I happened to arrive in Zihuatanejo on September 15, the eve of Mexican Independence Day. This date celebrates the event in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo announced to a ragtag mob that he just wasn’t going to take it anymore from Spain. Thus began a revolution which resulted in Mexico’s independence.
To celebrate, the Viceroy Zihuatanejo in the beautiful beach town of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, hosted a special dinner event featuring traditional musicians, dancers, and games. Staff politely soothed all the confused and ignorant Americans – myself included – who asked, “What about Cinco de Mayo?”
The following nights were much quieter. Since September is off-season, the whole resort was less than half full and the beach and pools uncrowded. If you don’t mind sultry weather, this is a great time to go to Mexico. The Viceroy was taking advantage of the lull to remodel. Only one of the two restaurants was open, so I ate all my meals at La Marea.
I’d come to check out the first and only resort in the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo area to offer separate vegan and vegetarian menus. This tourist area is in the Guerrero region, on the Pacific side of southern Mexico. Zihuat, as the locals call it, is about five miles south of Ixtapa, a resort “town” popular with tourists. Zihuatanejo, formerly a tiny fishing village, has a history of more than 5,000 years of civilization, including Spaniards arriving in the 1500s. In contrast, Ixtapa is a planned tourist beach community built in the 1970s on a former plantation.
People who like a gorgeous white-sand beach and high-rise hotels will love Ixtapa. Zihuat has a homier feel, with shorter hotels and a real town to explore, which suited me fine.
The Viceroy is probably the swankiest property on Playa la Ropa, a beach that’s about half a mile long. Adobe-inspired casitas house 46 guestrooms and suites, each with its own private dipping pool to cool off in during the hot days. The grounds are full of coconut palms and bougainvillea, with hummingbirds flitting throughout. My suite’s large outdoor area featured two chaise lounges, a full-size bed, two chairs and a table. Inside, the room was cool white and wood, with lots of natural materials. It smelled of straw and cinnamon.
Guests can swim in three different pools, play tennis, get a massage or facial in the spa, or exercise in the nicely-equipped gym. The activities desk arranges tours to nearby destinations, including snorkeling, SCUBA diving, city tours and swimming with dolphins.
Guests come from all over the U.S., especially California, Texas and New York, sales manager Angelica Celestina Nogueda told me. Mexico City residents and Europeans also vacation at the Viceroy Zihuatanejo. High season runs from November through March. Booking options include room only, room plus breakfast, or all-inclusive. Celestina Nogueda plans many, many weddings at the Viceroy.
La Marea Restaurant
La Marea has some indoor seating, but most everybody eats outside. You can sit on the long, covered deck that juts out from the restaurant, or right on the beach in a palapa, a traditional Mexican structure shielded by a palm roof. The palapa affords the best view of beach action and the chance to have your toes in the sand while eating gourmet food. You can even buy a silver bracelet or beads from a passing vendor. If you’re in a lower-profile mood, pick a back corner of La Marea.
During my three days at the Viceroy Zihuatanejo, I tried half the items on the vegan menu. My favorite entrée was the Portobello mushroom with roasted tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and spinach, plated in a pretty star formation. The dish had a strong rosemary flavor and was filling without being too heavy. I also liked the fajitas, which featured two kinds of cooked salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo, refried black beans and a pile of grilled peppers, onions, tomato and mushrooms. For dessert, the banana tacos are a clear standout: grilled bananas stuffed inside fried tortillas and served with sweet avocado sauce. Good luck not finishing them, no matter how full you are.
La Marea hosts Jorge Perez C., painter-in-residence. Every night I spent at the Viceroy, the friendly and charming Perez sat at a small table near the entrance, painting tiny local landscapes and seascapes. The long-time Zihuat resident was always ready to talk painting technique or offer his insights on the area.
Cooking Class with Chef Paco
The genius behind the Viceroy’s original vegetarian menu is Executive Chef Jose Paco Isordia Dorantes. Chef Paco started working as a dishwasher.at the hotel 27 years ago – in one of the property’s pre-Viceroy incarnations. Working his way up in the kitchen hierarchy, he was executive chef for 12 years before moving onto open a restaurant in town. Now Jorge Ildefonso, formerly of the Viceroy Riviera Maya on the Mexican Caribbean, is the executive chef here. But when I visited, Chef Paco was still king of the Zihuat property’s kitchen.
A private cooking class was a highlight of my stay. The lesson started with Chef Paco and me taking a taxi to a decidedly un-touristy Zihuat market. Think cement floors, plastic tarps stuck on the walls, a riot of fruits and vegetables, local prices and no other gringa in sight. Chef pointed out locally grown herbs and greens, mostly unknown to me: chepil, epazote, verdolagos (purslane), hoja santa. He bought supplies for class, including cactus paddles, a bouquet of squash blossoms, assorted herbs, and a bag of small, round zucchinis. Chef Paco has a regal bearing, and somehow managed to not sweat on his long-sleeved green chef jacket, despite soaring temperatures.
Back at the Viceroy, the restaurant staff had set up our cooking school right under a palapa on the beach. Long tables and all the cooking implements we needed awaited us. A large grill heated up nearby. Once the vegetables were prepped, Chef Paco began instructing me on preparing a menu of guacamole, salsa, vegan ceviche, handmade tortillas stuffed with vegetables and a very healthful squash blossom, cactus and zucchini soup. He used the traditional molcajete – a mortar and pestle – to make the guacamole, salsa and ceviche. Omar Barrios, who’s worked at La Marea for seven years, assisted Chef in a seamless display of cookery. Once all the dishes were ready, I got to sit at a table on the beach and eat everything. All education should be so rewarding!
Chef Paco is responsible for creating all the Viceroy’s vegetarian and vegan recipes. He first designed the special menu eight years ago, inspired by demand from vegan and vegetarian guests. It’s been very popular, he says. He’s familiar with vegan living, as his wife has been vegan for two years. She is part of a group of about 15 local vegans – Mexicans and American expatriates – who regularly meet up.
According to Sales Manager Nogueda, couples, families and groups can sign up for Chef Paco’s cooking classes. “Everybody loves this activity,” she said. Many request lessons in preparing fish, guacamole, shrimp, and fajitas. To top off all this fine dining, she also recommends taking a tequila tasting class at the Viceroy’s Coral Bar.
It’s possible some travelers will want to do something more than eat, drink and cook beneath palapas. Visitors can easily go into town via taxi, bus or on foot. In town, I glimpsed everyday Zihuat life – people stopping for a mid-day prayer in a local church, a little girl with a tiny, exuberant Chihuahua puppy straining at the leash, a fashion show of improvised rain gear during a sudden street-flooding deluge. Shoppers can visit one of the many markets for popular souvenirs like silver jewelry and colorful painted salsa bowls. My favorite market stall was owned by a cat lover with at least five friendly gatos lounging around her wares.
Water sport enthusiasts find the whole array of water opportunities – swimming, snorkeling, diving, surfing at nearby Troncones, deep sea fishing, sailing and Jet Skis.
But the most popular activity at the Viceroy is lounging, and the resort offers endless places to do it — a floating bed on the beach, a towel on the sand, a chaise lounge by the pool, a seat at the bar. And wherever I went, a friendly face was always keeping an eye on my needs and wants. I found that great care goes into everything at the Viceroy, from helping guests find misplaced shoes on the beach to preparing and plating fresh and delicious vegan dishes. Says Celestina Nogueda, who’s worked in several incarnations of the resort, “Service is the soul of this hotel.” — Story and photos by Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor