We’re back!

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Enjoying a smoke in the cool mountain air.

WHEN I MOVED south of the border in 2000, nobody asked me if I was afraid because there was no reason to be.

It was great for six years.

Then something happened during the administration of Felipe Calderón, a president I voted for. I believe his hard-nosed approach to the narco issue made things worse.

Violence between narcos and police and military escalated, and violence between narco gangs themselves spiked.

Your average citizen remained safe, however.

It didn’t take many stories — one, actually — of severed heads rolling across cantina floors plus hundreds of Americans* being slain to stop tourism dead in its tracks here.

When we first visited Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast years ago, there were always cruise ships in the bay. That stopped. We haven’t seen even one in a long time.

My mountaintop town, a 16th century colonial beauty on the shore of a huge lake, lives off tourism. To a large degree, that screeched to a halt too. It was quite noticeable.

But, through those bad years, a tourist’s chances of encountering violence was virtually zero, no more so than what one faces during a winter weekend in Tampa.

Our bad reputation was fueled nonstop by an irresponsible, clueless, American news media with the assist of an absolutely hysterical U.S. State Department whose “travel warnings” were laughable to anyone who lived here.

When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012 things calmed down considerably, but our ill fame lived on. But now, four years later, things appear to be changing.

In recent weeks, the quantity of tourists to our quaint mountain town has skyrocketed. For those of us who do not depend on tourism, it just means more traffic snarls. But to many others, it means a livelihood.

I am happy about this. Perhaps this is a light at the end of a long tunnel and that clear thinking and rationality are coming to the forefront. It’s a great place to live.

And an even better place to visit.

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Jam-packed central plaza on Sunday.

* The Americans are invariably named Garcia, Torres, Hernandez, never Smith or Jones. They are inhabitants of border zones who get involved in the narco trade, and often end up dead, but they are U.S. citizens. They are not tourists.

Down the mountain

ONE OF THE many beauties of living on my Mexican mountaintop, where it’s cool and comfy most all the year, is that we can hop into the Honda, get on the autopista that passes through here and be on the Pacific Beach at Zihuatanejo in 3.5 hours flat. And it’s a beautiful drive.

We’ll be doing that quite soon.

Zihua, as the locals call it, is the old, original end of what is now the combined Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo. You’ve likely seen ads for Ixtapa in glossy travel mags. While Zihua sprang up naturally long, long ago, Ixtapa was built by the Mexican government in the 1970s to attract tourist money, which it does. Think Cancún.

You cannot see Ixtapa from Zihua. Though the two are the same municipality, they are separated by low mountains, and are about a 15-minute drive apart. The fact that they are not mutually visible means that one can stay in old Zihua, enjoy its funky atmosphere, and not give a moment’s thought to flashy Ixtapa.

The people vacationing in Ixtapa, a different sort of people generally, can do the same, ignoring what they likely consider to be the riffraff of old Zihua. That would be people like us. We are riffraff.

There are many snazzy hotels on the edges of old Zihua too, but we shun snazzy and always stay on the same short street, Calle Adelita, which runs parallel to Playa Madera and is easy walking distance to downtown. There are a number of low-key hotels and good restaurants on or abutting Calle Adelita.

We have stayed in four of the hotels on Adelita and soon we will try two more on the same trip. One is Villas Miramar and the other is the Hotel Palacios. The two sit next to one another, neighbors.

We walked through both a few years ago and were unimpressed, but their write-ups on TripAdvisor indicate we may have been hasty. And since we have found fault with the other four, often trivial, we’ve decided to branch out.

The previous four were:

1. Casa Sun & Moon*, a big building with few rooms. It’s an old hotel and most of the rooms are dark and musty. However, there are three suites that are spectacular and offer great views of the bay, plus each has its outdoor jacuzzi. They keep raising the price in spite of a severe downturn in Mexican tourism. That’s nuts.

2. Zihua Caracol, which is jointly run with the Casa Sun & Moon. They are directly across the street from one another, and share the same reception desk, which is in the Zihua Caracol. This is a pretty nice hotel, but there is no ocean view. Gotta have an ocean view.

3. La Quinta de Don Andrés, which is where we stayed on our initial overnighter on Calle Adelita years ago. This place is next door to the Casa Sun & Moon. We enjoyed our first stay at Don Andrés, but shortly thereafter it underwent a major renovation and prices skyrocketed.

Last spring, we stayed there again because the prices had gone down a bit, but we were disappointed. There were a number of design features we disliked. The bedroom was so tiny it was difficult to walk about due to the king bed. The balcony was minuscule. And the AC was unreliable. We came home one day earlier than planned.

