Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Travel Talk: How We Spent Our Winter Holiday - 2014

 

Where We Went:  Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo:

The beautiful Playa la Madera, Zihuatanejo
Home of the Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival

In past years, I have provided an overview of the sister communities of Ixtapa and  Zihuatanejo, located on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.  Ixtapa 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 to develop which we consider an asset as the community continues to retain the ambience of a true Mexican community.  Zihuatanejo is occupied primarily by Mexicans.  Although tourism is clearly evident, there is still very much a Mexican vibe.  Working with United Nations, this community is not simply a beach destination, it is a “Culture of Peace Community”, where all segments of the population are working to instill basic human values throughout. While we can't speak toward any official peace-loving status, we can certainly attest to the basic kindness and genuine interest in the wellbeing of the tourists that we have experienced on each of our visits.  Although English is not widely spoken, the desire to connect is strong; all you need to do is demonstrate a little interest.  We have learned much about the community simply by interacting with everyone and anyone.  If you would like to read more about our experiences, check out my blog post,  http://hpdsinc.blogspot.ca/2013/03/how-i-spent-my-winter-vacation.html
 
What We Did:

Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival http://www.zihuafest.info/:
A little vino, a little dancing on the beach
Opening Concert, Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival
 
If you have followed our travel experiences, you will know that, in 2012, we opted for a spontaneous trip (as in booked it Thursday and arrived Saturday 'spontaneous') to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo.  We are music lovers and, as I cruised various websites, I stumbled upon the Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival (ZIGF).  That first year, we caught about half of the festival and we were so impressed that we returned for the entire event in 2013.  Although 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.  We love the host community, the informal venues--usually open air restaurants and beach--and the music. . . well, what is there to say except that one rarely has opportunity to experience so many world class musicians at such a ridiculously low price, in such an awesome setting.
 
Collaborations are the Greatest
Josue Tacaronte, Cuba/Mexico; Kai Kurasawa, Japan/USA;
Paul Pigat, Canada; Adrian Raso, Canada; Goh Kurosawa, Japan/USA
 
Shortly after fundraising for the 2014 festival began, Eric and I made a conscious decision to sponsor ZIGF.  We are not, by any means, wealthy people; we are your average, everyday working class, middle income couple that saves up for each and every holiday.  We do, however, try to support activities within and outside of our community, that we feel has a broader benefit.  ZIGF met our criteria; it operates on a shoestring budget; relies heavily on volunteerism; and it benefits the broader community.  Not only does ZIGF have a loyal (if small) group of followers, it continues to bring new people to the lovely City of Zihuatanejo.  The Festival hosts a school concert where community children are introduced to music and the world of guitars, and interact with the musicians, as well as a public free concert for everyone to enjoy. 
Our Founders Club Passes with
the 2014 Program
Fundraising proved to be a bit more of a challenge this year; in fact, sufficient funds were raised only 23 short days prior to the Festival.  In that time, a goodly chunk of change was raised; the musicians confirmed; accommodation and venues booked; and all the little extras that must be addressed (permitting, licenses, food& beverage venues, sound, seating, etc.) were attended to.  Suffice to say, for the third year in a row, we were, once again, not disappointed. To show our support, we joined a group of nine to become the Festival's inaugural 'Founders Club', entitling us to a few extra perks such as access to all venues and galas, inclusion in the Musician's Welcome Dinner and reserved front row seating at the Opening and Closing Concerts.   This year, the evening concerts were held on beautiful Playa la Madera, while galas were interspersed amongst several of the area's popular restaurants.  We also made a purchase of a guitar, handmade by fine Paracho luthier, Fernando Ganzales, and signed by all the musicians.  In Paracho, skills are often passed down through multiple generations.  What makes our guitar special for us is that it is the first guitar Fernando constructed with his son.  It was a great honor for us to have them sign the guitar as well. 

Folk meets Heavy Metal
Gliese 229, Mexico City
 
Although the festival suffered a small shortfall, it was successful enough to draw the attention of the State, which recognized the event as an opportunity to continue attracting visitors to the community.  The dates for the 2015 Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival have already been set to run March 6-15.  We haven't actually booked our return, let's just say, there's talk. . .  and we will continue to support this wonderful little event in any way that we can.  If I have sparked your interest in any way, shape or form, here are the questions you need to ask yourself:  are you a lover of great music of all genres?  Does the vision of being serenaded by world class musicians, on a world class beach, in a world class destination do anything for you?  Let's add the intimacy of small venues where everybody seems to know your name. If the answer is yes, to any (or all) of these questions, you owe it to yourself to check it out; we are confident you will have no regrets.  The Zihuatanejo International Guitar Festival has both a website (above) and Facebook page if you want to keep yourself abreast of its progress towards next year's event.


