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At first glance this might appear to be a working-class port city with a very touristy Golden Zone (Zona Dorado) serving up Diamonds International and souvenir shops, beaches, bars and eateries. But take a closer look, particularly at Old Mazatlan, and you'll be surprised.
We certainly were. This was our favorite port call on the Mexican Riviera itinerary, a nice sample of the "real Mexico." Located on Mexico's Pacific Coast, just below the Tropic of Cancer, Mazatlan (the name means "land of deer" in the ancient Nahuatl language) has a population of 600,000 and a history that includes pirates, who probably stashed their booty here to hide it from Spanish galleons. Spanish explorers used the port in the 1600s. German immigrants put the place on the map in the 1800s as they developed the city as a port for shipping cargo, and Mazatlan continues to be one of Mexico's major cargo ports (exports include some 40 million pounds of shrimp per year).
The city was incorporated in 1806. Riches came thanks to a silver and gold rush (the ores were discovered in the Sierra Madre outside of town). Mazatlan has been a tourist destination since the 1960s, thanks mostly to an abundance of trophy fish and to its beaches, which attracted first spring breakers and later a more diverse vacation crowd. From the city stretching north are 14 miles of white sand beaches and blue lagoons that have gained the city the nickname "Pearl of the Pacific."
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island • Ensenada • Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Monterey • Puerto Vallarta
Locals speak Spanish but English is also widely spoken, particularly in shops and tourist venues.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
ATMs are widely accessible if you want to get Mexican pesos, but U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. If you are making an expensive purchase in a shop you are best off paying with a credit card. Having dollar bills to pay for cab fares and trinkets is helpful.
Sombreros (big Mexican hats), Mexican craft items and silver jewelry. In the Golden Zone a recommended shop for Mexican handicrafts is Madonna. A good choice in Old Mazatlan, in addition to the bustling market, is Nidart Gallery, near the Teatro Angela Peralta.
Where You're Docked
The commercial port -- and because it's a bustling cargo port you are taken on a free tram to the cruise terminal. Here you'll find a festive atmosphere with timeshare vendors trying to give you free rides (if you look at their properties), craft vendors and shops, including a pharmacy where you can buy Viagra and other medications without a prescription. There are tables set up under shade trees if you have a hankering for a cold beer. There's also a second, quieter crafts market across from the chaos of the cruise ship terminal.
It's a one-mile (15- to 20-minute) walk to Old Mazatlan, but you'll need a cab to get to the Golden Zone (about four miles from the pier). Cabs are readily available outside the cruise terminal as are open-air, golf-cart-type vehicles called Pulmonia. The fare to either Old Mazatlan or the Golden Zone is about $10 per cab. Walkers should be aware that crossing streets can be a challenge (the drivers here aren't necessary pedestrian-cautious) and the curbs in Old Mazatlan are quite high. Major car rental locations are in town; National is right at the pier.
Old Mazatlan has a surprising number of historical sites including a Moorish-style cathedral, ornate with a gold-vaulted ceiling (you can visit for free but donations to the restoration fund are accepted). Across the street is the Plaza Republica, downtown's central gathering place, where pigeons frolic, shoeshine vendors do their thing and Victorian iron benches are perfect venues for people-watching. The park also has an impressive Victorian band stand. A few blocks behind the cathedral is Central Market (Mercado Pino Suarez), where you can buy anything from sombreros to raw meat (bargaining is encouraged). Walk back towards the church and continue a few blocks to the very impressive Teatro Angela Peralta, which occupies one side of the attractive square known as Plazuela Machado. The Italian-style theatre, dating to the 1800s and named for a famous diva, has been lovingly restored -- it is now a national historic landmark -- and is simply gorgeous. Admission is $1.30 and worth every penny. Upstairs, you can learn how the theatre was previously in such bad shape from storm damage that a ficus tree was growing where the stage was supposed to be. Elsewhere on Plazuela Machado and its surrounds are refreshing sidewalk cafes, pretty colonial-style historic buildings and colorful homes, some of which are now galleries. If you want to explore the Old Mazatlan art scene you can pick up a map of galleries and artist studios at the tourist office on Mariano Escabedo. Other attractions include the free Museo de Arqueologia (archeological museum) and the Museo de Arta (art museum).
