The Toronto Sun, one of Canada’s most important and influential newspapers, dedicated a whole article to Mazatlan.
There was a time, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, when Hollywood’s elite would spend their downtime living it up on the Pacific coast in Mexico.
Legendary silver screen stars John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and John Huston made Mazatlan their destination of choice, dipping a line in the hopes of hooking a massive yellowfin tuna or marlin in the fertile waters of the warm Pacific Ocean while tipping the local libations, just like normal tourists.
Nowadays, the movie stars have pretty much moved on to new locales — the fish and tequila are still there, though — leaving the beautiful, sun-drenched colonial city to the rest of us. And what a spectacular vacation spot for Canadians to enjoy.
Mazatlan might not be the first choice of Canadians looking for some winter sun — these days, Cancun and the Mayan Riviera seems to be the front-runner for tourists from the eastern provinces while Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta are popular in the west — but it should be.
Looking for a lazy week lying on the beach while sipping a cold drink? Mazatlan fits the bill. How about a city with plenty to see, ranging from exploring centuries-old architecture and a fascinating old town city centre to shopping for silver jewelry and enjoying the nightlife in the Zona Dorado (Golden Zone), to remote mangrove swamps that seem a million miles from civilization? Yep, Mazatlan has that, too.
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Heck, you can even take in a pro baseball game at the newly renovated, 16,000-seat Teodoro Mariscal Stadium if you time it right and visit during the Mexican Pacific League season. (If you want to plan ahead, the 2021 Caribbean World Series, the annual tournament of Latin American league champions, will be held in Mazatlan that February.)
Coming soon to the city is a new aquarium (which will have a partnership with the one in Vancouver) that will be part of the 13-hectare Central Park development in the heart of the city, and a cable car from the cruise port to El Faro, the lighthouse perched atop Cerro Creston, the city’s highest point.
Mazatlan is, right now, a destination with good value for your buck but it is growing rapidly. Money is being poured into the area (six new hotels have openings planned for 2020 and three cruise lines make port in Mazatlan), which means more things to do but also bigger crowds.
A group of roughly two dozen journalists from across North America were recently given the opportunity to experience everything Mazatlan, one of Mexico’s unknown gems, has to offer and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We even got to experience the 25th anniversary of the city’s annual tourism awards, the Fiesta Amigos de Mazatlan, which added another level of fun to the visit.
SHRIMP DELICACIES IN DEER COUNTRY
Mazatlan translates to “the place of deer” in the ancient Aztec language — there’s no shortage of reminders scattered around the city and the biggest of the three islands just off the coast is Deer Island — but it’s just as memorable for the bounty of shrimp in the local waters.
Yes, if you’re a fan of Forrest Gump’s favorite crustacean, Mazatlan is a must-visit destination. You haven’t experienced coconut shrimp until you tuck into the massive — I was left gobsmacked at the size of them — beauties some local restaurants offer.
With more than 500 boats, Mazatlan is home to Mexico’s largest shrimp fleet. Some of the fleet’s bounty is shipped around or out of the country, but much of it is sold locally. A visit to the “shrimp ladies” market in the old town is the perfect spot to buy some cheap, fresh shrimp — from the small ones used to garnish salads to 15-cm jumbos perfect for the barbecue, all available for a few pesos — if you have accommodations with cooking facilities.
Our last night in Mazatlan we had dinner at La Costa Marinera, a seafood restaurant near the beach just south of the marina, and it was stunning. The shrimp and lobster tail combo was incredible, especially when paired with a local Cerveza, but the restaurant is known for its mouth-watering shrimp tower. Google it.
Don’t be afraid of trying some of the street eats, either. You will experience honest-to-God, delicious authentic Mexican cuisine with the food carts.
WANDERING ALONG THE MALECON
The Malecon, the beachside promenade that runs virtually the entire length of the city, is Mazatlan’s sparkling jewel and the perfect spot to enjoy the stunning west coast sunsets.
At roughly 20 kilometers, the Mazatlan Malecon is possibly the longest seaside walkway (you can also rent bicycles to use on the bike path, too) in the world. It runs along the Zona Dorado and the Old Town, features beachside restaurants, many statues and monuments and vendors selling trinkets to tourists.
