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.
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.
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.
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.
Puerto Vallarta lies at the centre of the Bahía de Banderas, prime beach territory easily explored via rental car, or with more time, public bus and water taxi. Indeed, for the more peaceful and scenic beaches further south – Playa Las Animas and Yelapa are the most appealing – a boat is the only means of access.
To the north, over the state line in Nayarit, the bay arcs out to Punta de Mita, some 30km away. A summer preserve for Guadalajarans and a winter retreat for motorhome vacationers from the north, these gorgeous beaches offer facilities in just a few spots – Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerías and Punta de Mita – leaving many kilometres of secluded sand for camping and some excellent surf breaks.
From the beach at Mismaloya boats are on hand to take you snorkelling at Los Arcos, a magical underwater park around a group of offshore islands, some creating the eponymous arches. A superb array of brightly coloured fish – parrot, angel, pencil, croaker and scores of others – negotiate the deep rock walls and the boulder-strewn ocean floor. In addition to ninety-minute trips from the beach, boats are rented to groups for unlimited periods. Operators usually charge M$250 for basic snorkelling trips.
PV boasts two zip lines (aka “canopy tours”) competing for your pesos. The oldest is Los Veranos Canopy Tour (322 223 6060), in the small village of Las Juntas y Los Veranos, above Boca de Tomatlán. This is a series of fourteen exhilarating zip lines along cables up to 60m high and 335m long over the Río Orquídeas; zip past coffee trees, vanilla vines and agave plants.
Competition is supplied by Canopy River (322 222 0560), twelve higher zip lines (200m) including the longest in Mexico (420m), a small river beach in the jungle and transportation to the site.
If you travel north of Puerto Vallarta you need to put your watch back one hour: Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerías, Punta de Mita and Sayulita officially lie within the Zona Pacífico (Pacific Zone), the equivalent of Canadian and US Mountain Time, which starts at the Jalisco/Nayarit state border, just north of Puerto Vallarta’s airport. However, because Nuevo Vallarta, Bucerías and Punta de Mita are so close to PV, most businesses work on Zona Central (US Central) times; Sayulita officially changed to Central time in 2011. If you are given a time followed by the word Jalisco, it means Zona Central; if followed by Nayarit, it is Zona Pacífico time.
COLIMA, capital of the state and 98km inland from Manzanillo, is a distinctly colonial city, and a very beautiful one too, overlooked by the perfectly conical Volcán de Colima and, in the distance, the Nevado de Colima. With a handful of sights inside the city limits and interesting excursions nearby, it’s a pleasant place to stop over for a night or two. Colima’s Old World ambience, favourable climate – cooler than the coast, but never as cold as in the high mountains – and several good-value hotels and restaurants add to its appeal.
The city’s prettiest features are its chain of shady formal plazas or jardínes – Colima is known as the “City of Palms” – and a number of attractive courtyards, many of which are now used as restaurants and cafés and make wonderfully cool places to relax. The central Plaza Principal (known as Jardín Libertad) is where you’ll find the government offices and the unimpressive Neoclassical cathedral, which dates from 1941.
The relatively tiny state of Colima has just 139km of coastline, stretching from the Boca de Apiza to the Cerro de San Francisco in Jalisco, but there’s plenty to tempt you off Hwy-200. The southern section boasts several laidback villages worth exploring, from the surf magnet of Boca de Pascuales to Cuyutlán, with a long beach lined with palapa restaurants. In stark contrast, Manzanillo is a major resort and another Mexican fishing port claiming the title “sailfish capital of the world”.
You can get a closer look at the regal volcanoes north of Colima by spending an afternoon at COMALA, a tidy, picture-perfect Pueblo Mágico 10km north of the state capital. Here, in the central plaza or Jardín Principal, admire the church of San Miguel del Espíritu Santo, completed in 1832, or just sip a beer or margarita while enjoying a stellar view of the mountains and listening to mariachi bands. Friday and Saturday are the liveliest times, when you can mingle with day-tripping, predominantly middle-class Mexicans from Guadalajara; on Sundays and Mondays there are craft markets in the square.
