A magical name — Zihuatanejo. The one-word message left in a hiding place at the end of the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” creating an image of Mexican fishing boats, palm trees, turquoise water, and tropical weather.
Given the snowstorms and frigid temperatures last winter in East Hampton, Zihuatanejo seemed a paradise found — sunshine, sandy beaches, sea breezes, fish dinners of just-caught dorado, sailfish, mahimahi, and tuna.
Hotel Susy in Zihuatanejo, a hotel economico in Centro, was my home last January. How happy I was in anticipation, imagining weeks of no shopping, no cooking, no dishwashing. Three meals a day in local restaurants — enchiladas, beans and rice, or beef or chicken stew. A comida for 40 pesos (less than $3.50), including a fruit drink (watermelon, jicama, melon), at Bananas. Breakfasts of eggs, bacon, beans, potatoes, and tortillas for even less.
After three days, the novelty wore off. My friend Sally and I took every recommendation to heart: “The best ribs I ever ate,” “the best pancakes and coffee,” “the best huachinango in Zihua” (red “shopper,” as it appeared on one menu). We became restaurant critics; nothing came close to our idea of “the best.”
And the beaches: Playa Principal, full of sailboats and fishing boats at anchor, was not a clean beach for swimming, we were told. We tried Playa Madera — too quiet. Las Gatos, which took a launch to get to, had a rocky ledge running the length of the beach and the snorkeling was disappointing. Finally the jewel in the crown of Zihuatanejo Bay — Playa la Ropa. In this beach town everyone was either going to la playa or coming from it.
Restaurants on the beach, chaises, and hammocks strung between palm trees under the palapas: I had found my oasis. And by the end of the month, I found La Perla Negra, the Black Pearl, where the dorado fish kebabs and coconut shrimp were heaven. So was the coconut ice cream with chocolate syrup. There were upscale restaurants for special meals, but I was watching my pennies.
The heat and humidity were getting to me, so I shopped for something cool. The summer clothes I had packed were too heavy for the tropical weather. Stepping into a shop on Calle Ejido, I bought two pairs of cotton shorts and wore them day and night for a month. It was in that shop that I met Ricardo, an adorable young man who was working there. And he spoke English!
Ah, Ricardo — 27, a chemical engineer returned to Zihua to help in his father’s shop. Dark curly hair, a crooked smile, dark eyes with long lashes, and a voice and eyebrows that shot up when he was amused or surprised. He offered to help, to take me on excursions. Sally and I traveled to Barra de Potosi, Ixtapa, Troncones, and Majahua in his father’s air-conditioned car. What a kind young man. He wanted no recompense, even when we insisted over his protestations.
Before I left the Hamptons, acquaintances who knew Zihuatanejo said, “There’s nothing to do there.” My friend Carole from the East End Poetry Workshop was renting a condo on Playa la Ropa with her husband, so I organized a poetry workshop. Our first meeting was in a cafe across from the open-air fish market. There were four of us, including a poet from California, Jay. With his wife, Monique, he had left Paris after World War II. They were in their 80s. Their daughter Claudia and son-in-law, a boat designer, had an 80-foot catamaran, Picante, that offered day trips and sunset cruises.
After Jay left, our small poetry group met at Carole’s condo for lunch on the balcony, where we delighted in the paragliders rising from the beach, flying over the treetops. After lunch we worked on poetry and ended the day with a swim at Las Residencias’ Olympic-size pool, surrounded by palms, almond trees, and hibiscus. Las Residencias was a stark contrast to our balconied and old-fashioned Hotel Susy in Centro.
Cruise ships stopped in the bay at Playa Principal occasionally. One day while crossing the little bridge spanning the lagoon just outside of town, I noticed a small crowd on the bridge, peering down at the edge of the lagoon bordering the beach. Oh, my goodness, yes indeed — there was the snout of a cocodrilo poking out of the yellow-green water. Soon a crowd from the ship that had anchored that morning gathered on the beach, watching police and firemen capture the huge reptile.
First they lassoed the croc, then hauled it up the four-foot ledge of the lagoon and tossed it on its stomach in the sand. They tied a rope around its snout, then a fireman took off his T-shirt and placed it over the croc’s head to keep it calm. He sat on the back of the beast and secured its short front and rear legs with rope, pulling them back. Then he tied the croc like a Christmas package.
The crowd that had gathered cheered and applauded. It took three men to carry the trussed seven-foot animal to the bed of a waiting truck, which they used to transfer it to the enclosed lagoon at Playa Linda in the nearby resort of Ixtapa.
Day after day at my shady oasis at La Ropa, I sat under the palapas and palm trees, enjoying my new friends Bob and Joan from Iowa, the baby cabrito (goat), and the miniature parrots. A group of Italian woman from Toronto invited me to play boccie when I wasn’t too drowsy to get out of the hammock. Occasionally there was a funny smell at my oasis that I wondered about but didn’t pursue.
One evening as I was leaving the restaurant Arena, I saw a rush of water from the lagoon pouring into the bay, the gush cutting deep channels in the sand. The next morning the beach was smooth. I wondered where the torrents of water were coming from. A day later, arriving at the beach early, I waded through yet another rush of water that was calf-deep. As I reached the other side, holding my beach bag high, a young woman said, “Wash your feet — the water is polluted.”
With horror, I learned that a sewage-treatment plant regularly released treated sewage into the lagoon that flowed into the bay. The next time I saw Ricardo I asked him about contaminants in the water. As a chemical engineer, he had read and understood the government reports. My “oasis” was toxic, as was the other end of Playa la Ropa and the snorkeling beach, Manzanillo. From then on I reserved my swimming for the pool at Las Residencias. How sad I was, to learn the facts about my paradise.
I hope in the future that the municipality of Zihuatanejo becomes more vigilant in protecting its remarkable resources. And I send a great big thank-you to the Accabonac Protection Committee and others who wisely monitor our beautiful bays in East Hampton.
I hope the crocodile is happy in his new lagoon.
Carol Sherman’s books of poems include “San Miguel Sketches” and, most recently, “The Art of Gargling,” a collection of humorous verse. A founding member of the East End Poetry Workshop, she lives in East Hampton.