Boats in marina in Zihuatanejo, Mexico

Sunset in Zuhuatanejo, Mexico. (ThinkStock)

What to do in Zihuatanejo

Zihuatanejo is one half of a Pacific resort as famous for its split personality as for its golden, curving beaches and rolling waves. Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa could not be more different, but together they offer visitors two distinct sides of the same vacation destination.

Zihua, as it's known locally, is a traditional coastal city where tourists vacation and generations of Mexican families live and work. Along its palm-fringed shoreline, fishermen pull up pangas to sell their catch of the day; tourists loll in front of some of the area's most exclusive hotels; and locals and visitors of all ages splash, snorkel, dine, and play (it all depends on where in the curve of the bay you're standing). In El Centro, the city's traditional center with cobblestone streets, there's a mix of high-end boutiques and kitschy handicraft stalls, as well as a variety of food options, from tamale stands for travelers on a budget to romantic, waterside restaurants with excellent wine lists.

From the main square, you can watch fishermen rolling out their nets. Or stroll along Paseo del Pescador (Fisherman's Walk) toward the pier on one end or the small but excellent archaeological museum on the other (alas, it opens by no discernable schedule despite posted signs). At the pier, you can catch a water taxi to Las Gatas Beach, a protected swimming and snorkeling spot perfect for beginner snorkelers or families. Just ignore the hawking "salesmen" anxious to steer you to their restaurants or shops. La Ropa is arguably the city's most beautiful beach, and you don't have to be staying at a nearby hotel to enjoy it—all beaches are public.

Ixtapa is the polar opposite of traditional. It's a modern resort on a wide crescent of sand lined with high-rise hotels and glitzy shops and malls. It's the place for active watersports enthusiasts, especially parasailers who float in the sky beneath swaths of colored silk. The modern marina has shops and restaurants offering pleasant al fresco dining with multimillion-dollar yachts (and perhaps the occasional dock-cruising croc) as a backdrop. Ixtapa Ciclopista, the city's popular biking path, runs for 4.3 miles from the lower resort to the upper area, traversing through Parque Aztlan, a shady nature reserve, and accessing the dock from which to catch a day cruiser to Ixtapa Island. Experienced cyclists will want to challenge themselves and ride over the hills to Zihua. Ixtapa has its uber-touristy spots, too, like a few of the shops across the street from the beach and up near Playa Linda. A less-than-pristine crocodile park gives visitors a close-up look at wetlands critters. For the best animal encounter, though, check out Delfiniti Ixtapa, where you can swim with dolphins.

The truth is, you don't really have to choose between the two towns. Zihua and Ixtapa are just a few miles apart, and savvy travelers can experience the best of both.

Compare Rates to Zihuatanejo