The Parque Nacional Volcán Nevado de Colima comprises two spellbinding volcanoes rising north of Colima. The Volcán de Colima (3860m), also known as Volcán de Fuego, is officially still active and smokes from time to time, though there seems little imminent danger. It is far less frequently climbed than its larger and more passive brother, the Nevado de Colima (4330m), which, with its pine- and oak-forested slopes, is popular with local mountaineers during the clear, dry winter months. Unless there’s a lot of snow – in December and January crampons and an ice axe are essential – and provided you are fit and can get transport high enough, it’s a relatively easy hike up to the summit. Joining an organized tour is the hassle-free alternative and recommended for less experienced hikers.
Independently, you’ll need to set three days aside for the climb, take a sleeping bag and waterproofs, pack enough food and water for the trip and walk from the village of El Fresnito. First, take a bus from Terminal Foránea in Colima to Ciudad Guzmán (about 1hr 30min) and from there catch a bus from stall #21 to El Fresnito, where there are very limited supplies. Ask for the road to La Joya – take this and keep right until the route becomes obvious. This rough service road for the radio antennae leads up through cow pastures and goes right past the cabin at La Joya (3500m), about six to eight hours’ walking (35km). You pay the entry fee and can tank up from the supply of running water here, but don’t expect to stay in the hut, which is often locked, and even if open may be full, as it only sleeps six – bring camping equipment. The usual route from here is via a steep climb to the radio antennae (“Las Antenas”), from where it’s another stiff but non-technical walk to the summit. Plan on a day from La Joya to the summit and back, then another to get back to Colima, though a very fit walker starting before dawn could make the trip back to Colima, or at least Ciudad Guzmán, in a day. Note that hitching isn’t an option as the logging roads up here are rough, requiring high clearance or 4WD vehicles, and see very little traffic.
Just 7km north of Zihuatanejo, IXTAPA could hardly be more different. Ixtapa is a computer-planned “paradise” resort, established by Fonatur in the 1970s, and even today, a fairly soulless place. Its single coastal drive (Paseo Ixtapa) runs past a series of concrete boxes of varying heights, making Zihuatanejo far more appealing. Ixtapa does, however, sport some excellent beaches, nightlife and activities, including plenty to keep children entertained.
Hotels and condos completely cordon off Ixtapa’s lovely 2.5km stretch of 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 for day rates of around M$100. 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 a solitary seafood restaurant 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 local bus from the centre of town 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 and diving (you can easily walk between the three locations) and a few restaurants, but nowhere to stay.
Thanks to its mesmerizing sunsets, kilometres of sandy beaches and a laidback, colonial centre, PUERTO VALLARTA is a small city dependent almost entirely on tourism; it attracts a mixed bag of North American retirees, Mexican families, spring breakers, cruise-ship day-trippers and gay visitors taking advantage of its emergence as one of the gay centres of Mexico. If you’re looking for traditional Mexico you might find this wholly unappealing, but while it’s true that PV (as it’s known) can be more expensive and certainly more touristy than the average Mexican town, it can also be lots of fun.
It’s smaller and more relaxed than Cancún and Acapulco, and its location, surrounded by lofty mountains, is spectacular. Behind the beaches there’s a vibrant Mexican city, largely undisturbed by the flow of visitors, which means that the choice of tasty, cheap street food – especially tacos – is some of the best on the coast, and in between the souvenir shops and chichi boutiques are some exceptionally good art galleries. The beach remains the primary attraction however, with the less crowded resorts and villages of the Bahía de Banderas fringed by endless stretches of sand and backed by the jungle-covered slopes of the Sierra Madre.
The town was officially founded in the 1850s (when it was known as Las Peñas – it was renamed in 1918, after Ignacio L. Vallarta, former governor of Jalisco), but there had been a small fishing and smuggling village located where the Río Cuale spills out into the bay for years. Initially developed by the Union en Cuale mining company, it remained a sleepy place until the 1950s, when Mexican airlines started promoting the town as a resort (the first hotel opened in 1948). Their efforts received a shot in the arm in 1963, when John Huston chose Mismaloya, 10km south, as the setting for his film of Tennessee Williams’ play The Night of the Iguana, starring Richard Burton.
