Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Fishing and Exploring the Costa Grande

With the majestic 9,000 foot Sierra Madres overlooking the small coastal plain, the approximate 180 miles of coastline from just north of Acapulco, to the deep water port of Lazaro Cardenas is known as the Costa Grande, with Zihuatanejo Bay being 45 water miles from Lazaro Cardenas.

The upper half of the Costa Grande is what I know well, and wish to concentrate on so you will understand Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo are just a couple of the many options available to you. And, whether you just want a day trip, overnight, or to stay a month, neither the extreme southern end at Puerto Vicente Guerrero or the northern end at the Ranch is over an hour and a half from the airport at Zihuatanejo.

A. South of Zihuatanejo - These following southern areas, from Petatlan down to Puerto Vicente Guerrero, have very little tourism influence, with agriculture being the main industry. Being the southern section of the coastal plain is wider than the northern section of the Costa Grande, the main crop is coconuts. There are millions of trees here, with many of the trees 60 to 80 years old. The coconuts are mostly cut in half, left in the open to dry, and then dug out of the shell. The dried coco meat is called copra. It is sacked and hauled off to the factory to squeeze out the oil. A second crop, and probably yielding a higher return than the cocos, is the different varieties of mangos. Papaya can also be seen grown in various locations on this portion of the Costa Grande, as well as bananas. Plus, you will see a lot of the brahma strain cattle used for beef locally.

The second best employment industry in the area is fishing, with most of the catch being taken further south to Acapulco. The pickup trucks wait for the night fishermen to return from fishing early in the morning, load the night’s catch, ice it down, and head off. They prefer Acapulco, even though it is about an hour’s drive further than Zihuatanejo, because of a larger market and better prices.

Other industries which can be seen on highway 200 as you drive down the coast, and near Papanoa, are small open air clay and roofing tile “factories” and sawmills. The sawmills use the pine logs cut up high in the sierras, and are hauled down to the mills.

For those who also like to surf, the beaches south of Zihuatanejo are not reliable nor very well known for their wave breaks. Other than an occasional decent break at Calvario, this section of the coast has mostly a shore break, which can be real nasty at times. I have been in a panga fishing for roosters and took photos of the shore break, with the resulting rebound of spray going as high as the top of the 40 foot palm trees lining the beach.
Puerto Vicente Guerrero
1) Puerto Vicente Guerrero and Papanoa - Starting in the south, at Puerto Vicente Guerrero, is my favorite place to fish. Here is where I have a couple of pangas with shade covers and 4 stoke engines and take my fly fishing and spin fishing clients to experience a true fishing village and fish in relative virgin waters.  http://ed-kunze.blogspot.mx/2012/03/puerto-vicente-guerrero.html
Other options for fishing out of the small port there are through John Lorenz at Bahia Tortuga fishing lodge http://www.escapeixtapa.com/ and the bread and breakfast Casa Las Brisas http://www.casabrisasdelmar.com/

For hotels, reservations are not usually necessary. This is not a well-known tourist destination, yet the hotels there are clean, and economical. A nice air-conditioned room at the Montserrat will run about $70 a night. It is right on the beach in a small cove, with great beach fishing from the shore.
Mark fishing at La Barrita

2) La Barrita - Up the coast a bit, and about an hour from the airport, is the small beachside community of La Barrita. There are no sport fishing boats in La Barrita, but the fishing just beyond the breakers can be fantastic. Boats from Zihuatanejo will sometimes go down there when closer areas are not producing. And, the shore fishing is excellent. The main fish taken are roosters, jack crevalle, sierras and even pargo.

Even though there is a very small river, with a sandbar which builds up in the dry season about 1/4 of a mile from La barrita, and is probably the reason for the name, I also like Mark Denison's explanation  Mark, who lives in La Barrita part time and manages a bed and breakfast (Casa Rayo de Sol http://labarritavacations.com/) for fishermen told me:  "The reef acts like a barrier out front, protecting the area from rogue waves and storms . Normally the waves break on the shoreline but when the waves are large. they break on the reef before they hit the shoreline. The locals often snorkel the reef 300 meters out or so, and seem to do quite well on a regular basis. I have purchased my dinner from them quite often”.

