Sister Cities of Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo Provide Top-Shelf Resort Golf off the Beaten Path

By Shane Sharp,
Contributing Writer

ZIHUATENEJO, MEXICO (July 29, 2002) -- One is traditional, primal, unpolished and exotically charming. The other is refined, fabricated and planned down to the last coconut palm and purple bougainvillea. As far as twin cities go, Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo are as fraternal as it gets - existing in eternal proximity, yet as different as night and day. Taken together, however, these two cities on Mexico's southwestern coast combine to form one of the country's most underrated and underutilized destinations.

Zihuatenejo, with the exception of a modern nuance here and there, remains much the same town it was fifty years ago. Low rise buildings and narrow streets carved through ancient hills form the town's bucolic fabric. The center of town is defiantly marked by an old basketball court. Time was, Zihuatenejo's 4000 or 5000 inhabitants were expatriate Americans. Some were artists and musicians, others were ex-cons and fugitives on the lam. All of them, including Tim Robbins' jail-sprung character in the Shawshank Redemption, found the isolated geography of the Palmar Bay to their liking.


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Ixtapa could not be more diametrically opposed to its rural sibling, but the juxtaposition of modern meets traditional makes this region unique among Mexico's powerful cadre of tropical excursions. In the early 1970s, the Mexican federal tourism agency FONATUR used a computer model to identify and plan for two new resort destinations. One evolved into the Caribbean jewel of Cancun, perhaps Mexico's most commercially identifiable destination. The other was a virgin stretch of Pacific coast where the Sierra Madre Mountains seemed to disappear into the sea.

Mexican tourism authorities went about the business of building a man-made resort destination from the ground up. A south-of-the-border Las Vegas, if you will, but with somewhat more egalitarian principles and a coastal setting that was to die for. A major road had been constructed from the nearby city of Acapulco, opening the floodgates on a public works project that would have made FDR green with envy.

Hotels were erected, wetlands drained, and roads constructed in this region known to locals as "Guerrero's Sun Triangle". Even golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. got into the act in 1975 with Campo de Golf Palma Real, a trailblazing layout carved right out of the jungle and right into Mexican golfing lore.

"Build it and they will come" endeavors typically meet with two extreme results: success or failure. Ixtapa is unabashedly the former, as evidenced by its 60,000 some residents and the massive, modern edifices that we have all come to associate with economic success (chain hotels and restaurants). Yet, Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo are still something of an undiscovered commodity when it comes to both the native and gringo tourist. The twin cities roll out the red (and green fairway) carpet for just over 1 million visitors per year - only a fraction of the camera toting mob that haunts Los Cabos, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta annually.

Where to Play

The Campo de Golf Palma Real (011-52-755-31062) is a venerable RTJ II designed track built in the early 1970's as part of the original Ixtapa development. The course is carved through the dense jungle palms (its namesake), and is as traditional a course as you'll find in the region. Behemoth fairways, closely cropped rough, and thick Bermuda grass greens all lend themselves to the proverbial "player friendly" moniker. That is, with the exception of the No. 1 handicap hole, the 585 par 5. A sign at the tee box reads "cuidado con los lagartos," or "watch out for alligators."

Club de Marina Ixtapa (011-52-755-31410) is Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo's modern, upscale golf offering, courtesy of prolific south-of-the border designer Robert von Hagge. Built on undulating terrain with salt water canals running through it, the course sports water on 14 of 18 holes. The first hole, a rather benign par 5, assures that most golfers begin the round in good spirits. Each succeeding hole systematically chips away at this positive mindset as Marina Ixtapa comes into its own on the back nine, culminating with the 609-yard par 18th.

In true von Hagge fashion, the fairways sport more moguls than a ski run and the greens are almost unequivocally of the severely undulating variety. At 6,781 yards, Marina Ixtapa is actually a bit shorter than its elder cousin. But anyone who has braved the ubiquitous gators and the omnipresent agua will tell you the course's gravely sand traps, mounded fairways and diabolical greens make Marina Ixtapa the more challenging layout.

Where to Stay

There are approximately 5000 rooms, suites, bungalows and villas (hotel type operations) in and around Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo. Many hotels and resorts are located on or above the beach, each offering a full set of amenities and services.

The lowest rates for accommodations are found in Zihuatenejo, most of them are small family owned and operated properties that closely resemble what Americans think of as bed and breakfasts. Ixtapa's offerings are primarily brand name high-rise hotels with ocean views and beach access. Most travelers will find that between the two cities, there are plenty of accommodations to meet any budget.

The Westin Brisas Resort Ithaca (800-937-8461) is popular with mainstream Gringo visitors, while the La Casa Que Canta (888-523-5050 or (011-52-755-46529) is one of the world's most overlooked "hideaway resorts". La Casa opened in 1992, and graced the covers of numerous national and international travel magazines with its pink adobe houses and thatched roofs. If the resort looks or sounds familiar, it is the hotel from the movie "When a Man Loves a Woman."


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