Saving Acapulco’s Golden Age

The historic Hotel Villa Vera in Acapulco, Guerrero, is among the first of the Golden-Age hotspots to begin telling the story of the great days of Acapulco in hopes that the by remembering past success and failure will help guide the resort town in days to come.

BY BARBARA KASTELEIN/The Herald Mexico
December 31, 2004

“Today as I drive around the beaches of Acapulco Bay, I’m always reminded of my first flight from Mexico City to this beautiful, tropical paradise.

“It was 1943, shortly after Errol Flynn and I had become fast friends, and we flew down … for some fishing.

“I am reminded of Mexico’s tremendous strides, her enormous progress, particularly in the field of tourism.

“Acapulco today is world famous. The rich and beautiful people of this earth come to her shores. As I write this. Dr. Henry Kissinger is honeymooning with his talented and beautiful wife, … Prince Charles has just sailed away on a British frigate … and Ronald Reagan and black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson present their views to the Young Presidents’ Organization’s convention at the Hotel Princess.

“Yes, I would say Acapulco is a known place, an ‘in’ place.”

“Mr. Acapulco,” and notorious former manager of the Hotel Villa Vera, in “Forever is a Hell of a Long Time,” 1976).

The Queen of the Mexican Riviera is opening her arms, again.

“All the luminaries of the cinema came here,” says Arturo Zuñiga, historian of the port town’s traditional neighborhoods, as we gaze upon elderly couples in deck chairs, soaking in the throbbing winter sun on Caleta beach.

“This is where Acapulco’s tourism was born,” he says, over the happy squeals of children in armbands dipping in the sea.

“The locals were nice and no one bothered them. They didn’t have to endure having their pictures taken at every opportunity.”

Feet in the sand, hammers clattering around, we are eating tamales plump with cazón (shark meat) in the classic Caleta beachside restaurant La Cabaña (tel: (744)-482-5007, or 483-7121, Playa Caleta, lado oriente s/n, Fracc. Las Playas. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.).

“After the Second World War, the closest place for recreation to the United States was Mexico, and Acapulco in particular, and people came. Puerto Vallarta didn’t have hotels yet, but Acapulco did little posadas and casas de huéspedes, in Caleta, La Quebrada and downtown.”

Acapulco was cheap and welcoming.

“The locals had no experience in hotelería, so they gave guests three meals a day, included in the rate,” he smiles. “Girls and moms of local families became experts in fried fish, salsa verde made in the molcajete, and handmade tortillas, as well as fish soup, coctel de camaron, carne enchilada, sopes …” The tourists were not familiar with these dishes, Zuñiga explains, and it drew their interest.

“The gastronomy was different to what they were used to hamburgers and a great success. In those days they NEVER got ill. The women cooked in their houses and brought the food in baskets to the beach or hotel.”

But Acapulco grew too much from the 1950s to the 1908s, my guide says. “Everyone made money, Acapulqueños too lots of them in hotels.”

An awkward silence hangs over the post-golden years. Even more so with Guerrero state elections coming up.

A month ago, another very knowledgeable fellow from my all-time favorite resort sent me the following message: “I am also worried about being mentioned when you will talk about the decadence of Acapulco as a tourist destination. Yesterday, I had breakfast with a friend that is running for governor of the state and if he wins, he may call me to help in the tourism area and being cited as a source will not help me.”

Zuñiga however, mingles melancholy with optimism. We talk about Hurricane Paulina that, in 1997, washed away many illegal homes that had been built on old riverbeds and killed an untold number of Acapulqueños.

“Here one forgets everything. People have short memories,” he says. But he has faith in the current renaissance: “Hace diez años, Acapulco se creía muerto ya” (Ten years ago, Acapulco thought it was dead already), but now there’s hope.

“Now we are in a new phase, you can see it,” he says gesturing around at Caleta and Caletilla. There is foreign investment “from all over.”

The reason is, “They are seeing that Acapulco is Acapulco. You can get everything here, and no one bothers you.”

The renovation of Caletilla is a federal and state program, designed for the national and foreign tourist markets. Of the foreigners, after visitors from the United States come the Germans, Zuñiga says.