Touring the Zihuatanejo Area:



Contemplation


We learned many years ago to spend as much time as possible elbow to elbow with the group leader of any guided tour.  While each guide may have a 'canned' presentation, they are a huge well of knowledge about the area which they are more than willing to share if one shows the interest and asks.  I happen to be a bit of a history buff and have a strong desire to understand the culture we are imposing upon.  No doubt, you have seen people like us on other tours.  We are the ones that run to the bus so we can get the seat right behind the driver.  When we don't have our noses flattened against the window, we are plying the driver with questions.  It's amazing what one can learn. . . but you do need to ask as your escort will be careful not to get in the way of your personal experience and we each have different needs.
our friend and
guide Miguel Martinez
On our first visit to Zihuatanejo (often referred to as Zihua), we had the immense fortune of connecting with one of the best guides we have ever been privileged to travel with.  What sets Miguel Martinez apart from his colleagues is, he is not only passionate about his country and his community, but loves its history as well.  If he senses you have an interest, he will take the time to explain cultural innuendos and various landmarks regardless of their significance.  He is somewhat akin to a walking encyclopedia on every subject that has a local implication, from plants and wildlife to archeology and architecture, to culture and religious importance. Believe me, we have tried!   If you have been blessed with an enquiring mind or you just want to be sure you are travelling with someone who will take very good care of you, is fluent in English and truly knows what he is talking about, we highly recommend you contact Miguel  at saldivar66@gmail.com.  We were so impressed that we have kept in touch, used his services on each of our visits, and are honored to regard him as our friend.  I assure you, you will not be disappointed.
In previous visits, we explored the beautiful neighbouring state of Michoacán, well known for its abundant craftsmen.  We visited, Paracho where guitars are built; Santa Clara de Cobra (copper); Patzcuaro, which is architecturally stunning and located in a beautiful setting, the Paricutin Volcano and the nearby village of Angahuan.  An unexpected highlight of that particular trip was when Miguel wrangled us an invitation into one of the local homes  Not only did they provide us with a tour, we sampled their food, came away with a gift of tea leaves, picked and dried in the hills.  We were able to help them out by purchasing their handmade items that they would otherwise have sold in the street.  This was a very cool day for us, completely instigated by Miguel.
We will, one day, return to Michoacán, but we thought it time we explored our host community, Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo.   Prior to the 1970s, economic activity was based on fishing and agriculture.   Today, almost 3/4 of the population is engaged in the tourism sector and, with the lag in this sector over the past few years, you can only imagine how this has affected the local economy.  Geographically, the area is mountainous and rugged; much of the developed area hugs the shoreline or is situated in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains.  As we explored the local area, Miguel would often take the time to orient us, referring to a particular beach or community as being 'just over that hill'.  It became a bit of a standing joke for us that everything in the area was 'just over that hill'.  Visit, and you will get my drift.
 


Playa Blanca, Barra de Potosi

We provided Miguel a couple of ideas of what we might find interesting and then we were off.  First, we headed for the village of Barra de Potosi, on the lovely Playa Blanca, for lunch, making a quick stop at Playa Larga, a 15 km stretch of unspoiled sandy beach.  Barra de Potosi is a fishing community of about 600, located on a large lagoon, where it meets with the ocean.  You can pick up a tour of the lagoon, a large mangrove estuary teeming with wildlife; go on a fishing adventure; or, as we did, simply enjoy lunch at one of the many beachside restaurants and stroll the beach.  There is a laid-back vibe to this little village, right down to the hammocks suspended between the tables, just in case you need a little 'after dinner' siesta.  One can look across the inlet and see a restaurant located on a small jetty of land.  During the dry season, the lagoon recedes and one can walk to the restaurant but, when the water is high, access is by way of boat or a bit of a swim.  While one might think this a bit of a deterrent to patrons, we not only witnessed people swimming across but, even from a distance, one could see a good number of customers.  This beautiful beach has also attracted its share of ex-pats who, I am happy to report, have not only been well received by the local community but contribute to the community by lending support to the school and teaching English,  not to mention, frequenting the local establishments.  We would seriously consider staying here as there is a variety of accommodations and places to eat.  I would be remiss if I didn't also mention this community is also home to the highly regarded El Refugio de Potosi, a private, not-for-profit ecological conservation initiative promoting conservation, preservation, education and research.   
need a little siesta time?  we have the place for you
Backtracking toward Zihuatanejo, is the community of Petatlan.  It's downtown district is built around a church located atop a hill, said to be a ruin.  Friar Juan Bautista founded the first church here in 1555, however, it was destroyed by an earthquake caused when the Paricutin volcano erupted, some 350 miles northeast, in 1943. The present church was constructed in 1949, badly damaged by another earthquake in 1985, and repaired in 1990.  It is dedicated to Padre Jesús de Petatlán who's sculpture of the Christ, located inside the church, is considered to have produced many miracles. Petatlan is a regional pilgrimage site, particularly visited during Holy Week by as 30,000 people.



