Sleepy. Quiet. Low-key.
That’s how the beach town of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, is often described.
After a busy time exploring several of Mexico’s colonial towns, we were looking forward to some R&R in Zihuatanejo.
We especially couldn’t wait to chill on some of those Zihuatanejo beaches we’d read about!
As it turned out, all that powdery soft sand (and a few margaritas) did the trick.
A week in Zihuatanejo restored our energies and readied us for the return flights home.
If you’re planning a Mexico vacation in Zihuatanejo, here’s all you need to know about the beaches in Zihuatanejo and neighboring Ixtapa beaches.
Zihuatanejo vs Ixtapa
First, though, it helps to know a little about the general area.
About 200 miles north of Acapulco, Zihuatanejo is a charming fishing town with cobblestone streets packed with little restaurants.
Ixtapa, on the other hand, is a large modern resort area some four miles away.
Despite being so close to each other, Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo feel completely different.
Zihuatanejo (or “Zihua” for short) offers a small town experience, with a traditional Mexican ambience and intimate boutique hotels and guest houses.
Ixtapa has a Cancun-like feel, with all-inclusive and large first-class beach resorts.
Okay, ready now to check out the 8 best beaches in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa?
1) Playa Principal (or Playa Municipal)
Playa Principal is the main beach right in front of the town of Zihuatanejo.
While the beach is sandy with calm water, it isn’t suitable for swimming because of the amount of boat traffic.
But it’s a great place for watching the local fishermen or getting a fishing charter (the Jack Crevalle fishing is excellent here).
The walkway running the length of this beach (Fisherman’s Walk or Paseo del Pescador) hosts several good restaurants.
They include Coconuts Restaurant & Bar, known for its seafood and drinks, as well as El Agave, offering seafood, Mexican cuisine and vegetarian dishes.
2) Playa La Madera (or Playa Madera)
The beach walkway in front of Playa Principal continues past several picturesque coves to nearby Playa Madera (or Madera Beach).
The walkway has recently been rebuilt, and Playa Madera is now a beautiful 10- to 15-minute, oceanfront walk from downtown Zihua.
This small Zihuatanejo beach is sandy, and the water is relatively calm closer to the shore. Bodysurfing is one of the most popular activities here, next to swimming.
Several restaurants in the area proudly serve Mexican food, including La Gula and Restaurante Las Adelitas.
3) Playa La Ropa (La Ropa Beach)
Ahhh… For many people, this is the best beach in Zihuatanejo.
All those great beach quotes – like “Life’s a beach” and “Happiness is a day at the beach!” – were probably dreamed up after spending time on a beach such as Playa La Ropa.
Indeed, we think La Ropa is one of the nicest beaches in the world!
Early in the morning, before people are out and about, it’s lovely to walk La Ropa Beach, a silky soft sand beach that extends for about a mile.
Coconut trees provide shade, and the sea water is bathtub warm and smooth most of the time, making it ideal for swimming.
Body surfing on the gentle thigh-high waves that roll up on the beach is also popular.
You can rent SUP boards to paddle out in the bay – we once even saw a spotted stingray near our board.
Parasailers sometimes soar overhead, and wave runners occasionally zip around the bay, but for the most part, Playa La Ropa is known for its peace and quiet.
A few vendors stroll the wide beach, hawking beach bags or jewelry, but they’re not very pushy.
Several restaurants have tables on the beach so you can eat with your toes in the sand. Seafood, of course, is the hit of the menu.
To rent beach chairs and an umbrella for the day – and for a tasty lunch – try La Perla.
4) Playa Las Gatas
Named for the harmless cat-whiskered nurse sharks that once hung out on the sandy bottom years ago, Playa Las Gatas is the perfect beach to get away from it all.
It’s great for both snorkeling and swimming.
A man-made breakwater of boulders keeps the shallow waters free of surf. So this beach in Zihuatanejo is ideal for children and adults who aren’t strong swimmers.
Bring your snorkeling gear (or rent from a beach shack) because there’s a nice variety of colorful underwater marine life to gawk at – from eels to angelfish and puffer fish.
Also keep an eye out for the large bronze statue of Jesus submerged about 30 feet underwater.
