.Acapulco was once the vacation hotspot of Hollywood celebrities, who discovered its seaside charm back in the city’s glory days of the 50s and 60s. With sunshine almost every day of the year, long stretches of beach, and a pumping nightlife, there was much to love about Acapulco.
The ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ quickly lured more rich and famous–from Frank Sinatra to Elizabeth Taylor and even a few US presidents–cementing its place on the map as one of Mexico’s first cradles of tourism. Films such as Weissmuller’s Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco (1963) and the TV series The Love Boat pushed Acapulco further into the limelight. Even former US president JF Kennedy, and his wife Jackie, honeymooned there.
Today you’ll still see the celebrities’ mark on the town, with faded photos in now-vintage hotels, and even a star-studded ‘Walk of Fame’ of the celebrities who spent time in Acapulco. Weissmuller, John Wayne, Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant–the “Hollywood Gang”– loved the city so much they bought a hotel perched on a 450-foot cliff, which welcomed a stream of Hollywood jet-setters. Today, Hotel Los Flamingos shows a nostalgic collection of photos in the lobby of its former owners and attracts sunset seekers with its signature cocktail–Cocos Locos (rum, tequila, pineapple and coconut cream).
But the celebrities are long gone, and time has taken its toll on the aging city, along with drug cartels and a struggling economy. Some would say that Acapulco got stuck in its outdated reputation, but that doesn’t ring true for all areas, some of which are modernizing with designer hotels, gourmet dining, and trendy bars. Other tourists revel in the vintage and nostalgic feel of the town.
But the one constant offers the same spectacular views as it always did: the Bahia de Acapulco (Acapulco Bay), sprawled around 8km of golden sand coastline.
Acapulco’s main resort area can be divided into three parts: The historic or traditional area sits along the north end of the bay, taking in the Zócalo and the beaches of Caleta and Caletilla. The central part, “Zona Dorada” (‘golden zone’), is backed by a mix of high-rises and 20th-century accommodation which once hosted the elite, but today is more suited to middle budgets. The south end, “Diamante” (‘diamond’) is where you’ll find newer, luxury hotels, international chains, condominiums, and golf facilities, where many visitors never even step foot in the town center.
The name Acapulco–coming from the Nahuatl word Aca-pōl-co–means ‘where the reeds were washed away or destroyed’, and fittingly the city’s seal is of broken reeds. The “de Juárez” was officially added to the end in 1885 to honor former Mexican president Benito Juárez (1806–1872).
Boat tours, watersports, diving, snorkeling, horse riding and fishing are just some of the activities you can find along Acapulco’s sunny shores. Some say there is so much sailfish, that deep-sea fishing captains make bets for free tours if you don’t catch anything. Other activities, like watersports, are offered all over Acapulco, while you’ll need to travel to the less-touristic beaches for adventurous activities, like horse riding or ATV quad driving.
Not everyone falls deeply in love with Acapulco, but it’s hard to deny that there’s something charming about the city’s old-school glamour, impromptu beach parties, and spectacular sunsets – enough that you’ll always leave Acapulco without a relaxed smile on your face.
1. La Quebrada Cliff Diving
This is diving entertainment at its best. Every day, five daring divers–clavadistas–jump off a cliff at 25m and 35m (115 feet) into a raging ocean swell. At only 4m deep, the dive must be timed exactly with incoming waves to avoid serious injury. Each diver says a prayer to the altar of Virgin Guadalupe that sits on top, before taking the death-defying plunge and hitting the water at some 90km/hour (55 miles). The divers need to clear about two meters, due to the inclination of the cliff, which is what makes it so dangerous – and closed to tourists.
Acapulco’s cliff diving holds a long tradition, with official diving shows taking place since 1934. The state of Guerrero has even recognized the show as part of its cultural and tourist heritage. Despite the common injuries of the divers, not one has died since two local fishermen started the tradition by daring each other to jump. It gets especially busy during the High Diver World Championship, attracting some 11 million visitors.
Celebrities equally were drawn to this spectacle, with the likes of Cantinfals, Brigitte Bardot, Orson Welles and Walt Disney, among many other stars. You can see their signatures in the Hotel Mirador, which also offers views of the diving show. The cliffs were made famous by Johnny Weissmuller, whose character jumped off the cliffs in the movie Tazan and the Mermaids, followed by Elvis’s character in Fun in Acapulco (although neither celebrity actually jumped).
Jumps take place at 12.30pm, 7.30pm, 8.30pm, 9.30pm and 10.30pm – the last two jumps are done jump with torches. The show costs a couple of dollars (around 40 MXN), or you can buy a ‘package’ from any of the restaurants around. It’s here that you’ll also find the photo-worthy ‘Acapulco’ sign. Don’t miss driving to the Sinfonia del Mar, just south of La Quedbrada, to see cliff-perched mansions and great views.