“They are opening German restaurants now. Many guides are learning to speak German!” Acapulco is no stranger to declines and comebacks. I remember two years ago the resort having, in characteristic oxymoronic style, both going on at the same time: an uproar about foul water quality on Mexican beaches along with a wonderful wave of superb spas, putting the town on the map again for the health tourism and luxury pampering scene.

I haven’t heard much more about the spas, but the municipality is building a number of water treatment plants, everyone tells me.

I’d like to believe in the rebirth of Acapulco from its past. The Caleta area scene of so many old Mexican movies, including the comical Tin Tan’s “Sinbad el Mareado” and of Hollywood film noir, such as “Out of The Past” with Robert Mitchum is a good place to start.

THE VILLA VERA

The legendary hillside hotel Villa Vera has taken a lead by inaugurating a new “museum” last month (Lomas del Mar 35 Fracc. Club Deportivo, tel: (744)-484-0333, US160 ). Large white boards are on display with photos of the movie stars who stayed and played there Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Hedy Lamarr and nuggets of information on their silver screen achievements, songs, marriages and other antics.

Other grand names in the history of hostelry, such as the 1930s Mirador, have long been drawing on their glamorous past to intrigue guests, with the signatures of the greats carved into the wall of “el Salon de la Fama,” a couple of floors down from the Mirador’s lobby in “La Perla.” There you can see Sean Connery and María Félix, Joan Collins and José José, Sasha Montenegro and Tito Puente at the same time as you dine and watch the clavadistas de la Quebrada plunge 35 meters into 5 meters of heaving Pacific (Plaza La Quebrada, (744) 483-1155, for dinner reservations at La Perla, ext. 802).

“Tarzan lived, and died, here,” veteran diver Ignacio Sánchez told me, referring to the actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller, who made Acapulco his home after filming “Tarzan and the Mermaids” here in the forties.

You can see the “Casa Tarzan” in the blush-colored Hotel Flamingo (Av. López Mateos, Fracc. Las Playas, tel: (744)-482-0692, US76), that perches on a cliff in delicious silence only 10 minutes from Caleta. This was the house of the Hollywood gang, Weismuller, John Wayne and their agent Boo Roos, and has welcomed hundreds of famous names such as Cary Grant, Dolores del Río and Errol Flynn. The Flamingo is also a treasure trove of memorabilia, visited regularly by pink-faced cruise-ship passengers my favorite being a gorgeous still of Tarzan and Boy, from “Tarzan King of the Jungle” (1948).

Not only does Acapulco’s memory fizz with Hollywood legends Orson Welles, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Brigitte Bardot, Ursula Andress, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Liza Minelli, Bob Hope, Goldie Hawn, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Fara Fawcett, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Costner but it has a exotic and briny swashbuckling past.

Acapulco has been a host to outside guests for centuries, long before it became an icon for North American tourism. From the 16th century until independence from Spain, Acapulco was the link between Europe and the Far East, with the historic Trade Route bringing exotic silks, spices, porcelains and other previously unimagined splendors on the Manila Galleons and Naos de China.

Visitors may have heard of the museum in the Fuerte de San Diego, where you can soak in a little of this history, but few know the Museo Histórico Naval de Acapulco (Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 8 p.m., 10 pesos, on Hidalgo 35, half a block from La Quebrada, walking towards to Zócalo tel: (744) 483-2991, www.museonavalaca.org), nor the murals around the stairway of the Palacio Municipal, open to the public in normal office hours.

Although many foreign visitors are not aware of this history, Acapulqueños are, and many think it has a bearing on the townsfolk’s ease with outsiders.

Since he can remember, “Acapulco has been an international center for people.,” says Hugo Maldonado, Resident Manager at the Fairmont Princess hotel (tel: (744)-469-1000, Playa Revolcadero s/n, Col. Granjas del Marques, US259, www.fairmont.com).

He says there are strong decadesold links between foreigners and philanthropic institutions, especially orphanages, and “lots of foreigners have come here and got married,” he says.

“Acapulco knows how to open its arms.”

Barbara Kastelein writes a weekly column on travel for The Herald.