For a day trip, there are lots of palapa restaurants lining the beach. Sit down and have a cool one while waiting for the bite to turn on, and later enjoy a great lunch. And, as all palapa beach side restaurants, they will cook up your fresh caught fish for you.

3) El Calvario - Halfway between La Barrita and Puerto Vicente Guerrero the road goes alongside a steep mountain, with the water about 50 feet below. There are several locations where the road is wide enough for several cliffside restaurants and parking. This area is called Calvario. It is a great place to stop and stretch the legs, take some photos of some incredible beach scenery, and even get a fresh sea food lunch. Due to the surf and the cliffs, I do not recommend shore fishing here, but it has some of the best scenery on the entire Costa Grande.

4) Barra Valentin - Heading back up the coast towards Zihuatanejo, the turn off to Barra Valentin (pronounced Bal-en-teen) is at the bridge over the river in Petatlan. The road has been recently improved and is 10 kilometers (6 miles) to the where the river forms a huge estuary. The area is beautiful, with a couple of beach side restaurants, and fairly decent shore fishing. Here is where I was early one morning talking to one of the local fishermen. He had a large snook (robalo) he had taken off the beach in the predawn hours. He explained to me he used a homemade lead head jig, which he tied on the stiff white hair he cut from the mane of a horse. His line was wrapped around a circular wooden spool. He would then cast the jig by hand, often hitting distances of almost 100 yards.  After the jig hit the water, he would hand over hand the line like a man possessed, until the jig was back in. This is not recommended for the inexperienced… A ten foot spin rod outfit, rated for a 3 ounce lure, is a lot better for you in this situation.
Rental boats at Valentin
Valentin is a day trip only; however it is a great experience. And, on the way back from Valentin, stop in the Centro of Petatlan. There is a series of small shops, in front of the church, which specialize in gold jewelry. Their prices are reasonable. Plus, the church is interesting. Built by the Jesuit priests of the conquistador period, the church is at least 250 years old
5) Barra Potosi - The next area, and only about 20 minutes from the airport, is Barra Potosi. Tucked neatly back into the corner of a major point, the Barra is protected from high surf. The Barra is named for the sand bar which forms by the wave action during the dry season. When the rains come again, the bar is blown out, leaving the estero (estuary) open to the ocean. However, even in the dry season, there is still water coming into the estero from the river and streams, which outlets to the ocean by filtering through the sand bar. Fresh water is high in nutrients and chlorophyll, which starts the food chain, and on up to the game fish. 
Don Wolcutt at Barra Potosi

The palapa restaurants are great to just sit back and have a cold one while waiting for some action to develop, or to just get out of the sun and relax. The Barra is the place I go to when the family want to go to the beach. The fishing is great for me, and they enjoy the mild ocean conditions for swimming. At a palapoa restaurant, a full afternoon here, including a meal of fish tacos (pescadillas), quesadillas, guacamole, beans and rice, and drinks is about $30 for 4 people.

The lagoon at Barra Potosi is very large, as you have probably noticed from your plane when approaching the landing strip at the Zihuatanejo airport. There are a multitude of species of bird life and reptiles. These can be viewed through one of the ecological tours popular in the area.

6) Interesting locations – After leaving Petatlan and heading south towards La Barrita and Papanoa, there are a couple of interesting small towns on highway 200 you will be going through.

About 15 minutes south of Petatlan is Juluchuca. This small town derives almost all of its economy based on utilizing one of the abundant resources in the area. This is common in Mexico for isolated small towns. For instance, due to the type and quality of the wood, the small town of Paracho in Michoacán specializes in the making of guitars. Other towns make molcajetes (pedestal and mortars) out of the type of volcanic rocks found near them. Yet, others make pine wood furniture, onyx bowls, etc. In almost all instances it is a complete community effort, with the knowledge and experience passed on from father to son.

