For Acapulco the siesta is over. On the hot sands where youngsters peddle sun hats and coconut milk and glass-bottom-boat rides, on the heights where the bougainvillaea undulates at the breezy bidding of the Pacific, in the plaza where babies suckle and endless echelons of swallows come at twilight to rush the trees like bleacher fans—in all of Acapulco the sound is the same. The sound is the slosh of new mortar, the clink of the pick, of brick on brick, as day on sun-washed day this mushroom-shaped indenture on the sea becomes Miami-in-Mexico.
Already, if you count each posada, each chrome-and-glass air-conditioned inn, there are 150 hotels on hand. Flushed and fattened on tortillas, tacos and tequila, 10,000 sunburned souls now can sleep away the night—or at least the useless hours between bo√Æte and beach.
And there will be more room soon. The 13-story skeleton of the Acapulco Hilton has risen on the curve of the bay. Its supper club will be perched on an offshore rock reachable by cable car from the lobby. The superswank Villa Vera, with just 11 rooms, will offer a private swimming pool with its best suite, not to be confused with the general pool for the other 10 roomers.
Although there are enough sand strips to set aside a Morning Beach and an Afternoon Beach, both have become so crowded that the resort's most ambitious new layout, the Pierre Marqués, is building its 180 Mayan-motif luxury suites on the Playa de Revolcadero 10 miles down the coast from the center of town. If Acapulco decides to follow the lead of Oilman Paul Getty, who is footing the bill, there will be unlimited room to expand further. As you stand on Revolcadero Beach and look southeast, the broad border of sand simply runs out of sight.
December 12, 1955
The siesta is over in Acapulco because the sun shines bright and hot all year long except for patches in the August dewy season. And, counting all the sandy coves, there are 32 beaches, and you can hunt for white doves, and out in the sea the sailfish cruise the blue as thick as sardines. A boat costs you less than $30 a day; the best of hotels get about $10 a day with meals, and at two joints you can dance the mambo on the sand with your shoes off. For $99, most of which you can pay later, Air France will fly you nonstop from New York to Mexico City, and $9 more will put you in Acapulco. I know a place, an American-run guest house in a palm grove, where you can while away the winter at $5.05 a day, meals included.
It has been a long sleep, but Acapulco has been Boomville before. For three centuries, which came to an end in 1820, Spanish galleons sailed the route from the Philippines loaded with cloves and cinnamon, damask and satin, silk and taffeta, ivory and bone, pearls and fine wood furniture. Once a year the China Ship, as it came to be known, sailed into Acapulco. Its goods were unloaded and transshipped overland to Vera Cruz on the Gulf and then shipped across the Atlantic to Spain.
The arrival of the China Ship in Acapulco caused bells to peal in Mexico City, reachable then only by a mule track known as the China Road. With the goods off-loaded in the Pacific port, Acapulco staged a fair that lasted from mid-January to the end of February. It was one of the most famous annual expositions of the day, bringing merchants from all Mexico, from far-off Peru and from Spain itself, swelling the population of 4,000 to a jam-packed 10,000.
With Mexico free from Spain after the War of Independence (1810-20), ship lanes closed, jungle grew over the mule path and Acapulco went to sleep. It slept a sound siesta for a hundred years, or until a road from Mexico City was scratched out in 1927. Three years later Carlos Barnard, an accountant for an oil company in Tampico, worked his way to Acapulco by mule. With $1,100 he bought a piece of land at the edge of La Quebrada, a cut that had been chopped in the cliffs to permit ocean breezes to cool the town. He built three cabins on the edge of the cliffs, opened them in 1932. The sailfishing was marvelous. Barnard bought a 23-foot Chris-Craft, had another boat built in Manzanillo, hired captains, pushed sailfishing. With his three cabins and a cantina, but with the road from Mexico City little better than a wagon trail, Barnard nearly starved. In their idle hours his bar boys began to bathe in the narrow channel formed by two cliffs that rose vis-√†-vis. Soon, bar boys being boys, they were climbing the rocks. Then jumping off. It got to be such a good show they began to pass the hat.