The hotel has larger rooms, but they cost quite a bit more. Plus, there’s a penthouse that covers the entire roof, and it’s stunning. Alas, the price is stunning too.

4. Bungalows Adelamar. Mexicans are fond of calling hotels with kitchen facilities bungalows. All of the places mentioned so far have kitchen facilities, but are not called bungalows, but the Adelamar calls itself bungalows. There is no website, so the link goes to TripAdvisor’s report on the Adelamar.

This is a nice place to stay, but there is no ocean view. Pity. It is quite inexpensive, about $60 in the off season. We always go to Zihua in the off season because it’s significantly cheaper, and we are cheap people.

Being a tightwad is a big part of the reason I now live loose in Mexico —  and you likely remain a wage slave.

* * * *

But on this upcoming trip, we will stay in both the Villas Miramar and the Hotel Palacios. The first night will be in the Miramar because they are booked the two nights after that. We’ll move next door after one night. This is good because it will provide a chance to give both a test drive for future visits.

On our very first trip to Zihua years back, not long after the autopista to the coast was completed, we stayed on a mountainside overlooking the bay, just out of town. The hotel is named Villas el Morro, which has a spectacular view, a beautiful pool, but is inconveniently located, isolated, and awful parking if you come with a car.

There were troubles with the AC and bathroom, and the manager/owner was surly and uncooperative.

The most memorable drawback to Villas el Morro is that the morning sun is a blast furnace on all the rooms and their balconies. We tried to enjoy the balcony in the mornings, but were forced to take evasive, creative action, which you see illustrated in the photo below.

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Surviving the sun at Villas el Morro.

We invariably eat at Fonda Dona Licha, a very nice place downtown. We are not foodies.

* * * *

* On arriving, we changed plans and stayed at the Casa Sun & Moon, a suite on the street side because the spectacular Master Suites on the beach side were occupied. The street-side suite was quite suitable and spacious. The hotel has improved what were the dark and musty rooms with nice paint and amenities. And the price was reasonable again.

The musician

Musicman

HIS NAME IS Juan or Pablo or Esteban. I didn’t really ask. He is a music man.

We were sprawled and salty in beach chairs at Playa La Ropa in Zihuatanejo at midday when he stopped before us and staked his bandstand, unsolicited, into the sand. His bandstand was an old crutch, but its crutch days were over. At the top of this bandstand, the musician had secured his harmonica with plastic ties like you buy at Home Depot.

The rhythm section was connected to the side. It was corrugated metal rolled into a circle, like an extra long tin can. He strummed his own backdrop with what appeared to be an Afro comb.

He played the harmonica. Perhaps not as well as Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan, but he played well enough. And he sang. La Bamba.

And three other tunes.

The music man wore no hat under the searing sun. He wore no shorts or tank top either. His hair was very long and slicked back, and I think it was not so much a style as it was that he preferred spending income on other things.

On finishing his concert, he walked toward us, and I noticed he was lame. One leg was bad, but not really bad. He could walk pretty well, but I doubt he would be much of a jogger. And he couldn’t flee any scene.

I handed him 20 pesos, and said, You’re a good musician. He smiled, seemed to like that, said gracias. People want to feel their work has value, no matter what it is. Perhaps for someone in his position it’s even more important that it is for you and me.

Beach-bound

Cheesecake -- Mexican-style
Cheesecake — Mexican-style

WE’RE OFF TO the beach today for a brief vacation from … well, nothing really. It’s just a change of scenery and temperature.

And because we can.

Our Hacienda is ideally situated. It sits high in the cool mountains — 7,200 feet above sea level — but it’s only a 3.5-hour drive to the Pacific bay of Zihuatanejo and its upscale neighbor of Ixtapa. And the drive from here to there is 95 percent down a toll autopista, which is called an interstate above the Rio Bravo. The toll keeps the traffic sparse, another plus.

The drive goes through high mountains and valleys, orchards of mango and avocado, a lovely lake or two, plus plenty of old, high cactus.

In brief, it’s a nifty drive.

We always stay in the original town of Zihuatanejo, not the chichi, artificial Ixtapa, about a 15-minute drive away. We usually do visit Ixatapa, however, to see how the other half lives and to buy tacos in a great stand on wheels we found in the parking lot of a resort hotel.

And there’s Ixtapa Island, reached by a motor launch. It’s small, provides good snorkling over a reef and great food in a number of funky restaurants under the palm trees. Our favorite is the Restaurante Princesa.

The little island also has a nudist beach, but you cannot see it from the Restaurante Princesa.

We’ll be back when we get back.