Once a playground for the Hollywood jet set, the tourism sector in Acapulco has been hit in recent years by drug-fuelled crime.
As the Mexican resort seeks to recover its reputation, Sapphire Goss visits for Breaking Travel News to see if the city can capitalise on its past to become something completely new
Some cities exist in hyperlapse - frantic and overstimulating. Acapulco, on the other hand, is a seductive, hazy slow motion. Stereotypical motifs of tropical picture postcards dot the landscape giving a dreamlike impression: palm fronds, endless sand, white modernist-grid hotels, sparkling water and vivid sunsets. The surreal effect is enhanced by the shimmering wet, wavy heat – it is as if the city floats languidly underwater.
Image matters to places, whether that’s the passing fashions of an era, or a negative reputation caused by crime, terrorism or natural disasters. Image creates wealth and jobs through tourism and culture. Visitors want to be safe and they want to be part of a unique experience. That’s why places spend millions of pounds on public relations consultants. But sometimes these changes in perception happen from something uncontrollable – a sea-change in zeitgeist, economics or politics. And often the places with preconceived notions of cartoon-like superficiality and banality are the most complex and compelling when examined even slightly below the surface.
Acapulco is just such a place of shifting reputations. In its heyday it became the glitzy playground of Hollywood stars, notorious for decadence and wild hedonism. The city was immortalised in music and popular culture, most famously in the Four Tops’ infectious song “Loco in Acapulco” – an ode to the location’s intoxicating draw.
As Ernesto Rodríguez Escalona, secretary of tourism of Guerrero, explains to me: “The movie stars from the United States, they used Acapulco as their paradise. Then all other places in all other parts of Mexico caught on.”
In time Acapulco became a victim of its own success and sprawling over-developments seem to spill for miles over the coastline. But nostalgic glimpses of this prior vintage glamour still prevail, particularly in the original hotels such as the kitsch but charming Flamingos – a Pepto-Bismol paradise high up on the hills, which still retains its sense of seclusion and boasts incredible views and original period features ripe for Instagram. At the same time, Boca Chica is a breezy cool, stylish mid-century haven with a compact but impressive new spa in the heart of the city, while the iconic Las Brisas offers a taste of Hollywood luxury with petal-strewn private pools for each suite and the famous golf buggies to transport guests round the site, all in the prominent pink branding.
These enclaves are sheltered from another kind of madness that has plagued the city – violence fuelled by the drugs trade. This has led to Acapulco’s reputation as one of the deadliest cities in the world. This devastated the once-thriving resorts, with hotels reporting high vacancy rates, businesses and shops closing and the resulting abandoned buildings now dotting the landscape.
The US barred government employees from traveling to Acapulco in 2016. “Security is a worldwide problem. Mexico is not exempt, and our state is not exempt,” adds Escalona “The United States government has applied alert number five to Acapulco like we are in a war, but does it look like you are in a war? Do you feel unsafe?” Like many cities the problems are confined to certain areas and it does not feel at all unsafe in the touristy areas.
When the image of a place is tarnished it creates a self-fulfilling cycle whereby visitor numbers drop. This means less money floating around and fewer resources to invest in things like security. Coupled with problems for Mexico more generally, such as well documented issues with the Trump administration and the discontinuation of the central Mexican tourism office, it’s been a tough time for the destination. However, Acapulco (and the state of Guerrero more widely) has invested a great deal into the infrastructure of the destination. This includes the newest airport in Mexico, roads, the new museums which opened last year in the cultural quarter, a tennis stadium and a hospital (to capitalise on health tourism from the USA) to name but a few. And while domestic tourism picking up, the resort is aiming for more international interest: “When you get people in Acapulco everything moves,” as a local tells us.
A particular highlight unique to Acapulco is a visit to the Coyuca freshwater lagoon - a trip that shows a completely different side to the area. It is a nature-lover’s paradise famous for its flora and fauna. In contrast to the main strip the area is low rise and low impact, with endless empty beaches and small quirky boutique hotels and restaurants. And the success of local initiatives such as the Aca-Ski water-skiing academy, who offer free lessons and teacher training to disadvantaged local children, shows that tourism can be great for a destination not only for economic reasons but social too, if handled in a responsible and sustainable way. This can also bring in a certain breed of traveller who want adventurous and authentic experiences.
Exploring the bays of the location by boat offers a different vantage point, and you get a sense of the scale of the city. Cruising through the waves and diving into the water alongside the cormorants with the breeze scooping around the rocky edifices, the sun refracting on the surface of the water into pinpoints of dazzling light, it is easy to settle into the warm delirium of the best trips. And witnessing the outstanding vivid sunsets sink into a sultry, diamond studded night, it is hard not to get swept away by the sentimental vistas.
Sometimes it feels like Acapulco bears the weight of its reputation in the heaviness of the soupy atmosphere, but at others the place is weightless, breathtaking and enchanting. Driving around the windy sweep of bays covered in dense foliage, the road winds between precipitous crags of rock spooling vines and candle wax tree roots, the radio hissing with static that seems to suit Acapulco’s fuzzy ambience. Even the melancholy faded glamour is beguiling and is something that could be further capitalised on alongside the investment in infrastructure. Destinations are waking up to the fact that people are drawn to this kind of esoteric heritage and kitsch, retro appeal. In a similar way to how cities have changed globally with the shifts in deindustrialisation from Detroit to Margate, perhaps Acapulco too can find ways to draw out the uniqueness of the destination to attract visitors. Acapulco’s enticing beauty is enhanced by its complexity, and despite its problems it is easy to fall crazy head-over-heels for this intoxicating city.
Find more information on visiting this evolving destination on the official tourism website.
Words and images: Sapphire Goss