Quiet beach community near Acapulco beckons to jaded travelers

``Look, it's a tiger-striped sky!'' A little American boy, whose ruddy skin almost matches the pink glow of the sand, points up. Great rays of reddish gold streak across the heavens, shooting up from the horizon like blades in a giant fan. Below surges a gilded, gaudy sea. The tourists who've come all the way from Acapulco to watch nature's sundown show are not disappointed.

Of course, there's no telling from evening to evening what the spectacle will be like. But the reputation of Acapulco's sunset beach - as this shore at the quiet village of Pie de la Cuesta is called - draws a steady trickle of tourists from the famous resort every day.

While waiting for sundown, visitors settle into string hammocks or wobbly chairs under shaggy palapas (thatched roofs) and sip cold drinks or munch fresh ceviche (raw fish salad, a sort of Mexican sushi). When the sun finally sets, they ooh and aah for 20 minutes, then pile into their vehicles and go - often missing the best of this natural paradise in their haste to get back to the high-rise glitter.

Indeed, there is much more to Pie de la Cuesta than sunsets. A little whitewashed cemetery drowses near the sea, full of faded angels and brittle wreaths. Clumps of bougainvillea, bursting with color, dangle over the crumbling walls. At night, the waves crash like rifle shots in a long, symphonic echo down the shoreline, and the moon seems to peer over the shoulders of crooked palm trees that lean into the road.

It is hard to believe this slumbering village lies just eight miles north of raucous, dazzling Acapulco.

Pie de la Cuesta (``foot of the hill'') rests at the feet of some beautiful powder-blue mountains distantly related to the Sierra Madre chain. The hamlet is wedged on a narrow strip of land between the turbulent Pacific Ocean and a mirrorlike lagoon. It is a jumble of palm-shaded huts, rustic restaurants, trailer parks, hand-me-down guesthouses, and small hotels where fugitives from fast-lane resorts are inclined to stay.

Weekenders like to escape the Acapulco rat race for a Sunday lunch at one of the village's palm-and-bamboo cafes. Any day of the week finds skiffs skimming over placid, exquisite Laguna Coyuca, which happens to have the best water-skiing in the Acapulco area. This sport is impossible on Pie de la Cuesta's stretch of wild, unswimmable ocean, where the Pacific here thunders up in pummeling waves that have sucked swimmers out to sea. The oceanside beach itself is broad and magnificent for beachcombing and sunbathing.

Like most Mexican pueblos, Pie de la Cuesta has changed very little in the last 10 years. It's still a one-road burg without a single telephone in town. The post office consists of two bins of mail inside a private home.

There are signs of progress, however. The newly opened hotel Ukae Kim, for starters, jumps out from the tumbledown landscape of the village like a misplaced tourist palace. This posh little villa-type hotel (whose name is Mayan for ``where the sun hides'') is far and away the most luxurious inn around here. Its charming tile-roofed buildings, attractive pool, palapa-roofed restaurant, and classy Mediterranean-style rooms with giant beds draped in gauzy mosquito nets make an alluring combination. The price for a stay at Ukae Kim ($40 and up double, no meals included) tops anything within a 10-mile radius. But this little hotel's seclusion draws guests from both the United States and Europe. No children are allowed.

Even more interesting, though not as radical, is the make-over of the 50-year-old Hotel Puesta del Sol (Sunset Hotel), the oldest hotel on the village beach. Eight years ago it was a fascinating but moldy hacienda, cracked and sagging, with an empty swimming pool, an old Volkswagen in a garden invaded by weeds, and an open caf'e whose floors were blotched white by flocks of pigeons. Several years ago, the decaying property was sold and gradually brought back to life. Now there are new tennis courts, a fine pool and patio, a spiffy caf'e-bar serving delicious meals, simple cabanas (bungalows) freshened by wider windows, and beautifully groomed grounds.

At the same time, the basic structure and magical touches of the estate - hand-painted tiles, old bullfight photos, and antiquated chain-pull showers - have all been left intact. To my tastes, this is the real Pie de la Cuesta, the place with a past and a soul. Although the rooms have just the bare-bones essentials - beds, fan, and a bath with shower - the villa's overall ambiance enhances any stay. Rooms go for about $15 (double occupancy), cabanas for about $20 (double occupancy). The cabanas are roomier, cooler, and near the sea; some even have refrigerators.

During the November-to-April high season, many people who can't find accommodations in Acapulco seek rooms in Pie de la Cuesta. The action dies down to a lovely lull during the summer and fall, but advance reservations are advisable at peak times of the year.

Staying in Pie de la Cuesta any time offers the advantages of a country retreat with easy access to the city, just half an hour and nickels away by public bus.

The only problem with public transportation is that buses to Pie de la Cuesta stop running around 11 p.m., and if you like night life, Acapulco is just waking up around that time. Serious discogoers may have to return by taxi, which can run about $10.

Lagoon trips constitute one of the village's big moneymakers, so there's fierce competition among the boatmen. Whenever a strange car rolls into the village, boatmen rush out, waving and shouting, ``Una lancha por la laguna?'' Boat trip, the lagoon? ``Barato, aqui!'' Cheap, right here! Eager for some business, they hover along the water's edge, waiting to bargain for a two- or four-hour cruise. Go for broke and take the longer trip ($15 to $20 per boat), which passes all three islands and ends at La Barra, a remote slip-of-a-pueblo where the freshwater lagoon merges with the salty Pacific.

Your covered skiff chugs away from the swimmers bobbing near the banks and into the open lagoon, some 10 kilometers of silk-blue sheen.

Rich in crabs, shrimp, and a type of catfish, Coyuca also nourishes an abundance of wild birds.

After about 45 minutes, you pass an uninhabited island called Isla Presidio, where, legend has it, an ancient Indian city lies buried in its overgrown center. You may want to stop for lunch at Isla Montosa.

A rickety pier leads to the rustic Restaurant Eno, which serves sopes (small thick tortillas spread with bean paste and sprinkled with cheese), fish dishes and tiny pink shrimp. From here, the skiff continues past small, uninhabited Isla Pajaros and ends near the channel that flows into the ocean.

Most people stop here in their explorations. But for the curious, there is a bumpy unpaved road that skirts the military base, following about 10 miles of raw, undeveloped shoreline and cow-filled meadows, ending at La Barra. A new Club Maeva - a family-style Mexican Club Med - is due to be built out here in the wilds, pushing the frontiers of Pie de la Cuesta a good bit farther north.

Rebecca Bruns is the author of ``Hidden Mexico: Adventurer's Guide to the Beaches and Coasts,'' published by Ulysses Press of Berkeley, Calif.

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