2. Fort of San Diego
The star-shaped Fuerte San Diego (Tues–Sun, 9am–6pm; closed Mondays) is a cool retrieve from Acapulco’s hot temperatures, making it ideal for escaping the midday sun. Even as one of the oldest buildings in Acapulco–constructed in the 1600s–it still commands some of the best bay views from its hilltop position.
It was constructed as a stronghold against marauding English and Dutch pirates, making it one of the most important Spanish strongholds along the Pacific coast. Now the inner Historical Museum of Acapulco takes you through Acapulco’s trading history, which turned it from a sleepy village into a busy trading route to Asia. Nearby, you can combine your visit with a quick whirl of the historical center.
3. Acapulco’s Historic Center and ‘Beachy’ Church
Acapulco’s historic central plaza (Zócalo) is not as grand as some other Mexican cities, but there are plenty of market stalls to browse in the shady Plaza Juan Alvarez. At night, especially on Sundays, the plaza livens up with families, street performers and the occasional festival, perfect for a taste of the local vibe.
What is worth your visit, however, is the canary yellow and blue garish church – Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Cathedral – with an equally kitsch interior that reminds you of the coastline. The style and coloring of this 1930s church, famed for its neo-Byzantine blue dome, is quite unlike other Mexican churches.
In the surrounding streets, you can stumble across wall art mosaics and to the right of the church is a large mural. You’ll otherwise find yourself wanting to get back to the beach, because the center is not Acapulco’s strongest point, and little historical architecture is left.
4. Diego Rivera’s Mural
Although Mexico City offers the best of Diego’s Rivera’s murals–considered one of the greatest Mexican artists–Acapulco has a small claim to his artworks. Head to La Casa de Los Vientos (Mon–Fri, 10am–6pm), not far from La Quebrada cliff divers, to see Rivera’s small mosiac murals. It was here that a dying Diego Rivera made the decision to decorate the villa entrance of Dolores ‘Lola’ Olmedo, a friend, muse and love object who gave Rivera a studio in her home. The vibrant ‘Exekatlkalli‘ artwork stands out among the quiet hillside street, and is easy enough to find via taxi or driving, unless you’re up for walking the windy Inalámbrica street.
Casa de la Máscara (House of Masks, Tues–Sun, 10am–5pm) offers a bit more to see, with some 1,000 masques from Mexico and around the world.
5. Chapel of Peace
Look to the southern end of Acapulco bay to spot the white cross of La Capilla de la Paz. From its location on one of the highest points in Acapulco, this tiny chapel offers some of the best views of the bay. The Chapel itself is minimalistic, but it’s worth visiting for its peaceful gardens, a great sunset view, and a photo with the giant clasped hands – Las Manos de la Hermandad (Hands of Brotherhood) – the ideal frame to catch the sinking sunset. You can explore the gardens throughout the day, although the chapel is only open from 10–1pm and 4–6pm (free admission).
Despite its giant cross, this was built as a non-denominational chapel for all faiths – the clasped hands sculpture perhaps is a better expression of that idea. Access is via a gated compound: you may be asked to leave ID at the gate.
6. Cocktails on the Beach
There is nothing more important in Acapulco than sampling the Mexican beach life. You’ll see the shores crammed with locals, eating, drinking, buying trinkets from beach vendors, getting massages, and – especially by the end of the day – dancing to blaring music from their loud speakers. There are many restaurants and bars right on the beach, where you can drink pina coladas while waves lap at your feet. Other beaches offer palapas (straw huts), umbrellas, lounge chairs, and tables to hire, where you can BYO food and drink.
What makes Acapulco so comfortable for swimming is the protection offered by its many bays – the main beach is essentially the biggest swimming pool you’ve ever seen. On the other hand, with 100s of other people and boats parked nearby, the water can get a big mucky. Try not to think about it, and just enjoy it for the big beach party that it is.
The main beaches in Acapulco sit along its moon-shaped bay: Condesa Beach and Playa Icacos are the most popular, although the large crescent is in fact made up of several beaches with different names. Icacos is the spot for sunsets, which sets neatly between the rocky crags of Isla Roqueta. From Playa Condesa, strong swimmers can make the 200m to Isla El Morro, the small rocky island you see from the shore. Playa Hornos sometimes gets small waves for novice surfers, although fishermen hang at the west end, while its neighbor, Playa Tamarindos, is a little quieter. Farther down, Playa Hornitos sits next to Parque Papagayo, making it popular with families who can pop over to the large shady children’s park, paddleboats, mini-train, petting zoos and more.
