The sea snake was as long as my arm, and about as thick, its head buried deep into the sand. With a flat, paddle-shaped tail and broad orange stripes, the sinuous beast would have been beguiling, beautiful even, were it not for the fact it was writhing no more than an inch from my corpse-white foot. I hadn’t planned on getting so close. Despite the fact that the vast majority of their species are elusive, that doesn’t stop them packing some of the deadliest venom on Earth.
So, here I was in Acapulco, said to be among the most dangerous cities on Earth. And this chance encounter with a sea snake, in the glittering shallows of Revolcadero beach, was the nearest I came to peril. As our American cousins might say, go figure.
Of course, sea snakes were the last thing on my mind: the sky so brilliant a blue that it made the foaming sea seem dull. As the tea-warm water fizzed around a gut well past its prime, I thought about sharks. And rip currents. And lunch. And rips dragging me out beyond the waves, where I’d make a substantial lunch myself for any passing shark. These, though, were minor niggles, more self-indulgent tropical frisson than all-engulfing fear.
And today that fearsome undertow was nowhere to be found, or the whip of the rip current. As I splashed and gambolled in the pounding waves, I gazed back at the lushly carpeted mountains; the expensive villas, tumbling down the hills. And the squadrons of pelicans, skimming the waves with their elegant, lazy glide.
It was every bit as laid-back, and languorous and limpid as I had dared hope; paradise without the piety, sun-kissed and gleamingly golden. Acapulco was once the definition of pure, unfettered glamour, in a time when glamour was something real and dazzling, rather than mere cynically constructed facade. It was a place where old Hollywood came to sip, dip and flirt. Far removed from the pounding fists of irate moguls, out of reach of the all-powerful studios, it offered balmy, Latin-accented escape. John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Weissmuller and Liz ’n’ Dick… they all loved the place, the historically crucial colonial port that blossomed into a honeyed, moneyed Promised Land; a come-hither wink made concrete and gloriously real.
And it didn’t just attract those silver-screen titans but the entire beau monde and jet set, with their Pucci rags, private planes and mid-Atlantic drawls. Mexicans, too, adored the city. “It was the place where all Mexico came to party. They still do,” says Antonio Palazuelos, a local lawyer with a sense of humour drier than a Mae West martini. “The whole country has a connection with Acapulco: the first place they fucked, or got really drunk. It’s a very special city.”
I’d arrived late the night before, and although I could hear the crash of waves from my room, the beach was shrouded in black. The next day, I had woken early in a discombobulating transatlantic fug, and thrown open the curtains. And there it was, the Pacific, breaking onto a long white beach that seemed to stretch on forever. Fishermen dug in the sand for bait, and cast lines into the thrashing surf. But aside from them, it was empty. Within four minutes, I was downstairs and knee-deep in ocean.
Dodging breakers, and gazing up at the languidly tropical vista, it was impossible to imagine Acapulco being recognised as the second most-violent city on Earth, as it was as recently as 2012. This was according to a survey by the Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice. OK, said survey only takes in the Americas. There’s no Asia and, crucially, no Middle East. Still, Acapulco comes 17 places up the list from Juárez, the border city that is the blood-splattered face of Mexico’s narco wars. The city’s murder rate of 142 killings per 100,000 residents per year is a staggering 27 times the US average. This city of 850,000 people saw more than 1,000 murders in 2012, half as many as in Mexico City, which has 10 times more people.
The bodies of two men shot dead next to the Caleta beach in 2011
Now, I’m no gung-ho, Spam-brained peril junkie, getting my kicks from holidays in war-ravaged hellholes. I have no interest in poking my soft white nose into urban deprivation and unimaginable squalor. Just so I can post a picture on Instagram and crow about my macho bravado. But I’d always dreamed of Acapulco, ever since I’d seen yellowing photos of my parents, in the Sixties, sipping exotic cocktails at swim-up bars (a bar in a pool? My tiny mind was dazzled). Or parascending across the bay.