Mirrors on the Ceilings, Pink Champagne on Ice. . .

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a blog post about a replica of the Greek Parthenon located on Playa la Ropa, Zihuatanejo and I wasn't going home without at least trying to get in to see it.  As it turns out, the guards were kind enough to allow us to wander the premises at will, provided we offer up a small token of gratitude to the caretakers.  Dubbed the Palace of Corruption, El Partenon y el Negro Durazo was a vacation home of Arturo "El Negro" Durazo, a Mexico City Police Chief who successfully converted his police force into a racketeering empire.   Although his salary could never have supported his habits, he acquired two palatial homes, a collection of vintage automobiles and properties in both Canada and the U.S.  Durazo amassed a fortune in illicit wealth from the bribes paid by every cop in the City, the drug trade, and kickbacks .  The law eventually caught up with him; he was apprehended while 'on the lamb' in Costa Rica, jailed for several years, and his properties confiscated.  Due to ill health, Durazo was granted a $3M pesos bail in 1992 and released, having completed 6 of a 16 year-sentence.  He died in 2000 at the age of 76.  Rumour has it, his ghost keeps watch outside the massive front gates.  If true, he didn't bother us and, perhaps, was thankful for the company.  If nothing else, you have to admit, it makes for one heck of a story.

El Partenon is truly something of an architectural if somewhat garish sensation.  With dozens of roman sculptures, and frescos, reportedly imported from Italy, this 4-bedroom 5 bath home quite literally screams bordello, right down to the mirrored ceilings of each bedroom.  Besides the front yard swimming pool, and outdoor entertainment area, there is a large cage where Durazo is reported to have kept a pet lion; what appears to be a parking structure; and staff quarters, complete with outdoor cooking area sufficient for preparing copious quantities of food.

Guerrero State eventually claimed the property which was gifted, in turn, to the local university, in hopes that it could be reclaimed as a local community treasure.  We understand this acquisition is wrapped in red tape and litigation so it's unclear what the outcome will be.  Although not exactly on the official roster of 'Things to Do and See in Zihuatanejo', if you are even remotely interested in architecture and folklore, or just want to subject yourself to perhaps the most stunning views of Playa la Madera you will ever experience, it might just be a highlight of your excursion.  Personally, it's these unexpected little gems that totally make my day.
 
We continued about 30 minutes north of Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo to Troncones. Known for its many miles of unspoiled, virgin surfing beaches, Troncones is home to about 500 people.  The village includes a school, church and cemetery, in the Mexican fashion, as well as a few stores offering basic necessities.  Reportedly, until only a few decades ago, the area was completely undeveloped; one man built a home and today, the beach is lined with large vacation homes, many available for rent.  There is no public transit; cab fare is about $75 US one-way.  I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, for all I have read about this area, I admit some disappointment.  While the beach is truly beautiful, nothing but the beach represents 'real Mexico', although that's often what one reads about it.
Heading south, back toward Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo, we stopped at Playa Linda, home to a beachside RV park, condominiums and resort hotels. The area is frequented by locals and tourists alike and is supported by public transportation to Ixtapa Commercial.  There is also a 5+/- mile walking/bike path between Playa Linda and Ixtapa, where it is easy to connect to public transportation or cabs into Zihuatanejo.  Patio chairs, tables and beach umbrellas are available for rent at la Langosta Loca, which also provides free showers to its beach customers.  Playa Linda is also where you can catch a boat to Ixtapa Island which, we have been told by many, is an absolute 'must see'.  The Habitat Natural de Cocodrilos provides viewing platforms where you can observe crocodiles, iguana, turtles, and several species of birds, including pink spoonbills.  For the most part, the sanctuary is fenced off from the public but make no mistake, away from the public eye, these critters are free to roam.  Though we have yet to see a crocodile in the wild, there are many signs warning of their presence, particularly in the vicinity of golf courses.  That would certainly make searching for lost balls a challenge, wouldn't it!

Habitat Natural de Cocodrilos
Our excursion with Miguel was approximately 8 hours long and we loved every minute of it but you can make it what you want.  His vehicle is an 8 passenger SUV so there opportunity to share the expenses with others; we just enjoy hoarding him ha! ha!

 truly hope you have found the information I've provided useful or, at the very least, entertaining and informative.  I'm a huge supporter of information sharing.  I like to read about the travels of others, in hopes of learning something new and discovering a new destination, if only in my imagination.  Sometimes, I'm inspired and make an opportunity to check their destinations out for myself.  I encourage you to share this information and provide feedback, whether you find yourself motivated to visit any of the mentioned sites or you have a differing opinion.  Like I said, it's all about sharing the knowledge in order to help us plot a new adventure.