Unfamiliar with Mexico's Pacific Coast? Get to know the beaches, nightlife and spectacular sunsets
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Detroit Free Press (MCT) - Many of us know Cancun and Cozumel well. Both are among the closest and nicest spots in Mexico for travelers from the eastern half of the United States.
But when it comes to the Pacific side of Mexico, we're more hazy. Which town is which? What are the major attractions? And how do you get there?
Here's a brief Mexican Pacific primer on three great destinations: Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.
Think mountains, not Maya. Think a deep blue rather than turquoise sea. Think whale-watching, not little fishes.
_Cabo San Lucas
Main attraction: El Arco ("the arch"). Truly, if not for the arch, this would be just a sleepy little Mexican nowhere town.
The curved limestone rock put Cabo San Lucas on the tourist map after the first paved road arrived in the 1970s.
Virtually every visitor makes a stop at El Arco, a 10-minute boat ride from the piers in town. You can arrive by jet ski, sailboat, kayak, catamaran or Zodiac rubber raft, but most come by a ramshackle "glass bottom" boat, whose thick green glass is about as clear as an old Coke bottle.
Cost of the tour? About $7, or maybe $12 or $20, depending on how hard a bargain you strike.
Your boat will be small and made of wood and crowded and have zero life jackets. On the other hand, so many boats float near the arch, if yours sank you could step over onto another one.
On a rock near the arch is a colony of sea lions barking like cranky dogs at visitors for interrupting their sleep.
When you get there, the arch lives up to its billing. Graceful and magnificent, it really does resemble a dinosaur (possibly a stegosaurus) bending down to drink.
If you want to take a boat out a bit beyond the arch, you may see gray and humpback whales, the enormous T of their tails slapping the water as they slip under the sea.
The town : Cabo San Lucas (population 41,000) is a typical tourist trap _ er, town _ with a zillion hawkers of bowls, T-shirts, whistles, etc., open-air bars featuring cheap beer and nachos, then more streets with jewelry stores, liquor shops and pharmacies that sell generic Viagra and Cipro over the counter. Easy to navigate and not too big.
The food: How could it be bad? Great salsa verde, fresh fish, good Mexican beer.
The people: Combination of American ex-pats, spa-goers, spring-breakers (in season) and cruise ship visitors outnumber the residents.
Beaches: Very nice. The arch is only rocks away from Lover's Beach, a stunning swath of white sand that has private caves. Well, private is a relative term here because from morning until night, Lover's Beach has a constant stream of visitors. Beyond Lover's Beach, try Solmar Beach, which will be you and the sand (but don't go in the rough water). The most popular beach in Los Cabos is Medano Beach, on the gentle Sea of Cortez side of the bay.
Lodging: Combination of timeshares, low-slung mega-resorts, smaller properties.
Side trips: San Juan del Cabo, the sister city of Cabo. Also Todos Santos, an artists community about 40 miles north.
Weather: About 80-degree highs in winter. Average water temperature is 72 degrees.
Tourist information: www.visitloscabos.travel.
Main attraction: The cliff divers, naturally. Yes, they are spectacular. Yes, they are worth seeing. The big joke for tourists, though, if you think you are going to get one of those super close-up pictures of the cliff divers, you'd better bring your 1,000th-of-a-second, 1,000-mm lens and stay for hours. Most tourists' pictures only show a nondescript blur as divers plunge 130 feet to the water in what feels like 2 seconds.
Location for the cliff diving is the scenic La Quebrada, a cliff not far from the old town of Acapulco. You can watch from an observation deck, from the main street sidewalk or from the patio of the El Mirador Hotel.
Performances are five times a day. After plunging into the water, the divers, all young men, climb the sheer rock face of the cliff to get back to the top. Talk about impressive.
The town: Acapulco (population 700,000) has a big personality beyond cliff-diving. It's a colonial-era city _ a real town, not invented on a drawing board by a tourist commission. It has a bull fighting ring, a colonial fort and a spectacular mountainous vista. It has poverty, wealth, a stunning natural harbor and an interesting old town market, where you can find Taxco silver jewelry. The most soulless part is the Costera tourist strip with too-tall hotels and Hooters. Acapulco is known for its parties and nightlife.
Beaches: The Bay of Acapulco is a classic and graceful C shape, lined with a long strip of beige sand beach. The main tourist beach is Condesa, filled with umbrellas, chairs and snack stands. A smaller beach popular with Mexican vacationers is Caleta Beach.
Lodging: Combination of upscale hotels, has-been slightly shabby hotels, timeshares.
The food: Acapulco has a sophisticated restaurant scene, so don't waste your meal times eating at McDonald's. Some restaurants in the fancy Diamante district have incredible views of Acapulco Bay. Have a drink at the patio of Los Flamingos, where John Wayne used to hang out.
The people: Busy Acapulco residents, Mexican tourists, some spring-breakers and cruise ship visitors.
Side trips: Taxco, a colonial town and Mexico's major silversmithing region, 175 miles north of Acapulco.
Weather: Averages 86 degrees year-round. Average water temperature is 80 degrees.
Tourist information: www.visitacapulco.com.mx.
Main attraction: El Centro, Puerto Vallarta's old town. Its cobblestone streets present excellent shopping, which leads into an area charmingly called the Romantic Zone, packed with restaurants and nightclubs. Puerto Vallarta's other personality-plus area is the Malecon, a busy seaside promenade where everyone congregates to see who's walking by.
These real-town touches give Puerto Vallarta a complexity not apparent in more basic tourist towns.
The town: With an estimated 200,000-350,000 people, Puerto Vallarta is Mexico's second biggest resort region after Cancun. Development actually stretches for 20 miles along the coast. Puerto Vallarta is well known for its nightclubs.
Beaches: The big knock on Puerto Vallarta is that its beaches have sand that is a little bit coarse and brown. However, beachgoers still flock to the town beach, Los Muertos. A few miles north of town are Bucerias Beach and Destiladeras Beach, both wide and scenic. An hour south is the small town of Yelepa, with a decent and quiet beach.
Lodging: High-rise resorts, apartment rentals, timeshares, bed-and-breakfasts.
The food: A lively restaurant scene, mostly in the Romantic Zone. The city also has its share of Planet Hollywood-type restaurants.
The people: Regular residents, ex-pats, American and Canadian tourists, cruise ship visitors, spring breakers (in season). Mexico's biggest gay/lesbian destination.
Side trips: Near town are jungle-like areas for eco-adventures. If you have two days, you can visit the Guadalajara region, including the town of Tequila (no explanation needed) and the Teuchitlan ruins.
Weather: 80s in winter, 90s in summer. Average water temperature is 79 degrees.
Tourist information: www.visitpuertovallarta.com.
© 2009, Detroit Free Press.
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