Juluchuca uses the abundance of coconuts on this coast and makes the coconut candy you are so fond of when buying from the vendors in Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. And, they have stands set up along the highway so you can buy the candy. At 35 pesos (a little less than $3) for a large jar, the price is very reasonable.
Making salt the old fashioned way
Just a few minutes south of Juluchuca another small town called Salinas is next to a lagoon fed by wave action from the ocean. During the dry season and bar forms across the mouth, and the lagoon dries up. The people of Salinas use this natural resource to make salt (hence the name). They make the salt in drying beds the way it has been made for thousands of years. They have a 3 to 4 month window to make the salt, and then the rains start again. It is a tremendous amount of work for a few short months, but then they can spend the rest of the year selling their product. The salt is very inexpensive. I have had people who like to cook with me, and were floored when they bought a 4 pound bag for less than a dollar.

1-6) Transportation – (a) Transportation to and from the Costa Grande locations to the south of Zihuatanejo are best done by a rental car. However, if you do rent a car, please do not drive at night. This has nothing to do with banditos or similar problems (because that will not happen), but rather cattle, burros and horses on the road, stalled vehicles when you are coming around a blind corner (which is bad enough in the daytime), and slow farm vehicles with no lights.

(b) But, a rental is not your only option. If you feel somewhat adventurous, use the local transportation. The local transportation, with the larger white micro busses and smaller Dodge van combis, are very inexpensive, reliable, and used by the locals all up and down the coast.
From Zihuatanejo to Petatlan you would first take a taxi to the DHL office in Zihuatanejo, which is basically across the street from the Immigration office. Every 10 minutes or so a large white micro bus passes in front of the DHL, with the driver’s helper hanging out the door and yelling “Peta..Peta”. Just raise your arm and the bus will stop. It is about a 50 minute ride to Petatlan, for about 25 pesos per person. The driver’s helper will collect the fare, after he asks you your destination.

If you are going to Barra Potosi, you tell him you want off at Achotes. The bus will pull over to let you off just past the speed bump. The fare is about 12 pesos to Achotes. When you get off the micro, walk on down about 200 feet to where the pickups with covers on them on waiting on the left hand side of the road heading to the Barra. The fare to the Barra is about 10 pesos, and the truck, with wooden bench seats, will leave once about 6 or 7 people are ready to go (they won’t leave with only one or two riders). The pickup (pasajero – pronounced pas-a-hair-o), named for the Spanish word for passengers, will take you all the way to the Barra restaurants, or will even drop you off at the Potsi Refuge if you desire.

From Petatlan on down to La Barrita and Papanoa, you will flag down one of the combis which has “Papanoa” written in large white letters on the windshield. Just get off the combi (pronounced comb-bee) at La Barrita and you are there. But, to continue on down to Puerto Vicente Guerrero, stay on the combi to Papanoa. The final destination will be near the taxi stand and the pasajeros. Take one of them to either the port, or one of the hotels. You can also make arrangements for them to return for you to go fishing, take you on a tour, etc. The total time from Zihuatanejo to Puerto Vicente Guerrero, using the local transportation, will be just a little over 2 hours, for a total expense of less than $10 a person.

(c) Another option is to go to the Central Bus Station in Zihuatanejo. It is possible you can get a ride on a nice air-conditioned bus direct to Papanoa, for just a few dollars more. However, it may be more than just a couple of hours wait before the bus departs. And, once you have gone down there by bus, how do you reschedule a return trip? With the local transportation, you just raise your arm.

B) North of Ixtapa / Zihuatanejo - Skipping over Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa and heading north, we are leaving the southern portion of the Costa Grande, where there is very little tourism influence, and heading north. Here in the northern section the influence and main industry is tourism. There is less of a coastal plain north of Ixtapa and less agriculture.

