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.
While Mazatlan has had times when crime has kept cruise ships away, the city has rebounded since 2013. Attractions have been added and city officials have made it easier for tourists to find their way around.
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 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.
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. There's no ATMs in the terminal, however.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cafe.
(Carnaval 1129; open 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday; 8 am. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday)
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 Restorant 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.
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.