Related: If you love snorkeling, check out our guide to the best snorkeling in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico!
A string of open-air seafood restaurants are tucked by the trees lining the beach, most offering beach loungers and umbrellas for rent.
(The loungers are complimentary if you buy lunch.)
Recommended options include Arnaldo’s with white tablecloths and vases of flowers decorating the tables. It’s known for its coconut shrimp and killer Coco Loco cocktails, served in a coconut. (Also check out the parrot near the back by the loos.)
Or plant yourself at Restaurante Otilia, near the far end of the beach, which is a little quieter.
5) Ixtapa Island (Isla Ixtapa)
One of the best day trips from Zihuatanejo is to take a water taxi to Ixtapa Island.
Get there early to make the most of your visit (and for the best snorkeling).
Ixtapa Island beaches:
Isla Ixtapa has three beaches.
Playa Cuachalalate is sandy with calm water. It’s the most popular beach (and the one closest to the boat dock).
A short walk away is Playa Varadero, also sandy and good for swimming.
On the other side of the island, Coral Beach offers snorkeling along a coral reef in shallow waters.
Though the water wasn’t very clear the day we snorkeled, we still saw clouds of small pink-and-yellow rainbow fish, butterfly fish and yellow-and-black striped Sargent Majors.
Coral Beach also gets a lovely breeze, so if it’s a hot day, you may want to swim on the sandy side of the island but hang out and have lunch on Coral Beach.
If you feel like a bit of exercise, hang a left when you get off the boat and hike up the hill for some great views. The trail then descends back down into Coral Beach.
All three beaches have rows and rows of white plastic chairs and loungers under umbrellas, with little tables covered with colorful tablecloths.
The pink tables belong to one restaurant, the blue to another restaurant, and so on.
In the middle of the island, there are bars and a large open-air kitchen space, where the fresh-caught seafood is grilled and drinks are made.
It’s hard to make out the names of the restaurants, but Restaurante Cuachalalate (with the orange umbrellas) on Playa Cuachalalate gets a thumbs-up for its fresh tortillas and huge coconut shrimp.
6) Playa Larga
Playa Larga is mostly undeveloped and very sandy, although the water features large breakers at the shore and a strong riptide.
Even though swimming is less than ideal here, there are other opportunities for fun that include jogging, horseback riding, fishing and whale watching.
Hiking trails that lead from the beach up into old plantation grounds are also worth exploring.
Be prepared to walk a little if visiting restaurants or bars here, as they are quite spread out.
Some of the restaurant options near the beach include Popeye’s Restaurant for casual family-friendly dining and El Dorado for upscale choices.
7) Playa Contramar
This rocky beach is very inviting, with a location in a cove that keeps the water calm.
The clear water is ideal for swimming, as well as snorkeling. One thing that stands out about this beach is the array of tropical fish species, as well as octopi and eels.
Consider having a pair of sandals or flip-flops handy for walking on the beach to protect your tootsies from the rocks and pebbles.
If you need to grab something to eat nearby, Lety’s Restaurant, Casa Bahia, Coco Bahia Botanas & Tapas and Bandido’s De Zuhia offer great local favorite dishes.
8) Playa Linda
Playa Linda boasts a sandy beach and much calmer water than many other Ixtapa beaches. Swimming is always fun here.
What’s special about this beach in Ixtapa is its location within a crocodile preserve.
Large crocodiles sun on the banks of a fenced-off mangrove estuary that feeds into the ocean. (Don’t worry, you’re not swimming with the crocodiles!)
We were told there are about 100 crocs in this cocodrilario.
You can also see two-foot-long iguanas resting on tree branches (keeping out of harm’s way). White herons and other exotic birds strut their stuff too here.
As with most Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo beaches, there are a bevy of restaurants to choose from offering loungers and table seating; some have hammocks in the shade.
If you’re hungry for seafood, try Bistro Soleiado or El Tiburon de la Costa.
Where to stay in Zihuatanejo?
We loved La Casa Que Canta, which means “the house that sings.” It’s absolutely lovely…
See: Our review of La Casa Que Canta.
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Photo credits: 6, 9, 12 to 15, 17 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase