A couple of weeks ago, I packed my toothbrush and an extra t-shirt in a plastic grocery bag and bought a bus ticket for one from Mexico City to Acapulco. Five hours later, I arrived at Guerrero’s coastal resort – famous for its Hollywood heyday in the 1950’s and subsequent downfall in the 70’s and 80’s characterized by the “black waters” that flowed straight from the international hotel sewage piping into the bay.
My hostel turned out to be clean enough, with a private bathroom, breakfast in bed, and a communal dipping pool for just US$12 a night. I stayed in Old Acapulco – a mostly rundown part of town near the cathedral and Quebrada sea cliffs, full of cracked concrete dwellings and shops in disrepair.
My well-off friends in Mexico, the people who form the largest part of my social network across the country, tell me that I’m crazy for feeling comfortable in places like the hills behind Old Acapulco. “Como te vas a meter con esa gente?” they say. Seriously, Christine? You’re gonna hang around those people?
For sure, an added degree of caution is necessary in any barrio – any place that’s not nice enough to be called an actual neighborhood or suburb by Mexican Spanish standards. But recently, I’ve been increasingly drawn to spend time with Mexico’s raza, the large majority of the country’s population that doesn’t quite earn enough to be called middle class.
Saturday morning in Acapulco I woke up with the sunrise and started walking toward the ocean with my plastic grocery bag holding a beach book, a small wad of cash, and a bottle of water. I bought a US$5 bathing suit from a street vendor, and said a two second prayer that the thing wouldn’t fall apart upon contact with water.
As soon as I made it to the Costera, the ocean front drive that stretches across the entire city, I started looking for the public bus that would take me to the Caleta beaches. After living in Mexico for more than four years, it’s time to confess that I’ve never taken a public bus anywhere. It’s just not something that the nice people in Mexico, la gente bien, care to do, and I’ve even come to develop some sort of fear of the whole experience. I’m intimidated by the fact that the buses have no schedule, no planned stops, and no need to even slow down that much for you to hop on or off.
A couple of buses came my way but quickly passed. I wasn’t sure what to do. A teenage waiter from the restaurant with sidewalk tables behind me said, “Would you like to come in and have something to eat?”
“Actually, I’m just trying to catch a bus to Caleta,” I said. “How does it work?”
He smiled. “It’s easy,” he said. “Here, I’ll help you.”
Two seconds later a bus came around the bend. The boy whistled, waved his arm, and pointed at me. The bus slowed immediately.
“See? That’s all you have to do,” he said. He told me to have fun and to take care. For being one of those people, it tingled that the waiter treated me with more civility and respect than some of the CEO’s sons in Mexico City’s nightclubs.
I got on the bus and handed five pesos to the driver. I quickly realized, however, that I was riding no ordinary form of public transportation. To say that it was “bompin’ ” (a word my sister uses to describe anything that resembles a party) would be an understatement. The inside of the bus was covered with velvet curtains, tassels, and airbrushed babes with balloon-like boobies. And the music – a loud, trumpet blasting, base-drum pounding Mexican version of the polka known as Banda music – vibrated my hard plastic seat even more than the bumpy road. With every turn, the tassels swung wildly from side to side. I couldn’t hide a giggle, but when I looked around, everyone else was completely stoic, as if the bompin’ party bus were the most normal part of their day.
Once at Caleta beach, I found the departure point for boats headed to Isla Roqueta – a small island with private beaches just outside the bay of Acapulco. The boat captain – a half naked, sunned mahogany 16-year-old – waved his arms to get my attention.
“We’ve been waiting just for you,” he said, but with a smile that said ok so maybe not, but we’re glad you’re here anyway. “You’re just in time for the grand tour of Acapulco Bay,” he said.
Six dollars later, I was on a glass-bottom, floating shack that spewed grayish smoke from its outboard motor. The quick tour highlighted oceanfront mansions owned by famous Mexican artists, as well as a few beautifully colored fish and other marine creatures. But the best, and oddest vision from the depths of the sea was a 4-meter, 2-ton concrete statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. As the boat floated over the submerged Virgin’s head, the family next to me crossed themselves. Some say that local fisherman placed Nuestra Señora de Los Mares, Our Lady of the Sea, in Acapulco Bay and that they still call upon her to protect them and provide for a safe return.
As the glass-bottom shack neared Roqueta Island, we pulled up to another larger fishing boat and anchored to its side. Pirate vendors quickly boarded our shack to peddle their fruit wares, bottled water, and beers. Ten minutes later we docked on the island, the first of many boats that would continue arriving in waves from mainland Acapulco.
Once on the beach, I noticed that many of the women were wearing cheap bathing suits similar to mine, and some of the men swam in their underwear. People carried plastic bags, discmans, and beers. The island quickly filled with people of every shape, size, and color. A woman yelled 20 meters across the beach to her waiter for another $2 shrimp cocktail in sweet tomato sauce with lime juice sprinkled on top. Children ran in every direction. Noise and laughter and sand flying and squeals and baby tears fearful of the soft waves pattering against the shore. Pura raza! Two girls from Oaxaca, of indigenous descent, sat next to me and we offered to watch each other’s bags if anyone wanted to take a dip. By 11am, I couldn’t get in the water without rubbing against other people, and the chaos was happy.
A short while later, my cell phone rang. Friends from Mexico City – a gay couple that has requested anonymity under the names Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto (Lady Gaga much?) – vacationing in Acapulco wanted me to have drinks with them during the afternoon.
“Sure thing,” I said. “I’ll be right over.”
