This article is from the July 2002 The Mexico File
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Mazatlán, Beyond the Zona Dorada
by Jane Onstott
After Los Cabos, Mazatlán is Mexico’s closest major beach resort to Western U.S. and Canadian states. English is almost universally spoken in the hotel zone, menus are in English, and folks are generally in tune with American tastes. Those factors, combined with its “come-hither” appeal to spring-breakers in the 1980s, means it attracts some serious party animals. Young American tourists drink ‘til they drop in Guadalajara Grill and dance on the bar at Mangos and Señor Frogs. I’ve heard their “day-after” stories – told in loud, proud voices – on the shuttle boat to Deer Island and poolside in the Zona Dorada, the city’s “golden zone” of resort hotels.
I’d rather drink a cool beer in a palm-shaded beach shack than bar hop or boutique shop. I prefer small, untouristy towns to resorts full of high-rise hotels and late night discos. And although I understand that many locals want to practice their English, I’d prefer to speak only Spanish while I’m in Mexico.
So some of my friends are surprised I like Mazatlán so well. But unlike Cabo, the city beyond the hotel zone is truly gorgeous and interesting. People are friendly and outgoing in the Sinaloa style. And tourism, while important to the local economy, comes in second behind fishing and canning as the leading industry.
A different look
The heart of this ocean-hugging city of some 500,000 souls is neither modern nor colonial in style. Although founded during the Spanish era, it remained insignificant until after Mexico’s independence from the mother country. Unlike Mexico City, Puebla, Guanajuato, Querétaro, and other cities populated early on by the Spanish, Old Mazatlán is vintage 19th century. Heavily influenced by early-20th-century French and Italian architecture, two- and three-story homes are painted in a palette of attractive colors with contrasting, cream-colored trim. The wrought-iron window coverings and balconies are artistic as well as functional. Extra large windows were designed to draw in a breeze, the decorative wrought iron bars provided security while allowing them to remain open night and day.
Mazatlán’s first public square was Plazuela Machado. Built on marshy, reclaimed land, it was a gift to the city of shipping magnate Juan Machado. It’s a peaceful place to linger, especially in early summer, when its towering trees are covered with giant yellow blooms. Surrounded by slightly heavier traffic but still charming is the official main plaza, Plazuela Revolución, where you’ll find the twin-spired cathedral. This plaza is closer to the city’s biggest public market, and has a more commercial and less casual feel.
Mazatlán old and new
After a nasty bout of bubonic plague at the turn of the 20th century was followed by the devastating Mexican Revolution, Mazatlán declined in population and in importance. The economy improved after a new port was built in the 1950's. Shipbuilding was launched as a source of vital income. The Pacifica beer brewery was in full production. And the tourists had begun to arrive.
Mazatlán’s first swank tourist hotels were located downtown along Avenida Olas Altas. The Hotel Freeman, which today is being restored after years of inoperation, boasted the city’s first elevator and its first discotheque. In the 1970's and 80's, however, tourists migrated north to new hotels being built on Los Sábalos and Gaviotas beaches in the Golden Zone. Hotel Plaza Mazatlán, built by visionary American U.S. George in 1955, was the first to venture so far from the action. In a similar move, the new Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay, one of the city’s few true 5-star properties, recently opened in a pristine area to be called “New Mazatlán.” Around Punta Cerritos (Cerritos Point) north of the Zona Dorada, it’s accessed by the trunk road leading to Highway 15. It’s a good 10 minutes from the established hotel zone and 15 minutes from downtown.
Although the Olas Altas hotels have never regained prominence, the downtown area itself has been revitalized for the benefit of both residents and visitors. It’s pleasant just to wander the historic section, camera in hand, to admire the stunning facades. Visit Casa Machado (Sixto Osuna between Heriberto Frias and Carnaval streets), built in 1885, to see the interior of a typical period mansion, complete with original tiles and furnishings. You can take a cake-and-coffee break on the second-story balcony overlooking the street.
More stately homes line the ocean boulevard that changes names about a half dozen times as it hugs Mazatlán’s big bay. At the end of the point, a red-and-white lighthouse tops Cerro del Crestón. Next in line, Cerro del Vigía and Cerro de la Nevería are twin hills accessible by car and affording a great view of downtown, the bay, and the Pacific Ocean beyond. If you’re on foot, you can walk or jog for miles along the beachfront malecón. Along the route, public statues commemorate such varied themes and subjects as the beauty of Mazatlán’s women, the continuity of life, the pulmonía (open-air taxi), and the Pacifica brewery. The best known landmark, however, is a fisherman simultaneously pulling in his net and his naked woman.
Near the fisherman statue, divers plunge into the sea for a buck a head (yours, not theirs) at Playa Olas Altas, and surfers look for waves. Sandier and more welcoming is the beach at Playa Norte, where the ships put anchor until the 1820's. Today, the most popular beaches lie north of Punta Camarón, which marks the beginning of the Zona Dorada, or Golden Zone.
Accommodation and Food
In my opinion, the most impressive hotel in the Zona Dorada is Los Sábalos Resort Hotel (Avenida Playa Gaviotas 100, 669/983-5333, toll free 800/528-8760 from the U.S.; fax 669/983-8156; www.lossabalos.com; email@example.com). It’s a classy but friendly and accessible place right on the beach on Playa Gaviotas; the standard room rate is $90 to $100. The grounds are well manicured, and an onsite spa offers simple treatments. For a snack or a drink, head to the hotel’s Joe’s Oyster Bar, a hangout for local youth, or Bar Gaviotas, where marimberos entertain around midday. Across the street is a line of three affiliated restaurants. Sombrero Bay, which serves Mexican food, is touristy but festive; Cow Town is good for steaks, and Vittore has a wonderfully warm but minimalist ambiance and great Italian eats.
