Thursday, 21 March 2013

How I Spent My Winter Vacation - Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Mexico – Feb 27- Mar 13, 2013


About Us:           It’s important to understand the perspective of the report, so here is a bit of information about us.  We are a couple from western Canada, in our mid 50’s. While we have enjoyed 13 all-inclusive resorts, all being 4 ½ - 5 star, we decided it was time to try something different so we now have a condominium rental under our belts.  We travel as a couple and also with a group of 4-12.  We find the needs of group travel significantly differs from those as a couple.  We generally like to “do our research” before choosing a destination/resort and rely upon the experience of others primarily through vacation destination reports and feedback, and the knowledge of an experienced travel agent.  We have visited many parts of Mexico; Montego Bay, Jamaica; and Puerto Plata and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic .  We have also travelled much of the US and Canada.
 
Last year we opted for a spontaneous trip Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo to attend the International Guitar Festival.  We loved it so  much, we decided we needed to return this year. 

We  booked a condo through VRBO (Home Away) and our airfare through Westjet, using our trusted travel agent. The value of a good travel agent can't be understated, particularly, in times of trouble and we have learned this through experience.  While there was no direct benefit to us in booking  our airfare through her, we do it as a means of supporting her.  Her contact information is:  Luana Johnsgaard, luana@travelonly.net.  

We also booked a full day excursion with Miguel Martinez a Tour guide we met last year when he led us to Paracho, Michoacan.  We were so impressed by his expertise and flexibility, we stayed in touch.  He is a very proud Mexican who loves to show of us country and educate while entertaining you. 

Scoring:               1(Poor) to 10 (Perfection)

Overall Impression of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, Mexico:  Scoring:  9    Ixtapa itself is a planned community, developed in the 1970's by Fonatur, much like Cancun.  Whereas Cancun has taken off like a house on fire,  Ixtapa's growth has been slow which we consider an asset as the community continues to retain the ambience of a true Mexican community.  Many of the resorts, primarily located adjacent the beach, are due for some serious facelifts and some of them have converted from resorts to condominium resort complexes, offering 'the best of both worlds', private ownership of a unit, as well as the perks of an all-inclusive – a bar, sometimes a restaurant, nice pools, grounds, and beach palapas.  There is also considerable residential development (with a few B & Bs) occupied by wealthy Mexican or ex-pat families, off the beach.  Ixtapa has a very well developed tourist area with shopping and restaurants within easy walking distance of most of the resorts.  There is also a small mercado which carries all the groceries you will need during your stay, including fresh produce, meats, etc. if you aren't concerned about price and aren't looking for anything special.

                                                                                  Ixtapa Sunset
 

Playa Palmar beach is beautiful  though the water has quite an attitude. . . last year it stole my sunglasses, gave me a sea-sand fully body scrub and did it's best to strip the clothing right off my back!  This year, it didn't have much chance as we spent more time around the pool, partly because one of us was still convalescing from surgery and partly because one of us (and that would be me) was a wee bit intimidated by the size of the waves –on some days, as high as 3 metres).  Suffice to say, there aren't a lot of tourists in the water and body surfing and boogie boarding is a popular pastime. 

                                                                              Big Surf
 
Zihuatanejo is occupied primarily by Mexicans.  Although tourism is clearly evident, there is still very much a Mexican vibe.  The two communities are about a 5 minute cab ride or a 15-minute bus ride apart.  The local transportation is very reliable and safe; a cab costs about $6US one-way and the bus around $.25  The people are exceptionally friendly and helpful; English is not well-spoken by locals outside of the resorts (we enjoy the challenge as we have only 'tourista Espanola") but if you are receptive, the local people go out of their way to communicate with you.  This is one of the reasons we are so attracted to this area of the Pacific Coast.  Unlike the Mayan Riviera, intentionally developed for tourism, the West coast  is home to families which are willing to share their Paradise.  While tourism is the primary industry,  Zihuatanejo is still a fishing village and, due to the drop in tourism, many Mexicans employed in the industry also supplement their income in the off season, making cottage industries a true economic mainstay.
 
