Photo: Nickolaus Hines

The Thompson Zihuatanejo Will Make You Forget Mexico’s Better-Known Resort Towns

Mexico Travel Luxe Travel Food + Drink Epic Stays
by Nickolaus Hines May 19, 2022

A cool Pacific breeze carried the smell of the cooking fire before I could see it. When I got to the beach, I was greeted by lightly wafting smoke and a simple metal frame supporting an assortment of meats and vegetables that hung from strings over the coals. Chef Javier Garcia Cerrillo had been slow cooking what would soon be dinner for hours by the time I walked from my room at the Thompson Zihuatanejo to the on-site Hao restaurant.

I’d only been at the resort for a few hours, but it was immediately clear that this was a place where good food is front and center — and lots of it.

Ribs, dry aged steak, chicken, squashes, and other vegetables filled the table as the sun set on the waves. A whole snapper wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked on the coals gave me a taste of the ocean. I had been in Oaxaca a few months prior and had some of the best food in my life in a state widely known for its cuisine. Zihuatanejo is in Guerrero, the state bordering Oaxaca to the north, and many people here take food no less seriously, as I’d learn over the next few days.

barbecue at thompson zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Zihuatanejo made it onto the radar of some American tourists in the 1960s when Timothy Leary held psychedelic retreats at the Hotel Catelina. It didn’t last long. Today, the small town feels far from the tourist-packed resorts of Cabo, Acapulco, or Cancun while still being easily accessible — I flew from Denver to Houston, then directly to the nearby Ixtapa airport about 15 minutes away from the Thompson.

Thompson Hotels took over the property from Viceroy and reopened in 2018. Since then, as multiple regular guests at the bar were quick to tell me, it’s built a reputation for luxury, just the right amount of seclusion, and, importantly, food.

“This is one of the richest ports on the coast of Mexico for fishing,” Cerrillo told me the morning after our beachside dinner.

fishing boats at zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

It was about 8:00 AM and we were walking toward the Paseo del Pescador, or Fisherman’s Walk, to pick out a fish for our cooking class offered through the hotel. Boats were pulled up on the shore. A few fishermen still had their catch laid out on tarps on the sand despite it being four or five hours past the markets prime purchasing time. This is where the locals get their daily fish, Cerrillo noted, but we were there to meet Cerrillo’s go-to angler, Fernando.

After a few pit stops to pet some cats and play fetch with a puppy who dropped a small coconut at my feet, we met him at the end of the line of beached boats. Fernando had mahi mahi (called dorado in Mexico), snapper, and mackerel laid out on a tarp on the sand. But the main event was a tuna that was weighed on a scale hanging from a nearby tree.

fish market at beach on zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

The fish had bright eyes, shiny skin, and smelled like the sea. In other words, it was perfect. After a quick sale and some more pointing toward a few snappers, we left the beach to eat breakfast at the nearby market before returning to the Thompson to prepare our purchase.

Back at the hotel, Cerrillo cut through the tuna’s tough skin while talking and dishing out directions. I mashed roasted tomatoes, tomatillos, habaneros, jalapenos, and garlic together with salt into a salsa in a large molcajete. On the grill, split spiny lobster got a dose of mezcal. Another member of the cooking experience sliced parts of tuna into chunks that we passed around and ate straight off the cutting board as we prepared the rest of the meal and sipped our Modelos.

There aren’t many places where you can go from a private in-suite plunge pool to a local fish market to a beach shack to clean and cook a fish caught the night before. Let alone places where you can do so in the span of a few hours. At the Thompson, it’s just another day.

The rooms and amenities at Thompson Zihuatanejo

the thompson zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Thompson Zihuatanejo has 56 guestrooms and suites. The villas are surrounded by various types of palms that lend an air of leafy privacy. While it’d be easy to get caught appreciating the plant life from your balcony, the design in the rooms will make you linger as well with black Oaxacan clay light fixtures, plenty of art, and a small work station.

The property has two restaurants, three pools (two adults-only), a tennis court, spa, and plenty of areas for events and general entertaining.

patio at room at thompson zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Many of the rooms have a private terrace or balcony with a plunge pool — spring for it if one is open and in your budget. And while the beach is visible from just about everywhere on the property, it doesn’t get closer than the beach suite. The 11 swim-up suites are perfect for a group, as there’s a shared pool in the middle that looks out onto the ocean just steps away.

Room rates range from about $600 for the king bed without a plunge pool to about $1,600 for the top-of-the-line Thompson suite.

The food at the Thompson Zihuatanejo

dinner at thompson zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

On one side of the property is the restaurant Ceniza, which means ash in Spanish. It’s a fitting name for a chef that bases so much of his work around open flames and wood-fired cooking. The restaurant is based around a palapa — a thatched-roof structure open on all sides. Menu items range from elevated comfort options (scallop and lobster empanadas, grilled local oysters, and squash tortellini, to name a few) to the equally delicious options you won’t easily find stateside (rib eye with local cacao and huitlacoche, or soft shell crab tacos).

