The Washington Post
Thursday, October 11, 2001; Page C01

Acapulco's Faded Magic

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service

ACAPULCO -- Time has not changed the dives.

Acapulco's cliff divers still hurl themselves off a tiny ledge 105 feet above a narrow, churning channel of seawater just 12 feet deep. They still fly for more than three
seconds, breaking the water with clenched fists at speeds of more than 50 miles per hour.

But time has changed everything else.

From the late '40s through the '60s, Acapulco was the fountain of cool. It swung, it was hep, it was hip, it was ring-a-ding-ding. Sinatra was here, and Sammy Davis
Jr. and Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Brigitte Bardot, Sean Connery when he was licensed to kill, Tom Jones and his hips, Rocky Marciano and his fists, and don't forget
Sal Mineo. Apollo 7 astronaut Wally Schirra came when buzz-cut astronauts were as cool as a three-olive martini and people drank Tang.

They called it the Mexican Riviera, and it was as hot as Saint-Tropez and as cool as Havana before Castro. It was elegance: Hedy Lamarr married here and Lana
Turner lived here. It even had a certain gravitas: The Nixons spent their 25th anniversary here, the Kissingers honeymooned here (Henry got a lot of work done, too),
and no-nonsense Ike came to meet the Mexican president.

The glitterati came here, to the cliffs at La Quebrada, to see divers called Monkey and Fatso and the Doctor defy death for pennies. When Acapulco was hot enough
for Jack and Jackie's honeymoon, for one of Liz Taylor's weddings (to Mike Todd) and for Elvis to chase Ursula Andress around in a movie called "Fun in
Acapulco," the divers were every jet-setter's favorite souvenir photo.

But time has dulled Acapulco's allure, and it is now as cutting edge as the fried mozzarella at Planet Hollywood. It's still a vacation hot spot, but it's more Hard Rock
Cafe than hard Rock Hudson (who visited, too). It's tiki huts and sticky bar stools and funny-colored shooters along a gaudy strip where one club's marquee
proclaims "drunks wanted."

The Rat Pack gave way to fanny packs in what has become a package-deal destination for tourists grazing at all-you-can-shovel Mexican breakfast buffets. Tourists
used to be 85 percent foreign, now they are 85 percent Mexican. It's a great place to bring the kids, but don't expect to bump into Britney.

The old Acapulco has been gone since at least the late 1970s, when the city's name was best known for Acapulco Gold -- a popular type of marijuana, a cult film
about drug cultivation, a song and a cocktail.

The last vestiges of hip Acapulco linger at La Perla restaurant in the El Mirador hotel, which still has girls in wow-short skirts making the rounds with trays of
cigarettes. Here, in a room where diners get perfect views of the cliff divers, the visiting celebs used to autograph the walls. Then local craftsmen traced those
signatures with chisels, carving them into the wood-paneled walls forever.

One small and worn panel, at floor-level next to the bathrooms, bears the carved signatures of Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers and Charles
Laughton. The little curly "a" at the end of Sinatra is less than six inches from the bottom hinge on the ladies' room door.

"The place has a special magic," said Angel David Castrejon, a bulky 26-year-old diver, who seems overcome by nostalgia in the room -- at least until he starts
chatting about rap music and the Internet.

Castrejon, with his Oakland Raiders hat worn backward, is the new breed of Acapulco cliff diver -- warmed more by thoughts of J. Lo than Bardot. The old guys
worked on guts and beer, tough men with enormous chests and little waists who flew for the celebrities. Jorge Monico Ramirez was one of them. He's 48 now and
the barrel in his chest has fallen to his waistline. He has the punctured eardrums and the twisted, sprained shoulders and spine of a man who has made thousands of
dives. Diving took him to Japan, Italy, France and Australia, back when he was called "The Monkey" and ABC's "Wide World of Sports" couldn't get enough of the
divers. Those days are frozen in a picture hanging on the wall of La Perla, showing Monico, young and ferociously strong, arm-in-arm with world-famous soccer
hotshot Pele.

"They were heroes for me," said Monico's 29-year-old son, Jorge, who now dives, too. "Each generation has something good to offer. They were the best in their
moment, and now we are the best in ours."

He and Castrejon and the other young divers have no celebrities to schmooze, and they see themselves more as elite athletes than tourist attractions. Castrejon said
he avoids red meat, maintains a low-fat diet and trains six hours a day. He swims, runs, lifts weights and practices acrobatics on a trampoline. He works on his form
from the high-dive platform in a local swimming pool, and he makes regular dives from the La Quebrada cliff. He and his coach carefully review videotapes of his

"In the old days it was completely different," he said. "All the training we do didn't exist." He said training reduces the inevitable injuries: Over the years divers have
damaged eyes, ears, spines, heads and hands from hitting the water at great speeds, or from hitting the side of the cliff. If they don't time the incoming waves just
right, they can also hit the rocks on the bottom.

Castrejon supplements his $5-a-day diving salary, paid by the diver's union that also offers its members health and retirement benefits, with commercials. He filmed a
spot for Johnnie Walker whiskey last year, and he has also done ads for Gatorade and Pepsi. But he said nobody gets rich diving, and it's the rush of performance
that keeps him climbing up the cliff wall and diving off, night after night.

"I love to feel the adrenaline," he said. "You always feel scared, because if you don't feel that, you can get hurt. But it's nice when you're up there. You see all the
people. You're like a star."

The fans still love the show, which remains the biggest tourist attraction in one of Mexico's most popular tourist cities. But they are different fans in a different
Acapulco now.

"It's the encroachment of America," said Charles Stewart, 28, a Californian who stopped to see the Acapulco cliff dives on a driving tour of Mexico. "I didn't come
to Mexico to speak English and eat hamburgers and french fries. But that's what they've done, they've transformed themselves into another America."

It's a vision that no longer appeals to the international jet set. But the echoes of the old days still ring around the narrow gorge when the divers work. And they still
bring those who remember.

"Elvis was a cliff diver, so I've wanted to see them all my life," said Gloria Romero, 55, a tourist from Louisiana dining at La Perla with her husband.

For the record, "Fun in Acapulco" was filmed in Hollywood, with a stand-in diver used for the big final scene at the cliffs. But Romero said the 1963 movie, which
featured the songs "You Can't Say No in Acapulco" and "No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car," left her yearning to see this place.

What she sees is only a fading shadow of Acapulco's glory days. And she doesn't care.

"If it's good enough for Elvis," she said, "it's good enough for me.

                                               © 2001