It’s the grand arc of Acapulco Bay that always dazzles me. By day it’s a vast semicircle of water and sky. By night, geography joins architecture as the bay becomes an amphitheatre lit by millions of electrical lights, backed by hotels, condominiums and homes.
Acapulco is a place of contradiction and overflowing with secrets, scandals and crimes. This cup of the Pacific Ocean is glamorous yet squalid, beautiful yet ugly, safe yet dangerous and, because of these paradoxes, seduces me like nowhere else.
The seaport was settled over 3,000 years ago, although ancient petroglyphs in the area, created by Indian tribes, predate this. The word ‘Acapulco’ comes from the Nahuatl language and means ‘Place of Dense Reeds’. By the mid-1500s, the area had become an important trading port where merchandise from the Orient was exchanged for goods from Spain, Mexico and Peru. Pirates constantly attacked the bay and, to this day, if children behave badly they’re told El Drake (Sir Francis Drake) will steal them away on his pirate ship.
In 1610, Bernardo de Balbuena, a Spanish poet, wrote these verses about Acapulco:
In Acapulco Spain and China come together,
As do Italy and Japan and, in the end,
The whole world comes together in trade and manners.
The word is danceable: A-CA-PUL-CO. A-CA-PUL-CO. Many artists, including Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan and Agustín Lara, have written songs about the port.
I always want to go to Acapulco. It smells of my childhood: a mixture of coconut oil, tamarind, fried red snapper in garlic and Coppertone suncream. When I threatened to run away from home as a teenager, I was always headed to Acapulco.
I’ve experienced the city’s transformation from an exotic fishing village with visiting Hollywood actors to a place with grave overpopulation, lack of urban planning, and crime. Today the bay is divided into two sections: old and new Acapulco. I prefer Old Acapulco, even though it has been run down and abandoned for the past three decades.
In 2012, Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim — the world’s richest man — established The Consulting Board for the Restoration of Old Acapulco with a group of businessmen in order to bring this area of Acapulco back to its former splendour. It was here Hollywood stars Frank Sinatra, Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), John Wayne, and Bridgette Bardot used to stay. Even today, in Old Acapulco, the Flamingo Hotel is the best place for drinks at sunset and a perfect spot to enjoy the seaport’s great nightlife. Built on a cliff, the view overlooking the bay is stunning.
One of my earliest memories comes from Acapulco. On 22 November 1963, my family were at the beach on Roqueta Island, across the bay from Caleta Beach, where we had been hunting for sharks’ teeth in the beach sand. A fisherman ran down the dock toward my parents, shouting: “Asesinaron a su presidente, asesinaron a su president.” We took a boat and crossed the bay back to Acapulco and our white Peugeot, which had a radio. My brother and I sat in the backseat, sweating in the humidity, and keeping very quiet. We watched my father weep as he tried to adjust the knobs and hear the news about Kennedy without static. It was on that same trip my father, while snorkelling, found a gold crucifix shining in the sand under a stone.
On 5 April 1976, I was staying at the Princess Hotel when army helicopters circled above and soldiers in dozens of Jeeps parked at the hotel. Policemen took their places at the entrance door and did not let anyone enter or exit for hours. Above the ocean, on the penthouse floor, Howard Hughes had died. Some people later claimed he died in his aeroplane on route to the United States, but no one in Acapulco believes this story.
The port is the setting for my novel Prayers for the Stolen, which describes how Mexico’s violence has affected its women. For over 10 years I’ve recorded the stories of women who work as vendors on the beach, hotel cleaning staff, and as restaurant waitresses. One woman who sold tamarind and coconut candies in the market explained Acapulco’s dangerous magic: “You never know what can happen here, but we women know this: if you’re going to Acapulco, make sure there’s a wedding dress in your bag.”
Acapulco is gangster country and lover’s lane. It’s a place where I want to carry a lipstick and a gun and where I think I might start smoking again. In Acapulco I always wear my hat and sunscreen at night. In Acapulco the moon burns hotter than the sun.
Jennifer Clement is an award-winning US author who lives in Mexico City. She’s the author of the cult classic memoir Widow Basquiat (on the painter Jean Michel Basquiat) and three novels: Prayers for the Stolen, A True Story Based on Lies, which was a finalist in the Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Poison That Fascinates. jennifer-clement.com
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)