was trying to buy the property – the tourist office should know the latest. In the meantime, fans traipse up here to see the twenty-metre mural that covers the entire outside wall of the house, made of seashells and coloured tiles, depicting Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, fertility, and lightning and various other figures from Aztec mythology.
Acapulco also has two mildly entertaining cultural centres, both of which host temporary art exhibitions and various cultural events with a regional bias. The more absorbing is housed in a lovely old property near the zócalo at Juárez and Felipe Valle, the Central Cultura Casona de Benito Juárez (t744/483-5104). At the other end of the bay, the Centro Cultural Acapulco (t744/484-3814) at Costera 4834 (next to the CiCi Waterpark) is a small complex of galleries and a crafts store set around a garden just off the main road.
Caleta, Caletilla and La Roqueta
Playas Caleta and Caletilla (any “Caleta” bus from Costera) have a quite different atmosphere from those in the main part of the bay. Very small – the two are divided only by a rocky outcrop and breakwater – they tend to be crowded, but the water is almost always calm and the beach is reasonably clean. You can sit at shaded tables on the sand, surrounded by Mexican matrons whose kids are paddling in the shallows, and be brought drinks from the cafés behind. There are showers here, too, and, on the rock, the Mágico Mundo Marino, a waterpark with a predictable aquarium and sea lion show, decent water slides and a choice of the pool or the bay to swim in.
From outside the waterpark, small boats ply the channel to the islet of La Roqueta, where there are more and yet cleaner beaches (you can rent a picnic table for M$50) and beer-drinking burros, one of the town’s less compelling attractions. Catch one of the frequent glass-bottomed boats to the island (daily 8am–5pm) and keep your ticket for the return journey; it’ll cost M$40 for a direct launch or M$60 for one that detours past the submerged bronze statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
From all three beaches you can rent snorkelling gear for around M$70 (though you’ll see the most fish and coral off Roqueta), kayaks and small boats (motor, sail and pedal) by the hour.
Along Costera and on to Revolcadero
The main beaches, despite their various names – Tamarindo, Hornos, Hornitos, El Morro, Condesa and Icacos – are in effect a single sweep of sand. It’s best to go some considerable distance round to Playa Condesa or Playa Icacos, in front of hotels (which make good points of reference) such as the monolithic Grand Hotel, where the beach is far less crowded and considerably cleaner. It’s easy enough to slip in to use the hotel showers, swimming pools and bars – there’s no way they’re going to spot an imposter in these thousand-bed monsters. The beaches around here are also the place to come if you want to indulge in such frolics as being towed around the bay on the end of a parachute, water-skiing or sailing. Outfits offering all of these are dotted at regular intervals along the beach; charges are standard, though the quality of the equipment and the length of the trips varies.
Beyond the end of the bay, across the hills to the south, are two other popular beaches: Puerto Marqués and Playa Revolcadero. On the way you’ll pass some of the fanciest hotels and villas in Acapulco, as well as some mesmerizing views of the city. Puerto Marqués (buses marked “Puerto Marqués”) is the first of the beaches, a sheltered, deeply indented cove with restaurants and beach chairs right down to the water’s edge, overlooked by two more deluxe hotels. You can continue by road to Revolcadero (though only an occasional bus comes this far) or get there by boat down a narrow inland channel. The beach, a long exposed stretch of sand, is beautiful but frequently lashed by heavy surf that makes swimming impossible. This whole area is being developed as another major resort zone known as Acapulco Diamante, with deluxe hotels lining the coast all the way to the airport and the former village of Barra Vieja.
Pie de la Cuesta
Pie de la Cuesta, around 15km north of Acapulco, is far more serene than the city and a good place to watch the sun sink into the Pacific or to ride horseback along the shore, though most of the horses here are a little worse for wear – their owners on the beach will try to charge rates in US$s, but you should be able negotiate hourly rates of M$150–200, especially mid-week. The sand extends for miles up the coast, but at the Acapulco end, where the bus drops you, there are several rickety bars and some tranquil places to stay.
Behind the beach, and only separated from the ocean by the hundred-metre-wide sandbar on which Pie de la Cuesta is built, lies the Laguna de Coyuca, a vast freshwater lake said to be three times the size of Acapulco Bay, which only connects with the sea after heavy rains. Fringed with palms, and rich in bird and animal life, the lagoon is big enough to accommodate both the ubiquitous noisy jet skiers and the more sedate boat trips that visit the three lagoon islands. Various outfits along the hotel strip offer tours – prices hover around M$85 per person – but it’s worth checking what’s on offer and how long the cruise is, as times tend to differ. Most boats stop on one island for lunch (not included in the price) and swimming. The bus from Acapulco (“Pie de la Cuesta”) runs every ten minutes or so from Costera south of the zócalo (M$5.50). The last bus back leaves around 8pm.
Acapulco’s famed clavadistas (cliff divers) having been plunging some 35m from the heights of La Quebrada into a rocky channel since the early 1920s (organized officially since 1934), timing their leap to coincide with an incoming wave. Mistimed, there’s not enough water to stop them hitting the bottom, though the chief danger these experts seem to face is getting back out of the water without being dashed against the rocks. It could easily be corny, but it’s undeniably impressive, especially when floodlit at night.
Acapulco divides fairly simply into two halves: the old town, which sits at the western end of the bay, with the promontory of La Quebrada rising above it and curving round to protect the sheltered anchorage; and the resort area, a string of hotels and tourist services following the curve of the bay east. From Playa Caleta on the southern fringe of the peninsula, a single seafront drive, the Costera Miguel Alemán – usually just “Costera” – stretches from the old town around the bay for 10km, linking almost everything of interest. Beyond here on the hills on the eastern side of the bay lie the posh neighbourhoods of Las Brisas and Acapulco Diamante, a newly developed area of malls and luxury resorts that encompasses Puerto Marqués, Playa Revolcadero and the beaches all the way south to Barra Vieja.