ONE RESULT OF the subtle stigma that has become associated with the word “tourist" is a snobbish desire not to be tagged as one. Apart from staying home, the only viable way to avoid this label is not to go where the tourists go. Such, at any rate, is the prevailing wisdom among many travelers. U.S. humorist Art Buchwald once portrayed a meeting of American sophisticates in Europe at which each proudly mentioned the places he hadn’t been to. “We did go to London.” one of them admitted, “but we avoided the Queen." A similar perversity is rampant in Mexico, where the search for new, “in” and off-trail resorts has taken on the appurtenances of a paper chase.
Take Cozumel, site of Prime Minister Trudeau’s skin-diving holiday after Christmas last year. Trudeau presumably was trying to dodge the press, but what of the legions of vacationers who have suddenly turned this jungle-covered flyspeck off the coast of Yucatán into a $22-a-day insiders' Mecca? “What you do there," says a Montrealer, “is lie on the beach, sneering at everybody else for discovering the place.”
Cozumel is a better spot than most for sneering at interlopers, no doubt. But $22 a day will buy more stimulating holidays, and perhaps the time has come when there's an inverse, Volkswagen kind of snobbery in going to the fine places where the tourists go, and seeing the interesting things that the tourists see, and forgetting the current travel cachets. Herewith, at any rate, are some heartfelt spells and incantations designed to encourage the first - time visitor to Mexico to take the well-worn tourist route: namely, Mexico City. Cuernavaca, Taxco, Acapulco.
Where else, to begin with, could you possibly find such a splendid diversity of atmosphere and climate over a 265-mile stretch of superhighway? Mexico City: the sixth biggest, perhaps fourth most exciting city in the world, in a climate of perpetual spring, mountain-ringed at 7,350 feet. Cuernavaca: an exquisite, flower-filled retreat snoozing in eternal summer (Mexico is the only large country in the world in which changes in climate occur not as you go north or south, but as you go up or down). Taxco: the silver town, cobbled and fabulous, as undulant as San Francisco and as foreign as the Mountains of the Moon. Acapulco: despite Sinatra, Hilton and the Tequila A Go Go, every man’s ideal of the subtropics and still the best place in this hemisphere to fly away to.
Gresham’s Law of Resorts, as contrived by Cleveland Amory, states that all of them were discovered by artists, followed by good millionaires, followed by bad millionaires. But none of this bunch has managed to spoil Acapulco. The world’s most beautiful natural harbor, typically the last stop on the
Mexican tourist trail, should be considered first, for many a Canadian has dallied too long elsewhere and gone home haunted and depressed, like the Greek wanderer who, strapped to the mast, heard the sirens calling him. It is always a wrench to leave Acapulco. Several days are required to subside into its sweet routine: breakfast, pool and beach, elevenses, pool and beach, lunch, siesta, pool and beach, cocktails, dinner, sunset, nightlife. Last winter, during one three-week period, a single peso-sized cloud obscured the sun for about four seconds and every other extrovert in town demanded his money back.
Red and purple jacaranda were everywhere. Birds made yellow slashes in the coconut palms. Visitors patronized 23 beaches and four zillion nightclubs. They do not permit it to rain in Acapulco except in the off-season, bugs are fined heavily for biting or buzzing, and they have banned the hangover. It is a pretty wonderful place.
Acapulco dozed until 1927 when they cut a highway through the mountains that protect it. The first big hotel is now languishing under the name El Cantamar. It’s a bargain. Other accommodations range from hammocks on a beach (10 pesos: 80 cents) to Hotel Las Brisas where everybody has his own swimming pool and candystriped Jeep (if you have to know how much this place costs, you can’t afford it).
The town’s two most famous beaches are Caleta and Hornos, traditionally patronized in the morning and afternoon, respectively, because of tides and vantage. Of course, insiders started reversing the sequence to avoid tourists; the morning beach is now somewhat more crowded in the afternoon, and vice versa. Puerto Marques Bay, to the east of town, has the best beach of all for swimming. In the shank of the afternoon one should go, by bus, cab or rented Jeep, to La Pie de la Cuesta, eight miles west, to lie in a hammock, drink gin from a green coconut and watch the most extraordinary sunsets on this earth above and through the high surf.