For small, secluded bays, head to Caleta or Caletilla (next to each other), the traditional ‘place to be’ when Acapulo was hot among Hollywood’s elite. Today, the rich have mostly abandoned it, and the local hotels–once the best in town–have become budget accommodation. Still, you’ll get a great serving of local culture and cheap seafood.
Squeezed between Caleta and downtown, you’ll find Playas Manzanillo and Honda, which are equally crammed with people and a few restaurants, but with the curious addition of a boat graveyard to one side.
7. Puerto Marques
Puerto Marqués transports you to another world, with beachfront restaurants and a jungle-green backdrop, especially if you go to the very end at Majahua beach. It’s a local favorite hangout – and usually packed with people – but the water is clear and incredibly calm. The 20-minute drive to Acapulco’s next bay gives you spectacular views from atop the hill, before you descending down Carretera Escénica into the bay below. You can catch a bus from Avenida Costera, leaving every 10–20 minutes during the day. For more privacy, head to very secluded Playa Pichilingue, reached primarily by boat, or if you book a room in a nearby hotel.
8. Isla La Roqueta
Take a boat tour to Roqueta Island to whisk you away to Playa Roqueta, or once there, hike to Playa Marin for even more privacy. Enjoy a day of snorkelling in this natural reserve, or hire a kayak or other watersport. You can also hike up to the lighthouse for a great view.
Boats regularly take the eight-minute trip from Playa Caleta, or you can book a glass-bottom boat tour with Yates Fondo Cristal, which also picks up passengers from the zocalo. During the 45-minutes tour, you’ll get a glimpse of the reserve’s flora and fauna, shop via the floating vendors, and see a submerged statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, created in 1958 by Armando Quesado in memory of a group of divers who died here.
Many scuba tours dive in this area too, where there are sunken ships, caves, and rock formations.
9. Escape the Beach Crowds
If you need to escape the sun-tanning hoards, head to the beaches of Pie de la Cuesta, Diamante, Playa Revolcadero or Barra Vieja, around 30 minutes to an hour’s drive from Acapulco’s center. Although, here you’ll find open Pacific Ocean; without the protection of a bay, the waves can get rough, so they are not usually people’s first choice – but some swear that the seclusion is a worthy trade-off.
Diamante and Playa Revolcadero have seen modern hotel complexes and resorts sprout up like mushrooms, offering a quieter, refined beach getaway, although a strong undertow means swimming can be restrictive. The large waves, however, draw the surfing crowd.
Pie de la Cuesta has less to offer in the way of bars, restaurants and hotels, but offers the privacy you won’t find in Acapulco. You can take a mud bath in the local spas, or go on a boat tour around the Coyoca Lagoon, adjacent to the beach.
Barra Vieja is one of the farthest beaches from Acapulco – and the crowds – but the beach is often rough and the facilities are basic. Still, you can find your own fun by driving an ATV bike on the beach, go horse riding or get a massage, even if the surrounds aren’t as nice as other areas.
If you’re really up for an adventure and an obstruction-free sunset, seek out Playa Angosta, a narrow stretch of sand squeezed between two cliffs with a couple of food and drink options. Go from La Quebrada to the Sinfonia del Mar, then down until you reach the sea below.
10. Party in Acapulco
There are some long-time, favorite clubs in Acapulco, contributing to its decades of fame as a party city. It’s the place where you can dance to spectacular views across Acapulco bay
Palladium is a hotspot for its international DJs and floor-to-ceiling bay views, and the long line and pricetag prove it, although it usually includes unlimited drinks. Mandara is equally huge, and you’ll easily find lots more happening clubs along the Scenic Highway or La Costera with fantastic views. Many clubs are within a few blocks of the statue roundabout La Diana. Mojito is a great bar for latin beats, while Siboney Piano Bar attracts an older, sophisticated crowd. Nightlife opens late and sometimes lasts until dawn. For a more touristic experience, book the night boat Yate Bonanza, that blares out music as it travels around the bay.
11. Release Sea Turtles
If you find yourself in Acapulco during the summer, you may be lucky enough to help with releasing turtles back into the water. The hatching period is usually October to May, with the majority of releases happening during the summer months. Amigos Del Mar Acapulco is a non-profit organization offering information and volunteer opportunities, plus there are many tours available for a fee.
12. Acapulco Botanical Gardens
Most people head to Acapulco for its beaches, but if you’re looking for something different, the 6 hectares of botanical gardens are centrally located in the Jesuit University of Loyola. You’ll find medicinal, native and international plants, set among tranquil ponds and bridges, with the odd sighting of small animals scurrying around. It’s a great family outing, especially on Sundays when it is free, and there is plenty of shady tropical forest to take a beark from the sun. You can either reach it by car, or take a shared bus from Icacos Naval Base labelled ‘Base–Cumbres’ – just ask them to drop you in front of the gardens.
