Long a favorite of cruisers (the port was one of the original Princess stops made famous by "The Love Boat"), Mazatlan hopes to reclaim its position as the Mexican Riviera's "pearl of the Pacific." And with its renovated historic center, a vibrant artist community, plenty of beaches and an aggressive focus on improving cruise passenger service and safety, the city seems poised for success.
Mazatlan took a steep fall in 2011, when highly publicized drug crimes that put tourists in the crossfire prompted all cruise lines to pull out. City and Sinaloa state officials worked hard in subsequent years to reduce crime, adding attractions and making it easier for tourists to find their way around. In 2013, the first ships came back, and more are scheduled to return.
With a sprawling beach promenade (at 13 kilometers, Mazatlan's malecon is one of the largest in the world), the city has a bit of a split personality. At one end is the very touristy Golden Zone (Zona Dorado), where Diamonds International, Senor Frogs, and souvenir shops, bars and eateries abound on white sand beaches. At the other (and closer to the cruise port), Old Mazatlan delights with colonial-style plazas, bistros, cafes and art galleries.
Located in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Mazatlan means "land of deer" in the ancient Nahuatl language. It has a rich ethnic diversity because of its prime spot along the Pacific Coast shipping route, attracting pirates, Spanish explorers, Filipino merchants and German immigrants who put the place on the map in the 1800s as they developed the city as a port for shipping cargo. Mazatlan continues to be one of Mexico's major cargo ports; exports include some 40 million pounds of shrimp per year.
Mazatlan's tourism industry was born in the 1960s, when celebrities such as John Wayne arrived in search of trophy fish. The beaches were also a central draw, first for cruisers and spring breakers and later a more diverse vacation crowd. Now, you'll find a growing number of American and Canadian expats, particularly artists who are drawn to the city's cheaper real estate, cost of living and cafe camaraderie.
Old Mazatlan has a surprising number of historical sites including a Moorish-style cathedral, with an ornate 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 congregate, shoeshine vendors do their thing and Victorian iron benches are perfect venues for people-watching. The park also has an impressive Victorian bandstand.
A few blocks behind the cathedral is the Central Market (Mercado Pino Suarez), where you can buy anything from sombreros to raw meat (bargaining is encouraged). Walk back toward the church and continue a few blocks to the very impressive Teatro Angela Peralta, which occupies one side of the attractive square known as Plaza Machado. The Italian-style theater, 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. Upstairs, you can learn how the theater was previously in such bad shape from storm damage that a ficus tree was growing where the stage was supposed to be. Elsewhere on Plaza Machado, you'll find 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 Escobedo. Other attractions include the free Museo de Arqueologia (archeological museum) and the Museo de Arta (art museum). From November through May, there's an evening art walk.
Mazatlan has one of the world's longest malecons, with metal sculptures both serious and whimsical interspersed along the seawalk. On the south end, watch the daring high-flying divers off Divers Point, a 10-minute walk (or quick taxi ride) from Old Mazatlan. Typically, they perform when a crowd gathers, and a tip is suggested.Stone Island is actually a peninsula, but its location -- just a quick water taxi ride from the cruise terminal -- feels like a world away. This long, flat, sandy beach attracts locals and tourists who are drawn to its beachside restaurants, activities such as kayaking and ATV rentals and shallow waters fit for the whole family to swim. You can come here via tour operators, cruise ship excursions or on your own.
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 water sports activities such as snorkeling, personal watercraft rentals and 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).
Active travelers will relish the challenge to hike up Cerro del Creston, Mazatlan's highest hill, to El Faro, the lighthouse that has marked Mazatlan's channel since 1879. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to hike the 523-foot-high hill, but once you're there, the views are spectacular (this lighthouse is the world's second highest).
Mazatlan's offshore islands such as Deer Island, a protected national reserve, Wolf Island and Bird Island provide eco-tour opportunities such as birdwatching in mangrove swamps, kayaking, hiking and the area's best snorkeling waters and sailing trips.
