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Driving The Coast Road

For those of us who live or visit the “Coaste Grande” – the central west coast of Mexico from approximately Acapulco to Puerto Vallarta – we travel Highway 200 often. This road follows the coast for hundreds of kilometers, far beyond the limits I am discussing here, and it displays all the qualities of Mexico along its winding route. This year especially the “Routa 2010” signs remind us that 2010 is the bicentennial of the birth of Mexico’s revolution so it seems particularly appropriate to notice the many faces of this carretera.

Because I drive from my home in the United States to my home in Mexico I travel many roads but only on Highway 200 do I see such a variety of enterprises, habitats, vegetation and verguences (embarrassments.) I travel through areas that appear little more than jungle – two narrow lanes with encroaching bushes and over hanging trees and vines – a green canopy at this time of year –  with an occasional burro, iguana or buzzard viewing my passage. A short distance later and a small sign accompanied by asphalt topes will mark a roadside pueblo that is little more than a cluster of houses and a tienda or two and perhaps a sign for a Mecanico or a local Cocina Economica.  At other points the road rises above the surrounding jungle and one can see grand vistas of the coast and beaches on one side and fields, orchards and mountains on the other. This is especially true of the road as it leads toward Acapulco. Then, as I approach a small gas station, I am suddenly weaving my way through flags, rope topes and military personnel as I pass what is probably a drug check point. One of the state of Guerrero’s struggles is how to curtail a profitable drug trade. An issue which has inspired much embarrassing ‘bad press’ in the USA and with no solution in sight.

One bridge may signal a dry arroyo, another a wide and well used river with children playing and washing laying on the rocks. These rural scenes are only marred by one thing – basura (garbage) which is largely plastic. Plastic bags, bottles, egg cartons and similar items appear in a small pile here, caught in a tree there, fill an entire lot sized space at another point. This debris is a major verguenza in the country side. One where community awareness must develop sufficiently before it can even begin to be addressed. At this point, only cities can afford to have an organized trash collection system. And while a family can burn some of their garbage or feed it to their pigs, plastic does not burn well, nor bio-degrade, and its use continues to grow and multiplies. Basically the proliferation of plastic has outstripped our ability to  dispose of it.  Another problem waiting for a solution.

There are cities along this road (though the road directly into a city may change, branch and digress so it is easy to loose the marker sign as you travel through them.) The only truly large industrial city and port is Lazaro Cardenas at approximately the midpoint of  this section of Highway 200. For the companies and people who work there it is a busy and important place but for the rest of us it is the place to change buses if that is your mode of travel along the coast. It is not meant to be charming, merely serviceable and it does that well.

The cities that people travel to see are the  tourist cities such as Puerta Vallarta, Ixtapa and Acapulco. In these places Highway 200 is a mecca because of the exceptional weather of this part of the coast. The tourist cities vary in size and complexity with Acapulco probably being the most difficult to negotiate both because of its size and the large amount of traffic that zooms along its roads – beware the Volkswagon taxis as they are a menace to the unwary. Acapulco is also the oldest and largest of these tourist cities. The bay was originally discovered in 1512 and it quickly became the main Spanish port and principal trade route from Mexico City to the Pacific including China and the Philippines. It boasts a 17th century fort, Fuerte de San Diego, which was built to protect the city and its trade from pirates. From the 1930s to the 1970s Acapulco was considered a glitzy jet-set resort area but population growth and pollution discouraged visitors and it fell out of favor. More recently it has been discovered by university students (American and otherwise) as a cheaper Spring-break destination than Cancun and is regaining its tourist reputation. Of course, this is also the home of Sam’s Club and Home Depot and many other modern chain stores so you see the current Mexican economy reflected in the advertizements for goods, complete with the down payment price, the payments and final costs. The cash economy of Mexico is slowly being nibbled away as customers opt for that television NOW rather than later. The credit phenomena is only used by a small percentage of Mexicans so far but it is growing at a fast pace as banks and loan companies press their offers on the public. As in the USA it is probably the wave of the future. Acapulco also has its lovely bay with large hotels, many of older architectural styles, and a promenade for walking by the sea – the view is great but don’t swim in the water as the pollution is a real threat to bathers – one  more verguenza of this coastal route.

Puerta Vallarta is smaller than Acapulco with a beautiful sparkling blue bay called Bahia de Banderas and wide sandy beaches renowned for swimming, sunning and flirting. It is also has the most “colonial” feel of all the tourist cities with its cobblestone streets and fine houses in the Zona Centro, many owned by foreigners. This is another modern trend found along this coast where large expanses of land have been bought by non-Mexican tourists who live here all or part of the year. Condominiums are also flourishing with both foreign and Mexican capital. Puerto Vallarta itself  is considered one of the most sophisticated of resort destinations as well as the gay capital of Mexico. Of course, it has a strip of giant luxury hotels, a yachting marina and many varied bars, restaurants, nightclubs and boutiques. Both foreign and native artists of all kinds also find Puerta Vallarta scenic motifs ideal for their crafts. In many ways it is the opposite of Acapulco – accessible, low key and inviting.

Ixtapa is the smallest of the formal tourist cities along this stretch of 200 with a coastal area popular for all water sports as well as boating and fishing. Once a coconut plantation, it was bought up by Fonatur – the Mexican government’s tourism-development organization – which planned out a Cancun like resort (though smaller) and put in all of the infrastructure to make it attractive for hotel chains  and real estate developers. Middle class and wealthy Mexicans come here, especially from Mexico City, as well as Canadians and Americans to visit the hotels for their vacations or to buy condominiums for living or speculating.

Ixtapa’s neighbor, Zihuatanejo, once a sleepy fishing village, has become a small city catering to the over flow of tourists (especially those looking for a bargain) and to the many Mexicans who have flocked to the area to work and profit from the tourist industry. Tourism is one of Mexico’s primary industries and a large part of the surrounding area near any tourist city gradually becomes linked to this tourism either by housing those who work in the tourist establishments, or by businesses that service those who work in the tourist industry, or by becoming tourist destinations themselves. As you travel Highway 200 in the area surrounding Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo, for instance, Barrio Viejo and Salitrrera, are both good sized pueblos where many workers from various hotels and restaurants in Ixtapa live,  rent or own homes, or work in the tiendas and restaurants that maintain the local population. On the other hand, Troncones, to the north, and Barra de Potosi to the south of Ixtapa are tourist destinations in their own right with hotels, restaurants and those famous sandy beaches. Many of the local establishments along the beach in both of these towns, however, are owned by ex-patriots largely from the USA and Canada who have bought the land from the local ejido tribes. In the past the ejido could not sell off their communally owned land but laws were changed and  the practice first allowed by the government in the 1990s. Whether this trend is a problem or a solution or a verguenza in the long run remains to be seen. It does signify a significant change in the character of some parts of this marvelous road. But, then, one of the intriguing things about traveling Highway 200 is the fact that it is always  changing. Just like Mexico itself, it adapts, it regresses, and then it moves forward; always changing – always evolving; creating problems and seeking solutions. It will be interesting to see where this road takes us in the future.

By Gwenneth Rae

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