Magnificent Mazatlan

By | Category: Travel destinations

When I lie awake at night, I remember relaxing places I’ve visited to help me to fall asleep. One of my fond memories is of a late afternoon, years ago, that I spent on the beach in the Mexican city of Mazatlan – caressed by the warm, gentle waves, watching the oranges, pinks and yellows of the sunset over the offshore islands, hearing the gulls squawk overhead and smelling the aromas of fresh fish grilling. Mazatlan’s memories call to many, as they do to me.

If it feels familiar, maybe it’s because Mazatlan has been catering to tourists for half a century. If it feels comfortable, perhaps it’s because it lacks the glitzy, ersatz palaces and marble monoliths of other, newer resorts. If my pockets feel full, it’s because Mazatlan still pleases its visitors with very reasonable prices, unlike many other Mexican resort towns. Mazatlan doesn’t try to compete with the luxury of Cancun, the sexiness of Acapulco or the colonial quaintness of Puerto Vallarta. It doesn’t need to: it is special in its own way.

Mazatlan lies on Mexico’s Pacific Ocean coast and is about a 90 minute flight from Mexico City. A port city of some 500,000 residents, Mazatlan happily swells to accommodate the 1.5 million holidaymakers vacationers, sport fishermen and winter long-term visitors from the US and Canada who flock to it each year. Its waters are neither turquoise nor crystal clear, but they are delightfully gentle and warm, a pretty blue and the beaches stretch for miles.

Mazatlan is one of Mexico’s oldest tourist resorts and home to one of the world’s three major Mardi Gras carnivals, comparable only to those in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. In 2013, it celebrates its 114th carnival which runs from the 7-12 February. Boasting the biggest commercial shrimping fleet in Latin America with over 500 boats, Mazatlan also has one of the largest tuna fishing fleets in the world.

©Mexican Tourist Board; the small town feeling

Yet, when I visit, I always feel like I’m in a small beach village rather than a large city, due to the way Mazatlan divides its commercial and business sectors away from its resort areas. The city’s existence doesn’t revolve around tourism – it is a thriving metropolis. In fact, thousands of people live and work here without having anything to do with the travel industry.

For those lucky enough to be tourists, however, Mazatlan offers an abundance of riches: one of the longest stretches of uninterrupted beaches in Mexico; water temperatures between 19 and 24 centigrade all year round; night life set to music ranging from mariachi to disco, piano bar to salsa; colonial architecture; a wealth of handicrafts; and an endless supply of sidewalk and seaside restaurants.

Although English is widely spoken in Mazatlan, tourists delight in feeling like they are in real Mexico, not in gringo land (the slang word Mexicans use for foreigners) The city, first settled in 1531 by the Spanish, began to really develop in the mid-19th century. To see Mazatlan as the Mazatlecos do, take one of the open-air golf-cart style taxis (pulmonias) that seat no more than four and are very inexpensive. But negotiate the price with the driver before you get in. Or better yet, do as I do and stroll the impressive 13-mile boardwalk (malecón) between Playa Olas Altas and Playa Norte.

malecón, north beach © Mexican Tourist Board

The 13 mile breezy stretch, studded with impressive statues and monuments, is the pride of Mazatlan, running from one end of the town to the other. Here, I view the hotel zone, and watch fishermen selling their catch at dawn after a night out at sea, lovers embracing, locals gossiping and entrepreneurs selling coconuts, shrimp brochettes and mangoes – dripping with lime juice – on a stick.

The walk takes me past Mazatlan’s outstanding aquarium (plan on spending two to three hours here) and into Old Mazatlan’s Plazuela Machado (Machado Square,) the heart of Mazatlan. On the north side of the plaza is a strip of open-air seafood restaurants. One of the most famous, and one of my favorites, is lively Pedro & Lola’s, named after two famous singers and actors from Mazatlan, Pedro Infante Cruz and Lola Beltrán. Mazatlan, caters to independently-owned cafes – you won’t find the endless strips of US based chains here that you’ll find in other resorts, at least not in the old section. (McDonalds and others like it abound in the hotel zone, for those who like them.) Pedro & Lola’s wide variety of shrimp platters are reasonably priced and delectable. Grilled with butter and garlic, camarones al mojo de ago downed with a good Mexican beer like the local Pacifico lager or the heavier Negro Modelo, is heaven after a day on the beach.

Cathedral © Mexican Tourist Board

I also spend time admiring the twin-spired cathedral (built in 1875,) the city’s main plaza and the beautifully restored Angela Peralta Theatre (built in 1860.). The theatre is a beautiful, neoclassic-style building named after the beloved 19th-century opera diva who died after her only performance in Mazatlan, struck down by yellow fever. Strolling still farther on, the way to Playa Olas Altas, I pass by El Puerto Carranza, an old Spanish fort. Finally, I arrive at High Divers Park, where young men climb to a towering platform and plunge to the sea below, a la Acapulco, or is Acapulco a la Mazatlan, perhaps? This happens in the late afternoons, typically but is not an everyday occurrence – be forewarned.

The most famous beaches in Mazatlan are Playa Norte, popular with locals, Playa Sábalo and Las Gaviotas on the resort strip, Playa Olas Altas and Las Brujas for surfing and high waves and Playa los Cerritos, one of the city’s finest un-crowded beaches on the north end of the hotel zone. Lively Sábalo Beach is perfect for jet skiing, windsurfing, parachuting, sailing, sport fishing, etc, while the adjacent Cerritos Beach and Playa Norte are known for clean sand and peaceful sunbathing. Mazatlan’s Emerald Beach area to the north is being developed as an elegant area with posh shops, hotels and restaurants. There’s a beach perfect for every mood – romance, action, peace, adventure and people-watching.

