The Costa Chica region of Guerrero, Mexico

Apparently, I take the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings as vacation recommendations. But the Mexican state of Guerrero is much more than mass graves in hillsides, and I encounter more shady characters in 48-hours in my own Little Rock neighborhood than I did in a week in Guerrero. I’m not saying terrible things don’t happen there (and everywhere), just, hey, let’s keep some perspective.

PERSPECTIVE: Would you travel to Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland or Chicago? I have lived in three of those cities and frequent two others. In recent years, the French government has issued travel warnings against all of them.

So. Now we have that out of the way.

If you visit Guerrero, you’ll fly into Acapulco, which is, incidentally, the only city in the state that the U.S. government allows it’s personnel to visit. It’s also, arguably, the most dangerous city. In 2014 it had the highest homicide rate in Mexico. But that’s not why you’ll want to leave Acapulco as soon as possible –it’s simply not as amazing as the rest of the state.

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Acapulco beach

My friend Sonia, who works with the UN in indigenous education and lives in Chilpancingo (the capitol of Guerrero and #3 on the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice’s list of most violent cities in Mexico), met me at the airport. We spent an evening and morning at a fancy-ish hotel called the Crowne Plaza, with a series of complicated, interconnected pools and a swim-up bar.

The best part of Acapulco was an early morning swim. I liked the misty hills, the slate-gray water, the contrast between warm ocean and cold drizzle. (This is supposedly the rainy season. But in 10 days, that first morning drizzle was as rainy as it got). After breakfast, we hopped a collective taxi to Playa Ventura — roughly $5 and two hours, if you don’t mind doing part of the ride with four people in the backseat and two in the front passenger seat.

Playa Ventura is in Costa Chica, a region of largely undeveloped beachfront and home to many Afro-Mexicans. We stayed at Meson Casa de Piedra, run by a Czech woman and her Mexican husband, both of whom speak English and Spanish. It’s amazing and affordable (about $20-30 a night), with maybe a dozen rooms, all of them unique and many with private terraces.

The front desk doubles as a bar, and there are winding shell and stone paths, driftwood furniture, shell and stick mobiles, hammocks, Chinese lanterns, two friendly Great Danes, free mangos and a restaurant that serves up yummy chilaquiles. There’s no hot water, mosquito screens or consistent wifi, but it’s so peaceful, you probably won’t notice. (Ok, you may notice the mosquitos. I live in Arkansas, so for me, that just made things homey.)

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Mexican breakfast chilaquiles

The waves directly in front of the hotel are too dangerous for swimming – at least in the rainy season – but a short walk down the beach/climb over a great rock pile, the waves are more calm. And there’s a family owned, open-air beachfront restaurant there, where you can get fresh fish, homemade tortillas and sticky garlic rice. If you order raw coconuts (the nut with a straw), a guy shimmies up a tree and hacks them down.

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Shells and bits of coral are plentiful. I had quite the collection in our room, though I ended up having to choose a few from a few dozen, because bag space was tight. They were brilliantly pink and purple, except for one of my favorites — a golden teardrop with a surface that looked like cracked glass.

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Playa Ventura CFranco

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Okay, the requisite WARNING (Are we friends again, State Department?): Be careful on the rocks at high tide. I met a Mexican couple climbing, and we sat on one outcrop and tried to communicate, shouting our encouragement to the sea – “mas grande, mas grande” – basking in the spray. Then one wave slammed me into a rock and nearly washed him out to sea, and we scrambled down, bloody and lucky.

The day before, when he dropped us at the hotel, the bus driver told us about a saint’s festival in town (Copala, maybe?). So he picked us up and deposited us at the celebration, promising to return in a few hours.

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Copala Guerrero Afromexican CostaChica

Neither of us ever caught which saint we were celebrating, but past the skinny, hyper-made-up teenagers in flouncy dresses, the kids wrestling in trampolines and bouncy houses, the food vendors and the man with mylar balloons, there was a tiny chapel with people filing in and out, lighting candles.

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But the real attraction was the cumbia band and the middle-aged women wiggling their hips, shimmying on tent-supporting poles, grinding against each other. They were super sexy, more fluid and free than the teenagers, and they’d all mastered a particular party trick — dancing with a full beer on their heads. They were friendly, enticing Sonia and I to dance, their husbands plying us with tiny bottles of beer.

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By the time the sun set and our bus driver returned, we were buzzed from beer and adrenaline and didn’t want to leave. But he said we should go before the men got too drunk and started fighting.

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He was our ride. Reluctantly, we did.

We took our buzz to the beach and laid across the flat rocks in front of our hotel, looking for shooting stars sans light pollution. Stars, waves, fish, mango — basically, Playa Ventura is heaven.

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