Trip Report (Dec 25-Jan 1)

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Posted by Kerry from ( on domingo, enero 05, 2003 at 22:54:02 :

Our family Christmas gift to ourselves this year was a one-week vacation in paradise. Rob and others on the message board answered so many questions and provided so many insights that I felt as though I knew the area even before I left home!

My wife and I along with our son (age 20) and daughter (age 18) left Minneapolis on Christmas Day. The Champion Airlines charter flight left at 6:00 a.m. and among the 150 passengers were some members of this message board. A charter flight is very egalitarian – there is no first class and everyone gets a mini bag of pretzels and a beverage! Since we left so early in the morning without taking time for breakfast at home, we brought along some of our own snacks for the four-hour flight. Sleeping also helped pass the time.

We arrived at the Zihuatanejo airport at 10:30 a.m. The sub-freezing temperatures and gray skies of Minnesota were far behind us as we were greeted by warm sunshine, blue skies and coconut palm trees. Descending the stairway from the door of the aircraft, we walked a short distance across the tarmac and into the airport building where we lined up to pass through the Customs check. Everything was handled efficiently and we proceeded rather quickly, all the members of our family getting the green light and passing without further inspection. As soon as we claimed our luggage, a uniformed representative from MLT Vacations directed us to the bus that would take us to the Barcelo.

The fifteen-minute drive from the airport in Zihuatanejo to Ixtapa afforded us scenic views of mountains, tropical vegetation, and ocean coastline that can only be described by a Minnesotan as exotic. It was wonderful. Along the way, an MLT representative talked about the area, transportation, restaurants, tipping, language, and offered a variety of tips and instructions.

In the series of hotels that line the ocean beach in Ixtapa, the Barcelo stands tall and impressive. We were immediately struck by the wide open lobby, something we are not accustomed to in our climate back home. As I checked in with the friendly folks at the front desk, a courteous bellman loaded our suitcases onto a cart. He then escorted us to the glass elevator in the twelve-story atrium and we ascended to the tenth floor and our ocean-view room. The room was small but adequate and very nicely decorated. The balcony was also small but allowed seating for two people, and from the tenth floor the panoramic view up and down the coastline was breathtaking. We were also able to gaze down upon the pool and garden areas, which were exquisitely landscaped and beautifully maintained.

We quickly unpacked, changed into our swimwear, and headed out to the ocean. The fine golden sand of the beach, the emerald ocean with its white-crested waves, the sunshine and blue sky, and the cool shade of the coconut palms convinced us we had indeed arrived in paradise. The waves were great for body surfing that afternoon, and we rented a couple of boogie boards from a vendor on the beach to add to our fun. After a while we took a break and enjoyed a delicious lunch at the poolside restaurant where we were entertained by a mariachi band. As the afternoon came to an end, we returned to our room to shower and dress for the hotel’s weekly Mexican fiesta. This included an expansive buffet of Mexican salads, entrees, and desserts along with a fabulous show of music and dance. It was a truly delightful Christmas celebration for us.

Most of our days were spent on the beach. My wife and I were always up well in advance of our kids, so we took our towels and staked out four lounge chairs under the shady palapas. This is where we read, napped, and snacked when we were playing in the water. The crystal clear pool with its swim-up bar was also a wonderful place to cool off. With lively music playing, the pool was the center of organized activities throughout the day: water aerobics, water basketball, water volleyball, and crazy contests. Scheduled activities on the terrace near the pool included Spanish language lessons and cooking demonstrations. Volleyball and soccer were held on the beach.

Water sports rentals were available all along the beach, including boogie boards (50 pesos for an hour), wave runners (300 pesos for a half hour), and parasailing (200 pesos for a ten-minute ride). There were several tents where one-hour massages were available for 150 pesos.

The temperatures each day rose into the upper 80s, and our Minnesota bones rejoiced to soak up the warmth. The humidity percentages also got into the 80s, but it always felt pleasant along the ocean beach.

Some people may get irritated by the strolling vendors, but we found it entertaining. There were the guys trying to round up customers for fishing excursions and those selling newspapers, magazines, or jewelry. There was a man selling peanuts, and another pushing a cart with a block of ice and assorted plastic containers of syrups for making cups of flavored shaved ice. A very talented finger paint artist, Jorge Perez, set up his little table and umbrella one day and after he demonstrated his craft by making me a small sample picture it was impossible not to buy one of his lovely paintings. A man with his pet iguana afforded the best entertainment. The reptile was over two feet long, and it was fun to watch the variety of reactions of people as he approached. Everyone was curious and the children all wanted to pet it or hold it. Occasionally with a sly smile he would park the creature on the back of a woman’s beach chair, eliciting a shriek as she jumped away!