Everyone should experience the islands off Mazatlan which are accessible by small boat, kayak or island cruise. Isla de la Piedra, actually a peninsula, with its 10-mile-long, unspoiled palm-lined beach, is dotted generously with sand dollars (flattish, sea-urchins which burrow into the sand.) Hammocks and horses are available for rent here, and thatched-roof cafes sell succulent, freshly smoked fish, Isla del Venado’s gorgeous, calm beach, with its superb view of Mazatlan, is just 10 minutes away. Its southern point features many secluded coves filled with soft sand and seashells. Snorkelling, while not quite on the level of the Caribbean, is highly enjoyable and lovely, particularly with the always warm Pacific water. Tiny fish tickle toes and little ‘Nemo’s’ dart away. I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of large schools of fish and varieties.

venados

Isla de Venados ©Turismo Mazatlán

Mazatlan offers several excellent places for shopping, including Galeria Nidart, which carries both modern art and handicrafts; the Mazatlan Arts and Handicrafts Center; and Sea Shell City, a place that specializes in the exhibition and sale of seashells and other materials from the sea. Perhaps the best shopping, and most personal, happens right on the beach. While some find beach vendors annoying, I enjoyed the experience of mixing with the locals. The pure wool, handwoven rug which I bought for 120 pesos (about £7) reminds me of the spectacular day on which I bought it in front of my hotel from a charming, toothless old man, and the ironwood whale (a local artisan speciality,) beautifully carved, adorns my mantelpiece, bringing back memories of a delightful pre-teen boy named Carlos who sold it me. When dealing with vendors, I try to remember that rather than trying to cheat tourists, they trudge the hot beach all day attempting to feed their families – I’d rather pay them a few pesos more and know that their standard of living might be a tad better that day.

Day trips, easily arranged with various tour companies or taken with local buses from the main bus station, to the colonial mining towns of Concordia, Cosala and Copala, offer a glimpse back in time to the era when gold and silver were found in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range. I enjoyed the cobblestone streets and visiting the local tortilleria in Copala, where I viewed a procession of neatly uniformed primary school children with clean dishtowels bringing back fresh, warm tortillas home for the midday meal. Nature-lovers in Mazatlan also take pleasure in climbing the hills of El Faro and El Cerro de la Neveria.

When to visit Mazatlan? Like most sections of Mexico, this area is quite hot and humid from July through September, and likely to have strong rains. The weather from October through May is delightful, with temperatures ranging from the low to high 20s. It is always recommended to have a sweater handy in the evenings, which can be cool due to the humidity and ocean breezes.

Those wanting to experience Mazatlan’s world-class billfishing should visit from March to December for sailfish, May to December for blue and black marlin, and December through April for swordfish and striped marlin.

Mazatlan is Mexico at its best – you’ll feel safe and at home, yet exhilarated by the truly Mexican character of the town and its people. Mazatlan has spruced itself up, beautified its landscaping and architecture, expanded and constructed, but it has held on to its identity in a way other cities have not. Looking for a real Mexican beach town experience? Mazatlan won’t disappoint!

As the big orangey-red sun sets into the lapping waters of the Pacific at the end of another day, Mazatlan’s guests ease into their lounge chairs, take another sip of their margaritas and sigh blissfully. I remember my own late afternoons doing just that, and wish I was there again, having just another Mazatlan moment.

 

Where to stay
El Cid Mega Resorts: Four different hotels make up this 1068-room top-quality resort which is more like a town in itself. www.elcid.com

Playa Mazatlan: A Mazatlan beloved tradition on Playa Gaviotas in the lively Zona Dorada.

Ramada Resort Los Sabalos: A five-star property in the heart of the Zona Dorada. Avenida Playa Gaviotas, www.lossabalos.com

Pueblo Bonito: Two gorgeous hotels – Pueblo Bonito Mazatlan and Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay, the first property in the newest section of Mazatlan, offering a nearly private beach and a quiet, secluded luxury. Avenida Camaron Sabalo, www.pueblobonito-mazatlan.com

Soaking up Mazatlan fun

The Jonathan: Just opened in September, this Euro-style boutique hotel has only 18 rooms, and is situated in the delightful colonial area of town, off the Plazuela Machado. The rooms are decorated in sumptuous style – think glass pedestal sinks, white river rocks illuminated around the bed, very extraordinary design and a rooftop cocktail bar with sunken pool. www.thejonathanhotel.com

Where to eat

Pedro y Lola – mentioned above, a very popular restaurant neighboring the Plaza in Old Mazatlan. Excellent food and a varied menu at very reasonable prices.
Avenida Carnaval 1303

El Machado – outdoor seating is lovely at this lively spot in the Zona Dorada. Enjoy fish tacos, giant margaritas and a variety of seafood.
Sixto Osuna 34

El Shrimp Bucket – opened in 1963, this was the first location of the wildly successful Carlos Anderson chain throughout Mexico. Still booming, this is a Mazatlan tradition.
Olas Altas

Where to shop

Most shopping is in the Zona Dorada area, where you’ll find clothing, ceramics, handicrafts, jewelry, etc. For those seeking a more authentic feel, try the Tianguis de Juarez (Juarez Flea Market) each Sunday, beginning at 5 am., offering just about everything under the sun – including food.

For more information about Mazatlan, click here.

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