So, an invitation to speak at the inaugural Foro Mundial Gastronomía Mexicana, a celebration of traditional and regional Mexican food put together by the great culinary historian Gloria López Morales and much-loved chef Lalo Palazuelos, was not just accepted but embraced. The speakers included some of the country’s most respected cooks and writers: chef Enrique Olvera from Mexico City’s famed Pujole restaurant; Susanna Palazuelos (mother of Lalo and sister to Antonio – the Palazuelos are the best-known family in town), legendary party-planner and author of Mexico: The Beautiful Cookbook, one of the great works on regional Mexican food; Patricia Quintana, chef and author of another bona-fide classic, The Taste of Mexico; Mark Miller, chilli guru and the man behind Santa Fé’s much-lauded Coyote Café. And, um, me.
I wouldn’t just get to see Acapulco, I’d be dropped right into its belly. But friends and well-travelled folk who usually refuse to pander to media-fed hysteria thought me mad. “You’ll be killed in search of some taco,” said one with a shudder. Another said the running battles between narcos and cops were a daily occurrence. “It’s like that scene in Heat, you know, when the gun battle breaks out on the street.” But when it comes to Mexico, I’d heard it all before.
Because there’s no land on Earth that suffers from such a wretched and undeserved reputation: Europeans and Americans alike see it as more war zone than great nation. Last time I went to Mexico City, a throbbing, thrilling, mesmerising sprawl of a capital, I’d been warned of murderous taxis and “express” kidnappings and streets paved with hot lead and cold, dead flesh. Yet I didn’t come across so much as a cross word. That’s not to say I wasn’t careful, or vigilant, or mainly sensible. I certainly wasn’t wandering around the less salubrious areas at night wearing a diamond-studded Rolex (well, if I had a diamond-studded Rolex, which even if I were as rich as Mexico’s Carlos Slim, until recently the world’s richest bloke, is something that would fail to pique my fancy) with a wad of $100 bills fanning out of my back pocket. But then I wouldn’t do that in London or Rome or New York, either.
Anyway, I crave Mexico, adore and worship the place. I’ve been a dozen times, on coasts both Pacific and Caribbean, and cities in between, on holiday and for work. And remain intoxicated by its people and obsessed by its food, one of the world’s truly great cuisines. I love it more than any country, save England. The kindness with which I’ve been treated is astonishing, their generosity endless. These are a people as fed up by their hackneyed public image as they are with the endemic corruption that pollutes every strata of society.
One sniff of real Mexico – masa harina corn flour and sizzling meat, diesel fumes and fag smoke – and all is well in the world. Once Mexico has seduced you, your heart belongs to her. Forever. “Mexico,” wrote DH Lawrence, “has a faint, physical scent of her own, as each human being has. And this is a curious, inexplicable scent, in which there are resin and perspiration and sun-burned earth and urine among other things.” He was besotted with the place. So am I.
OK, Mexico has its problems. Big, machine gun-toting, bastard ones. Take the corruption, for a start. No one is immune, at any level. In fact, the higher you go, in government, or the army, or big business, the more entrenched and calcified it becomes. The rarity is finding people in positions of power or authority not in the narcos’ pay. The police, both federal and municipal, is rotten to the core, a hindrance rather than help, underpaid and very easily swayed. The narcos don’t just traffic in drugs. But fear. Murders are rarely straightforward (is there such a thing as straightforward murder?), but grotesque and deliberately depraved. Sow fear, frighten the people into terrified acquiescence. Heads are hewn from bodies, cocks and balls ripped off and stuffed into mouths, mass graves commonplace, along with mass murder. Skin is peeled off faces, while the victim is still alive. Desollados, they call it. Fear is their weapon. Keep quiet, and look away. Life will be easier then.
When one narco boss is killed or removed, another more dangerous or power-crazed takes his place. This is why crime exploded in Acapulco a few years back. Narco lord Arturo Beltrán Leyva, boss of the Beltrán Leyva cartel, was killed in 2009 by Mexican security forces. After a 90-minute shoot-out involving 200 Mexican marines (one of the few uncorrupted law enforcement units), with tanks and helicopters, he was finally killed. His death created a space. And we all know how nature abhors a vacuum.
Cartel chief Arturo Beltrán Leyva was killed in a two-hour gun fight in 2009
Mexico, though, has become a lazy journalistic cipher for drugs and terror and danger. Just as its food is jeered at and reviled in most of the UK and Europe, simply because no one has had a whiff of the real thing. It’s not helped that the average British experience of “Mexican” food is confined to a couple of hellish hours spent in some Tex-Mex shithole, with their frozen margaritas, comedy dishes (“Ring of Fire” chilli, etc) and grease-soaked stodge. “Mexican food? Doritos, innit. And chilli con carne. And melted cheese.” One of the most varied and fascinating food cultures on Earth, and it boils down to melted cheese. And murder.