Getting around is very easy. In Ixtapa, we walked everywhere. In the mornings, my wife and I walked the two-mile stretch of beach and sometimes strolled the sidwalk along Ixtapa Boulevard in the evening. On Sunday evening we walked down to Ron’s open air church service across from the Radisson. (I met Ron on the message board and we had exchanged some e-mails, so it was nice to meet him and his wife in person.) One afternoon I strolled over to Villas Paraiso and met Lucia, with whom I had corresponded by e-mail. She was indeed as wonderful a person as Judy and Bret had said! Scrupples, the supermarket where we purchased most of our snacks and beverages, was an easy three-minute walk from the Barcelo to the Centro Commercial, where there were many shops, restaurants, and internet cafes. Zihuatanejo was a mere fifteen-minute taxi ride, and since taxicabs were easy to find everywhere (40 pesos one way) it was a quick, convenient and inexpensive way to travel.

We decided not to get Travelers Checks and did not bring a lot of cash with us. Instead, we simply used our bank cash card to withdraw cash as we needed it. ATM machines were convenient and they provided pesos at the current exchange rate without any surcharge.

Among the four of us, my son was the only one with any Spanish language experience, having taken classes in high school. But he warned us before we left that if we depended on him, we would be in trouble! However, we found everyone in Mexico to be extremely gracious. It was humbling to realize that the people in Mexico understand our language better than we do theirs. They appreciated it when we tried to use Spanish phrases, and many of the waiters and taxi drivers made an effort to teach us new words. The people in Mexico were so nice to talk with, so before our next trip my wife and I definitely want to take some Spanish language instruction so we can enjoy more conversations.

The maids in our hotel did an exceptional job of cleaning our room every day, and we left a $2 tip on the dresser each morning. When we returned to the room later in the day, we would find that the maid had created some sort of animal or bird with a folded towel!

There are many places to shop in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, from the commercial shops to the artisans markets to the beach vendors. One place we liked the best was Lupita’s in Zihuatanejo. My wife and daughter bought some wonderful dresses, tops, and jewelry that were authentically designed, carefully handcrafted, and reasonably priced. The bonus was the wonderful conversations we had with Lupita and her lovely daughter. They are both charming ladies, and this shop should be on the itinerary of every visitor to Zihuatanejo. At the artisans market in Zihuatanejo we watched Manuel Vargas as he handpainted a wooden plate and couldn’t resist purchasing a salsa bowl from him.

We did not take the all-inclusive option that the Barcelo offers and were glad. There were just too many excellent restaurants in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. We enjoyed two bakeries, the Golden Cookie in Ixtapa and the pink bakery El Buen Gusto in Zihuatanejo. La Perla on Playa La Ropa served up delicious seafood while we lounged the afternoon away on the beach. Daniel’s Restaurant in downtown Zihataenjo had the most delicious coconut shrimp I’ve ever eaten. Café Salsa, across the street from the Barcelo, made great tortilla soup, and we made a daily pilgrimage to Il Gelatone for gelato, Italian ice cream made in a wide variety of flavors. We also enjoyed the spicy flavors at El Infierno y La Gloria. On a morning walk, one of the waiters at a restaurant (I believe it was Los Mandiles) promised us “a breakfast better than Denny’s”! The traditional Mexican breakfast of chilaquiles deliciously exceeded our expectations. All of our wonderful meals were enhanced by the friendly waiters and the experience of dining out in the open air.

Our most frequent restaurant visits were to Chile and Tequila, only a three-minute walk from the Barcelo. We tried several selections from the menu and enjoyed each one immensely. The Mexican salsa was fantastic. Lalo, Alex and the other waiters were all friendly and helpful, and they made us feel right at home. A particularly humorous event occurred one evening. We heard some coughing in the kitchen, and then one of the waiters began sneezing. Pretty soon all of us customers began to realize, too, that there had been some sort of chili accident and the “aromas” were wafting out to where we were seated. Our waiter walked by waving the air with a cloth and uttered “That Mexican food!” while another declared “Chile and tequila don’t mix!”, causing all of us to laugh while wiping our eyes! One evening we decided to have a special dessert and ordered the banana tequila flambé. The set up and preparation of this flaming dessert was quite a show, and Alex was a skilled showman. Alex tried to convince me one day that he was the son of Anthony Quinn – he’s not, of course, but the resemblance is remarkable. At the conclusion of our final meal at Chile and Tequila on New Year’s Eve, I told Alex “Happy New Year” in Spanish (I had been practicing!). He gleamed like a proud father and hugged us all before we left.

The Barcelo, like most of the hotels, offered a gala New Year’s Eve celebration dinner and show. We decided not to spend the money, but since it was set up in the garden below our room we were able to hear the music from our balcony. Our balcony also gave us a front row seat for a series of spectacular fireworks displays that night. From our vantage point we enjoyed seeing the colorful bursts set off by hotels up and down the beach. The ones from the Barcelo seem to unfold almost within our reach, making for the most unique fireworks experience we have ever had.

Our wonderful vacation that began on Christmas Day and ended on New Year’s Day passed all too quickly. The return trip to Minnesota was as smooth and uneventful as our arrival, with no delays through Customs. On the drive back to our house, our kids convinced us to stop at McDonald’s, a clear signal that we were back in the USA! But we are already dreaming about returning to Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa, where the scenery is spectacular, the food is delicious, and the people are charming and warmly hospitable.

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