If you wander south, just past the Monumento a La Continuidad de La Vida, you’ll see the cliff divers who perform for the tourists. The divers jump off a 15-meter-high rocky promontory into the swirling surf, continuing a tradition that dates back more than 100 years.
The Malecon is a great way to explore Mazatlan, especially if you’re visiting for the first time. You’ll never get lost and the beachside views are outstanding.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
A relaxing way to spend part of a day is to take a jungle and beach tour with King David, a local operator who offers a number of different options.
The boat tour takes you through the harbor, past the shrimp fleet, cruise ships, the Mexican navy base, and even the Pacifico brewery, to the isolated and ecologically protected mangrove swamps.
Slowly cruising through the mangroves will offer plenty of opportunities to snap some incredible photos — our guide, Hugo Sanchez, who lived in the Victoria, B.C. area for years before returning home, repeated his catchphrase “How about that — take a picture” a couple hundred times, just to make sure we got it — of the local flora and fauna.
We also had lunch (yes, it was shrimp) and a stop at a remote beach for a short swim included in the tour.
EXPLORING THE OLD TOWN
We had a guide show us around Mazatlan’s old town but it really wasn’t necessary.
Doing it on your own will allow you to see the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (completed in 1899), located on the Republic Square a short walk from the bustling indoor market, and the Historic District, which includes the Angela Peralta Theatre, the Plaza Machado and its 150-year-old iron gazebo, Mazatlan city hall and a wide selection of restaurants that have outdoor seating that is perfect for people watching.
Personally, I’d rather spend a few hours in the Historic District, where you’ll see the architectural impact the Spanish had colonized the country, than the Golden Zone, which is where you can find some of the city’s best shopping and restaurants.
A DRIVE IN THE COUNTRY
Driving into the countryside around Mazatlan is a little like stepping back in time.
After a stop at the Los Osuna distillery — it produces a tequila-like drink but, because it’s not produced in Jalisco, it can’t technically be called tequila — where you can sample the smooth-sipping agave alcohol, we drove to the small mountain town of La Noria. It’s a great place to find artisanal leather, pottery or silver, and the prices are incredibly reasonable.
From there, we moved on to El Quelite, another quiet rural town, for a stop at the church, which dates back to the 1800s, and a quick lesson in Ulama, an ancient game played in Mexico long before the Spanish colonization. Lunch at El Meson de Los Laureanos was a highlight. Try the beef tongue. Yes, seriously. It’s delicious.
Mazatlan is located in the state of Sinaloa. Yes, that Sinaloa.
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Mexico — or anyone with Netflix, for that matter — knows that Sinaloa is a drug cartel country. But in all honesty, that shouldn’t play a significant role in your decision to book a trip to Mazatlan.
Due to organized crime activity, the Canadian government issued in late December a travel advisory for Sinaloa, as it has done for many locations in Mexico, but the city of Mazatlan is excluded. And, quite frankly, during my stay in Mazatlan, I didn’t see any reason it should be included. At no time did I feel even remotely unsafe, although I travel enough to be savvy about what not to do.
On my flight into Mazatlan, I sat next to a retired woman from Montana who owns a house in the city and spends most of her time there. Naturally, the topic of personal safety came up and she made it clear that it had never been an issue for her. And she lives like a local, using the transit system and walking to local shops after dark.
My advice is to stay alert and be aware of where you are (find out from the hotel concierge where you shouldn’t go), don’t flaunt your wealth (even in tourist cities, many Mexicans live in poverty), carry only a little cash and, well, don’t walk around staring at your cellphone. It’s that simple.
Let’s face it, visiting big cities anywhere in the world can be dangerous to tourists. Use your head and you’ll be fine.
HOW TO GET THERE
I flew American Airlines through Dallas-Fort Worth to Mazatlan but Sunwing offers direct flights from Toronto, Ottawa, and many other Canadian cities. WestJet and Swoop also fly to Mazatlan.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at the El Cid El Moro Beach resort, which is part of a complex of four facilities — the Castillo, Granada and La Marina are the others — and guests can take advantage of the amenities at all of them. We had the all-inclusive option (Club Elite) but European plans (accommodations only) are also available.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Depending on where you stay, walking is often the best option. But there is public transit, taxis and pulmonia taxis (think upscale, open-air golf carts), that are all relatively inexpensive. Renting a bicycle is another possibility but I’d avoid renting a car.
The Mazatlan Post