If only everyone could come out and perch on the wobbly plastic stools at the small taco stand, Taqueria El Taquito, at the end of a dusty Acapulco street. It’s one of thousands, but a Palazuelos family favourite. I’m with Anna Archdale, Antonio’s wife, a wonderful, gravel voiced ex-model who moved out to Mexico in the Eighties. Her English is cut-glass RP but her fluent Mexican is so regionally rough that even locals blink in shock. There is no better guide to Acapulco, or Mexico.
We eat barbacoa, lamb slow-cooked until it falls apart into soft, juice-drenched strands. And tacos al carbon, rare slices of steak draped in soft tortillas and doused with a variety of fresh salsas. Good salsa lies at the heart of real Mexican food, from the polite and well-behaved to the downright suicidal. As Federales cruise past in their mirrored aviators, packing M16s and pursed lips, we sip on rich red lamb broth, with a deep and resonant tang. The flavours zing and sing across the tongue; food so packed with flavour it struts across the palate and flings itself merrily down the throat. All for under a buck.
As we drive up towards the hills overlooking the bay, Anna tells me about the Eighties. “Jesus, this was the best city on Earth. Completely fucking bonkers. Beautiful and brilliant. Those days were pure heaven.” We pass Baby’O, the famed club only matched by Studio 54 for its scenes of diamond-clad decadence. “We’d stumble out at 10am and move onto the next party, before driving over to the lagoon to waterski and recover.” Now, the main strip running alongside the city’s major beach seems tired and hungover; the offers of cheap grog and lurid good times tacky in the mid-morning heat. The upmarket foreign crowd have gone. There are dilapidated buildings, boarded up, the parties and the hubbub of high-spending good times now but a faint and distant dream.
We drive still further up, into the hills, to the Chapel of Peace. Its huge, gleaming white cross looms over the city, and here, at the bay’s pinnacle, the view is grand. Acapulco might sit on one of the most pulchritudinous bays on Earth, but it’s not a pretty city. There are no great colonial buildings or wide, shady avenues like you find in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Anna is typically abrupt in her views. “It’s a pig, an absolute fucking mess of a city. There’s never been any urban planning. It’s just bloated.” We get back into the car and drive down. Ahead of us, a police truck switches on its blue lights. “Typical,” Anna says with a smile. “They want to jump the red lights.”
We cruise past the heavily guarded enclaves of the super-rich, with their guards and rolls and rolls of razor wire. There’s still money here, but it’s hidden away. It has to be. The old houses are still nestled in these hills, modernist masterpieces with 360º glass, so the owners can gulp in that view. Some look like UFOs, dropped from the heavens, more Bond lair than holiday home.
The Spaniards saw its worth the moment they clamped eyes upon it. Sheltered and secluded, with a naturally deep harbour, it quickly became a key port, where all the riches of the Orient came flooding in. The annual Manila-Acapulco galleon trade was of huge importance and in 1573, Acapulco was granted the Manila monopoly. This continued up to the 19th century with ships arriving full of exotic treasures. Which attracted the attentions of the great pirates, Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, who lusted after those galleons’ gilded contents. The Fort of San Diego was built to keep them out. It was partly successful. Destroyed in the 18th century by an earthquake, it was rebuilt and still stands firm. We wander the ramparts, sizzling in the fierce noon sun.
But international tourists were the new gold, and they’re long gone, scared off as much by the rumours of violence as the real thing. Few cruise ships stop here any more. “They said it was just too dangerous,” Anna says, cursing as she swerves to avoid a truck coming the wrong way down the road. “We used to catch the cruisers up to San Diego. Much more civilised than flying. But we hear news they’ll be back. Fingers crossed.” She turns to look me in the eye. “If we don’t get tourists, Acapulco is fucked.”
In the Eighties and Nineties, Anna ran a modelling agency. She was also the go-to person if you were in town making movies or music videos or anything else that needed the help of a clued-up, bilingual super-fixer. She knows everyone. She looked after Phil Collins while he was here making Buster (“lovely man, but the wife was a right old cow”), and was nearly in License to Kill, driving a speedboat. “I was tall and blonde. Problem was, I was bloody pregnant. Not very Bond,” she grins.
