The journey north from Acapulco to Puerto Vallarta, some 800km along the Pacific coast, is defined by languid, tropical beach life at its finest. There’s history here, to be sure, but it’s the buttery sands studded with palms, the makeshift bars on the beach, lagoons and torpid villages that dominate, topped off with heart-melting sunsets and a rich array of seafood. Separating these stretches of wild, untouched coastline – and in stark contrast – are some of the most popular and enjoyable resorts in Mexico.
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Acapulco – the original, the biggest and, for many, the best of these resorts – is a steep-sided, tightly curving bay that, for all its excesses of high-rise development, remains breathtakingly beautiful. While tourists swarm the congested beaches, the city retains a local feel, with the coarse characteristics of a working port. Further north Zihuatanejo is an attractive, gentle resort where magnificent villas have popped up on the slopes overlooking inviting swathes of beach littered with palms, while the handsome colonial towns of Colima and Comala provide the allure (and dramatic volcanic scenery) inland. Further along the Pacific, the Costalegre contains some of the wildest and most beautiful stretches of coast anywhere, anchored by Barra de Navidad and its glorious sweep of sand surrounded by flatlands and lagoons. At the northern end of Jalisco state, international Puerto Vallarta feels altogether more manageable than Acapulco, with cobbled streets fanning out from a colonial plaza overlooking an oceanfront boulevard. With its party ambience and unbridled commercialism it’s certainly a resort, but if you travel far enough from the downtown beaches you can still find cove after isolated cove backed by forested mountains.
Hotels and condos completely cordon off Ixtapa’s lovely stretch of 2.5km beach – Playa de Palmar – from the road, forcing those who can’t afford the hotels’ inflated prices to squeeze through a couple of access points or use the hotels’ facilities. The beach is fine for volleyball or long walks, but often too rough for easy swimming, and plagued by jet skis.
Powered watersports are also in evidence at the inappropriately named Playa Quieta, some 5km north of Ixtapa, which is dominated by Club Med and seemingly perpetual clans of inebriated spring-breakers. The water here is wonderfully clear and the surrounding vegetation magnificent, but with the exception of Restaurant Neptuno, which predictably specializes in fresh seafood, you won’t get anything to eat or drink unless you pay handsomely to enter the confines of the three luxury resorts that dominate the beach.
Playa Linda is a huge sweep of greyish sand, with a cluster of enramadas at the pier end where the bus (M$8) drops you off. As well as the usual trinket vendors, you can hire horses or rent jet skis and surfboards at the shacks along the beach. To find all the space you need, keep walking away from the crowded pier end: the restaurants are supplanted by coconut groves, which in turn give way to small cliffs and an estuary with birdlife and reptiles.
Boats leave from the pier at Playa Linda for Isla Ixtapa, a small island a couple of kilometres offshore with two fine swimming beaches, a spot reserved for snorkelling (rent gear for M$120) and diving (you can easily walk between the three locations) and a few restaurants, but nowhere to stay.
Pacific coast fiestas
- Día de la Candelaria (Feb 2). Celebrated in Colima with dances, processions and fireworks.
- Fiesta Brava (Feb 5). A day of bullfights and horse races in Colima.
- Carnaval (the week before Lent; variable Feb–March). Acapulco and Manzanillo are both famous for the exuberance of their celebrations; rooms can be hard to find.
- Semana Santa (Holy Week). Widely observed: the Palm Sunday celebrations in Petatlán, just south of Zihuatanejo, are particularly fervent.
- Cinco de Mayo (May 5). Celebrations in commemoration of the victorious battle of Cinco de Mayo, especially in Acapulco.
- Festival de las Lluvias (May 8). Celebrated in Mochitlán, near Chilpancingo, the festival has pre-Christian roots: pilgrims, peasants and local dance groups climb a nearby volcano at night, arriving at the summit at dawn to pray for rain. Manzanillo celebrates its Founder’s Day.
- Founder’s Day (May 8). The city of Manzanillo celebrates the day it was founded.
- Día de San Isidro (May 15). A week-long festival in Acapulco to celebrate St Isidore the Labourer, the patron saint of farmers, with dances and cockfights.
- Día de la Marina (Navy Day; June 1). Celebrated in the ports, particularly Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo and Acapulco.
- Día de Santiago (Sept 28). Celebrated in several villages immediately around Acapulco.
- Feria (first week of Nov). Colima’s major festival runs from the last days of October until November 8.
- Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead; Nov 2). Widely observed, with picturesque traditions in Atoyac de Alvarez, just off the Acapulco–Zihuatanejo road.
- Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (Dec 12). In honour of the patroness of Mexico. Acapulco has fervent celebrations, while in Manzanillo the celebrations start at the beginning of the month. In Puerto Vallarta they continue until the end of it.
Most of the Jalisco coast, between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta, has been dubbed the Costalegre (the “happy coast”; costalegre.com), the wildest, most undeveloped stretch of Mexico’s Pacific shore. Beyond the low-key resorts of Melaque and Barra de Navidad, Hwy-200 snakes north for around 225km past lonely beaches, small villages and vast swathes of jungle-smothered mountains.
Bahía de Navidad
Some 60km north of Manzanillo, just across the border in Jalisco, the Bahía de Navidad is edged by fine, honey-coloured sands anchored by the twin towns of San Patricio-Melaque and Barra de Navidad at the southern end of the bay – here the beach runs out into a sandbar, forming a lagoon behind the town.
Barra is a small, sleepy place, where the main activities revolve around beaches. A continuous arc of golden sand joins Barra with Melaque, running along the bay for some 8km – at Barra it’s known as Playa de Navidad, a fairly narrow and steep section that is often washed away during hurricanes (the last bad one was Hurricane Patricia in 2015).
If you have time, it’s worth taking a panga across the Laguna de Navidad to check out one of the bars or restaurants in the Grand Bay Hotel on the Isla Navidad, back in Colima state, or Colimilla, a small village a bit further along the lagoon. Colimilla is popular chiefly for its seafood restaurants, and as a base for the 2–3km walk over to the rough Pacific beach of Playa de los Cocos.