Laze in a hammock at Playa La Ropa. // © 2016 Lindsay Lauckner Grundlock
Feature image (above): The town’s calm waves and gorgeous beaches draw families looking for outdoor fun. // © 2016 iStock
Zihuatanejo means “the place of women.” And centuries before Spanish conquistadors stepped onto Mexico’s shores, a Tarascan king created this sheltered cove, which is located on Mexico’s southwestern coast in the state of Guerrero, to allow his empire’s women and children to swim safely in the sea. Today, his nurturing spirit is still present amidst the beach town’s gentle waves; low-rise hotels in harmony with nature; and wealth of family-friendly eco-adventures.
A day at Playa La Ropa is the best bet for enjoying Zihuatanejo’s natural charms. This crescent of soft golden sand offers an all-ages playground perfect for engaging in watersports or spotting shorebirds. Palm trees offer shade for little ones while they build a sandcastle or nap on a lounger. In fact, it’s said that it was on these shores, in 1527, that palm trees first arrived in North America via a trade route from Asia. Adventurous beach-goers can also explore nearby Playa Las Gatas, accessible via a rugged footpath at the southern stretch of the beach. Named for a type of whiskered nurse shark once found in the bay, this beach is protected by an offshore reef, making its calm waters ideal for beginner snorkelers and kayakers.
Kids will enjoy exploring the wide range of ecosystems on Isla Ixtapa, a nearby island featuring several sandy coves. The journey begins in Zihuatanejo with a short bicycle ride through a shaded forest to Playa Linda, where families will enjoy peering into a "cocodrilario" (crocodile nursery) teeming with crocodylus acutus, aka American crocodiles, a species that, although once endangered, is now in recovery thanks to international conservation efforts. Mature males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds yet can glide silently through the water with just their snouts above the surface.
A breezy boat ride then whisks participants to Isla Ixtapa for snorkeling around the colorful coral reef at Playa Coral. Gear is available for rent, and snorkelers can expect to see a range of fish, including barracuda at greater depths. Other options include spending the afternoon playing castaway in a beach hammock or snacking on fresh snapper.
For a true taste of Mexico, families won’t want to miss Restaurantes Mexicanos Any, an eatery beloved by locals and visitors alike. A hand-painted mural wraps around the restaurant’s exterior and features folk art from the state of Guerrero as well as characters of the "loteria," a Mexican bingo game with 54 character cards such as "el diablito" (little devil) and "la sirena" (mermaid).
Inside, the restaurant channels a “Viva Mexico” fiesta vibe with its collection of bright-hued tables set beneath dangling pinatas, streamers and banners. Kids of all ages will enjoy bopping along to "ranchera" music in between tucking into Mexican specialties such as quesadillas, tamales and burritos. Be sure to order "pozole," a regional soup that comes with family-pleasing sides such as tortilla chips, corn on the cob and mac ’n’ cheese. This is also the spot to sample natural fruit "helados," frozen treats in fun flavors such as coconut, strawberry and mango.
Fans of everything hobbit-related will swoon at the whimsical mushroom-shape buildings hugging Zihuatanejo’s steep hills. This unique architectural style featuring curves, palapa-topped roofs and natural materials is unique to the destination and is a signature design by innovative architect Enrique Zozaya.
One of his most iconic properties is Viceroy Zihuatanejo, where the soaring adobe-inspired suites (some with two bedrooms) offer plenty of room to sprawl and also feature plunge pools and hammocks. A tasty children’s menu; kid-size backpacks packed with fun; and twice-daily housekeeping service round out the offerings. The team of imaginative family concierges dream up an ever-evolving range of activities — from baking cookies to building creations out of recycled materials — and the location directly on Playa La Ropa can’t be beat.
Adventurous families can experience the tropical forest from a different vantage point while swooshing through the air at Parque Aventura Ixtapa, a rustic nature park packed with outdoor fun. In addition to the adrenaline-boosting canopy tour featuring 11 ziplines, there is a collection of suspension bridges, ladders and rope circuits guaranteed to test participants’ agility and balance to the max. Local guides are on hand to help keep visitors on track as they tiptoe across tightropes, scramble across swaying ladders and army-crawl their way along the route. Note that minimum and maximum age restrictions apply.
For nature-loving families looking for an authentic Mexican destination that will excite teenagers as well as toddlers, Zihuatanejo offers the perfect mix of adventure and discovery without sacrificing the comforts of luxury.