The other restaurant bar, Hao, is right on the sand and has lunch options like crudos made with the catch of the day, sushi and poke, tacos, as well as whole fish and whole lobster. Fish, beef, and chicken off the grill are the stars on the dinner menu.

Cerrillo leans on the bounty of local food as much as possible. Produce from the hotel’s on-site garden at the time I went included corn, beans, radish, carrots, cinnamon, peppers, different types of squashes, bananas, tomatoes, and the herb epazote.

Experiences and activities at Thompson Zihuatanejo

cooking class at thompson zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

You’ll want to dedicate some time just for the beach. Paddle boarding (best in the morning when the water is at its calmest) and beach yoga can be arranged through the hotel. If you’re looking for something active but more dry, the hotel’s tennis instructor, a former pro and current coach, will give you lesson on the courts. A full spa will have you ready for your flight at the end of the trip — or just for another relaxing day on the beach.

Turtle releases happen just down the beach at sunset. Dolphins can be seen from the shore, as can humpback whales as they pass by from December through April.

While there’s lots to be said about eating at the Thompson’s restaurants, food lovers will want to get a cooking class on the beach to learn how to prepare select dishes and then enjoy their work immediately after. This activity starts with a walk along the Paseo del Pescador to seek out fish and produce, then returns back to the beach in front of the Thompson.

raw tuna cooking class at thompson zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

For something a little more spirited, there’s a combined tequila and ceviche tasting that puts tequilas and mezcals alongside raw fish from the Paseo del Pescador. Here, all of the spirits are tied to Mexico: pox from Chiapa in southern Mexico, mezcal produced locally and in neighboring Oaxaca, raicilla from Jalisco, and, of course, premium tequila.

Note that no meal at the Thompson Zihuatanejo should end until there’s dessert. These are irresistible — even for someone like myself who isn’t a dessert person — thanks to fruit and Mexico’s Melipona honey infused into numerous menu options.

What to do in Zihuatanejo

beach at zihuatanejo mexico

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

Food should be central to just about any trip to Mexico, and Zihuatanejo is no different. Cerrillo has an easy answer for what to do next whenever there’s down time: “One of the most interesting things you can do in Mexico. Eat.”

Go into the Mercado Municipal area of Zihuatanejo Centro for the buestos, or street food. The number of options can be overwhelming if you don’t speak passable Spanish. Cerrillos advice on the sure way to find good street food? “Taxi drivers are eating there,” he says.

Carnitas are an easy choice. For something that’s not stuffed with meat, look for someone stuffing pork-fat-infused masa flatbreads with ricotta cheese and cooking them on a comal (a flat griddle). Agua frescas made with blended fresh juice make the heat — both from temperature and the salsas — bearable.

street food in zihuatanejo

Photo: Nickolaus Hines

If you’re looking for a place to sit down and eat, stop by Angustina on the Paseo del Pescador for cocktails and dinner. Like many places in the mezcal-making states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, Angustina has its own house mezcals that chef Felipe Meneses walked us through along with a selection of his other favorite mezcals that the restaurant carries (mezcals made from the cupreta agave variety are some of his favorites). If you’d like a drink that’s mixed rather than straight up, Angustina has cocktails to choose from, including ones made with coconut, mezcal, rum, or cannabis-infused mezcal. For dinner, don’t skip the tender octopus.

You can walk the Plata Principal for a string of other restaurants that have beach seating. Evening entertainment can be found on some nights in a sunken basketball court with a colorful crocodile painted on the floor. A running trail connects it all if you start early enough to beat the heat. At the end of the walk along Plata Principal, the Museo Arqueológico de la Costa Grande displays local archaeological finds.

A number of places in Zihuatanejo do pozole Thursdays (green pozole is famous in Guerrero), making the dinner choice an easy one.

Of course, there are plenty of things to do outside of eating. Nearby Playa Manzanillo and Las Gatas offer snorkeling opportunities. At the latter, I swam to a massive underwater Jesus statue while a pufferfish and other tropical marine life swam nearby. In nearby Ixtapa, Cocodrilario Playa Linda is a small park loaded with crocodiles, iguanas, and various bird species that change with the season. I caught a ride in a van, but a bike path connects Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa and takes about three hours to complete.

Off of the resort, golfers have an option between two 18-hole courses. Horseback riding and tours of the town can be set up through the hotel.

Getting to Zihuatanejo

There are direct flights from Houston to the Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo airport. From Mexico City, it’s only a quick 45-minute flight. From the airport, Thompson Zihuatanejo is about 15 minutes.

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