240 miles south of Mexico City, the azure blue water, craggy Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, and upscale high-rise hotels of Acapulco de Juárez (Spanish: [akaˈpulko ðe ˈxwaɾes] was once Mexico’s paradise and most famous beach resort town. In its heyday, Acapulco beaches, upscale cuisine, golf courses, pulsing nightlife, and spas provided a powerful attraction for jet setters and the likes of celebrity-types like Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and Johnny Carson. It was the inspiration for the Elvis Presley film “Fun in Acapulco” and Frank Sinatra’s song, “Come Fly with Me.”
Today, Acapulco’s prominence as the go-to Mexican vacation destination has been replaced by Cancun and Cabo San Lucas – both of which were “created” and promoted by Fonatur, the Mexican government tourism agency. Also on Mexico’s Pacific Coast are the smaller but more hip beach towns of Puerto Vallarta, Huatulco, and Zipolite.
Acapulco, on the southwestern/Pacific coast of Mexico, lacks the brilliant turquoise of the beaches on the Caribbean coast in Quintana Roo, but it still holds some appeal as one of Mexico’s top beach destinations, but not without some reservations.
My first visit to Acapulco was in my mid-20s. Let’s just say it was “decades” ago and let it go at that. I went with my childhood best friend, Donna, and needless to say, we 20-year-olds had a blast in that party town. Oh, the stories of partying until the wee hours of the morning, making new friends on the beach, and gawking at oozy-toting military patrol on the beach.
Being very young, we could not afford a luxury resort, but we were able to find a budget, semi-high rise hotel right on the main strip. It wasn’t great, but it did the trick. Or so we thought…
One afternoon, returning to the hotel after spending several hours (foolishly) burning sunbathing on the beach, the front desk told us the main elevator was out of service, and we could either take the stairs or use the service elevator. Since we were hot and sweaty and our room was on the fifth floor, we opted for the service elevator. We entered the compartment and pressed “5.”
The elevator reached the fifth floor, but the doors did not open. Instead, it started descending back down the shaft, fast, taking my stomach with it. The car reached the bottom, but again, the doors did not open and it started to zoom back up, and I swear the blood drained from my face just as fast, and my life proverbially flashed before my eyes.
“We’re going to die,” I said to Donna who had begun whimpering.
The cycle repeated one more time before the doors opened on the fifth floor. Needless to say, we didn’t take the service elevator again, and I won’t lie, that incident is still the stuff of a recurring nightmare.
Acapulco at a Glance
Nestled on a deep, semicircular bay with a craggy mountain backdrop, Acapulco has been a port city since the early colonial period. Currently, it’s a port of call for shipping and cruise lines running between Panama and San Francisco.
The resort area is divided into three parts: the northern end of the bay and beyond is the “traditional” area, which runs from Parque Papagayo through the Zócalo and the beaches of Caleta and Caletilla; the main part of the bay known as “Zona Dorada” (golden zone), where the famous in the mid-20th century vacationed; the south end, “Diamante” (diamond), which is dominated by newer luxury high-rise hotels and condominiums.
- Founded: March 12, 1550
- Language: Spanish
- Currency: Peso
- Population: 1,021,000 (metro)
- Altitude: Sea level to 5,574 feet
Is Acapulco Safe?
As mentioned above, during the 1950s and 1960s, Acapulco became the “it” place in Mexico. However, these glory days came to an end…
Due to a massive upsurge in drug traffic, corruption, gang violence, and murders since 2014 Acapulco is no longer a popular destination for foreign tourists. Most visitors are now from within Mexico, although the reputation as the “second deadliest city in the world,” has also resulted in a decline in visits from nationals. The city experienced a recession from which it still hasn’t fully recovered.
If this makes you distrustful of visiting Acapulco, I understand – I am too. However, it is important to bear in mind that the majority of homicide victims are embroiled in a life of crime and the reason for their death is usually at the hands of a rival gang.
If you stick to the tourist zones and experiences, you should be fine. Here are some common-sense tips to keep in mind:
- Keep your eyes on your belongings in crowded places.
- Don’t leave anything of value on the beach while you take a dip.
- The vendors on the beaches can be annoying and aggressive. Even laying on the beach with my eyes closed, vendors would try to wake me up. Tell them a firm “no” and then look away.
- Know your prices and count your change. Vendors – and even shops and restaurants – will try to rip you off.
- Carry a cross-body bag that zips up to discourage pickpockets. Here’s my full article on how to avoid pickpocketing and what to do if it happens.
If you go, here are the top ten Acapulco beaches, sightseeing, and activities.
