Changing Acapulco´s reputation was never going to be easy. Until recently, the transition from bottom-slapping, cocktail-glugging hedonism in the sun, to historical and cultural treasure trove would raise a smirk, rather than an enthusiastic nod.
But the port is now seriously laying claim to its past and the pioneer here is one of the country´s grand coastal forts, La Fuerte de San Diego.
This fort, built in the 16th century at the orders of Felipe II to protect treasures from the New World and the trade routes, was opened to the public as Acapulco´s History Museum in 1984. Its current museography, however, dates to 2004 when it was restored thanks to the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) and the Arts Council program “Adopte una Obra de Arte.” It now ranks highly as a modern, interactive and varied museum.
“La Fuerte,” as it is referred to in town, is the main historical monument in Acapulco and the most important maritime fort along the Pacific coast. After most of it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1776, the engineer Adrián Boot – who also worked on the sister fort San Juán de Ulúa in Veracruz – intervened in five years of reconstruction to make it one of the most advanced military edifices of its time.
It has been painted a handsome Naples yellow with white trim, like an egg, with some grim and darkened canons baking in the sunny middle patio area. Its design is in a sculpted five-point star that you can only really appreciate from aerial photos, or the models on display inside the museum.
Of the 15 rooms (one is the lively educational services department, another the administrative office) nine were open to the public during my visit. The first sight was a “Carroza Real,” the carriage of William of Holland which made its way from Veracruz, according to accounts, in the 1840s. The bodega to the side is stuffed with replicas of galleons while others are on display behind glass cases, with fine silks, treasure chests and plentiful models.
Acapulco´s first claim to fame was for being the port for the Nao de China, or the Manila Galleon that brought splendid goods from the Orient, which were then transferred to Veracruz and sent to Europe.
The annual Acapulco trade fair that sprung up around the arrival of the Nao was the town´s first serious experience of hostelry and hospitality, while its modern venture into tourism – also ahead of other destinations – dates to the 1920s and 1930s.
Many of the historical tidbits visitors to Mexico pick up have their roots in this part of the country. Apparently, “Mirra” the China Poblana, a slave girl from the coast of India, arrived first in Acapulco in 1621 to eventually go to Puebla to be saved by the nuns there. “La Llorona” (of the famous song) at least in one version, was the wife of Spanish conquerer Cortés before he hooked up with La Malinche (or Doña María).
Visitors will also find pre-conquest history, with faces and tools from La Sabana river area, Mezcala faces for the dead, a Mexica altar, information on wall paintings from nearby Pie de la Cuesta and a general insight into Guerrero state´s pre-Hispanic sites.
Nautical fans will be in paradise with probes, hour glasses, sextants, compasses, hoists and marine astrolabes. These are all competing with military trappings, armor and shields, and delicate, ancient flags and standards. The displays are beautifully conceived, with cacao, frijol and maiz showing the role of native produce in the growth of the spice trade.
Visitors to the museum can see how Mexican artists began to reproduce stylized decorations in their own crafts, with examples from Puebla´s talavera pottery, ceramics from Tonalá, Jalisco, and lacquered furniture from Uruapan and Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Other influences extend from dress (such as the gaudy, frilly China Poblana costume) to the spread of produce like rice, mangos, pepper and cinnamon.
There is information in English although it is a shame no-one thought to have a native speaker check it first as some of the panels – and unfortunately often the most gripping ones, like those about “pirates, filibusters and corsairs” – are seriously flawed by repeated mistakes. But this barely affects one´s appreciation of the design, exemplary on a national scale.
The educational services department has good courses for kids in holiday periods, including archeological visits nearby. The fort is also a hub for many of Acapulco´s civic and cultural events.
STAYING IN TOWN
Those interested in Acapulco´s history might want to avoid some of the more modern hotels in the Zona Dorada and Acapulco Diamante and enjoy the classy retro establishments in Caleta and the Costera.
The outstanding option here is the glorious Hotel Boca Chica, probably with the best location in the whole of Acapulco. Caletilla beach, a cheery and child-friendly spot, is a walk to your left, while you can swim directly into the bay (and if it weren´t for the lanchas, to La Roqueta island) from a little jetty by a restaurant.
This is one of the town´s privileged dining spots with good sushi and even better sopa de mariscos, bobbing with crab claws, fish, onion and thin shreds of fresh green chile. Those coming for lunch tend to make an afternoon of it, paying an entrance fee to use the pool-with-a-view which is then discounted from the lunch menu – so it´s free as long as you eat.