Acapulco was once the place to see and be seen on Mexico’s pacific coastline. Nestled in Guerrero state, it was the city immortalised on film by Elvis and in the popular consciousness as Mexico’s hottest holiday destination. Yet now, most foreign tourists are avoiding it all together, heading instead to rustic Puerto Vallarta, the celeb cocoon of Los Cabos or the cloistered luxury of Cancún. Why? Here’s everything you need to know about the rise and fall of Acapulco, Mexico’s forsaken paradise.
Acapulco de Juárez was named after the Nahuatl word Aca-pōl-co (meaning ‘where the reeds are destroyed/washed away’) and the former Mexican president Benito Juárez. Over the course of its history, it has been inhabited by Olmecs, Mayas, Nahuas, Coixas and Aztecs, before being ‘discovered’ by the Spaniards in around 1520. It quickly became an important port (and fort) city, especially with the onset of the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the 19th century. In the 1920s, Acapulco began to gain international recognition, helped by a visit from the Prince of Wales and the construction of a road linking it with Mexico City in the 1950s. And then the boom began.
Historians mark the Golden Age of Acapulco as being from the 40s to the 70s, when construction of Art Deco hotels and developments was in full flow and Hollywood names found their holiday home destination in the once-sleepy city of Acapulco. Famous stars queued up to visit, Elvis Presley filmed Fun in Acapulco, Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd and JFK honeymooned with Brigitte Bardot. During this time, the city expanded its limits, creeping into the surrounding hills and by the 80s and 90s, the development of luxury resorts in the Diamante region was underway.
As the city moved into the 21st century, both its national and international appeal grew and it remained a popular, if much changed, destination. The mid-20th century glitz began to transform into early-21st century frat boy hell, as Acapulco became the Spring Break destination of the moment. However, that all changed with the presidency of Felipe Calderón, the leader who famously declared a crackdown on the cartel activity that was to later ravage Acapulco’s reputation.
Around the middle of 2010, Acapulco turned into a hotbed of cartel in-fights, and was widely avoided by both national and international visitors to Mexico. This had worsened in 2009, as Arturo Beltran Leyva – the leader of one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels – was killed by police. It was then that the city entered its real decline, according to residents, as the cartel fragmented and random violence erupted thanks to existing members fighting for power. In 2010, there were supposedly 72 murders per month in Acapulco alone, and the violence began to adversely affect the tourist industry.
Whereas cartel violence in most other Mexican towns and cities tends to involve only those involved with the drug industry, the Acapulco of recent years has seen tourists getting caught in the literal and metaphorical crossfire – in 2011, three men were shot just outside the hotel zone, while others have been murdered in broad daylight on popular beaches and dismembered bodies have been found in both residential zones and popular tourist hotspots. Decapitations were not uncommon and 2013 saw the robbery and rape of 12 Spanish tourists. In 2012, Acapulco (the city with the highest homicide rate in Mexico) received the dubious accolade of Mexico’s most dangerous city and has done so every year since then. It seems the Fun in Acapulco really has come to an end.
So has all the unfettered gang violence left an indelible bloody mark on the reputation of the once iconic Acapulco? Can Mexico’s most dangerous city in Mexico’s most dangerous state ever recover from this blow to its popularity and safety?
Some residents remain concerned that the now almost-constant and heavy police presence right in the heart of the tourist zones will continue to prove an obstacle for the reparation of Acapulco’s once stellar reputation.
However, others are convinced that Acapulco can return to its paradisiacal best. With the recent success of Jersey Shore-like reality show Acapulco Shore and slashed hotel prices that entice cash-strapped holidaymakers into the area, it seems that this could merely be looked back on as a blip in the history of Acapulco in years to come.