Over the last decade, frantic development has mostly overwhelmed the tropical-village atmosphere, though the historic town centre at least retains its charming cobbled streets and white-walled, terracotta-roofed houses.
North of Ixtapa, Hwy-200 follows the coast for 100km or so before crossing the Guerrero border into Michoacán state and the industrial city of Lázaro Cárdenas. From here the highway continues for another 260km through a wilder, virtually uninhabited area: there are fabulous beaches, but for the most part the mountains of the Sierra de Coalcomán drop straight into the ocean – it’s the most spectacular, best preserved and least developed section of the Pacific coast. You’ll make the most of this region if you have your own transport, though experienced hikers often camp and walk large sections of the coast. If you do travel by bus, sit at the front and prepare for some severe hairpin bends. In all cases, avoid travel at night.
You’ll find plenty of budget accommodation in Caleta, much of it close to the beach, and numerous places to grab a meal; there is a string of bars and restaurants down at the beach and a plethora of taco stands and mini-markets along the main street.
PLAYA MARUATA is by far the most enticing beach on the coast, and the best one for camping. Once an isolated Nahua fishing village, it has developed into a laidback backpacker and surfer resort, with locals providing cheap eats and accommodation, as well as leading the effort to protect the turtles that frequent their beaches.
The main beach is a 3km stretch of sand perfect for swimming and snorkelling, while the more intriguing middle section is riddled with boulders and caves, including an enigmatic finger of rock known as the Dedo de Dios (“God’s finger”). The third section is known as Playa de los Muertos, dogged by dangerous currents and waves. From Maruata it’s another 80km to the Colima border at Boca de Apiza – there are numerous surfer hangouts along the way (Playa La Ticla and San Juan de Alima among them).
A further 8km up the Michoacan coast from Plata Maruata is Colola, another long stretch of sand much favoured by wildlife spotters, as it’s far less known and tends to attracts more turtles than Maruata. During October and November both leatherback and green turtles make their way up the sandbar to lay their eggs, and hotel owners organize beach walks to see them.
Around 240km along the coast from Acapulco, ZIHUATANEJO (“zee-watt-a-NEH-ho”) for all its growth in recent years, has retained something of the look and feel of the traditional fishing village it once was. In stark contrast to neighbour Ixtapa, what building there has been is small-scale, low-key and low-rise, and the town looks over an attractive bay, ringed by broad, sandy beaches excellent for swimming and snorkelling. This said, it is definitely a resort: taxi drivers are forever advertising for customers, trinket and tacky T-shirt shops are abundant and as likely as not there’ll be a cruise ship moored out in the bay. Despite the proliferation of luxury hotels, though, there are at least a fair number of small, reasonably priced places to stay as well as some inexpensive restaurants. For some, Zihuatanejo is the ideal compromise – quiet by night, yet with the more commercial excitements of Ixtapa nearby.
The car park at Playa La Ropa might seem an unlikely place for a miracle, but according to locals, on November 27, 2006 an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe – Mexico’s patron saint and most revered apparition of Mary – suddenly appeared carved into the trunk of a plum tree right here. The image was quickly deemed a miracle, and though officially unsanctioned by the Church, it is now a mini-pilgrimage site, with candles, offerings and bright flowers enveloping the tree.
For absolute peace and quiet, the best thing you can do is to take a day-trip out of Zihuatanejo to Barra de Potosí, a tiny community situated at the southern end of the expansive, postcard-perfect, golden sandy beaches of Playa Larga and Playa Blanca, which curve steeply round the bay and keep going as far as the eye can see. There are plenty of enramadas (beach restaurants) here that sell delicious seafood for half the price of the restaurants in town, and boat trips into the Laguna de Potosí, a large mangrove estuary teeming with birdlife.