Authentic beach town on verge of trendiness

Jeannie Ralston / New York Times News Service /


Published Apr 14, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Planning a return trip to my favorite beach in the world, I was almost as apprehensive as I was excited. The last time I visited Troncones — a town of some 600 people pushed up against the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains on the Pacific coast of Mexico — was five years earlier. At the time, we’d been living in San Miguel de Allende, and we occasionally drove down with our two sons and two dogs. My husband — an avowed “non-beach guy”— and I had come to love this village of farmers and fishermen for its rawness, its drowsy authenticity.

In the intervening years, word got out that Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst had homes in the area. That’s it, I thought, as I prepared for our vacation this past January. I was picturing all the practitioners of extreme cool who had surely followed in their wake. How was it possible that any place could thrive in the oxymoronic state of both newly chic and genuine? I figured we’d better get there quickly before it became totally overrun and turned into just any other beach town.

Our apprehension wasn’t helped by a new highway on the way north from the Zihuatanejo airport (this time we flew in from our home in Texas with our teenage sons and, alas, no dogs). We worried the highway was, uh, paving the way for high-rises and Senor Frog’s tequila shot contests in Troncones.

Thankfully, when we got off the highway, about 22 miles from Zihuatanejo, we were surrounded by nothing but tropical forest. In town, we found a chicken running on the dirt road in front of the same dusty tienditas and hand-painted hotel and restaurant signs we remembered. There was no trace of the dreaded stalls selling T-shirts and seashell fridge magnets or parasails pulled by boats crisscrossing the sky.

After we checked out our room at Casa Delfin Sonriente, an open-air suite with mosquito-netted beds, we ran to the wide, rock-strewn beach to greet the wild surf that has drawn surfers here for years. The waves are exploding tubes of ocean that make a near-Nascar-decibel crack when they break. Scanning the shoreline, we spotted no Jack-and-the-Beanstalk buildings poking over the palms. Mostly we saw a long smear of vegetation. The few visible structures — homes and hotels — barely showed their foreheads, and many of those low-slung buildings had palapa roofs that blended in seamlessly. None of the houses had an ostentatious feel that suggested it might belong to an international art star.

Small changes

On the first of what would be twice-daily walks, however, we noticed a large construction site. “Condos,” one of the workmen told us. Just as I feared. We later learned that the complex would have only five units and be two stories high. The notion that there were other people — this developer included — who wanted to keep Troncones real was a supreme relief.

On our walks — more than two miles round trip — we were relieved to find the beach mostly empty, even at prime-time hours. “It’s 4 o’clock, and we’ve passed what — 60 people?” my husband asked after one outing. We considered this good news, but that night at dinner a man who visits regularly from Seattle said he was feeling crowded. “It used to be there’d only be five people on the beach with you,” he said.

Another day at a pizza place, Cafe Sol, we met a couple from the Yukon. Over the course of their month in Troncones, they had sampled many restaurants. I asked about the Inn at Manzanillo Bay, whose intriguing menu I had seen online. “It’s pricey and a little too fine for Troncones,” the wife said.

Despite our fears that it might be one of those fancier-than-thou spots, we tried it ourselves. Fortunately, the poolside restaurant (and adjoining hotel) proved that a touch of sophistication (groomed grounds, California-trained chef) doesn’t trump the Troncones character. It also demonstrated that “expensive” in Mexico is completely relative. Wearing our bathing suits on the patio, we ate Thai shrimp tacos and an ahi tuna sandwich as we watched surfers bob in Manzanillo Bay. For the four of us, lunch came to less than 800 pesos (about $66 at 12 pesos to the dollar).

Other favored spots tended to have palapa roofs, plastic chairs and vinyl tablecloths. At Dona Martha, on nearby Playa Majahua, freshly caught oysters are kept in tidal pools till ordered. Another beachfront spot, Roberto’s Bistro, offered a superb break from seafood. My husband (a Texan!) declared that Roberto’s vacio steak — a cut from Argentina — was the best steak he had ever tasted.

Our waiter at Roberto’s informed us that we had missed the restaurant’s weekly Mexican folklore show by one day. He showed us photos of dancers wearing flounces and colorful ribbons. As the days went by, I decided one of the biggest changes in Troncones was the number of such arranged activities: Live salsa music at bars, bird-watching, eco-tours into the mountains, painting lessons on the beach at an art house called Casa Creativa, yoga at the lovely Present Moment Retreat.

Mostly, though, we kept to the activities we had come to love on earlier visits — cantering on horses over wet sand made pink by the vanishing sun, and playing in that alluring surf. We needed only to stretch out on our (hotel-provided) boogie boards in front of a just-broken wave, and the frothing force would speed us shoreward.

Catching waves

After watching many surfers ply their craft near us, it wasn’t long before the boys wanted to go beyond the boogie board. That’s when I called Mike Linn of ISA Mexico (aka Tsunami Surf) for a lesson and. Feeling brave, I made it for all four of us.

Mike, a California native who started coming to Troncones 15 years ago, picked us up at our hotel in his mud-spattered truck with its rack of surfboards. Asked about changes he’s seen, he said, “The biggest thing right now is that they’re paving this road.”

“With this dirt road, it can’t be a year-round resort,” he added. “In the rainy season,” July through October, “all of this is mud.”

Mike seemed less concerned than I was that the special unvarnished flavor of Troncones was going to be lost. “It would be hard for it to become a big resort with high-rises and all that,” he said, explaining that its growth is limited because much of the land is owned by an ejido (a land cooperative), which makes development more difficult. I later learned that a municipal statute limits building height to no more than three stories.

At the next beach, Majahua, we left the road, and soon Mike was demonstrating the mechanics of surfing. After we all floundered in the surf a while, one son, then the other, got the hang of it. My husband and I took more time, but when I finally slid onto the beach upright, I pumped my arms in the air — and then promptly went down like a bowling pin.

It was when I went to pay Mike that I got the clear reassurance I had been looking for, even though it was a bit inconvenient. I opened my wallet and realized I hadn’t brought enough cash. Mike told me the nearest ATM was 20 minutes away in the anti-Troncones: overgrown Ixtapa. He saved me by allowing me to pay later via PayPal.

What up-and-coming tourist destination doesn’t have dozens of ATMs? One that is (I hope) determined to remain the small, delightful surf-and-slack town it always has been.