The city of Zihuatanejo, Mexico sprawls serenely round a fishing bay on the Pacific Coast, about 240 kms northwest of Acapulco. Atop the cliffs, amongst the usual array of villas and condominiums, we spy several enormous Grecian columns supporting what seems to be a massive dwelling. The locals tell us this was built in the early 1980s by the chief of police at the time, Arturo Durazo, a corrupt and violent man, involved heavily in racketeering and arms dealing. He was known as El Negro or The Black One, and he lasted until the new President, intent on moral reform, had him arrested and sent to prison.
After just eight years, he was released due to good behaviour and failing health. His last years were spent helping recovering alcoholics in Acapulco, before succumbing to cancer in 2000. We remark on this bizarre last chapter of philanthropy and the local fishermen shrug and smile. Perhaps, feeling himself close to death, he tried, with good works, to secure a seat in Heaven. One wonders what his deity would have thought about the hubris of naming his ill-gotten mansion The Parthenon.
A taxi takes us up the winding roads to where we park at the bottom of a hill. Our driver, Carlos, offers to come with us as guide, and interpreter. The steep driveway is covered now in bramble-choked ruts, and we make our way up to be greeted by a massive iron gate, easily fifty feet high. An elderly groundskeeper appears and through Carlos agrees to let us in for 50 pesos each, but only if we hurry, as army trucks have been seen making the rounds nearby. We are led through a thick iron door at the side, and after a quick nod, he disappears, leaving us to wander along pathways over-seen by life-size Greco-Roman statues, erect but crumbling. Carlos points out an enclosure on our right which once housed tigers. There is a disquieting stillness and Nature is busily boiling over the stone paving and once manicured lawns.
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The front of the house is wide open to the air and we can see straight through the massive Doric columns and marble floors of the main room, and beyond to an astonishing view of the cliffs and waters of the surrounding bay. On either side of the foyer are three more statues recessed into marble. Everything that can be sold or stolen has long been taken, leaving nothing but the frescos, and a green/grey marble table a foot thick and 30 more long. A balcony runs along one side and it is up some side steps we find the bedrooms, full of mirrors on walls and ceilings, most of them miraculously intact. Bat guano speckles the floors and the large cones of termite dwellings are on every ceiling.
Outside we descend steep, wide stone steps to what was once a giant pool, now a rectangle of cracked mosaic with several feet of brown sludge and rain water. We gaze at headless stone statues, and others without arms, their missing limbs often at their feet, half covered in ivy and grass. Carlos offers to take us on a tour of the basement, where there is a tunnel leading out to the sea for quick getaways, but we have seen enough.
Despite the enormous scale and startling view, there is a befuddled vibe to this place, born perhaps from excess and violence, gradually being replaced by the relentless reclamation of Nature, indifferent to what went before, intent only on shaping this space to suit. We slip away quietly and leave Her to it.
On our way down to our car, a boy comes up the slope at a run, speaking rapidly in Spanish. Carlos grins at us and translates. He is the groundskeeper’s grandson, here to warn us that the army trucks have been seen and will be here in ten minutes. We are in the taxi and gone in five.
Samantha Bennett is a writer currently living in Montreal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org where she cheerfully encourages discussion and debate.