How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in the Mexican Beach Town of Zihuatanejo
Where to stay, as well as what to eat and do in this off-the-beaten-path destination
They say familiarity breeds contempt, which might be why some American travelers dismiss Mexico as a valid destination. Proximity aside, the over-saturation of American influence in cities like Cabo and Cancun, Tulum and even Mexico City is another argument against, but sticking to those touristy areas is for amateurs. There’s such an abundance of diversity of culture, landscape and lifestyle in our southern neighbor, that it would take a whole lifetime to explore. That might be a worthy way to spend a life, but in this case we’ve only got a weekend — why not explore one of the best, still somewhat-undiscovered beachy corners of the state of Guerrero instead?
Zihuatanejo, a sleepy beach town on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, is located a few hours northwest of Acapulco. Known for its fishing and abundant sea life, pristine beaches and serene setting, the smaller town of Zihuatanejo is situated next to the much larger city of Ixtapa. Fans of the Shawshank Redemption may also recognize this town as the idyllic paradise where Andy eventually retires after his escape, and while fleeing the law to hide away in a remote beach paradise is a bit of a stereotype, it also feels somewhat accurate to portray Zihua — as the locals call it — as a place to decamp when you want to leave the world behind.
Luckily, visiting Zihua isn’t about leaving everything about civilization behind, as there are still plenty of luxury hotels in the area to make your stay a little nicer. Since Mexico is experiencing something of a luxury hotel renaissance right now, you’ll have your pick (although we have a specific recommendation below).
How To Get There
If you’re based in and around LA, there’s a regular direct flight from LAX to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo International Airport (airport code ZIH, in case you’re already typing it into your own airline app) on Alaska Airlines. Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco all offer direct routes as well, and Dallas, Houston and Minneapolis have direct routes on a seasonal basis (November/December-April). Starting from most other destinations means a layover in Mexico City, but it’s only about an hour onward from there.
Please be advised: ZIH airport is a small one, nary a lounge and one bar exist in the tiny central hub…and there’s limited air conditioning. Dress for the heat when heading in and out of the city, and leave plenty of time for traffic and potential security stops on the way back.
Where To Stay
As mentioned, there is no shortage of luxury hotels getting installed in Mexico of late, and plenty of beautiful properties already dot the steep cliffs of Zihua, all offering incredible ocean views. But only one is directly on the beach, so close that there’s no need for a white noise machine, as the actual waves will lull you to sleep. The Thompson Zihuatanejo is only the brand’s third location in Mexico, which is a decent indication of how valuable they think the area is.
Not only does the Thompson offer coastal access, but the culinary programming onsite is led by chef Javier Garcia Cerrillo, a Francis Mallmann acolyte who brings the live fire grilling techniques of his mentor into smoky precision across multiple dining concepts. Unfazed by beaches or grilled meats? The swim-up and plunge pool suites available at this property are another draw, offering an unparalleled level of privacy that still comes with an ocean view. Finally, unlike cliffside hotels or those located a bit farther away in Ixtapa, guests at the Thompson can take a beachside path to and from the central hub of Zihua, so a car isn’t always necessary to get into town. For all these reasons combined, and a few more culinary-centric ones detailed below, the Thompson is the best hotel pick in the area.
What To Do
Day 1: Sunset beach drinks and Humo “smoked dinner”
Odds are, if you’ve booked a trip to Zihuatanejo, it’s because you’re craving some beach time. Most guests will be arriving in the afternoon or evening, as even on a direct LA flight — one of the shortest — the trip takes three hours. A perk of this beachside city is that it’s only about 15-20 minutes from the airport, so there’s no lengthy transfer once you’re through customs. That means after checking into your room, or while you’re waiting for it to be ready, it’s straight to the beach to rinse off the stickiness of the airplane. Oceanfront hotels tend to make the sand easy to find, so wander out to Hao, the alfresco bar and restaurant, grab a drink and stick your toes in the sand at the famous Playa Ropa beach. Hands down, the best part of Zihua is that the water is bathwater temp, so walking through the surf might be in order.
Chef Javier and Hao rotate through a number of different seasonal menus, but one of the best is Humo, or “smoked dinner,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Chef takes all manner of fresh vegetables — including some herbs and produce grown in the property’s own garden — prepared meats, and even some desserts, and puts them all on the grill. (Yes, smoked cheesecake is available!) Again, Chef Javier studied under Mallmann, so expect the flavor of the wood used to grill to come through more than any additional sauce or seasoning. It’s a very traditional South American style of live fire cooking, one that’s remained historic for a reason.
Day 2: Out On The Water + Kitchen in the Wild
As mentioned, Zihuatanejo is a fishing town, so get out on the water and try your hand at the local pursuit. Commissioning a boat for a half day or full day trip is easy when there’s so many around, and staff at the Thompson can easily arrange one for your party if needed. Starting out early is key to having a chance at catching the hefty black tuna that populate the area, so expect a wake up call around 6 AM. Note, any travelers who possibly suffer from seasickness should take Dramamine the night before, so it’s already in your system, and right after waking up. It’s a lifesaver!
Returning from the catch by late afternoon means a nap, a drink and a shower is the perfect way to set up for dinner. One of the little luxurious perks of the swim up suites at the Thompson is a large, private outdoor shower, which can be enjoyed with their custom D.S. & Durga Bowmaker products. Toiletries aren’t always worth calling out, but this boutique husband-and-wife-run perfumery is something special.
Another of the many special dining options the property offers is called Dinner in the Wild, where a private table and makeshift kitchen (read: grill) is set up in the secluded garden area of the hotel. Surrounded by trees, local fauna and lots of string lights, this private dining experience is perfect for a special occasion or celebration. It’s also set back far enough from the beach, and quite literally into the wild, that bug spray is a great amenity to bring if you indulge in this. Everything is prepared within view of the table, and if you managed to reel anything in during the day, it’s likely the chef will be cooking the catch and serving it fresh.
Day 3: Shopping and Beach Day in Ixtapa
Hop in a car or take a breezy 20 minute walk down to the main drag of Zihua for breakfast to get a taste of the local fare. At Bistro Del Mar — which, true to its name, is right on the water — everything from huevos divorciados to the local, fresh squeezed “Zihuatanejo” juice blend of orange juice, coconut, papaya and strawberry is on offer. Since you’re already in town, take a few hours to explore the nearby city of Ixtapa, which is much more commercialized and tourism-focused, and provides a great contrast to the sleepiness of the fishing village. The beaches in Ixtapa are also easily accessible, so spending a few hours on the sand there is an option, or even renting bikes and exploring the bike paths that wind through town.
The shopping area of Zihuatanejo is small, but it’s also worth exploring. We recommend Mario’s Leather Shop for any custom leather and embossed leather needs. If he isn’t around, give the number on the sign on the door a call, and he’ll pull up on a vespa and open the store for anyone at a moment’s notice — that’s the kind of hospitality you get from a custom leatherworker.
If you’re a fan of taking a break between daytime activities and formal dinner, spend a few hours boozing and swimming in the private pool that the swim up suites have access to (or either of the main pools, one of which is adults only), or spend an hour or two in the spa. Since the peso to dollar conversion is very generous for Americans, spa treatments in Mexico are always a good idea; the service is still very high quality while the price point tends to be very low compared to American standards.
Finish out your weekend with a visit to the property’s other restaurant, Ceniza, which still features ocean views, this time situated under a traditional palm-thatched palapa. Mexican surf and turf is the name of the game here, and another example of Chef Javier’s ability to bring fine dining to this small but mighty beach town.
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