We drive north out of town, past the airport and along the coast. It’s been a few weeks since Acapulco, and much of Guerrero state, was hit by tropical storms Manuel and Ingrid. Then battered again by another storm, Raymond. It was the remote rural areas that were hardest hit, entire villages destroyed by landslides. One woman lost four daughters, aged from two to 10, ripped away from her by the raging torrents. Only one body was found.
“In Mexico, life is cheap,” Anna says. “But these storms were just awful.” With the ocean on our right, she swerves again, this time to avoid potholes that could swallow a lorry. “I have friends who lost everything when the waters rushed into their houses. They’re distraught, screwed. At least they’re still alive. Up in the hills, it was much, much worse.”
Beto Godoy, a beach restaurant 10 miles out of town, didn’t escape the storms either. Sand-floored and palm-thatched, it lost 50m of frontage, swallowed up by the river (once a trickling stream) that rages outside, feeding into the sea no more than 50m away. Now a sign sits submerged in the water and the place is almost empty. A parrot cackles in the background and children on horses cross the battered bridge outside.
“Many were affected by the storm. But as it wasn’t officially a hurricane,” Anna says, “the insurance won’t pay out.” She takes an angry bite of a panucho, a taco stuffed with dogfish. Hammocks are strung between posts and two prone bodies fill those nearest to us. The tables and chairs are a delicious spearmint green, and we swig beer, eating more fish tacos and prawn enchiladas, simple but fresh, and slathered with a fierce roasted chilli sauce.
The next day, I’m in the air-conditioned calm of Susanna Palazuelos’ vast Chevrolet SUV. She rides with a bodyguard. He is no goon, rather a charming, Dylan-loving, ex-army man. Susanna is slight, elegant and quietly regal; a lady who commands natural respect. She was the queen of Acapulco, still is, arranging magical parties and dinners for everyone from JFK (who honeymooned here) to the Queen.
“I made a zucchini flower soup,” she says of HRH, when she visited in 1983, “and quesadillas with pineapple and grilled lobster. She loved it! I didn’t want to do the same old stuff. I wanted to give her a taste of Acapulco.” Susanna was born here, when the city was a fraction of the size it is now. “It was the most beautiful place on Earth,” she says, echoing Anna’s words from yesterday as we sit in slow-moving traffic. “I was lucky enough to come back from school, throw off my shoes and live barefoot. I love it.”
She, too, talks about the recent storms. “The press say the Fairmont Pierre Marques Hotel was flooded and destroyed. But as you can see, that’s untrue [she’s right, I’m staying there]. Acapulco is a name that sells. No one’s interested in San Marco, where the real devastation took place. Saying Acapulco is of far more interest to the international press, as everyone knows it. It’s a byword for sun-kissed glamour. The city’s so well known and such a soft target.”
She sighs. “I’m president of the Mexican Red Cross down here, and we’re sending 40 tonnes of food to areas devastated by the storm.” That morning, a huge container filled with aid had arrived, donated by a Saudi Prince. “But this is Mexico. The boxes seemed strangely light,” she says. “When we opened them, everything had been stolen, save soap, loo roll and rice. How low can you go? The corruption is everywhere. But stealing aid, as it arrives in Mexico. It’s…” she pauses, her eyes flashing with rage “…just disgusting.”
We talk about how Acapulco could thrive once more. “It would help if we could get the direct flights from the US back. But they all go to Cancún now. A senior minster and officials allegedly had a share in the place at the time, so everything was directed there. Yes, there are problems here, but not as the world imagines.” She stares out over the city. “There was nothing here when I was young, just paradise. Now, the Mexicans are the main tourists. That’s great, but we want the Americans and Europeans back.”
We arrive at Coyuca Lagoon, separated from the raging ocean by a thin spit of sand, Pie de La Cuesta. You could almost mistake the calm, shallow, brackish waters for Southeast Asia. It looks just like rural Vietnam. Rambo: First Blood Part II was filmed here, and countless other films. We watch the Red Cross boxes being loaded into shallow boats, before they speed off, towards ruined communities in the hills; a vital lifeline. When the supplies are landed, the gathering crowds cheer. It’s a moving, sobering sight.
