What's old is new in Mazatlan's historic part of town

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When Angela Peralta, a world-famous 19th century opera singer known as the "Mexican nightingale," arrived in Mazatlan in 1883 to perform at the Rubio Theater, little did she know she would become one of the city's eternal legends.

But when she succumbed to yellow fever before her performance, her tragic death was forever etched in the city's history.

Today, the elegant venue where she was to perform, now beautifully restored and renamed the Angela Peralta Theater, is a centerpiece of old Mazatlan, the historic city center that is increasingly becoming a major selling point for this Pacific beach destination.

Sure, Mazatlan offers plenty of sand and sun, a bustling hotel zone -- called the Zona Dorada, or Golden Zone -- and loads of outdoor activities and nightlife. But few resort destinations in Mexico can compete when it comes to Mazatlan's history and culture. And that's what tourism officials and locals hope to parlay into even more interest in, and preservation of, old Mazatlan.

Like many historic city centers, old Mazatlan went through rough years when buildings fell into disrepair and the tourism industry focused on developing beachfront hotels in the Zona Dorada.

But today, old Mazatlan's precious post-colonial, neoclassical architecture, which dates mostly to the 19th century, has been increasingly restored to pristine condition, which locals say is a big selling point for the destination.

"When we started our business in 1992, they were still renovating the theater," said Rak Garcia, who runs Nidart, a gallery collective in old Mazatlan. "We realized that when they started to restore the theater, that would change the neighborhood; it would blossom."

Blossom it has, especially in the blocks around Plazuela Machado, a small town square dotted with restaurants, outdoor cafes and shops. Within the past two years, the city of Mazatlan has posted bilingual Spanish-English signs with information about historic sites throughout old Mazatlan.

A variety of tourism-focused businesses have opened their doors in recent years. One of the newest is the Hotel Machado, a six-room boutique property on the second floor of a historic building overlooking the plaza. It has high ceilings, Internet access and renovated rooms with kitchenettes.

"We have another hotel [the Hotel Melville], which opened two years ago nearby, and we decided now is the time to open a hotel here," said owner Ernesto Gomez, who plans to expand the Hotel Machado to 25 rooms by the end of this year by renovating an adjoining building.

Gomez said old Mazatlan has not yet reached its potential for development.

"In the Zona Dorada, the prices and values were rising in the 1970s, but now the historic zone is rising, and the tourist zone has stopped. At the Freeman hotel in the Zona Dorada, you pay $160 a night. At the Freeman in Olas Altas, you pay $90 for the same hotel, same service. There is still a large margin for growth in this part of the city."

Another boutique property is slated to open in a converted building across the street from the Angela Peralta Theater, and new restaurants and shops are now a common site. Even long-running Zona Dorada businesses, like handicraft chain Michael Gallery, have decided that it's a good idea to open a branch in old Mazatlan.

Much of this rising popularity is just a return to the way things used to be, according to Rebeca Flores, co-owner of Mariscos Bahia, a restaurant her father opened in 1950.

"In the 1950s, old Mazatlan was like the Zona Dorada," Flores said. "Then it died. Now, in the past 10, 15 years, it has changed. I knew it would come back. Old Mazatlan, for us, is tradition. That's what we sell: Tradition, a cultural getaway, a gastronomic getaway."

One evening during a recent visit, I took a table in front of Pedro y Lola, one of the longest-running restaurants on the Plazuela Machado. As I enjoyed shrimp ranchero, Alfredo Gomez Rubio, the restaurant's owner, spoke about old Mazatlan's comeback.

The restoration and rebirth of the city center hasn't always been a smooth path, Gomez Rubio explained. He drew a graph on the paper tablecloth and marked it with the years 1990 through 2010. One line peaked in 1997, representing the original business growth planned for the historic center. "But things didn't happen as planned, and lack of official support affected that," he said. "The market wasn't ready.

"There was a negative perception and people didn't send tourists to old Mazatlan," Gomez Rubio added. "They kept them in the Zona Dorada. They thought we were crazy. Now they understand, and they support us."

Angelica Rubio Lizarraga, a spokeswoman for the Mazatlan Hotel Association, said that old Mazatlan is key to the destination's success in the tourism industry. "It's so important that there is a committee that deals just with old Mazatlan," she said.

The challenge now, according to Gomez Rubio, is to maintain the growth and capitalize on what makes Mazatlan different from other beach resorts -- namely, its historic center.

"We now need new products so the market expands and grows. But the most important strategy for Mazatlan is to reclaim its identity. It's important that we're recognized as one of the historic ports of the Pacific. Other destinations are great beach resorts, but the beach isn't enough."

For more information about Mazatlan, visit www.gomazatlan.com.

To contact reporter Mark Chesnut, send e-mail [email protected].

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