The other coast: on the rebound

Investors in Acapulco hope dividends will rival the past

By Barbara Kastelein, Globe Correspondent  |  April 30, 2006

ACAPULCO — The erstwhile ”Queen of the Mexican Riviera” is opening her arms, again.

Driving from Tres Palos to Coyuca, two huge tropical lagoons on either end of the world-famous beach resort, you can see clearly that the sassy and sexy seaside city is being reborn — and on three fronts.

”Como mi Acapulquito no hay dos (There are no two places like my dear Acapulco),” proclaimed Umberto, my driver from the Hotel Princess, as we stopped to gaze at the newest part of town. The sapphire waves beneath us dimpled like the hide of an enormous blue animal in the late afternoon sun.

Today, there actually is a trio of Acapulcos elbowing eagerly for attention: Acapulco Tradicional, where it all began in the 1930s; the Zona Dorada (Gold Zone), the glitzy hotel and restaurant strip along the bay; and Acapulco Diamante (Diamond Acapulco), the latest area to be developed. The last decade has witnessed a wave of investment in ”Diamante,” as it is now called — a long strip of yellow sand and crashing surf, near the international airport. This infusion of cash has given a boost to Acapulco, which was left in embarrassingly shabby shape after a period of neglect in the 1980s.

Still, local observers and entrepreneurs agree it is the pull of the past that will preserve Acapulco’s future on the world’s tourism map, and this includes the resort’s traditional heart.

”We are having our biggest upturn in 30 years,” said Esteban, the noted designer who has dressed many a star to have graced the port’s glowing shores, from Bardot to Minnelli.

”Acapulco has the hottest thing in the world: name recognition. No one can compete with that,” he said.

The glory of ”The Pearl of the Pacific” — another of Acapulco’s pet names in its heyday — started 70 years ago, with the grand hotel El Mirador and the the world-famous cliff diving show, Los Clavadistas de La Quebrada. By the 1950s, the golden age of Mexican cinema, the picturesque Caleta Beach was one of the most photographed, filmed, and dreamed-of destinations on the continent.

”All the stars of the silver screen came here,” recalled Arturo Zuñiga, historian of Acapulco’s traditional neighborhoods, as we gazed upon Mexican families and snowbirds from Canada selecting their spots by the gentle waves.

With our feet in the sand, and the sound of hammers clattering around us, we dined on tamales plump with ”cazón” (fish) in the beachside restaurant La Cabaña. This old-fashioned neighborhood, where yoga devotees and joggers trot in the early morning while partygoers are still in their first hours of sleep, has been rediscovering its former glory since remodeling began about 18 months ago.

Five minutes’ walk away, visitors enjoy sushi in the 1950s Hotel Boca Chica. Here they dive from the jetty to swim around the petroglyphs to Caletilla Beach, and spot dolphins and whales.

”It looks like we could be the next South Beach, Miami,” enthused Miguel Muñoz, owner of the laid-back retro hotel. Munoz said his hotel’s Internet bookings have been going through the roof in the last six months.

A five-minute taxi ride up the hill brings you to the borscht-colored, former cliff-top home of the ”Hollywood Gang,” including Johnny ”Tarzan” Weissmuller and John Wayne. It has welcomed hundreds of famous names such as Cary Grant, Dolores del Río, and Errol Flynn, and was converted into the Hotel Los Flamingos in the 1950s, when the architect of Mexican tourism, President Miguel Alemán, built la Costera.

This is the strip along the bay, which became the Gold Zone, lined with glitzy high-rise hotels, bars, restaurants, and discos that are currently spilling over with laughing, scantily-dressed young people. Last month, Acapulco received record numbers of spring breakers and hotels reported their highest Easter holiday occupancy rates since the creation of Cancun more than 30 years ago.

Today, the old heart of the city can be enjoyed on foot, starting at the blue-domed cathedral and shady ”zócalo” (the main square), filled with the squawking of tropical birds. Visitors can sip a bracing coffee or a freshly squeezed orange juice in the traditional cafe, the Astoria, and then cross over to the little harbor. Here, you can take a glass-bottomed boat for the popular tour past the sunken Virgin and on to frolic on La Roqueta Island, enjoying shrimp and beer, and wading in the warm water.

But an even more celebrated location is close at hand. Take a left behind the cathedral, and stroll up to a site most often associated with Acapulco — the cliffs of La Quebrada. Seventy-one years after the show was first founded, the valiant ”clavadistas” (divers) are still plunging 115 feet every day of the year into a narrow crevice of boiling ocean.

This heart-stopping show costs $4. We caught it on March 21, the birthday of Benito Juárez, the country’s president in the 1860s and ’70s, and one of Mexico’s national heroes. The divers, with characteristic aplomb, honored the occasion with a triple synchronized dive, each decked out with silken red, white, and green capes, the colors of the national flag.

”It was tough because the wind was up and caught the cloth,” said diver Julio César Alvarez, rubbing his shoulder ruefully. Occupational hazards include sprained wrists, torn eardrums, dislocated shoulders, blows to the head, and the occasional burst eyeball.

Even though the divers enter only 13 feet of water, with spiky rock at the bottom, the local divers association says that none of its members have died on the job — although inebriated copycat tourists have come to messy ends.

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Los Clavadistas de La Quebrada maintain a tradition that goes back generations. Today’s divers include seven men from the Alvarez family, descendants of José ”El Cuadro” Alvarez, called The Square for his stocky build. Iris Alvarez, the only female diver, is already jumping from nearly 60 feet at the age of 12.

”We call her the niño-niña (boy-girl),” said her mother, Jasmin, about the child who loves soccer, martial arts, and playing the keyboard.

”Iris was born on Father’s Day,” said her father, José Luis Alvarez, called ”El Cuchillo” (The Knife). ”She was my firstborn and I took her everywhere. She used to throw herself into the social security pool before she could even swim.”

The younger generation of divers, many of them sons or nephews of former divers, reflect the changing times. Traditionally from humble backgrounds, many young divers now use their earnings at La Quebrada to pay for college.

The new president of the divers, Jorge Mónico Ramírez, himself the son of a veteran diver, is completing a university degree in communications and is planning a vintage photo gallery, the first book on the divers’ history, and an expedition to take the show to Africa — ”the only continent where we haven’t been.”

”We aim to dive into the Red Sea,” Ramírez said as we made our way through the steep passageways of the barrio, where most of the divers live — one of the oldest in Acapulco and known as the part of town where many escaped slaves took refuge.

Here we found Manuel García, known as ”El Sapo” (The Toad), at 74 one of the oldest divers still performing. He shares part of the second floor of a bright blue house with his mother, one of his sons (a diver), daughter-in-law (the niece of a diver, and briefly a diver herself until she had children), and two grandchildren.

His wall is plastered with photos of the glory days, and he digs out a cracked portrait of himself with Frank Sinatra.

The divers are a unique example of community, courage, and flair in Acapulco, and the international media is beginning to take note again.

”Iris has been on TV, but it hasn’t gone to her head,” her mother said proudly. As her 9-year-old brother Uli — also training to be a cliff diver — looked on, Iris demonstrated the three things that are essential to performing a stylish and safe dive: Watch the wave come up, tighten your legs, and concentrate. The part that most scares her is scaling the cliff face.

”I still get the shakes sometimes,” she said, pulling a shuddery face. Until last year, her father climbed behind her to help her find the footholds.

Iris beamed when she told me about her school headmaster coming to see her. She wants to do well in her education, she said, which is why visitors to Acapulco will only catch her on weekends.