13. Palma Sola Archaeological Site
Acapulco’s earliest known inhabitants were the Yopes, which you can read about in the San Diego Fort. If you want to see their 2000-year-old petroglyps and rock carvings in situ, then head 6km northeast of Acapulco’s old town to El Veladero national Park. You’ll also get an eyeful of great views of Acapulco’s bay, plus a taste of Acapulco’s natural side.
14. Acapulco’s Lagoons
Acapulco has three lagoons to explore: Laguna de Coyuca is the closest to Acapulco’s centre, where you can visit the ‘Bird Island’, see turtles in season, and hear many stories from the locals. Laguna de Tres Palos is close to Acapulco’s International Airport, near the Diamante zone, which is accessible via Barra Vieja or Playa de Beto Godoy, where the canals start. At 15km long and 5km wide (9×3 miles), its area is three times larger than the Bay of Acapulco. Laguna Negra is the smallest of the three, located between Diamante and Puerta Marques.
Although Acapulco’s lagoons are not as beautiful as the beaches, they are tranquil, offer great bird-watching, and are idea for fishing or watersports. The boat tours also usually include a DIY mud-facial, by scooping up the enriched mud from the bottom of the lagoons.
15. Get High
If you looking for an adventure kick, Acapulco has a small selection of activities to see the beaches from a bird’s view. Xtasea is a 1.8km zipline, making it one of the longest in the world that sits over an ocean, taking you from Brisas Guitarrón to Puero Marques at 120km/hour, 100m above sea level. There are four lines that go simultaneously if you’re a group of friends or a family.
Across the road, in front of Hotel Romano Palace, you can also take a 50m bungy jump from 5pm until the early hours of the morning (1–3am). This means you can jump in between clubs, or even on New Year’s Eve countdown.
If you want to feel more secure, you can go up in a tethered ballon, located in front of Costa Azul and Planet Hollywood, or head next door to the ‘Skycoaster’ swing. You can find it in ‘El Rollo’ – you can ‘swing’ without purchasing the full ticket for the aquatic park, although kids love the slides, seals, and dolphin show (you can also swim with them).
You can find parasailing on most beaches, especially Playa Condesa. You can also see Acapulco from above in an ultralight plane (ultraligeros), offered by Bambuddha Holistic Center and Icarus Acapulco Ultraligeros, where you can take off and land on the beach. Get more adventure activities here.
Where to eat
Many beach-side restaurants serve up decent quality fried fish and seafood, although a couple tradtional ones keep their reputation. On Playa Caleta, the 1950s La Cabana de Caleta serves up a traditional Mexican beachlife atmostphere, with specialities like cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew) and all-natural pina coladas. Paititi del Mar is inland, but set in a tropical garden under a palapa. Try the ceviche paraiso, with fresh tuna, mango, ginger and habanero, or the grilled octupus.
For finer dining, Zibu and Bellavista boast some of the best views of Acapulco from up high.
On La Costera, El Jacalito has an authentic vibe with its thatched roof and checkered table cloths, while Pipo’s–once a ceviche stand seven decades ago–is known for its pescado almendrado (mahimahi baked in a creamy Parmesan sauce with almonds).
There is also a collecion of touristy-yet-fun resturants, like the pirate-themed Barbarroja, Si Senor, and Flinstones-esqe Baby’O, opened since 1976 and attracting the likes of U2’s Bono and Sylvester Stallone.
Some local dishes include ‘relleno’, which is baked pork and a mix of vegetables and fruits, eaten with ‘bolillo’ bread. Pozole is another speciality–even across the Guerro state–with many restaurants serving it on Thursdays as part of a weekly event involving bands, dancers or other special entertainment. It’s a hearty corn soup with a salsa base (white, red or green), served with either pork, chicken or vegetables.
When to Visit Acapulco
Tropical storms and hurricanes can be a threat from May to November, meaning the high season is usually through the winter months, from November to May.
Semana Santa (Easter) is one of the busiest times for tourism, and Carnival is also celebrated in Acapulco around February or Mach. For a different flavor, the French Festival in March or April brings a burst of French food, cinema, music and literature.
Spring breakers also head to Acapulco, which can be a good time to avoid Acapulco if you want a quiet holiday.
Other festivals include the feast of San Isidro Labrador on 15 May, and the Festival Internacional de la Nao in the Fort of San Diego, remembering the city’s interaction and trades from the 16th century. It is celebrated with cultural activities from India, China, Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, including film projections, music, theatre, food and kids’ activities.