Eight alluring resort towns reign on the Mexican Riviera
By Jennifer Davoren
Thriving art scenes and a lively nightlife flourish in some, while others have a laid-back vibe reminiscent of days past. Cool waves and warm sands tempt visitors to spend lazy hours in the surf, while ecotourism and backcountry adventures reveal natural wonders that lie beyond the beach.
Below, we've highlighted eight of our favorite destinations along the Mexican Riviera. Seven offer the luxury of all-inclusive resorts -- where food, lodging, most land and nonmotorized water sports, alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks and a bevy of activities and entertainment options are included in one flat rate that's paid up front. All eight destinations can provide the type of invigorating day-to-night vacations typical of the Mexican coast.
To book a vacation in any of the following locales, visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925.
As Mexico's first true resort destination, Acapulco reigned throughout the 1930s and '40s as the exclusive playground of the wealthy elite. Frank Sinatra kept a home here, and his love of the city led him to immortalize its clear, turquoise bay in the song "Come Fly with Me." Celebrities like Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart also were known to hit the town for extended weekends on the water.
A decade of development recently opened the city to a new audience, and a variety of budget attractions now lure international guests. Travelers of all types find common ground on Acapulco's main drag, La Costera, where chichi nightclubs join inexpensive local haunts. More than 12 miles of beach allow visitors to mingle and meet for a swim or an afternoon drink. For unparalleled views of the Pacific and its stunning sunsets, crowds often gather just north of town, on the beach of Pie de la Cuesta.
Don't leave without seeing the cliff divers of La Quebrada, whose stunning 12-story leaps have delighted visitors for nearly 80 years. Locals also recommend a day trip to the tiny island of Roqueta, an uninhabited hideout just 45 minutes offshore that's ideal for scuba diving, snorkeling and sunbathing.
There's no shortage of ocean views in sunny Huatulco, where nine different bay areas converge for a total of 36 public beaches. These waters are protected by a national park, offering unrivaled ecological tours of coral reefs and their abundant marine life. Snorkeling is a favorite pastime here -- with so much of the area covered in warm, translucent waters, divers can tour the reef system without fear of crowding.
In town, a number of five-star resorts cater to those seeking cushy amenities. The tourist district along Santa Cruz Bay is another draw, offering a thriving club scene and a number of small craft markets along the waterfront. Restaurants are plentiful here, and each provides a unique take on the local seafood. Shrimp stewed in mescal is a popular dish, as is the catch of the day served in a hollowed-out pineapple.
Huatulco is often referred to as Mexico's "secret" resort destination, as a planned redevelopment is still in its infancy. A relatively small number of foreign tourists lend the area a relaxed, play-it-by-ear feel, and the friendly nature of the locals betrays the city's roots as a sleepy fishing village.
This pristine resort town was literally made for vacationing. The Mexican government broke ground on Ixtapa in the late '60s to attract affluent tourists. Today, high-rise hotels, luxury condominiums and trendy restaurants line the beach, and the surrounding city offers every modern convenience.
There's never a shortage of activities here, with parasailing and banana boat rides available mere steps from every hotel room. Most hotels provide small stretches of private beach for their guests, with palapas by the water. Farther down the sand, local restaurants offer the latest in Mexican cuisine as well as a variety of international fare.
Four miles to the south -- just a 10-minute bus ride courtesy of the local transit system -- the quiet fishing village of Zihuatanejo offers a more traditional view of the region. It mirrors Ixtapa's many amenities, but its position along a deep, sweeping bay offers wider beaches and calmer waters.
Zihuatanejo won't remain sleepy for long, however, as hotels and resorts continue to grow along the sea -- visit soon, before the town comes into its own as a full-fledged vacation destination.
Its prime location on the eastern edge of the Baja Peninsula lends Loreto a clear, turquoise sea and a reputation as a whale-watcher's paradise. Hop on a cruise of the bay to marvel at the sea life, or to catch some of your own -- mahi, marlin and sailfish are plentiful here, and many local restaurants will cook your catches. If you prefer, spend the day on the beach and the night at a neighboring seafood house, where the fish of the day and a cold tropical drink will be waiting for you.
Historians love the area, too, and frequent the buildings left by the Jesuit missionaries who founded Loreto in 1697. Among area attractions are the Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto, which houses a collection of 17th- and 18th-century paintings, and the Mision de San Javier, with its antique, baroque-style altarpieces. In the hills west of town, archaeologists found 3,000-year-old cave paintings by Baja's earliest residents.
