Tourism development in Mazatlan, Mexico, is exploding. Although historically not as fancy as Puerto Vallarta to the south or Los Cabos to the west, it's getting there and is now one of Mexico's fastest-growing Pacific coast resort areas.
A middle-sized city that used to depend on its shrimp fleet and a few other industries for its livelihood, Mazatlan has sprung to life with aspirations of becoming a major beach resort as renowned as Los Cabos or Cancun. Its long-stagnant marina development has received injections of new capital, and the state of Sinaloa has renovated a now sparkling malecon (seaside promenade) that stretches more than 8 mi/13 km from Olas Altas north to the edge of the Zona Dorada (Golden Zone). There is also major construction ongoing between the marina and the continually expanding northern edge of the city.
Because tourism isn't its only business, Mazatlan accepts its visitors gracefully. Unlike some resort towns that become completely consumed (and jaded) by the travel trade, Mazatlan maintains its Mexican character and offers vacationers the things they go for—relaxation and entertainment in a pleasant seaside setting. In a single visit, travelers can experience comfortable resorts, as well as the sights and smells of a traditional Mexican city. It's as simple as moving from one part of town (Zona Dorada—the tourist area) to another (Old Mazatlan). Because Mazatlan is as popular with Mexicans as with foreigners, prices are more reasonable there than in the purpose-built tourist zones such as Los Cabos and Cancun.
The northernmost link in a chain of Pacific Coast cities known as the Mexican Riviera, Mazatlan sits just south of the Tropic of Cancer, 750 mi/1,210 km south of the Mexico-U.S. border. The Pacific Ocean and the fish-rich Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) converge offshore. A municipality (county) as well as a city, Mazatlan stretches beyond the city limits to El Quelite, a quaint village 20 mi/32 km to the north, the state of Durango to the east, and Walamo, a seaside fishing village, to the south.
Of most interest to visitors in Mazatlan proper are two zones: the Centro Historico (Old Mazatlan), where many late-19th-century mansions have been restored to the city's credit, and the Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), a tourist district filled with beach hotels, restaurants and shops. Several steep hills loom above the sea and the otherwise flat city. But the city reaches ever northward. A third area between the marina and the far northern fringe is enjoying a building boom thanks to Emerald Bay, a five-star time-share resort and hotel complex that initiated the growth of the area known as Nuevo Mazatlan.
Note: Some businesses in Mazatlan are located on unnumbered streets and labeled as "s/n," or sin numero (without number). Their addresses are described using the closest intersection.
Although Spanish explorers used the port in the 1600s (and pirates probably stashed their booty there), Mazatlan went largely unnoticed until the early 1800s, when activity in nearby gold and silver mines focused attention on Mazatlan's port.
Soon the city was the most important in northwestern Mexico, receiving goods such as fabric, porcelain, ivory and wine from Europe and Asia for distribution through the territory. Business tycoons built glamorous mansions not far from the wharfs and enjoyed the high life of their European contemporaries. Factories were opened, and later, a foundry was established. The city flourished, and its population steadily increased until the combined effects of the Mexican Revolution, an outbreak of yellow fever and World War I diminished the city's economic importance.
The 1950s heralded Mazatlan's revival with the construction of a new port, an enlarged fishing fleet, and new canning and freezing facilities. Shortly thereafter, its trophy fish and beaches began to lure vacationers. The first hotels were built along Playa Olas Altas, not far from the historic Old Town. Since then, resort development has stretched ever northward along the coast.
In the 1980s, there was a growing interest to renovate the Old Town—an effort that continues today. Commercial shrimping has risen to prominence and is one of the main sources of revenue for the port. But these days, Mazatlan's cruise-ship and tourism industries are more important to the city's economy.
The Mazatlan International Center at the marina is one of the largest convention and event facilities in the region. The building, with the capacity for 4,500 convention attendees, features three levels that contain 17 exhibition halls and meeting rooms.
With its curved glass front, the facility is getting attention for its spectacular 82-ft-/25-m-high mural covering one side of the main building. It was created by Ernesto Rios Rocha, an artist born in the state of Sinaloa. The colorful mural, made of hundreds of thousands of small, ceramic squares that were set in place by hand over a 13-month period, depicts Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes and the underwater life of the Sea of Cortes.
The Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), where the vacation industry is concentrated, includes a long expanse of shoreline, beachfront hotels, boisterous restaurants and shops. But the heart of the city lies downtown, in Old Mazatlan, where residents linger in plazas under trees bursting with blossoms. They catch up on local gossip, read the papers and watch children chasing pigeons and balloons.
Many buildings in this Centro Historico (Old Town or Old Mazatlan) date from the Golden Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the bustling port and nearby mines made the city rich. One of the largest businesses then was the iron foundry, La Fundacion de Sinaloa. Although it is no longer operating, you'll see its wrought-iron ornamentation on windows, gates and doors of older downtown edifices.
The historic sights of Old Mazatlan are near the Plazuela Machado, a small, tree-filled square with a wrought-iron kiosk in the center. Nearby is the ornate, neoclassical Teatro Angela Peralta, which opened in the 1860s as the Rubio Theater. It was later renamed for the Mexican diva who died of yellow fever a few days before she was to perform in the city. Most of the 19th-century buildings around the theater and the Plazuela have been restored and converted into artists' studios, galleries, cafes, restaurants and bars.
For an overview of Mazatlan's skyline, climb one of the few hills in the city. El Cerro del Creston is topped by El Faro, which bills itself as the second-highest working lighthouse in the world (515 ft/157 m above sea level). The 30-minute hike to the top begins off Paseo Centenario. (Take plenty of water with you, as there are no facilities.) Another hill, El Cerro del Vigia, is often visited on city tours or by cab. It was a military lookout point in the late 1800s—the panoramic view is worth the trip. A monument to Mexican singer and actor Pedro Infante is near the base of El Cerro del Vigia overlooking the sea, across from Casa Lucila Hotel. From La Neveria, on the north side of Paseo Olas Altas, you can see the port and the downtown area on one side, and the vast curve of the malecon stretching to the north on the other side.
There's a lot to do in Mazatlan at night, and the city's relatively low crime rate makes it a comfortable place to move around after dark. Many discos don't open until 9 or 10 pm and are rarely crowded before midnight. Most are frequented by a well-dressed, youthful clientele.
For more traditional Mexican entertainment, fiestas with folkloric dance shows, open bars and buffet dinners are presented at several hotels, including Playa Mazatlan, which is the oldest and probably most popular thrice-weekly (in season) show in town. Hotel El Cid and Spectaculare also present these shows on other nights of the week. Enjoy dancing before and after the show, which might include a stand-up comedian, a charro doing rope tricks, a singer of Mexican ballads, and dance troupes in a variety of regional costumes.
Pick up the free magazines Pacific Pearl or M! for the most up-to-date information about what's happening.
Fresh seafood is Mazatlan's main dish: fish, octopus, clams, oysters, marlin, shark, squid and more varieties of shrimp than you can shake a lime wedge at (it’s called the shrimp capital of the world). Beef from the cattle-raising region in nearby Sonora is good by Mexican standards. Local menus also feature traditional Mexican specialties.
If you want to save money, look for places that have a comida corrida or a menu del dia, a prix-fixe lunch plate that often includes a main course with beans or rice, soup or salad, and a beverage, usually te de Jamaica (hibiscus tea), a refreshing cold drink, or horchata (vanilla-flavored rice water), which is slightly sweeter.
Be sure to try a licuado for breakfast: Fresh fruits such as papayas, melons, mangos and bananas are blended with purified water or milk and sometimes sugar or honey (miel de abeja). You can add wheat germ (germen de trigo), oatmeal (avena), nuts or whatever else the stand offers. It's quick and cheap, as well as nutritious and delicious. You'll find a whole section of fruit-juice and licuado stands in the public market. Every hygienic stand will use bottled water, but just watch to make sure the blender isn't dripping wet with tap water before the drink is made.
We also recommend Toni-Col, a vanilla-flavored, carbonated soft drink unique to this region. If you're there during Lent, try the capirotada, a delicious bread pudding served only then.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than M$100; $$ = M$100-$250; $$$ = M$251-$800; $$$$ = more than M$800.
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