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Blue and white VW bug taxis and the sweep of the beach are two standout vignettes of Copacabana. I had some vague memory that the city was the holiday home to the stars in the 1940s and 50s. And I knew about the daring cliff divers here, and not just from Elvis’ Fun in Acapulco. So I booked a tour that would give me cliff diving and some sort of city overview. The 7am start was a shock to me and probably for the cliff divers too, as they dive until 10pm each night.

The ship docks at the very northern end of the beach. This is the old part of town (across the road from Fuerte de San Diego) and we see the house that once belonged to Frank Sinatra – the one-time home of Johnny Weismuller (aka Tarzan) is now the Flamingo Hotel. We go to El Mirador Hotel where photos of the stars line the walls of the serried ranges of balconies with chairs, spilling down to a rocky cleft with waves washing in. We settle in with drinks and minutes later the divers clamber down one cliff, swim across the narrows and climb up to a shrine high on the other side. Respects paid, the divers leap from different levels on the cliff consecutively and with various personal tricks for each.

Finally, there’s the big dive from the ledge at shrine level, 35 metres above the sea – and with only four metres of water covering the rocks below. A diver is only allowed to do the final, feature dive once a week so it’s his big moment. And he plays up to the crowd, going back to the shrine for an extra blessing and flexes and primps till we are a seething mass of anticipation, shutter fingers poised. Next second, he launches and arcs gracefully into the sea far below with barely an entry splash.

That’s it, the show is over and we file out to hit the nearby shops. Like so many cruise destinations, all I find to buy is vanilla extract (hello Tahiti, though the black pearls there were tempting). Back on the bus, we take a drive the length of the long beach – I’d estimate it’s about four miles long (though that turns out to be an underestimation). We stop at a few viewpoints and our guide points out the lagoon that was used as the locale for movies stretching from The African Queen with Hepburn and Bogart to Papillon with Hoffman and McQueen and Sly’s Rambo II. Before noon we are back at the ship.

But this is Acapulco and there are all these cute bug cabs out there. So I head straight back out through security and get a cab down to the other end of the beach. I decide to find the hotel where Elvis was employed in Fun in Acapulco. I ask at a few hotels that were very helpful but unable to provide an answer. One offered me internet access to see what I could discover online. Minutes later I knew that the whole film was made in Hollywood so my quest was fruitless, and over.

I could see the ship at the other end of the beach so decided to walk back. Here, on the south end of Acapulco, modern hotels have sprouted up right on the beachfront. That’s unlike the northern end where the older hotels are either on cliff tops or across the road from the beach. It’s a really nice walk, albeit a long one at about 7.5 km, in the tropical sun. The captain had issued us with a letter about security in Acapulco but I never feel even vaguely threatened – or even noticed. I drop into some shops and a few hotels but the main feature is the beautiful sheltered crescent of sandy beach so I kick off my shoes and take to the sand.

There are a lot of deck chairs and ice cream vendors catering to the largely local beachgoers. Dogs and children mingle in the shallows while owners and parents keep an eye on them from their chairs. Unlike the glitz of Brazil’s Copacabana, dress is conservative and it’s a relaxed family scene.

I remember that the ship’s time is an hour different from local time so cast an anxious eye to see if lines are being dropped. They are not – and I’m on board minutes before we sail.

Radiance rounds the headland at the western end of the bay and we can look back to El Mirador and imagine we can see the splash of a diver into the water. As the coast fades to grey it’s time for a shower and to prepare for a show then dinner.

Words: David McGonigal.