The beaches are the #1 reason why visitors go to Acapulco. It’s Mexico’s largest beach and spa resort city. Four miles of sandy beaches with warm, crystal-blue water line the hotel zone and beyond.
Caleta Beach, located in the old part of Acapulco, is nice and calm for swimming. You’ll find rentals here for snorkeling, kayaking, and other water sports. There are also lots of vendors strolling the beach who can be annoying at times.
Playa Revolcadero’s strong waves beckon surfers to give it a try.
Barra Vieja has lots of seafood restaurants and activities. There’s a large lagoon across the beach filled will marine life and birds.
Playa Diamante is a quiet beach with lots of amenities and restaurants.
Note: Generally the beaches outside the hotel properties do not supply lifeguards, so if you’re on a family vacation, be sure to keep an eye on your children and exercise caution when in the water.
2 La Quebrada Cliff Divers
Acapulco’s iconic tourist attraction, watching the cliff divers plunge from the 136-feet high “La Quebrada” cliff, has given visitors a rush of adrenaline since 1934. The danger is palpable as divers have just a small space in the gorge after entering the water at high speed to dodge the rocks at the bottom. I have to admit, it’s nerve-wracking to watch the incredible acrobatics of these courageous men.
3 Golden Zone
Also known as Mexico’s ‘Sunset Boulevard,” the Golden Zone is a 4-mile hotel and tourist strip located in the Bay of Acapulco that starts in the Papagayo Park and extends to the Naval Base. Facing the west, it’s a great place to catch the sunset.
Our hotel was located right on the strip, and we found lots of amusements here. I did my first parasail on the beach outside my hotel. After watching in horror as the two people before me failed miserably – the first man completely wiped out when landing, and the second man flailing wildly and painfully in the air as he went airborne with his harness cutting into his manparts – I begged the two young Mexican men several times to “POR FAVOR! POR FAVOR! Catch me when I land!” They obliged! I landed so softly that the tips of my toes barely touched the sand!
4 Acapulco Cathedral
Different than the typical gold, ornately-decorated Catholic cathedrals that are found in Mexico City or Guadalajara, the small-but-charming Acapulco Cathedral’s vibrant blue and gold hues contrast perfectly with the white walls. Visitors can go inside the impressive dome that sits atop this building, as well as inspect the vivid blue tiling that dominates the interior décor.
5 Palao Beach Club
One of the most fun things that we did was take a glass-bottom boat to spend a day at the Palao Beach Club. Sure, it’s quite touristy, but we thoroughly enjoyed the festive mariachi music, traditional Mexican food, and tropical drinks.
6 Fuerte de San Diego
The Fuerte de San Diego, a star-shaped Spanish fortress constructed in 1616 to repel pirate attacks, is home to the city’s oldest museum tracing the port’s history. History buffs can admire exhibits from China, ancient maps and drawings, religious relics and indigenous objects. Apart from the history of the place, there are also spectacular views over Acapulco Bay which can be seen either from the roof or the viewing point outside the museum.
7 Tres Palos Lagoon
For active, ecological pursuits, head to De Tres Palos Lagoon. Here, you can kayak through the mangrove tunnels, trek through the natural landscape, and explore the tropical fauna and wildflower flora of this freshwater mirror.
If you like dancing until dawn, Acapulco is as well-known for its chic nightlife as it is for its beaches. Most nightclubs don’t even open before midnight. Pulsing music played by DJ’s complete with light shows are the entertainment of choice. If you want a quieter venue, you can always enjoy a delicious margarita or shot of mezcal in your hotel bar (which we did before heading out to the clubs).
9 Diego Rivera’s Mural
Infamous Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are one of the most well-known, albeit tumultuous, Mexican couples. Arguably, Diego Rivera is the most famous and recognizable Mexican artist, with his murals displayed in the National Palace in Mexico City and New York City. Acapulco also has its very own effervescent and well-preserved Diego mural which can be reached by climbing up to La Casa de Los Vientos.
10 La Roqueta Island
La Roqueta Island, at just 30 minutes by catamaran, glass-bottom boat, or water-taxi from Acapulco, is a Federally protected area where you can snorkel or scuba with vibrant marine species, flora, and fauna. The calm water also offers excellent opportunities for kayaking and paddling boarding. For some impressive views, take a 45-minute hike through dense vegetation to get to the El Faro lighthouse.
There are a lot of fun things to do in Acapulco, but there’s also a risk factor. It’s not my place to tell you whether or not you should go – I just provide the information and you can decide for yourself. However, if you do go, I recommend that you stick to the tourist and resort areas and activities.
Have you been to Acapulco recently? Are you planning to go in the near future? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.