Acapulco, once an exclusive beach resort on a bay , is now a sprawling, hyper-violent, fragmented metropolis overflowing into nearby beaches.
Fifty years ago, the town had been urbanized only halfway across the main bay– its attractions were a series of exclusive beaches that required considerable time and effort to get to. Now, it is a gigantic monster, with drug cartels fighting over territory and traffic jams day in and day out.
In the mid twentieth century, Acapulco was the place to be for the international jet set. Acapulco’s annual movie festival was a global phenomenon, with stars like Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire coming to bathe in the waters of the bay. The tourist area consisted on a few number of beaches and developments at the tip, and hotels like the Ritz and the President offered hyper exclusive luxurious parties for the stars.
Acapulco grew slowly during that period, attracting the wealthy class of Mexico and abroad. The houses that Mexican presidents and superstars built during that era are now coordination points in a sprawling city, they are historical sites, symbolic and cultural landmarks amongst the dispersive urban fabric. Locating these vacations homes of the rich is a big part of the tourist culture.
Figure 1: Old Acapulco map showing the main bay and adjacent beaches
What was once a series of exclusive beaches and resorts is now part of an extended network of cities which create increasingly fragmented experiences. The greater Acapulco area consists on two bays and a series of stretches of land to the north and to the south of the main bay. This main bay is the image of Acapulco, a reference point that allows tourist and locals to coordinate. The different areas are connected by one main scenic road across the mountains, although the south and the north of the city do communicate, they are spread apart by a mountain that cuts across.
The southern area of Acapulco is no longer hilly, this doesn’t allow one to get the superb views that allow coordination to happen. The new developments in this area are designed for cars– the main avenue has no space for pedestrians and the public life takes place in shopping malls. Since the southern part came in later, many resorts and businesses that were originally on the main bay have capitalized on their brands and settled branches in the new tourist areas. There are, thus, at least two–very different–parallel cities that do not meet.
In the 1990s travelling from Mexico CIty to Acapulco became cheaper and faster. Before this time, it took about 8 to 9 hours to get to from the capital city to this beach, and you had to have a car. But in the nineties Acapulco turned into the main destinations for city-dwellers who were eager to unclog themselves from the smog and pollution of the city. A new highway, “Autopista del Sol” linked the Mexico City megalopolis to the bay in a 5 hour car ride, while cheap charter flights provided packaged deals for the urbanites. The pilgrimage of cars from MXC to Acapulco is now a popular ritual, with thousands of cars clogging the Mexico City exit during vacation period.
Video: Singer Luis Miguel´s song “Aquí en la Playa” rebranded Acapulco
During this period there was a massive rebranding of the city. The singer songwriter (cultural phenomenon and real estate investor) Luis Miguel had videos that created an image of the city as a resort for a preppy national high-class. Now a days, Luis Miguel’s imagery looms over the entire tourism culture of Acapulco. He is like the patron saint of the bay, listening to the songs of Luismi have become part of the musical rituals of the area.
Now Acapulco is a beach-side alter-ego of Mexico City, a place that depends so much on the tourism that arrives from this megalopolis that the working rhythms and expectations of the locals are tied to the vacation periods of the capital city. In this sense, it is a mirror for the city. Mexico City is the driving force behind Acapulco´s tourism. Everyday rhythms in Acapulco can be seen as inverted from the ones in Mexico city. The calendar is also inverted, with urbanite’s vacations becoming Acapulco’s working periods and vice versa. Thus, while the capital city is in a working frenzy Acapulco is calm and serene. When the capital city is on vacations and deserted, Acapulco is going at it.
Figure 2: Caleta Beach, one of the oldest destinations, in the back, the metropolis
Now a days, there is a sense of nostalgia for Acapulco’s lost, glamorous, elite past. The corruption, decadence and the hyperviolence of the modern popular resort town is in constant tension with the images of the luxurious paradise, so praised in the 1960s. The popular surf-punk band, Lost Acapulco’s ironic, decadent and self depreciating music reflects the adrenaline soaked experience of the underground drug world of Acapulco. Their song “Acapulco Golden”, featured in the time-lapse above, is named after a strand of marijuana that is sold by local drug dealers in the area. Tabares, a strip club that features a midget and a clown screaming at the guests, is another bizarre example of an increasingly violent nightlife. There are also hotels that are capitalizing on the nostalgia of old Acapulco by styling the past. This is the case of the Boca Chica resort, which is set up in one of the original beaches of the area and uses Mad Men type designs to attract a trendy crowd. (The Caleta beach is pictured above, the hotel bellow).
Figure 3: Hotel Boca Chica, nostalgia for Acapulco in the 70s
Acapulco´s massive growth has had a lot to do with the shift from international tourism to national tourism. The main driving resource for new developments are the sea and tourism, and everything else in the economic life of Acapulco stems out from these activities.
The importance of tourism as a driving force together with corruption and poor zoning laws has made the new developments of Acapulco eat up the whole strip of beach, privatizing the space and cutting car circulation for private purposes and thus withdrawing from the city`s public life.
Ah…Acapulco, no matter what they say of you now, you once had a glorious past.