It wasn't, as legend persists, Errol Flynn sailing into the harbor on the deck of a square-rigger that woke up Acapulco. It was the war that sealed up the routes to other playgrounds. And it was the schoolteachers. "They came," as an oldtimer recalls, "by the jillions, buying up the junk in town, staying at little eight-and 10-room hotels for $3.50 for three meals." Then from Mexico City came a California promoter named A. C. Blumenthal, and with him a blond Swiss orchestra leader named Ernest (Ted) Stauffer, once of Bern. One moonlit night in June of 1949 Stauffer, between marriages to Faith Domergue and Hedy Lamarr, sat on a rock at La Quebrada and sketched a fantastic nightclub. It would be built in bands around the cliff, each band a single tier, wide enough for one table. It would have the world's most electrifying floor show: the diving boys of La Quebrada. He and Carlos Barnard went into business. They bought a four-masted 300-foot schooner that had run the Pacific for 70 years. After its retirement Hollywood had used it to film Mutiny on the Bounty. It was brought to Acapulco as a nightclub but it was caught in a storm and wrecked on the beach. Its priceless hardwood timbers were used to shore up the terraces. The Raspa, a stamping dance of the era, was then popular, and Stauffer decided to use reinforced concrete struts to support the dance floor, which literally hangs over the sea.
On his cliffside terraces Stauffer serves flamboyant dishes of flaming shrimp, such international concoctions as Swiss enchiladas. He flies his steaks in from Mexico City, serves them for $1.60 U.S. Chicken comes dished up in a coconut shell, and for lubrication there is the coco loco, a mix of tequila and coconut water. But nothing could be more intoxicating than the swan dive twice nightly from the top of a 126-foot cliff.
At 10:30 and 12:30 each evening at La Perla, the Stauffer-Barnard nightclub, there comes a roll of drums. Then down a long stairway that leads partway to the sea strides a diver clad in shorts, holding in his uplifted arm a flaming torch. At the end of the stairway he flips the torch into the sea, climbs down the rest of the rock face hand over hand. At the water's edge he jumps in, swims the 10 yards or so across to the opposite shore, then climbs the sheer cliff rising there. At the top he pauses for applause from the diners on their terraces across the way. Then he steps to a little candlelit chapel, kneels and prays, rises and walks to the edge. He watches carefully until a wave nears the chasm below, then suddenly the floodlights go out, a fiery blanket of paper and kerosene is ignited on the cliff opposite, the diver springs and dives by the light of the flame.
Diving from the cliffs of La Quebrada, once a bar boy's lark, has become a glamorous profession in Acapulco. One leading diver, Raoul Garcia, is now married to Marcia Reagan, a New York model. Some 20 divers make their living at it, the youngest 15, the oldest, now in semiretirement, 30. All are knit in an organized guild which divides its members into four-hour shifts. They will jump for tours, individuals or cameramen at a more or less standard rate, but the day's biggest plum is the twice-nightly floor-show jump at Perla which pays $10 plus whatever the hat brings in from onlookers not on club property. A diver in need of immediate cash sometimes peddles his Perla diving turn to a comrade at a premium weeks in advance.
Of the 800 dives bought by the club last year only three were canceled because of stormy weather. Stauffer has taken his divers barnstorming to a water show in Chicago, to the world high-diving championships in Panama. Although an American was killed on the Quebrada cliffssome years ago, no Mexican has ever been injured from a dive. The only casualties have been one broken wrist suffered at Panama and severe shock at Chicago when the Bureau of Internal Revenue announced the tax the divers would have to pay on U.S. earnings.
On the 12th of December the divers celebrate the day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, with a jumping fiesta. The local padre climbs the rocks with them, and the boys cluster around the cliffside shrine and sing chorals. Then one by one they somersault off the cliffs or dive with a cape held behind them or, with all the lights turned out, they jump from the heights carrying a flaming torch.
While no other hotel can offer the spectacle of the diving boys, which indeed some guests can see from El Mirador's cottages now rambling all over the Quebrada cliffs, there are other delights too. The Club de Pesca, owned by a former policeman who made good selling Chevrolets and Pepsi Cola, is the resort's only large completely air-conditioned hotel. Encamped flush on the bay, it has its own fishing dock, its own fleet of charter boats that will take the fishermen out for sail and marlin, supply tackle, bait, crew, gas and lunch for $29. It also keeps on hand a quartet of speedboats for water skiing, a catamaran with sails and aqualungs. There are two swimming pools, one salt, one sweet; and set amid beds of yellow copa de oro and pink and green tabachin bushes are two dozen bungalows, each with bedroom, glass-walled living room looking out on its own private garden. The tab is $22 a day for two people with meals.
The handiest hotel to the beach is the Caleta, which overlooks Morning Beach. With a new 100-room addition to its 150 rooms it will be the largest modern hotel in town, eclipsing the Majestic, which sits like an immense fluorescent ship on the heights, commanding a magnificent view of the harbor. Out on the point is the Prado Americas, with its blue-and-white-striped pool and a miniature golf course, but it is so far from the beach that work is soon to begin on a funicular that will carry guests to the sands in mechanical style. High on another hilltop, with nothing but the blue Mexican sky and diamond-scattered sea and white ocote trees for shade, is the quiet Los Flamingos. It has a pink-and-green bar, and dining room with glass doors to screen the breeze and a small hilltop pool set in red brick and laid with mats. The winter rate: $10 a day. The innkeepers: John Wayne, Fred MacMurray and Red Skelton.
A GUEST HOUSE IN A PALM GROVE
For half the rate in luxury hotels, or to be exact, for $5.05 a day, you can live at Las Palmas, a guest house set in a seaside palm grove and operated by John Sutherland, an ex-mess officer in the U.S. Army. There are 25 rooms in the place, each with bath. There is no bar, but there are hammocks slung between palm trunks, and at the edge of the lawn a beach used both by bathers and fishermen in dugout canoes.
Whether you stay at Las Palmas or the Mirador or the Flamingo, no visitor to Acapulco, beyond a first-night man, has ever been known to wear a tie or, for that matter, a coat. Acapulco frowns too on Bermuda shorts and laughs over long stockings. The Tianguis Bazar, run by Peggy Pe√±a, a redheaded American, and next door, La Quebrada, operated by Babs Clyde, a black-haired Swede married to a celebrated R.A.F. hero, both offer the shortest of shorts. Mme. Pe√±a sells bullfighter pants and skirts of colorful embroidery adapted from native Guerrero costumes. She has fish-net caps studded with pearls, black bullfighter blouses fringed with white lace, good-luck fish that button on the shirt. They are guaranteed for good fishing and, since guaranteed, are returnable. An adaptation is the Acapulco rebozo, long enough to lie on and appliquéd with good-luck fish. Guaranteed for good fishing on the beach.
La Quebrada has jackets of unbleached manta cloth for both men and women, and hand-painted and hand-screened poplin shirts by Jim Tillett of Mexico City. It has designed bloomer shorts for ladies, with a tight-fitting leg; sandals of jute and patent leather for ladies, and leather sandals for men (black for evening), both at $3.50 a pair. Down the block, Jaime's has Eisenhower jackets of unbleached manta cloth, paisley shirts made of Mexican handkerchiefs bought in local markets ($6), and shirts with zippers on both sides to taper male waists ($5).
No matter what the costume, there is golf the year round on the pleasant nine-hole course of the Centro Deportivo de Acapulco (greens fee: $1.20), sailfishing the year around from any one of the nest of boats that cluster around the Malecon downtown. During the annual sailfish rodeo last April, entrants averaged five strikes and three fish. Some iron-arm fishermen have boated as many as 11 sails a day, and last year's winner weighed in at 163 pounds. Small fishing, either trolling, casting or using a spinning rod close to the rocks, will bring barracuda, par-go, dolphin, cocinero, ojoton and raballo (or Florida snook, as heavy here as 60 pounds)—fighting fish all.
The Grand Plaza de Toros Caletilla is a splendid new bull ring that will seat 10,000 who climb the red steps to yellow and green seats of the perfect bowl. There are floodlights for fights that start at twilight. Nearby is the new jai-alai frontón where the basket-armed dervishes perform both in summer and winter. And always there is the beach to roast on and the ever-present bar boys ("you wanna planna's ponch?"), with the only care to get back to the hotel before they stop serving lunch. By that I mean that most any afternoon at four the diners are still sitting under the canopy of El Mirador's open terrace by the sea. The hors d'oeuvres cart is still going by, loaded with turtle eggs that look like dented pingpong balls and percebes, which are sea barnacles nestled in beds of ice. A man has to rush through lunch a bit to get in a siesta before it's time for dinner.