Similarly priced is the nearby Hotel Plaza Mazatlán (Avenida Playa Gaviotas 202, 669/989-0555, toll-free in the U.S. and Canada 800/762-5816; fax 669/914-0366; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.hotelplayamazatlan.com). The grandchildren of the original owner still run the hotel, which has an open-air, oceanfront restaurant and a twice-weekly Mexican Fiesta. The all-you-can-eat-and-drink dinner-show sounds cheesy but is actually rather good. The friendly waiters aren’t too hard to flag down, and are happy to bring drink refills. (Don’t forget to tip!) There’s time for dancing both before and after the show, and most nights it’s a fun, family-oriented affair, with locals and gringos alike dancing to norteños and sones.
If you want cheaper prices and access to downtown, choose a hotel along the malecon. (For nonstop noise and revelry during carnival season, reserve these rooms at least a year in advance.) One traditional favorite is Olas Altas Inn (Avenida del Mar 719, 669/981-3192, www.olasaltasinn.com.mx). The property has a restaurant and pool, and the 4th- and 5th-floor rooms are brand new. Standard rooms go for about $80, including tax. Less expensive is Hotel La Siesta (Paseo Olas Altas 11 Sur, 669/981-2640, fax 669/982-2633, www.lasiesta.com.mx). It has plain rooms and no pool, but there is air-conditioning and it’s right on the parade route and across the street from Olas Altas Beach. Downstairs, El Shrimp Bucket, the first of the now 40-something restaurants in the Carlos Anderson chain, serves surprisingly good food, and has live romantic music most evenings.
For a taste of local food, visit El Túnel, a cenaduría (small dinner-only restaurant) in the heart of Old Mazatlán. The specialty is pozole, a hominy soup served with lots of condiments. Located at Calle Carnival 1207 Sur, it’s open evenings only between 6 and 11 p.m. Next door, El Café Gourmet Memorial (Carnaval 1209 Sur, 669/985-4301) is a nice another place to stop before or after a concert at the Angela Peralta Theater. They serve 16 different types of coffee beans from Mexico and beyond, as well as a tempting variety of cakes made on the premises. The bread also is homemade; try their special panini (Italian-style sandwiches on baguette roll). Full meals are also served after 3 p.m.
Getting there and around
Alaska Airlines serves major West Coast U.S. cities; America West (800/235-9292) flies through Phoenix, and Continental (800/523-3272) through its Houston hub. Aeromexico (800/237-6639), Aerocalifornia (800/237-6225), and Mexicana (800/531-7921) all fly from major U.S. and Mexican cities. Mazatlán's Rafael Buelna International Airport (669/982-2177) is located about 18 miles south of the city. It’s about $15 per person for a ride in a colectivo (shared van) to either downtown or the Zona Dorada.
New, bright green, air-conditioned buses connect downtown, or Old Mazatlán, with the Zona Dorada and Playa Sábalos and Playa Gaviotas, its two main beaches. Many continue on to Playa Los Cerritos, a long beach perfect for walking at the north end of the hotel zone. Taxis are ubiquitous and can be hailed on the street. Costing the same as traditional taxis, pulmonías are VW beetles modified open on the sides and top: perfect for sightseeing.
If Not Then… When?
Not everyone can get away during carnival, a moveable feast that takes place the five days preceding Ash Wednesday (40 days before Easter). The kids have school, the boss is leaving,… you haven’t accrued enough vacation days since that dive trip to Aruba. Or maybe you’re just not a fan of crowds, or in the mood just now for a Mardi-Gras party. Check out the following schedule of events to see if any of them inspires your next trip.
January through April
Bullfights are held most Sundays in the early afternoon at the bullring southeast of the Zona Dorada. It’s a gruesome spectacle, but some folks admire the pomp and ceremony of the macho ritual.
The José Limón International Dance Festival hosts a varied menu of ethnic, folkloric, and modern dance at the Teatro Angela Peralta.
Practioners of indigenous culture – including natural medicine, cooking, dance, crafts, and other aspects of traditional society – gather from within Mexico and out for the five-year-old Encuentro Yoreme. In past years participants have traveled to Mazatlán from Sinaloa, Sonora, and Chihuahua as well as Alaska, Guam, Arizona, and British Colombia.
Who better to sponsor a thirst-inducing marathon than a brewery? In 2003, Pacifico Brewery hopes to host more than 5,000 runners from two dozen countries to the Pacifica Marathon. It’s one of just a few international marathons in Mexico; first prize is a new Mercedes-Benz.
This year marks the 8th annual El Cid Billfish Classic Tournament. Prizes are awarded daily and for the tournament as a whole, which has a “modified catch-and-release” format. Prizes are awarded for billfish (swordfish, marlin, and sailfish) and miscellaneous gamefish (dorado, tuna, and wahoo). Prizes are percentages of total entry fees.
In the same month (one of Mazatlán’s nicest – with warm but mild weather, warm seas, and lots of green, thanks to the summer rains) is the Festival Cultural Sinaloa de las Artes. Free and inexpensive musical and dance programs of all sorts are held at indoor and outdoor venues.