Basically, it is almost like there are two different sides to Mexico. Yes, agriculture does exist for coconuts, mangos, and papayas, as well as commercial fishing, but on a much smaller scale. But, by counting only half the room, house, and hotel rentals along the 3 mile stretch of beach for Troncones, it is still more than double the number of rentals available from Barra Potosi to Puerto Vicente Guerrero.

However, the beaches are beautiful, and life is still in the typical Mexican “slowed down” mode. There are some great places to stay here on this section of coast.

For those who also like to surf, again it is almost like two different sides to Mexico. Starting at the break inside Zihuatanejo Bay at Las Gatas, which only goes off a few times a year, and heading north, there are some incredible world class destinations.

6) Playa Linda – The first interesting location is Playa Linda, located at the end of Ixtapa’s Hotel Zone II. It is about a 15 minute drive from Ixtapa proper to the beach at Playa Linda, with only three hotels in Hotel Zone II. The hotels are Club Med, Azul, and Qualton.

I mention Playa Linda for a couple of reasons. The first is because it has a small pier and rock jetty which the panga taxis use to take day tourists out to Ixtapa Island. This jetty attracts bait and the early morning shore fishing can be fantastic for jack crevalle, sierras, and black skipjack tuna. You will know when the bait is in, because there will be hundreds of birds, and lots of the local fishermen trying to get dinner with their hand lines.

The second reason is the pier is a great alternative to pick up your boat from Zihuatanejo to go fishing for a day. If you are staying in Troncones or points north, or in one of the three hotels in the hotel Zone II, it will be easier and faster for you to have the Zihuatanejo boat meet you at the Playa Linda pier, and debark from there. For people in the hotels, the taxi fare to Zihuatanejo is high. For the Azul and Qualton people, it is an easy 5 minute walk. For the Club Med people, it is a $5.00 taxi ride, which only takes about 3 minutes.

Just remember, if the best fishing is south, or straight out of Zihuatanejo Bay, your best bet will still be to go to the Municipal Pier in Zihuatanejo.

Another thing about Playa Linda (for the really adventurous) is there is a very nice modern RV park down near the end of the road. I believe it would be an incredible adventure just driving a large RV around some of these towns and roads here in Mexico.

7) Buena Vista – Halfway between Pantla and Troncones is another small community called Buena Vista. It is not much more than a spot on the highway with a couple of speed bumps. But, about two miles in on a dirt road and there is a beautiful stretch of secluded beach. There are probably less than 20 houses in the whole area, yet there are over 2 miles of beach. Some of the rental houses are very high end, and another is owned by the famous, but eccentric, British artist Damien Hirst.

However, there are a few homes which are moderately priced rentals. A rental car is a must, being there is no other transportation. 

8) Troncones - The next stop is the small community of Troncones, stretched out along the coast for a total length of about 2.5 miles. I like Troncones, with its rocky points, sand beaches, and tide pools. It can be OK for surf fishing, but is usually best for just long walks, shell collecting, and exploring tide pools. A trick to help you explore better is to bring along a pair of hard diver’s booties for walking on the sharp rocks and in the tide pools. I also use these when snorkeling in shallow water, instead of cumbersome fins.
Horseback rentals are also available in Troncones

Basically, and more than a few people may get upset with me over this, but I see Troncones as a gringo destination, made by gringos, to lure gringo tourists. But, the system works. Many a person vacations there every year, and has great recommendations about their vacation. And, a lot of people use Troncones as a “base of operations”, where they go to different surfing locations during the day, and are back in the afternoon. Others use Troncones to branch out a bit further and either drive up or down the Costa Grande, and even into the neighboring state of Michoacán. Others just kick back and read a book on the beach.

Troncones does have enough of a population to warrant combis on a regular basis and taxis.

