Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Mexico - Good Tacos, Hot as Hell

If you imagine what the inner circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno would feel like and then raise the temperature by a few thousand degrees, you will have some idea of what the weather was like the day we docked in Acapulco. The city itself seems to be one of contradictions – the old part is hot and dusty, filled with ramshackle homes, ancient VW Bugs masquerading as taxis, and tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants run by tired looking elderly women. It is as if a 21st century Mexican version of a Charles Dickens novel has come to life complete with crowds of shoeless children looking for spare change, packs of skinny dogs trotting through the streets, and clouds of dirt rising into the air at the smallest provocation. I half expected to see Oliver Twist standing on a corner. Although there seems to be little excess of money in this section of the city, laughter echoes down narrow streets and amiable smiles are exchanged with strangers. The folks are welcoming and easy going, and family seems to be incredibly important. It is not uncommon to see three or even four generations sitting around a table sharing a meal together. Yet when Matt and I leave the old part of town to make the drive up into the hills the scenery changes, these two areas of the city are as separate as night and day.

Here on the hill there is no one, people remain hidden behind towering fences. It is a ghost town full of quiet cooling breezes, infinity pools, and sprawling 28-room estates offering no clue as to who the owners might be other than the printed names of their properties displayed prominently on expensive garage gates. Literally and metaphorically these McMansions are far removed from the voices of the street children, from the thrum of traffic, the smell of the taquerias, and the general chaos of daily existence down below. This fiesta of noise, smell and sound so present in the old section of the city is suddenly reduced to a mere bunch of tiny, silent specks from this vantage point up on top of the hill. This is a point not lost on me and silently I contemplate how the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and unimaginable wealth seems to be a global problem and wonder what can possibly be done to help.

While in Acapulco we tour Los Flamingos, a famous hotel formerly owned by John Wayne that once attracted the Hollywood elite – Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Gregory Peck and dozens of other oldie goldies who vacationed here in the 50’s and 60’s. Yet it appears that nothing much in the way of renovation has been done since the hotel’s rise to prominence a half century ago, and as such it has retained its decidedly unironic campy décor, hot pink paint job and Jetsons-esque architecture. In other words: it’s Jonathan Adler kitsch meets trannys gone wild, but for $75 a night it’s not such a bad deal. Set against a breathtaking vista of sea and sky, with hammocks strung out in front of each room I briefly consider how romantic it might be to live here for a month doing nothing but reading and swimming and attempting the New York Times crossword puzzle. Then I notice the street outside Los Flamingos, the one filled with refuse, broken glass, and barbed wire fences and quickly reconsider – in reality it might end up depressing the hell out of me. Later we travel to La Quebrada to watch the cliff divers flying into the crashing tides hundreds of feet below. A bunch of swaggering teenage boys in Speedos, they make these daring feats look graceful, easy and fluid. Not a drop of hesitation or fear in their faces when we meet them afterwards, yet when we drive the coast on the way back I notice several altars honoring the Virgin Mary placed high on these same deadly cliffs. It is clear that the boys themselves have placed her up here, hoping Mary will watch over them and protect them from the unthinkable. Lunch is had at a small organic restaurant by Acapulco Bay – chicken tacos, guacamole with freshly baked tortilla chips and cool Pacifico beers. Chihuahua cheese covers everything, both the tacos and the guacamole, adding a layer of decadence to an already calorific meal, but I argue to myself that it would be a travesty to miss out on the local cuisine and thereby justify the gluttonous indulgence.

The following day dawns in Manzanillo, surprisingly cooler than Acapulco and slightly less dusty. After taking a brief tour of the downtown and avoiding the usual throng of tourist-trap stores stuffed floor to ceiling with crap: cheap t-shirts, shot glasses, bottles of bad tequila and straw purses galore we set out to see Las Hadas – one of the most picturesque resorts on the outskirts of town. As the setting for Bo Derek’s infamous run down the beach in the movie “10” both the scenery and the hotel prove to be as gorgeous as they appear in the film. The resort itself is an imposing whitewashed adobe masterpiece sprawling over acres and acres of carefully landscaped gardens and golf courses. We are greeted by dozens of employees who appear (or are paid to appear I would imagine) intensely excited to see us and golf carts are deployed to take us from the lobby down the steep, winding hills to the waterfront restaurant below. The restaurant itself is a shady outdoor structure complete with spinning ceiling fans, palapa roof, and beautifully tiled floors. We spend the rest of the day here listening to a mariachi band, drinking white wine and eating freshly caught dorado while we stare at the waves. Although I am not a resort person, I could easily imagine checking into a suite here and enjoying the luxury of time, weather, cold margaritas and warm sand.

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