Mar. 24, 2005. 01:00 AM

Acapulco is hot again
Wealthy North Americans and students head to Mexico's fun capital where they let their hair down But it's wise to escape Acapulco's chaos in one of the beautiful nearby villages, writes Prithi Yelaja

ACAPULCO, MEXICO—The man standing in line behind us at Pearson perfectly demonstrates how eager Canadians are at this time of year to get away to some sun and heat.

He's got his suitcase open and he's taking off his sweater, pants and shoes and replacing them with a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, all this in public view.

We're headed, along with a plane full of rowdy 20-somethings and retirees to Acapulco, perhaps best known as the place where reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes spent his last years and where he died at the Princess Hotel, now owned by the Fairmont chain.

The resort city was hugely popular in the 1980s, but was overtaken by other Mexican destinations like Cancun. Now it's experiencing a resurgence among all age groups as our packed plane attests. Three of the passengers get so drunk that they have to be escorted off by Mexican authorities upon arrival in Acapulco.

We're picked up at the airport by the caretaker of the house — Rene, who also loads bags at the airport — where we're staying for the week. It's our first trip to Mexico and instead of booking an all-inclusive package at one of the posh resorts that line Acapulco Bay, we've opted for a self-catering setup.

We're staying in a home in a village, Plan de los Amates, about 15 kilometres outside of Acapulco where there are no foreigners, no one speaks English and the food is deliciously authentic.

Maria and her partner John, of Toronto, just finished building the vacation home and plan to retire there in a few years. In the meantime, they rent out their house for $180 a day from November to March.

Maria, 50, grew up poor in the village.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure this is real. It's like a paradise," she says with a big grin.

The air is moist, heavy and fragrant as we drive up to the spacious, spotless house, a three-bedroom, three-bathroom bungalow, furnished in rustic Mexican style. It has all the modern amenities including hot showers, a phone in every room, television, fax, DVD and air conditioning, which is a must given that the temperature is a consistently humid 34C during the day, dropping to 28C in the evening.

A doggedly determined rooster awakens us the next morning. Fresh pastries and strong coffee are best enjoyed by the kidney-shaped pool in the front yard, taking in the beauty of the landscape, which is a profusion of colour — blood orange hibiscus, fuschia, bougainvillea and aromatic lemon balm.

Guided by our stomachs, we take a stroll through the village. "Buenos dํas" (good day) is the customary greeting and everyone's friendly and curious.

Carmelita is selling fresh guapote, a type of fresh water fish, from her usual stall where we pick up a dozen for about $5. Then it's on to the tortilla factory where a machine churns out the flat thin breads that are a staple at every meal.

We line up to buy tortillas with the other locals who don't bother making them at home any more because they can pick up a kilogram at the factory for $1.

Making ourselves understood here is all done through hand gestures and furiously thumbing through a Spanish-English phrase book. I wish I had taken Spanish along with French in school!

Isabel, Rene, and their three children live in the house across the road and have lived in the village all their lives, which is typical of most residents here.

In the afternoon we check out Bonfil beach, about a kilometre away, which is popular with locals.

A taxi gets us there for the equivalent of 50 cents. Casual, family-run eateries line the beachfront, including one run by Isabel's sister Joffe, which is where we snag a table.

We order fresh fruit — papaya and pineapple — coco loco — coconut water served in the coconut shell with a generous dollop of gin and picaditas — miniature corn flour pizzas, topped with fried beans and cheese.

The wide-open Pacific Ocean beckons. The beach here is clean with a smooth sandy bottom and impressive waves. The water is lukewarm — the perfect temperature.

Most Mexicans, we're told, don't know how to swim and are fearful of venturing in farther than their ankles, so we practically have the beach to ourselves. The only annoyance is the all-terrain vehicles that can be rented and are driven at some speed along the hard-packed surface of the beach.

A trip into Acapulco proves a bit daunting.

There used to be a bus from the village to the city but it was eliminated years ago because of lack of demand.

The upshot is there is no direct route into Acapulco if you don't have a car. A bylaw prevents yellow taxis from the village from going all the way into the city, so they will drop you off about halfway there, where you have to hail another cab that takes you the rest of the way.

The driver tries to pack in at least five passengers to maximize his profit. The cost is less than $3.

I try not to notice that my leg is going numb because a heavy-set woman is sitting on it in the taxi and concentrate instead on the magnificent scenery as we wind through the hills on our way into the city.

The activity on the palm-treed Aleman Costera, the city's main drag, ranges from retired Canadians who spend their winters in Acapulco power walking in the morning, to young singles in minimal clothing on the prowl for fun in the evening. There's even a bungee jump right in the middle of downtown

The outskirts of Acapulco, where resorts like the five-star Mayan Palace are located, are experiencing a major building boom with new condos and villas springing up along the oceanfront.

On a whim, we attend an open house — with me in my sarong and bikini — to see what all the fuss is about. Gunthar Kayser, the real estate agent shows us an elegantly furnished 3,000-square foot suite on the third floor, complete with a sunken hot tub on the terrace with its mesmerizing view of the ocean for $685,000 U.S.!

In Acapulco, we meet Lupe and her husband Alex who own a home in the hills above the city with a fabulous view of the harbour. He is an engineer; she is a housewife who grew up in the village where we're staying. In fact, her father still has a home there.

Lupe takes us to see the famous cliff divers of Acapulco.

Admission is $4 to see four young men in Speedos scale a rock cliff, say a prayer to the Virgin Mary at the shrine at the top and then dive headfirst into the choppy waters below.

It's a spectacular sight, especially at night when they dive holding a lit torch in each hand.

Another day, we spend back at the village with Lupe. There is an all-day and night fiesta with a live band to celebrate a local wedding. It's held in the open-air soccer arena. The bride is radiant in a strapless full-length taffeta gown and the wedding cake is five tiers.

Fuelled by shots of tequila, I get up to dance salsa with the locals. The music goes on all night, though I don't. The next day I hear that the villagers are pleasantly surprised that I can dance because most gringos (which is the category I'm placed in for lack of one for people of Indian — from India — heritage) can't.

Another day we head off with Rene and Isabel's children Rene Jr., Yajaira and their uncle Carlitos to Playa Ventura, a deserted and wild beach on the north coast, about three hours' drive from the village.

We set up ourselves at a beachfront restaurant ordering massive amounts of food including fresh oysters and grilled red snapper. Then we go swimming. Of course, none of the Mexicans in our group will even come near the water.

The next day, Rosy, a kindergarten teacher in the village takes us to her school where the adorable kids wear red and white gingham uniforms.

After class, we visit the local fish market where we pick out our lunch and then snooze in hammocks on the beach until it's cooked.

And so the week goes. As with most sun holidays, eating, drinking and the beach play prime roles.

We feel we've made some real friends in the village. They all drop by to say goodbye on our last day. Rosy, who is a talented artist, has made me a hand-painted dress as a gift.

They all want to know when we're coming back. Soon, we hope.

For more information on Acapulco tourism:

Prithi Yelaja is a reporter at the Star.