9) Majahua – At the northerly end of the Troncones coast road, and just beyond Manzanillo Bay, is the small fishing village of Majahua (pronounced ma-how-wa). There are no hotels or room rentals. They are all stretched out along the beach of Troncones. But, there is a small commercial and sport fishing fleet, and a couple of palapa restaurants.

Using open pangas, the two best known sport fishermen are Ramon and Samba. Both are as hard headed as the rocks they must maneuver around, with you in the boat, to launch from the beach to the open ocean, but they know what they are doing. Fortunately the waves in the protected cove are small, and you will soon be trolling for inshore game fish like jack crevalle, dorado, sierras, roosterfish, black skipjack tuna, and even pargo.

I fish with Ramon, as he was receptive to my style of fishing with a hookless teaser to bring the game fish close enough to the boat for the fly fisher. Samba just told me “You will catch more fish if you put a hook on the lure”. Which I had to laugh about..so true. Neither one has quality gear, but both have a great knowledge of fishing the area, and both are very reasonable for their 5 hour charter price. It would be best if you had a decent spin outfit, and a selection of inshore lures with you when you use them. Trolling a 4" log deep diving Rapala is the best all around bait for here.
Plus, it is here a lot of surfers use the local pangas to take them up to the Ranch or Saladita and drop them off just on the back side of the waves. The panga waits out in the safe zone, and when the onshore breeze blows out the good wave sets, the surfers take the panga back. And, what does the panga captain do while he is waiting for his clients? He catches his dinner for that evening.

10) Saladita -  North of Majahua, with the entrance off highway 200 through the small town of Logunillas, is the Playa Salidita. A world class surfing destination, with a left break, there is little sport fishing here and pangas are not generally available for charter. Because of the reefs, and the reason it is a great surfing destination, pangas from Zihuatanejo do not like fishing here. This is why Ramon, a few miles south in Majahua, is great to fish with. He knows the area well.
The beach at Saladita (Google Earth photo)
There are few private homes renting rooms in Saladita, but most of the rentals are to the surfing community, with their high season (higher surf conditions) being from May through August.

11) The Ranch – The Ranch is a remote location just 16 miles south of Petatalco, which is the terminus of the Costa Grande. Even though the generators in the dam across the Rio Balsas above Lazaro Cardenas make the majority of the electricity, Petatalco has a diesel powered plant which also contributes to the making of electricity for the state of Guerrero and also Michoacán.
The Ranch is a good day trip, because of the surfing and shore fishing possibilities. It is a world renowned surfing location.

The Ranch is kind of difficult to get to by vehicle, but only because of the turnoff from Highway 200 and the 3 miles of dirt road to get to the beach. The road is in decent condition, but it can be a bit confusing for the first time. 
Javier's restaurant (Google Earth photo)
If you go there, stop in at the palapa restaurant on the beach and say hi to Javier Mesa. Javier lived for several years in the States and speaks flawless English. He is a great guy to talk to about the area. He also has some rentals for surfers and for people who like the remoteness.

12) Las PeñItasLas Peñitas is halfway between the Ranch and Petatalco. It has a charmng lagoon and wide open sand beach, with scattered rock outcroppings. The turnoff from Highway 200 is almost 5 miles past the the new highway going to Morelia, on the new freeway to Lazaro Cardenes. The turn off is just after you cross the iron bridge, and then it is less than a half mile to the beach.  
Las Peñitas (Google Earth photo)

There can be great shore fishing here, and have one of the local palapa restaurants cook it for you. It is a day trip only, but a great place to visit. Weekends should be avoided however, as it is close to the population center of Lazaro Cardenas, and can get crowded.

For some helpful hints for shore fishing on the Costa Grande see http://shorefishingixtapa.blogspot.mx/ and http://spinoptions.blogspot.mx/2012/03/spin-fishing-options.html

For some ideas on places to stay: http://edkunze2.blogspot.mx/ 

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