Acapulco + Zihuatanejo See And Do
Acapulco looks its best after dark, when lights twinkle like constellations in the hills framing Bahía de Acapulco. (Under the harsh sunlight, Acapulco tends to look like the overcrowded and rather run-down city it is.) Old Acapulco, at the northwest side of the bay, is the most interesting neighborhood to explore. Here, sidewalk cafés edge the shaded zócalo, and there's a traditional bandstand where musicians occasionally play. The star-shaped Fuerte de San Diego at the edge of Old Acapulco towers above the cruise-ship pier and houses a must-see nautical museum, the Museo Histórico de Acapulco (Calle Hornitos at Calle Morelos; 52-744-482-3828). Behind the fort, the Casa de Máscaras contains a private collection of more than 500 ceremonial masks (Calle Morelos; 52-744-486-5577). It's best to take a tour to see all of Acapulco's far-flung historic buildings and the small archaeological site of Palma Sola, 15 miles to the north of town. For private or group tours, contact Constellation Services (Placa Condesa; 52-744-484-1988).—Maribeth Mellin
Zihuatanejo's long Playa la Ropa has all the beach musts: sand, sunbathers, shacks renting everything from lounge chairs and umbrellas to dive gear, plus a cluster of informal seafood restaurants. To get away from it all, take a boat from the municipal pier in downtown to Playa las Gatas, where a breakwater keeps the sea fairly calm and clear. Hiking trails behind the beach lead to stunning views from El Faro (the lighthouse).
Acapulco's beaches are less rewarding. Most tourists stick with parasailing, jet skiing, and sunbathing on Playa Condesa along the Costera, but Playa Puerto Marqués, just south of town, is more fun. Local families gather here en masse on weekends, when the beach takes on a festive air, with vendors hawking silver and sombreros and grandparents playing with the kiddies in small waves. The scene is far more tranquil at Pie de la Cuesta, about six miles northwest of Old Acapulco on the other side of the bay. Set amid banana and mango groves, the small settlement sits between Laguna Coyuca, a large inland lagoon, and a long beach facing the open sea. The waves are rough here, so it's safer just to enjoy the sound of the surf. Evenings are spectacular; take a seat at the small, palapa-shaded café on the beach and watch the sun sink into the sea.—Maribeth Mellin
The daring clavadistas of Acapulco have been diving for audiences since the 1930s. They even have a union and a training regimen that quickly weed out reckless wannabes who have no business diving from 130 feet up. The cliff-diving action takes place at La Quebrada, a gorge in the cliffs above Old Acapulco. The divers first pray, then fly headfirst, arms spread in swan dives that last just a few thrilling seconds before they splash into the water in a narrow channel filled with rocks. The dives must be exactly timed to match the incoming swells of churning water. (No wonder Timex used the divers in a 1962 TV ad.) Afterward, they climb back up the gorge to mingle with their applauding fans.
Taxis and tour buses climb the steep winding road from Old Acapulco's neighborhood zócalo to the top of La Quebrada, where a few small shops sell souvenirs and cold drinks. Platforms with railings edge the gorge for spot-on views of the performance. The divers ask for donations from the audience at the viewing area (about $2 for the show), and additional tips are much appreciated. The most comfortable seats are at the La Perla restaurant in the El Mirador Hotel, which charges a cover of $5 or so (La Quebrada; 52-744-488-1155). Try to come at night, when the divers carry flaming torches on their descent.—Maribeth Mellin
The sea life along Mexico's Pacific Coast is more robust than in much of the Caribbean: Whales, rays, turtles, and gigantic billfish appear here regularly, and closer to shore than you might think. The best places for diving and snorkeling tend to be close to islands and rocky points where the water is shallow, calm, and clear.
In Zihuatanejo, the main draw for divers and snorkelers is the abundance of sea turtles, spotted eagle rays, moray eels, puffer fish, and urchins that gather offshore near Playa las Gatas. Gear rentals and boat trips are available at Carlo Scuba (Playa las Gatas; 52-755-554-6003).—Maribeth Mellin
Acapulco + El Morro
Hollywood heroes like John Wayne and Errol Flynn made Acapulco's fishing grounds famous in the 1940s. Back in those days, the hefty sailfish and marlin caught here were usually mounted on walls; nowadays, catch-and-release is just as common. More sedentary pursuits like sunbathing and cocktail-houring have since eclipsed fishing as the major draws here, but plenty of sleek day-trip boats still await anglers in Old Acapulco's marina. Fish-R-Us has several specially equipped yachts and a variety of trips to choose from—many of which stop on their way back to port to watch the cliff divers (Costera Alemán 100; 52-744-482-8282).—Maribeth Mellin
This overgrown fishing village, where fishermen sell their daily catch on Playa Principal, is a charming place to linger over a michelada (beer with lime and ice in a salt-rimmed glass) along the malecón. Apart from the small Museo Arqueológico de la Costa Grande (Paseo del Pescador; 52-755-554-7552), which displays murals and pre-Hispanic artifacts from the region, the main thing to do here is shop. Vendors sell seashell trinkets and painted plates in stands on the sand and at the Mercado de Artesanía on Calle Cinco de Mayo. Gourd masks cover the walls at Casa Marina (9 Paseo del Pescador; 52-755-554-2373), a cluster of small folk-art shops. The best souvenir is the local coffee, which is sold in the nearby Mercado Municipal (Avenida Benito Juárez). Once they've explored the town, travelers tend to zone out for hours in sea-facing pools or hammocks on the sand, rousing themselves for dinner and a bit of lightweight partying at downtown's small restaurants and clubs.