 Zihuatanejo Centro
 
 
                                                                              Peppers at Mercado Centro
 
We spent considerably more time exploring the local area this time, shopping at the Commercial and Bodega mercados for groceries; visiting the Mercado Centro, a true Mexican-style market; exploring other beaches, etc.  I don't know what to say except that this culture has managed to hang onto something that we seem to have lost – an overwhelming belief in the goodness of people and the need to connect with everyone they encounter.  It's not only charming, it's refreshing and absolutely heartwarming! 
We love this area so much, we are pretty sure we are going back which really is not 'us'.  We are usually attracted to new destinations, rarely returning to the same one twice.  As Playa Palmar is clearly within the tourist zone, we thought we should check out other accommodations.  We found the waters of Playa Madera and Playa la Ropa to have gentler waves, but they are also located within the same Bay as Playa Principal, which is not particularly clean; whereas Playa Palmar is located on open water and one of the few certified 'clean' beaches in Mexico.  We visited the Marina which offers accommodations and daily rentals of every type, from yachts to pangas.  Accommodations on Madera and la Ropa are generally not directly on the beach and few we found offer cooking facilities or even fridges.  While there are some restaurants and shops, we didn't find as many choices (though the prices were better).   While we feel Ixtapa ticked off more boxes for our preferences, we talked to many who were genuinely pleased with their choices on Madera and la Ropa and met just as many who have purchased properties in these areas.
 
                                                                                  Playa Madera
 




Zihuatanejo International  Guitar Festival  http://www.zihuafest.info/

Rating:  9/10      We were so impressed last year that we couldn't possibly see ZIGF delivering the same level of service and quality of music two years in a row.  We were dead wrong!   With a combination of repeat performances and new musicians, we were just as wowed this year as last.  The Festival provides airfare and accommodation to the musician, who is otherwise unpaid.  Venues are open-air restaurants and bars in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.  We always tried to get there a bit early to get a front seat.  There was food and liquor available in all venues that we attended.  The Festival also invites 1,000 local children to attend a special performance and there is a free concert at la Cancha (a public gathering place) on the final day.   A cover charge of $10US covers 3 sets of one hour each.  Opening night and the final jam were $15US. We think it is a steal of a deal.  The musicians are accommodated through Casa Heidi and, while language may be a barrier, they are all have intimate knowledge of the language of music.  This sets the scene for some fabulous collaborative efforts which fans are privy to on the final jam, a night literally filled with standing ovations.  If there was one slight disappointment, we found the service, food and drinks at one venue (el Pueblita) to be less than expected.  On two nights, the only way we received service was to hunt down the waiter whenever we needed anything; the food wasn't particularly good this year; and we heard several complaints the drinks were watered down.   This was not our experience last year and was certainly not enough to detract us from enjoying the overall experience.
                                                                           Paul Renna, USA

                                                                          Diego Garcia, Spain

                                                                          Paul Pigat, Canada

                                                                      Josue Tacaronet, Cuba
 
Paricutin Volcano - Michoacán
Rating:  An Unqualified 10/10            Last year, we visited Michoacán with Miguel Martinez (email: saldivar66@gmail.com), with a tour group of 4.  We loved Miguel and the intimate small group aspect so much that we stayed in touch  with him and selfishly retained his services for  just the two of us.  Our 16 ½ hour day was wonderfully filled with spectacular scenery and momentous personal experiences that were absolute highlights of our visit.
Miguel regaled us with his knowledge of the communities we visited; however, as he is less experienced with Parucitin, his role became one of facilitating dialogue with the local guide.   The volcano is said to have grown out of a cornfield and represents a dramatic period in the lives of the local inhabitants who lost crops and livestock, and suffered substantial property damage.  Paricutin is the most recent volcano to have formed on the Western Hemisphere, and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World.  The entire event  – from birth to eruption – took place between 1943 and 1952.  Paricutin turned a cornfield into a mountain, and it's lava flows covered roughly 10 square miles.  The damage was incomprehensible but there was a silver lining:  volcanic ash produces rich soil which has turned the region into an agricultural paradise. Here is a link to the account:  http://paricutin.com/default.htm.  Although we were told that the village occupants had plenty of time to get out of the way, my research suggests about 1,000 died following one of the last big eruptions in 1949.  Our tour included a ½ hour horseback ride to the site; exploring the ruins of old San Juan Church – all that remains in the aftermath of the volcano – sampling tortillas made with cactus (tasty!) and making the trek back up the hill to Angahuan, the nearest village to Paricutín Volcano, where our local guide lives.  If you fancy a good long hike and horseback ride (and leave early enough in the day) you can also continue past the buried church another 9 km through the lava field on horseback, to the volcano itself, with the climb to the cone being on foot.
                                                        What remains of San Juan Church and
                                                                                                     Miguel Martinez, our Guide