I took a quick boat ride back to the mainland, and hopped a bus toward la carretera escenica, the scenic highway that climbs the mountain on the other side of the bay. When the bus reached the end of its route, I was still 15 kilometers away from my friends' hotel.
I found a taxi driver who could take me the rest of the distance. “Acapulco’s buses don’t go that far,” he said. “The hotel you’re looking for, the Quinta Real, is in a private, gated community. The buses don’t go there.”
By the time I reached the entrance to the resort, I understood. Porsches and Mercedes and BMWs lined the front walk. The development where my friends were staying is called Acapulco Diamante, the Diamond, and is marked by an upper class touch. No, more than upper class, absolute luxury.
I walked through the five-star Quinta Real’s lobby and was met with a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean through the hut palms that covered the extra high ceilings. Then I started down a set of winding paths and stairs, surrounded by lush tropical greens and birds of paradise, descending the shore front cliff, toward the pool where I was to meet Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto (still trying to write that with a straight face).
Everything was immaculate. Even the ashtrays on top of the trash bins had the Quinta Real logo stamped into the sand. Every detail was designed for comfort.
Once I reached the pool, I immediately noticed it was one of those swimming areas with a disappearing edge – the kind that make you feel as though you’re wading in the pool and ocean at the same time. Everyone was using the same color towel, no children were present, and waiters with pressed white shirts, black tuxedo-like vests, and aprons wanted to know how they could serve me before I was even able to put my plastic bag down in front of my individual lounger and sunshade.
Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto were taking a week off from work as a banker and life as a med-student to enjoy the kind of quality couple time that is often complicated by the rules of engagement in high society Mexico City.
When they asked me what I was doing in Acapulco, I told them I had come alone for a little adventure and maybe some relaxation before leaving the country.
“You what?” Roberto said. “Are you serious? You just came alone, just like that, and then you decided to stay in Old Acapulco? You’re absolutely nuts, Christine,” he told me. “Estas pero reloca. Come es que no tienes miedo de estar sola, de andar ahi sola?” Why aren’t you afraid to do that? he said. Afraid to be on that side of the bay alone?
We ordered $12 margaritas and sipped them slowly while looking over the edge of the pool to the beach below. The shore was empty, quiet, and peaceful. From the Diamante side of Acapulco, it was impossible to even see the other side of the city where the Caleta beaches sprawled, to even know what esa gente, those people, were doing. All around the private beachfront resort, hidden Bose speakers whispered zen music for the descendents of Spanish criollos – thin, white people with oversized hats and sunglasses.
Before dinner, Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto took me on a drive around the new Acapulco, the side of the city that has left the Old Town cliffs behind. They pointed out the new apartment high rises, more modern than anything, and an easy target for Mexico’s narco elite to launder drug money. Exclusive gated communities, shopping complexes with Louis Vuitton, Prada and Fendi stores that surrounded a Las Vegas style canal with gondolas and Italian opera singers.
For dinner, Ale-ale-jandro and Roberto invited me to a swanky restaurant on top of the mountain that overlooked all of Acapulco with US$500 of free coupons they had to burn. We spent it all… and more. We ordered US$19 lychee martinis, and tequila, and a bottle of wine. And then seared tuna steaks with a sweet beet relish on top. Chipotle butter on fresh-made rolls. And sundaes for dessert. Then we climbed to the restaurant’s rooftop terrace to order a few rounds of digestifs, and listened to a David Guetta look-alike spin house music while chatting with a view of the entire Acapulco Bay.
Our table had four waiters to serve the three of us. By Cosmo magazine’s standards, everyone around us was good looking, well-dressed, cool. We started dancing, and the boys hugged each other, then hugged me.
“We’re glad you’re here,” Roberto said. “With you around, we can be ourselves even more. We don’t have to worry about things, and just have fun.”
“I like your dress,” Ale-ale-jandro said. Running his fingers across the fabric. “And your shoes,” he said. “I want to wear them.”
“I feel like the princess of Acapulco up here,” I said.
Still caressing the fabric of my dress, Ale-ale-jandro corrected me. “You might be a princess,” he said. “But I’m the Queen.”
“Fair enough,” I said, enjoying the boys' sudden and sincere surge of freedom. I sipped my expensive cocktail and looked toward Old Acapulco, toward the bay-size divide between this place and that life. And I suddenly realized how few people are free to move between the two worlds – the two worlds that I experience together nearly everyday in Mexico.
Mexico has given me many gifts, but one of my favorites is the opportunity to cross the distance between the dark-skinned, plump girls from Oaxaca who helped to keep my belongings safe on Roqueta Island and the five-star plastic surgery models in Acapulco Diamante. Between the men who swam in their underwear with children hanging from both arms on the Caleta Beaches, and the adults only pool with matching towels for everyone in the Quinta Real Hotel.
It’s often difficult, if not impossible, for the Mexicans themselves to jump from one caste to the other, but Mexico forgives a foreigner many things. Forgives my naiveté, and grants me unique, VIP access to the truth of the spaces that separate rich and poor, dark and light, they and them across the country. Both worlds have taught me to appreciate and enjoy, and both worlds have introduced me to families where I very much belong. I’m a little bit from Old Acapulco and a little bit from Acapulco Diamante, but mostly from the deepest part of the bay that separates the two.
At the end of the night, sometime around 3:30am, the boys ordered me a private taxi to Old Acapulco where I would spend my last night in the Asturias hostel. Forty minutes later, as I walked through the gate of my hostel, Gustavo the night guard greeted me kindly.
“Glad to see you back safely,” he said. “Welcome home, Cristina. See you in the morning.”