Visiting naturalists should head for the Bahia de Loreto National Marine Park, where a collection of protected islands provide a tranquil spot for swimming and diving. Sierra la Giganta, the hilly terrain that surrounds Loreto, proves popular among wildlife watchers and mountain bikers.
The popular "twin cities" of Mexico, Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, are often referenced as a single destination, Los Cabos. Their position on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula means exceptional access to the ocean, a boon to fisherman and whale-watchers alike. Both Cabos boast outstanding beaches, especially on the road connecting the two cities; this 23-mile-long "Cabo Corridor" also offers world-class golf courses by the sea.
The more modern Cabo San Lucas has grown in popularity in recent years and is known for a number of high-end tourist resorts. Nightclubs flourish here, making the city a top stop for the spring break crowd. Adventure tour outfitters thrive in Cabo, as off-road excursions in the desert have become a popular diversion for visitors.
Traditional San Jose del Cabo, on the other hand, is enjoyed most by history buffs. Some of the city's original structures -- a few dating to 18th-century efforts by Spanish missionaries -- still dot the downtown area. Visitors often pair a short day trip to San Jose with an afternoon on the beach.
Fishermen flock to the waters that surround Manzanillo, where world-class catches have made the city "Sailfish Capital of the World." Two fishing tournaments are held here each year, and Las Hadas Marina offers boat rentals and charters to prime casting spots.
Tourists can occupy themselves between fishing trips by hitting more than 40 miles of local beaches. Mild waves make for perfect sporting waters, and rentals of kayaking, surfing and snorkeling gear are common. Those in the mood for exercise head to La Florena, an ecological reserve with forested hiking trails, abundant wildlife and a system of prehistoric caves ready for exploration.
Nightlife abounds in Manzanillo's two distinct entertainment districts: El Centro, the "old town" center for shopping, boutique hotels and the city boardwalk, and the tony Zona Hotelera, or hotel zone, which occupies a scenic, five-mile stretch along the bay. Both offer tantalizing restaurants serving unique dishes, including sailfish ceviche, a delicious pork stew known as tatemado, and alfajor de coco y piña -- cookies made from fresh pineapples and coconuts, picked locally.
The "Pearl of the Pacific," Mazatlan is known for its inclusive and festive atmosphere. The annual carnival celebration, a great source of local pride, has been a city staple for more than a century. The local bar and nightclub complex, Fiesta Land, anchors the sprawling tourist hub known as the Golden Zone. The Pacifico Brewery is in Mazatlan; the popular beer could be the city's official drink, considering the amount consumed by tourists.
When the party does wind down, albeit temporarily, visitors will find themselves drawn to Mazatlan's ecological and historical areas. Cerro del Creston boasts rock climbing and the second-tallest lighthouse in the world. Plazuela de la Republica, the city's main square, offers a Gothic-style cathedral, a few traditional restaurants and, depending on the day, a host of art festivals, book fairs and other special events.
Still, most visitors can be found along Mazatlan's 20 miles of coastline, soaking up the sun and enjoying the clear waters that make up the northern border of the Mexican tropics. Surfing has nearly eclipsed the nightclub scene as the city's most popular activity -- though waves are at their biggest between May and September, three local beaches offer strong, steady surf year-round.
Popularized by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who stayed here while Burton filmed "The Night of the Iguana" in 1963, Puerto Vallarta has remained a quiet hideout for those in need of an escape. This is a relaxed, fun-loving city, where cobblestone streets still mark the old town square. A thriving arts community can be sampled by day, but an energetic club scene awaits visitors each night. Have dinner and drinks on one of the many balconies that provide views of the Pacific, the setting sun or cruise ships pulling into port.
Puerto Vallarta offers 25 miles of variety along scenic Banderas Bay, where beaches come in a range of sizes and specialties. To the south, the rolling Pacific has carved a number of small, secluded coves along the rocky Sierra Madre, and locals love to spend a quiet day on these sheltered beaches. To the north, the burgeoning village of Nuevo Vallarta offers a livelier pace, with a host of modern hotels and golf resorts.
Ecotourism is another draw for Puerto Vallarta, thanks to its position on the edge of a national park. A number of local guides offer hikes, horses and four-wheeling adventures through the jungle.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 998-6925 for current rates and details.