Ixtapa Zihuatanejo - History, Our roots, Pirates who visit Zihuatanejo

Old photos courtesy of "Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo Ayer y Hoy" and "Alegoria Costeña"

Our History

This is a brief overview of our history focused mostly from the point of view of tourism so you as a visitor will have a general notion of our roots and it’s not intended in any way to be a complete account of all our vast and interesting history.


Our history tells us that our place was a recreation site of a Taraskan ruler who had the title of Caltzontzin (that means "He who governs countless houses") who very probably was the King Tanganxoan II, even thou others say that it could have been the Emperor Tzitzipandacuri, an earlier monarch. Regardless of which of the two it was, this Taraskan ruler came very often to this area with all his wives, his helpers and a few guards to enjoy the sea, the sand and the sun, making us without his knowledge, maybe... The First Pre-Colombian Tourist Resort in Mexico.

The name of "Tarascos" (Taraskan) comes from the fact that the kings to please the conquerors gave their daughters in marriage and called them "Tarhaskua" which means "son-in-law". This word, adapted to the Spanish language as "Tarascos", was taken by the soldiers and used by them to refer to the inhabitants of the Purepecha Kingdom.

Drawing XVI century

Drawing of Zihuatanejo bay from the XVI Century

The name of Zihuatanejo comes from the Nahuatl word Cihuatlan that means "place of women", very probably because of this incursions of the king with all his wives who were a vast majority against the few men that safeguarded them.

In Mexico, more than 1.5 million people proudly continues speaking Nahuatl and more than 150 thousand Taraskan. For many of them, Spanish is the second language and not the main one. If you want to find out how a word is written in the other languages, use the following links: English-Nahuatl and Taraskan it's available in Spanish only Spanish-Taraskan. (Courtesy: Aulex, new window will open)

Nowadays, a great part of the rock reef (breakwater) constructed by the king’s men is still in place at Las Gatas beach. The reef was constructed for the purpose of simulating a large pool so his wives could get into the water without any worries.


Old Spaniards usually wrote its name as Ciguatan, because that is how it sounded to them the word "Cihuatlan" used by the natives, and later on they added the diminutive ending of "ejo" to refer it as a "small place" or "place without major importance". Therefore, in old Spanish books, maps and documents is written as Cigua, Ciguatan and Ciguatanejo. About two hundred years ago, the name suffers its the final change to become Zihuatanejo as we all know it today. We don't know how, why and the date that the change took effect but the name began to appear written in that way in documents of the late 1700's

Old photo Old photo
Juan N. Alvarez Street Cuauhtemoc Street

The Spaniard colonization of Mexico got to our shores and in a letter from Hernan Cortez to King Carlos I of Spain, he mentions the town of Zihuatanejo and a close-by island known today as Isla Grande or Isla de Ixtapa (Ixtapa's Island). Furthermore, he remarks that the place seems to be inhabited by women only. It is a good possibility that the natives saw Cortez’ fleet heading for the bay and as they were accustomed to do, they sent all their women to the island to keep them safe and away from the eyes of foreigners while they hided on the bushes. That may be the reason why the Spaniards saw only women when passing the island and assumed that they were the only inhabitants, reconfirming to them the significance of our town's native name. The letter does not mention if they tried to disembark at the island.

Old photo Old photo
Cuauhtemoc Street Juan N. Alvarez Street

According to the chronicle of Capt. Bernal Diaz del Castillo on "The Conquest of the New Spain", in 1526 Hernan Cortez sent several Spaniard carpenters and their assistants to Zihuatanejo to build three ships using the fine wood found around the place, oak and red cedar, and use the natives as helpers. These ships baptized with the names of La Florida, Espiritu Santo and Santiago left our port on October 31st, 1527 under the command of Capt. Alvaro Saavedra y Ceron with destination to the Philippines. This event can be interpreted as the inauguration of Zihuatanejo as a merchant port when they left behind a rustic wood pier and shipyard.

The lookout point located above Zihuatanejo Bay on the way to Playa La Ropa beach bears the name of "Mirador Alvaro Saavedra" in his honor.

Around 1575 and later, many pirates made a stop-over Zihuatanejo to use our bay as a refuge from bad weather or to trade for supplies with the town people, but the most common and profitable reason for their visits was to use it as a hiding place waiting for their attack on the Spanish Armada and their merchant galleons fleet in their prosperous commercial route from Mexico to the Philippines. Some of the "Commanders/Privateers" that spend part of their careers in Zihuatanejo's bay, were Sir Francis Drake and Admiral George Anson. A cannon and the anchor from one of Anson's ships that sunk in our bay are captured for history in pictures of Zihuatanejo dated back from the 1960's.

Anchor Anchor
Photo of the anchor of one of Adm. George Anson ships

It is also said that in the year 1615 the Dutch Privateer Joris van Spilbergen that was coming from Acapulco looking for the Manila Galleon, entered our bay to inspect it and then continued north to probably "Barra de Navidad" or "Tenancatita" in the State of Jalisco, where he took a five days rest and then left because he could find the ship he was looking for. Ironically, the Manila Galleon pass through this area a few days after Spilbergen was gone.


Letter of Maque

Was a person who by a "Letter of Marque" from a government, was authorized to seize and destroy merchant vessels and settlements of another nation without being considered a pirate. These types of letters were recognized by International Law at that time. A major benefit of being a Privateer was that in case of capture, he had to be treated as a "prisoner of war" and not as a bandit, saving him from a sure death in many occasions.