Watch the daring high-flying divers off of Divers Point, a 10-minute walk (or quick taxi ride) from Old Mazatlan. Typically they perform when a crowd gathers.
The Golden Zone has shopping, glitzy hotels, people-watching and beach-bumming on the sunny, palm-lined beaches. The main drag is Rodolfo T. Loaiza; ask your taxi driver to drop you at the Hotel Playa Mazatlan, which is pretty much in the thick of things. Playa Sabalo and Playa Las Gaviotas, two of the beaches in front of hotels in the Golden Zone, are centrally located and offer activities from people-watching to water sports (snorkeling, jet skiing, parasailing). The quieter Playa Los Cerritos is just north of the Golden Zone's activity hub.
If you're traveling with kids, consider a stop in the Mazatlan Aquarium. Located between downtown and the Golden Zone, it boasts trained sea lion and exotic bird shows, and some 300 species of marine life. On the way you will pass an enormous sculpture of a nude woman, reclining on an anchor, known as Fisherman's Monument (Monumento al Pescador).
Been There, Done That
Eco-tours: You can go kayaking around Mazatlan's offshore islands. There's birdwatching in mangrove swamps and the Sierra Madre Mountains. Sailing trips are offered to Deer Island, a protected National Reserve.
Sportfishing for marlin.
Tour the old mining towns of the Sierra Madres, where the streets are cobbled and the rooftops red tile. Villages of note include Concordia, founded in the 1500s and a center for ceramic pottery and handmade wooden furniture, and Copala, a colonial mining village turned artist colony.
In Old Mazatlan, Cafe Pacifico (Constitucion and Heriberto Frias) has outdoor cafe seating, lovely service and a new-Mexican cuisine menu, and El Shrimp Bucket (Olas Altos) has the first of its restaurants now found at several Mexican resorts. In the Golden Zone there are plenty of places to eat fresh fish and shrimp, most along Rodolfo T. Loaiza -- walk along and browse the menus posted out front. Among them are Ernie Tomato's (#403), La Fontana (#317), The Shrimp Factory (Av. de las Garzas #14) and The No Name Cafe (#407). Pancho's Restoran (#408) has awesome fresh margaritas and excellent Mexican fare, not to mention a beachfront location. In other parts of the Golden Zone are Senor Frogs, the restaurant/bar/cult destination with deafening music, located a brisk couple of blocks south. For an ultra-casual meal, Panama, a family-friendly chain of pasteleria and restaurants, is located in a variety of neighborhoods including at the Cathedral (Old Town) and the Golden Zone (in front of the Hotel Las Palmas).
Best Choices for Active Nature Lovers: Travel by catamaran to Deer Island (about 40 minutes) for a swim on the beach or a guided hike, then kayak for 45 minutes along the island's shore.
Best Choice for Less Active Nature Lovers: Travel on a shaded, open-air launch through mangrove channels that are home to pelicans, blue herons, sea hawks and osprey (the 6 1/2-hour tour also includes beach time, lunch and optional horseback riding).
Best Choice for Repeat Visitors: Take a full-day Sierra Madre Tour to the colonial towns of Concordia and Copala.
Staying in Touch
Right at the pier is the International Communications Center; phone calls to the U.S. cost 75 cents
per minute, and Internet access is available for $2 for 15 minutes, $3 for 30 minutes or $4 for 60 minutes. CompuSoporte (Avenue del Mar #4) is an Internet Cafe in the Golden Zone.
For More Information
On the Web: www.gomazatlan.com and www.visitmexico.com
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The Independent Traveler: Mexico Exchange