If you're into golf, the course at Estrella del Mar, designed by Robert Trent Jones, is adjacent to the beach, although the resort is a bit out of town (about 30 minutes north). Plan your time accordingly. (10 Camino Isla de la Piedra; 888-587-0609; grounds fees for 18 holes from $75 to $112, club rental is $35)
Tour the old mining towns of the Sierra Madre foothills, 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.
By Foot: It's a one-mile (15- to 20-minute) walk to Old Mazatlan. The city has added the "blue line" to direct walkers to the historic center; traffic cops help pedestrians cross. The city's "blue shirt" volunteers -- North American expats who are interested in promoting Mazatlan -- can also help you with directions at the pier and along the road.
By Taxi: You'll need a cab to get to the Golden Zone (about four miles from the pier) or the gorgeous malecon. Cabs are readily available outside the cruise terminal as are open-air, golf-cart-type vehicles called pulmonias. The fare to either Old Mazatlan or the Golden Zone is about $10 per cab.
By Car: Major car rental locations are in town; National Car Rental is right at the pier.
As befits Mexico's western fishing center, Mazatlan has no shortage of seafood restaurants, both casual and upscale. Shrimp is king, and it's possible to indulge at nearly every meal. End your meal with candy made of coconut, which is grown south of the city.
In Old Mazatlan's historic center, there are numerous cafes on Plaza Machado to stop for lunch, a snack or a drink. Delirium Taco Bistro Galeria is an upscale restaurant/bar/art gallery that offers a fusion take on the traditional taco. (Sixto Osuna 24; open noon to 11 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
HelarteSano is the stop for ice cream, with refreshing flavors such as mango and passionfruit, as well as unusual ones such as mole. There's both a counter for cones and a sit-down caf?. (Carnaval 1129; open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily)
Walk a few blocks to Old Mazatlan's seaside area, and you'll find a row of charming seaside cafes. El Shrimp Bucket has the first of its restaurants now found at several Mexican resorts (Olas Altas 11; open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
In the Golden Zone, you'll find plenty of places to eat fresh fish and shrimp, most along Avenida Playa Gaviotas -- walk along and browse the menus posted out front. Pancho's Restoran has awesome fresh margaritas and excellent Mexican fare, not to mention a beachfront location (open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily). Joe's Oyster Bar at the Ramada is also a popular spot for cruise passengers (Avenida Camaron Sabalo; open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily).
Stone Island also has beach cafes along its sandy stretch. Molokay has a sprawling patio, free Wi-Fi and seafood-centric menu. At a stand outside, you can rent kayaks, ATVs and banana boats. Lety's on the beach also has lounge chairs that are free to use if you buy food and drink at the restaurant.
Mazatlan's cruise port shares space with commercial industrial activity -- and because it's a bustling cargo port, a free tram takes you among the shipping containers to the cruise terminal. There, you'll find a festive atmosphere with timeshare vendors trying to give you free rides (if you will look at their properties), craft vendors and shops, including a pharmacy where you can buy Viagra and other medications without a prescription. Tables are 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. Note: As of spring 2014, ATMs and the Internet cafe haven't returned to the terminal. When more ships start coming, port officials believe these companies will return to the complex.
As a city, Mazatlan is quite spread out. Make sure to allow enough time to make it back to the cruise terminal if you're heading to the Golden Zone or the malecon.
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.
Locals speak Spanish, but English is also widely spoken, particularly in shops and tourist venues.
You can buy all kinds of Mexican crafts and silver jewelry, as well as original art. In the Golden Zone, visit the shop Madonna for Mexican handicrafts. A good choice in Old Mazatlan, in addition to the bustling market, is Nidart Gallery, near the Angela Peralta Theater, where owner Loa Molina creates hand-made Carnival masks.
When you're on the Mexican Riviera, it's hard to turn down margaritas. The local beer is Pacifico, which has been brewed in the city since the Germans arrived in the 1800s.