Find Your Own Damn Zihuatanejo

Travel Stories: Peter Ferry has been there, and he isn't going to help you find it

10.14.09 | 11:08 AM ET

Zihuatanejo, Mexico beachiStockPhoto

Acapulco is the Fort Lauderdale of Mexico: too urban for a beach resort. And the European plan at our hotel doesn’t turn out to be such a bargain when we are served canned spaghetti for dinner. So we look at the map, and there up the coast at the very end of the road is a place called Zihuatanejo.

It’s that way literally. The coast road stops there. But it is also that way figuratively. It’s the name on the boat the Tim Robbins character in the “Shawshank Redemption” is working on after he’s escaped from prison and society. It’s the end of the world.

We follow the road along the coastal plain for 75 miles through villages of stick houses with thatched roofs and over rivers on the banks of which women have laid out their brightly colored wash to dry in the sun. Then the pavement stops. The last 40 miles is a dirt track full of potholes. We inch along. We pick up a hitchhiker who looks very much like a refugee from a Graham Greene novel. He is a small, middle-aged man wearing a dusty suit and a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a cardboard suitcase. He is Zihuatanejo’s minister of tourism, he tells us with a straight face. But, indeed, when we drop him off on the town’s only street, he unlocks the Office of Tourism and goes inside.

We find ourselves beside a broad, blue bay. Forested mountains rise behind us. Along the beach there are a few “hotels” that seem to consist of not much more than hammocks slung from the eaves of one long, low building. There are a couple of dirt-floored restaurants. There is a modest little church against the exterior wall of which, we are told, movies are sometimes shown. There is a radio telephone that can patch through to Acapulco in case of emergency (it is turned off at 11). There are brightly painted fishing boats anchored just off shore, bobbing in the waves.

The minister of tourism has told us about two new hotels that have been built on the bay south of town. The prefabricated units of one of these have been airlifted in by helicopter. We choose the other. To get to it we have to ford a rushing stream that proves a little deeper than we expect.

The Hotel Sotavento is built in terraces down the steep hillside to the beach. One terrace is a lovely open-air restaurant, an office and a lobby. The others are banks of rooms the common walls of which are stone, but the other two walls of which are screen and one of them opens onto a wide, private veranda hung with hammocks and overlooking the bay.

The beach is broad, white and nearly empty except for a couple topless Dutch girls down the way, a farmer and his cows which are grazing along its fringes and a barefoot waiter dressed all in white who appears out of nowhere at almost the exact moment you are thinking, “I believe I’m getting a little thirsty.”

The manager of the Sotavento is a Frenchman with a degree in architecture from the University of Illinois who has come to this quiet place “for my heart.” (We don’t know if his is bad or broken.) He invites us for a drink on the veranda of his private apartment, and when I am a bit too effusive about the beauty of the place, he turns his face toward the sea and cloudless sky and says, “Blue, blue, blue; sometimes I get so f______ sick of blue.”

But it really is astoundingly beautiful. Or was, for all of this took place nearly 40 years ago. If you go to Zihuatanejo today, there is a jetport and an adjoining resort called Ixtapa full of high rises, Starbucks and first-time American tourists.

So I tricked you, you say. Not really. Zihuatanejo is still somewhere. it’s just not there anymore. And it if were, by the time you’d be reading about it here, it wouldn’t be for long.

No, you have to find your own Zihuatanejo. It may be in Guatemala or Sri Lanka or the mountains of northern Thailand. It might be on the coast of Colombia, or off the coast of British Columbia or even, as is the case with a close friend I was just talking to on the phone, in South Dakota.

No, you won’t read about it here. The only way to find it is to go to Cartagena or Bangkok or Vancouver and ask the people who live there. They’ll tell you.

And how about me? Have I ever found another Zihuatanejo?

Of course.

MORE ON PETER FERRY: Audio interview about writing novels and non-fiction

Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Old Heart, which Dave Eggers says "has the power to change lives" and Book Week says is a "superbly written, life affirming novel about love and second chances." Ferry is also the author of the novel Travel Writing.

6 Comments for Find Your Own Damn Zihuatanejo

Marcy Gordon 10.14.09 | 4:51 PM ET

Odd synchronicity -Yesterday I picked up Peter Ferry’s novel “Travel Writing” based on the title alone. And today I find this great story here on World Hum. I went to Cartagena in the early 1970’s with my Mother. I can’t imagine what I’d find there now. But I have been thinking of re-visiting all the places she took me as a child just for the jolt of wonder tempered with regret.

Jim Benning 10.14.09 | 5:00 PM ET

That’s great, Marcy. I can’t recommend “Travel Writing” enough. It’s a great read.

Be sure to listen to my interview with Peter, too. I, too, picked up the book based on the title. It has little to do with travel writing, but no matter. It’s gripping.

Kate 10.19.09 | 11:53 AM ET

I absolutely loved this piece - one of my favorites on worldhum so far. You did indeed trick me - my heart actually sunk! It’s such a trade off, isn’t it? I love globalization in that it has made it easier than ever for me to travel, yet I loathe it because places like your ‘former’ Zihuatanejo are rapidly vanishing - I guess eventually there won’t be any Zihuatanejos left!

Greenhousecarol 10.21.09 | 6:50 AM ET

I was in Zihuatanejo 35 years ago, (before Ixtapa) so I enjoyed reading this recollection. It is places such as this that set you off on a life of travel.  And I agree, there are many ‘Zihuatanejos’ to visit. I will be asking the people in Cochin (south India) next month, as you advise!

JD Roberto 10.25.09 | 8:14 PM ET

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile about 10 years ago.  Not sure what its like now but at the time my wife and I felt like we’d finally found a place BEFORE everyone else.

If you’re willing to wander alot, there are still parts of Goa, India that are pretty great as well.

Great, well written piece. Thanks for sharing it with us.

JD Roberto

Shadia 10.26.09 | 4:00 PM ET

Totally agree re: Zihua.  We went for the first time this year and could see how it would have been a gem several years ago.  If you go to Zihua and are looking for that small town place, definitely go to Barra de Potosi - about an hour away.  This is very similar to what Jim’s written about here.  Loved the writing!

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.