If you're looking for the real Mexico, you can skip Ixtapa. It's as unreal as a place can be: a beach in the middle of nowhere, a half-dozen new highrise hotels, a golf course, a shopping center and not much else. The town was created for tourists. It's hard to find a decent taco -- or any taco at all, for that matter.
But if you want sun and surf, Ixtapa is hard to beat, especially at today's exchange rates. The weather is usually perfect, the water is lovely, the beach is uncrowded. There's no honky tonk around the hotels -- only sea and open land. The hotels have all the amenities and lots of rooms with sweeping views over the Pacific.
It's the kind of place where, after a morning of tennis or snorkeling or soaring high above the bay, you can lounge at an underwater stool at one of the many poolside bars, contemplate an unbroken blue sky, and conclude that there are times when it is best to leave the real Mexico to the real Mexicans.
Ixtapa is on Mexico's Pacific coast about 150 miles north of Acapulco. It's five miles up the coast from Zihuatanejo, an old fishing village on a beautiful bay that's been popular with foreigners for many years. Those seeking traditional charm should stay in Zihuatanejo.
Ixtapa, on the other hand, is a creation of hotel magnates. They saw a stretch of empty beach, began building in the early 1970s, and still haven't finished.
The result is a resort in a dry wilderness -- a place unmarred by the seediness, crowds, cars and problems of older resorts. It also doesn't have a few other things -- good native restaurants, most notably. All the hotels offer passable food that is sometimes excellent, but the chefs seem too busy preparing an "international" menu to do justice to Mexico's own cuisine. Fortunately, Zihuatanejo has many restaurants with fine local cooking, and it's only 10 minutes away.
Ixtapa doesn't have any famous Mayan ruins nearby -- and there are some visitors who count this as a blessing. Even the most devoted tourist can lounge on the beach without feeling any guilt about the sights that he should be seeing.
One of the most popular activities is parasailing. It requires no skill, just a little courage and faith in the local entrepreneurs. Standing on the beach, you strap yourself into a parachute that's on a line going out to a speedboat. The boat starts moving, you run a few steps forward, and soon you're hundreds of feet up in the air, being towed around the bay for a ride that lasts about five minutes.
For the most part, things are done well in Ixtapa. The hotel service can be maddeningly slow, but it's fairly reliable. There are some odd flaws: One recent visitor reported that, despite the presence of a dozen tennis courts at the resort, it was impossible to buy tennis balls anywhere in Ixtapa. But for a sun worshipper, it's hard to think of a better or cheaper beach vacation.
Ixtapa has its own airport with daily flights to and from Mexico City. It offers direct flights to some American cities. You might consider flying in to Acapulco and renting a car for the four-hour drive up the coast to Ixtapa. A car isn't necessary in Ixtapa -- taxis are cheap and bus service to Zihuatanejo is simple. Hotel rooms and meals are moderately priced by American standards. Perhaps the two best hotels are the El Presidente and the Camino Real.