Although not part of our $10 (3 hour) tour, Miguel also wrangled us an invitation to the private home of our local guide, in Angahuan, where he lives with his son and 90-year-old aunt, Maria. Weaving, embroidery, spinning and other textile traditions are still practiced here. The women continue to dress in the traditional costume of an embroidered blouse, over blouse, two belts, a embroidered slip, a skirt, an apron and finally the rebosos, or shawl. Miguel pursued this to help us gain a better understanding of the local Purepecha culture and the community. Each home has living quarters and a kitchen, separated by a common court yard. A mix of stone and wood, there were few windows, presumably to control the heat. The kitchen had both a wood-fired oven and an open firepit and, while modest by our terms, as neat as a pin. We sampled some of their food and were given herbs picked in the hills, dried ready to be steeped as tea. 




                                                           drying herbs on the woodfired oven

                                                                     Traditional Purepecha Dress

Maria weaves shawls and sells them in the streets.  When we asked if she would model the two we purchased, she not only agreed but suggested I might also be interested in  having my photo taken with her, wearing a traditional rebosos.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I agreed; she took me into her bedroom, dug through boxes until she came out with suitable clothing and dressed me complete in the garb of a Purepecha woman.  I felt somewhat like a giant doll but I have to admit, I loved every  minute of it!   Miguel clearly LOVES his work and we CLEARLY love him just because he always seems to `go the extra mile`.  We would not have had such an opportunity had it not been for him. 

 
                                                    Angahuan's Church Alter
After saying goodbye to this wonderful Purepecha family, Miguel showed us other community highlights.  My research indicates the village of Angahuan was established by former slaves.  Many of the structures date back to the 16th century.  We visited a local church as well as the cemetery where he shared local burial customs, including the Day of the Dead, celebrated November 1 and 2 throughout Mexico.
 
                                                                        Carved Masks

We had planned to visit a community known for the making of masks, however, enroute Eric eyed a sign at a local mercado that he simply HAD to have.  While he and Miguel were negotiating, I noticed a carver on the opposite site of the road.  As daylight was beginning to fade, and we were still a long way from home, we  made our purchases of masks here, had a wonderful meal in Pátzcuaro and  headed back to Ixtapa.  It was a big day, but one filled with wonderful memories of beautiful, kind people, stunning architecture and amazing natural sites that will not soon be forgotten. . . all of which we have Miguel to thank for.  He too deserves a 10/10.

Accommodations:  Scoring: 8  -  Bay View Gran Marina   -  Scoring:  8   Our  luxury 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom unit, located on the 16th floor of the north tower, offered spectacular views from a spacious balcony;  queen bed; 3 piece bath with shower; 2 LCD 37" TVs; a full kitchen and stacking washer/dryer.  While the sofa pulls out to a queen bed, the unit is more conducive to a couple or, perhaps a couple with a small child.  Through HomeAway (VRBO), the unit is accurately represented and the agents, IZ Properties, were accommodating both prior and subsequent to booking and arrival.  We would have liked to have had access to an in-room safe, which the agent was prepared to accommodate but the owners were not.  We were apprehensive about this as we know many people – maintenance, housekeeping, owners, agents – have access to the unit and we were not thrilled by the prospect of carrying our passports, airline tickets and $$ with us at all times.  While we had no problems, it is the biggest downfall to this unit for us.  We also had to request housekeeping after our first week but, when we did, arrangements were made immediately.  Lastly, lighter bedding would make sleeping much more comfortable, as we had to turn the A/C WWWAAAYYY down in order to compensate.    It might also be nice if detergent for laundry and dishwashing were provided. Overall, we have no reservation in recommending the unit or the agency.
 