Another Privateer that may have visited Zihuatanejo is Thomas Cavendish in the year 1587, who sailed along the coast from the Strait of Magellan to the State of Baja California Sur where he captured the Manila Galleon "Santa Ana". However, there are no documents on his pass through this area to establish which ports he could have visited.

In 1704 William Dampier arrived at Zihuatanejo and he registered in his ship log the presence of more than forty houses and more than one hundred people that wanted to discourage disembarkation of his men, at all cost.

Between the years of 1890 and 1910, Zihuatanejo begins to get known as a fishermen village with all its inhabitants living near or very close to the shore. By 1923, Zihuatanejo gets famous as an exporter of fine woods. La Madera (the wood) beach, gets its name from the loading of wood to the ships at that particular point. La Ropa (the clothes) beach got its name because of a Chinese shipwreck that brought all the clothing material to its shore.

Old photo Old photo
Playa Principal beach and Pier Playa Principal beach

By the middle 1930's Acapulco was starting to be "The Resort of Mexico" and a few years later some very adventurous tourist looking for other nearby places, discovered the picturesque Zihuatanejo. After that, the increment of tourist affluence by land even thou it was very hard to get here, it took more than 15 hours from Acapulco, and the construction of a small airport for Douglass DC-3 planes for the purpose of increasing the commercial trade and the movements of tourist by air, forced the town people to begin constructing small hotels since before that, the visitor had to stay basically in private homes. Despite the affluence of more tourists,  Zihuatanejo kept its traditional economy based mainly on fishing and in a less degree on the selling of fine woods.

It’s not until the late 1970’s that Zihuatanejo grows in number of hotel rooms and increases the quality of services to meet the demanding standards.

Despite the passing of time, much of the looks of the original fishing village remains here today.

Old photo
Panoramic view toward Playa Principal beach (Bay)

With the discovery in the last 40 years of many ancient ruins close to Zihuatanejo, including a big pyramid, ball game field and many relics and petroglyphs in nearby Petatlan, the scholars are speculating that this area at one time had a very important Indian civilization that went from the cities of Tecpan to La Union alongside the coast. Because of some differences with other archaeology and culture sites within Mexico, some believe that this civilization could have been self ruled, self sustained and semi-independent from the others.

Map dated from around 1542, it shows Zihuatanejo
with the name of "Cigua" and also Petatlan

For the archaeological tours to this civilization vestiges known as "Xihuacan", see "Tours on your own and with operators" in menu. Worthwhile to visit.

Wooden bridge

The old wooden bridge that connected Playa Principal beach with El Almacen area. It was used until around 1996 and was replaced by a concrete structure. This is a remembrance for those tourists who saw it or used it for many, many years. This photo could be one of last pictures taken of it.


Due to the considerable increments in the affluence of tourist to this area and the need to develop luxury high-rise hotels, in 1968 "Fonatur" (a federal bureau for tourist development) expropriated a large coconut palm trees plantation nearby Zihuatanejo to create a new resort.

Old photo
Coconut plantation where Ixtapa was developed

The first intention of the government was to develop it within Zihuatanejo but the town people refused the idea of drastically changing the look of the town and having very tall buildings blocking the view of the bay so they have to look for nearby grounds and the ideal place was found 4 miles away.

This was the first Mexican tourism project financed by the World Bank which included resources for roadways, hydraulic works (potable water lines, storm drainage and sewer system with water treatment plants), marine infrastructure (breakwaters) and for designing of a new airport.

The idea behind the building of Ixtapa was to develop a first-class complement to the popular Zihuatanejo and make a small world-class resort for the tourists that do not like big cities or big destinations. The first hotel on this very well planned and carefully designed resort was built in 1971.

Aristos Aristos
The building of Aristos Hotel back in 1971 Aristos, the first hotel in Ixtapa (1974)

The Aristos Hotel that in the late years was known as "Sandy Beach", was demolished in 2003 to make room for a luxury condominiums complex.

Riviera del Sol Holiday Inn
Hotel Riviera del Sol (1978) Hotel Holiday Inn (1978)
Old photo
Photo from around 1979

In above photo you can see the seven hotels of that time, Sheraton, Aristos, Riviera del Sol, Presidente, Holiday Inn, Dorado Pacifico and Krystal. Also, the first Shopping Center still partially under construction in front of Hotel Presidente, The rest of the commercial area and all the residential zone were still under development with dirt (unpaved) roads and empty lots.

Aeromexico Frontier Magazine
Aeromexico Airlines
New York (1976)
Frontier Airlines
Denver/Albuquerque (1980)
National Magazine
USA/Canada (1986)

To keep the tradition of naming new Mexico’s tourist resorts in native tongues, in honor to our ancestors, they chose the Nahuatl word "Ixtapa" that means "the white place" in reference to the white sands in the area.

Old photo
Photo from around 1990

During the development stages the local people referred to it as the New Zihuatanejo. Once it got the official name of Ixtapa, it took about six month for the local authorities, town people related to tourism and the new investors in Ixtapa to jointly decide how to call the double destination... Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo or Zihuatanejo-Ixtapa... the outcome is obvious.

But somethings... never change
Double your emotions !!!


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