The discovery of “little Acapulcos” up and down the Pacific coast is a perennial pastime of tourists and promoters (the most celebrated of whom are Liz and Dick, who have set up occasional residence at Puerto Vallarta). But no one will ever find a setting as jewel-like as Acapulco Bay, and the quest seems idle. Inevitably, the main objection to Acapulco is its popularity. At ease by a parrot-green pool, .» retired U.S. Army colonel complained that the town was too urban, too commercialized — but he didn't look up from his frozen daquiri to see the large iguana scuttling down a slope, and he never drove a few miles out of town where the jungle intrudes. Here the sea crashes on still-empty beaches, peasants live%in smelly squalor, and once, returning on a one-peso bus from La Pie de la Cuesta, we felt a terrific bump. “Snake,” somebody said. We looked back, and by God it was.
This sort of underlying danger and violence is a preoccupation of the Mexican people. There is an untranslatable Spanish word for it: "machismo." It’s evident in the bark paintings hawked for a few pesos in the streets of Acapulco, cruel and brilliant peasant visions of preying birds and animals. In Mexico City the elderly taxis are festooned with patron saints and skull-and-
crossbones, and they go like an especially erratic bat out of hell.
All over the country are road signs bearing a number. They show the distance in kilometers from Mexico City, which everyone seems to have to know. The capital is to a Mexican what Montreal is to a Quebecker. Most of the six million people who live there are dirt-poor — but adore its glittering patina of progressive architecture and revered monuments, lovely boulevards, fountains, parks, department stores and hotels the equal of New York’s, all the fruit of a swinging new culture and the trappings of an ancient faith. Under its twin, 17,000-foot volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihuatl, the high plain sprawls seemingly forever.
Before the 1968 Olympics the city was scrubbed clean, physically and in the broader sense. Sidewalk taco salesmen -— who had caused a lot of stomach aches in their time — were swept off the streets, nightclubs were more closely supervised and the worst clip joints were shut. The result of this effort is still noticeable.
Mexico is the cheapest of the world’s great cities to visit, partly because so much of the action is out-of-doors: Chapultepec Park, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the great pyramids of the Sun and Moon at Teotihuacán, the markets, the wandering mariachis at Plaza de Garibaldi, the bullfights and the jai alai games. But the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco are sinking in honky-tonk, and crossing streets anywhere in the city is a dangerous game: the taxis aim for a near miss. Passengers, trembling behind the plastic dashboard saints, are safer. Taxis are a bargain, especially the battered, sagging peseros that cruise up and down the central Paseo de la Reforma. A single peso (eight cents) will take you as far as you want to go, at which point you should yell, "Aqui, señor,” over the rock and roll and tumble out the door, preferably feet-first. Other cabs are metered. Tip only after dark.
In a two-week holiday, Cuernavaca and Taxco should be one-night stopovers on the way from Mexico City (four days) to Acapulco (eight days). An hour from the capital by limousine or bus, Cuernavaca is simply too pretty to be ignored — a fact that was not lost on Cortés, who built himself a palace there in 1530, or on the illfated Maximilian and his empress Cariotta, who holidayed there during their brief reign. Most of its 36,000 people do whatever it is they do — there is no visible industry in Cuernavaca — behind pastel walls covered with bursts of bougainvillea and flor de noche buena, the latter discovered there in 1828 by a U.S. minister named Joel Robert Poinsett and successfully carried back to South Carolina, where it became known as the poinsettia.
Curiously, this sunny market town has what may well be the seamiest nightlife south of Tijuana, in something called the Zona de Tolerancia. After seeing the Palace, the Cathedral and the Borda Gardens, it’s interesting to drive past the “girls” in their cubicles along the Calle Atlacomulco — fast. Taxco has one of the world’s loveliest small hotels (the Posada de la Misión), endless vistas of brown hillsides climbing to the mountains near the sea, and 180 silver shops, most of them one-man factories. Haggle. — JON RUDDY
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