                                                                     A Zen Moment on the Beach

                                          
                                                           A View from a Poolside Lounger
 
Food & Beverage:  Scoring:  8  -   Not knowing what to expect of our first condo experience, we packed a few sundry items to get us through the first couple of days, including spice, toilet paper, paper towel, coffee, filters, and detergent and we're glad we did.  There was a bit of a roll of paper towel, one roll of toilet paper and coffee filters presumably left by a previous tenant.  There was also salt/pepper which I suspect was laid in upon my request prior to arrival.  We aren't complaining – now we know what to expect.    We picked up bread and a few other small items at the small mercado down the street to keep us until we went to Zihuatanejo.  The only thing that stopped us from shopping at mercado centro  in Zihua was the knowledge that we would have to carry everything for the rest of our day.  We preferred the Commercial which has more than everything you might need;  the Bodega, while better located, is not well organized but may ultimately be a bit cheaper.
Most days we ate toast and peanut butter for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch; on a few occasions we cooked bacon and eggs for brunch and perhaps some fresh fruit as a snack.   And once or twice we opted for the beach bar, where both food and service is good.  This was less about saving money and more about being too lazy to go out every morning, preferring to enjoy our coffee and Baileys and admire the view on our beautiful balcony.   I'm also one that tires of eating out very easily so it was a good way to keep this fresh.  We ALWAYS went out for supper, usually ending up at the Ixtapa tourist areas where we found a good variety of restaurants at very reasonable prices.   A meal and a couple of drinks each averaged $40 - $50 US. . . . no complaints there.  We ate several times at the Generals, as we enjoyed the staff (particularly Fredy) and the fajitas.  We experimented with local dishes at la Malinches and wanted go back our last evening but, alas, couldn't remember where it was (damn!).  Frank's has good food and, as this Mexican family lived in the US for several years, English is well spoken.  Lalos had great food but the bathrooms weren't pretty.  It makes a difference, particularly to women.  While I've learned to carry my own TP I haven't quite mastered the art of carrying my own toilet seat  and Lysol. . . why is it that so many foreign countries don't have toilet seats????  we don't necessarily use them. . . but we still like them to be there. . .just sayin'. . .
Conclusion:  Overall Score – 9  - Once again, we loved everything about this trip.  We thought this second visit might be a anti-climactic but we were wrong; we loved it every bit as much.  The music was fantastic and completely different than last year; our excursion with Miguel was a total blast.  We would love to share this experience with someone who loves music and long drives in the country as much as we do.  You know what I think is so attractive about the Mexican people in this area?  They have managed to hold onto values which we seem to have lost like making eye contact as you walk down the street and greeting every person you meet.  I don't think we saw a single local that didn't greet the bus driver and thank him when they got off.   Miguel told us Zihua is still small enough that everybody knows everybody. . . it's 100,000.   He was stunned when I told him we live in the community of  91,000 and not only is it easy but likely to walk down the street without recognizing or acknowleding a single person.  In Zihua it is customary to go to the zocola on Sundays to visit with others in the community.   When we suggested to Miguel this is not that common where we come from, his immediate response was, 'that is very bad, this is very important'.   I think he's right, which is why communities are now spending so much time and effort on cultural activities that encourage congregating.    Don't get me wrong. .  . I recognize I'm also at fault. . . but it says a LOT about our attitudes and our desire to remain anonymous and disconnected.  
We have always been the recipients of the kindness of strangers and I think part of that is because we have travelled enough to be comfortable opening ourselves  to ask strangers  to for help, even in a foreign country where there is a language barrier.   Time and again, we have been the recipients of the kindness of strangers.  When we travel, we try to follow the model set  by the local community; we have yet to be disappointed.  Perhaps we to model this at home.
and a Final Word about Safety:           A word about safety.  The US travel warning  has been revised to identify certain areas to be avoided, which includes all of Michoacan except Morelia (Canada does not).  We thought long and hard before visiting Michoacan; after considerable research and advice from ex-pats (thank you!), we decided to go for it and we are so glad we did.  Not only did we feel safe; all of the individuals we communicated with treated us with the utmost kindness and respect.  Hopefully, our visit, our purchases, and our efforts in spreading the word is reward enough.
We were, however, repeatedly told by local Mexicans that the Acapulco area and US/Mexico borders are unsafe.  We met many working in Zihua because Acapulco was no longer safe for their families and heard much about the corruption of the government and the impact on the people.  It truly saddens us how affect the general public is affected and have great respect for those trying to affect change.
Many tourists do not understand Mexico has the same travel  status as many countries we choose to visit without a second thought. . . . Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad & Tobago, Greece, Ukraine; need I go on?  Neither is the all-inclusive resort providing you with the level of security one might think.  There is a reason many recommend moving through these facilities in groups rather than alone.   Although we only have one condo experience under our belts, I daresay it was safer than the average all-inclusive.  

My point is, while it's great to relax on vacation, one still has to remain aware of one's surrounding; people need to travel smart. . . be it in a foreign country or in your own back yard.   It's really not that complicated.
As you can see, at the end of our stay, we were not terribly excited to return to a couple of feet of snow but return we did.  There's always next year, right?
 Hasta Leugo Paradise. . . we'll be back