Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, Mexico: A Tale of Two Towns
Clear blue seas, soft sandy beaches, excellent snorkeling and scuba diving, and parasailing adventures are part of a fabulous vacation to Ixtapa, Mexico. This beach resort town is next door to Zihuatanejo (see-wah-tah-neh-hoh), a fishing village with true Mexican flavor. Zihuatanejo, Zihua to the locals, is about 6 km (4 miles) from Ixtapa Mexico, but the two resort communities are very different. The more luxurious resorts are in Ixtapa Mexico, where modern services, including Internet cafes, are readily available. Zihua tends to have smaller, more intimate hotels, which are also less expensive, with fewer frills.
Geography? Yes, Geography!
Another major difference between Zihua and Ixtapa, Mexico lies in the geography of the two resort areas. Zihua lies at the tip of Zihuatanejo Bay, preventing the full force of the Pacific Ocean from reaching the calm, protected beaches. These beaches are much safer for swimming than beaches near Ixtapa, Mexico.
If you choose to swim off the beaches in Ixtapa, which are open to the full force of the Pacific Ocean, please take precautions. Pay attention to red flag warnings, a sign that the undertow and surf are especially strong.
Under the Sea!
The nicest swimming beach in Zihuatanejo is Playa Las Gatas, across the Bay from downtown Zihuatanejo. Just offshore is a small coral reef, a great snorkeling site. With no large undertow, a gentle shore, and crystal clear water, this is the perfect beach for the novice snorkeler. Scuba Diving or snorkeling on a coral reef is a magnificent experience. Corals are unique, primitive animals that only grow in well-lit, warm waters.
An algae, zooxanthellae, grows in the tissue of coral, providing the animal with food. Feeding on these animals with their hard, calcium carbonate shell, are a variety of animals such as colorful parrot fish, beautiful long-nosed butterfly fish, who “farm” an area of coral and defend their territory, and the crown of thornes sea star, which can cause a great deal of damage to coral reefs.
Orange striped clownfish swooping in and out of sea anemone’s tentacles, schools of yellow or blue tangs, and a reef shark or two are other animals you might see while diving. Bright colors, sharp, bold patterns and large spots on the tails of fish are usually defense mechanisms. These features help fish to blend in to their surroundings, camouflaging them against predators.
Coral Reefs have been dubbed the “rainforest of the sea”, with over 2 million different species found. They provide natural barriers to protect shorelines, they offer superb resources (over one billion people are fed annually from fish associated with coral reefs), and of course, offer fantastic recreation and tourist opportunities.
Scuba Diving in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa, Mexico
The Zihuatanejo Scuba Center offers dive trips to over 30 different sites in the area. While dive trips run all year, the best diving is between May and December, when the water is the clearest, with over 100 foot visibility. Many of the dive sites include walls and caves. Cave diving is spectacular, exhilarating, and a little scary! Be sure to only dive with certified dive masters and take special precautions if diving deeper than 90 feet, or in a cave. The Scuba Center is run by a marine biologist; prices include two dives, equipment and lunch.
If you are fortunate enough to experience a coral reef first-hand, keep in mind that this is one of the most biologically productive areas in the world. Coral reefs are being destroyed by careless scuba divers—literally being broken apart—so please take care when visiting this fragile, yet incredibly important, ecosystem.
Shari Bookstaff is a biology professor in northern California, where she lives with her two children. Shari is an avid nature lover, sports fan and photographer.