We eat lunch at Club de Ski at Tres Marías, a place where the Palazuelos grew up, learnt to waterski, spent many a long Sunday lunch. Franny, Anna and Antonio’s daughter, is there; she’s pretty, clever and funny. We eat huachinango a la talla, red snapper split, marinated in guajillo and pasilla chilli paste and roasted over coals. The flesh is white and spanking fresh, scented with smoke and spice and pure, unadulterated delight. Whole chicken is doused in adobo paste and similarly cooked. Simple but the very quintessence of good dining. This is the sort of food I’d happily die eating.
That’s true of pretty much every other thing I stuff in my gob during the week here. The stuffed rolls, relleno, filled with soft pork and apple, eaten breakfast at Relleno Vicky in the city’s central market. Or the seductively oozing quesadillas, a few stalls down, freshly made and stuffed with courgette flowers, green chilli sauce, cream and fresh cheese. The juice dribbles down one’s fingers, staining mouth and trousers a graceful green. The market smells of dried chillies, alien herbs, raw meat, damp and adobo paste, and we pass stalls selling religious elixirs, Chinese tat and herbal “marital aids”.
Later, we toe the well-trod tourist path to La Quebrada, watching the divers leap off a 125ft-high cliff, into a narrow gulch no more than 12ft deep. They have to wait for the right wave to roll in (having clambered to their precipitous perch and kissed a clifftop shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe) before diving. It’s mesmerising. After, they haul themselves to the viewing platform, grinning and soaking wet, to collects tips from the tourists.
Anna drives us a mile or so around the bay, and we sit drinking micheladas (spicy beer and lime cocktails) at Los Flamingos, the pink-hued hideaway once owned by John Wayne and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller. The sun sparkles off a serene sea and we sit in happy silence, worlds away from storms, guns and drugs. “You can see how the life out here can be so addictive,” Anna says. “Living the dream, cold beer, warm welcome, staff for your every whim.” For a moment, I want to stay here forever, to live the life of the Lotus-eater, dwelling in sybaritic bliss. Whales pass by here in the winter. Time grinds to a halt as we gaze into the never-ending blue.
That night, we climb on Lalo’s boat, and hurl ourselves off rocks jutting out over secluded inlets, drinking and eating and putting the world to rights as the city disappears, replaced by a mass of sparkling lights. We talk about the food conference, inspiring not just for the participants, but the city, too. And of the ladies who attended, from Sonora and Jalisco, Chihuahua and Chipas, clad in pristine white native garb, cooking up the dishes of their past, present and future. I’d eaten seafood tostadas, made by Sabina Bandera González, who travelled from her La Guerrerense stall in Ensenada to create piscine perfection. I’d sipped homemade mescal, fiercely smoky, and intricate, tar black mole sauces, each different to the next, and whole chicken, deboned and stuffed with rice and spices. They were so proud to be representing their regions, their heads held high. The keepers of Mexico’s historical past, food as cohesive force.
Of course, I stuttered and sweated through my speech at the conference, gabbling at a gallop. God knows how the translator kept up, but if they saw me as a demented loon, they were far too polite to let me know. But what an event it turned out to be – it’s exactly what the city needs. After it’s over, I sit, late and beer-fuddled, eating tacos al pastor and chicharrónes de queso, at Los Tarascos, a small, unassuming roadside taqueria. The night is warm, and in a corner, the boxing blares from a TV. At that moment, all is well in the world.
As Anna pours hot sauce onto her taco, she smiles. “This place has many faults. If it isn’t an earthquake, it’s a hurricane. Or scorpions, or snakes, or spiders, or narcos – but there’s so much good here, too, and beauty. We love it. Would never leave. Never." She shakes her head, and her husband and daughter nod, too.
Because Acapulco isn’t some whitewashed, scrubbed-cheek tourist theme park where nature is kept at bay and corporate dullness rules. It’s lusty and visceral and noisy, with its Hollywood pastels and bending palm trees and huge heart and generous soul. It has taken everything the Earth can throw at it and still emerges, if not always smiling, then at least unscathed.
But it needs us, the tourists, to have faith, to go back and revel in its ways. There’s no point denying Acapulco has problems but it’s equally ridiculous to write it off, too. It’s one hell of a town. So, man up. And take the plunge. A great, and grateful, Acapulco awaits.