Mexico has many beach destinations with world-class resorts and palm-lined stretches of white sand. But there’s only one destination that can truly be called the country’s “Colonial City on the Beach.” That’s the city of Mazatlán, on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
Mazatlán was settled by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Today, the cobblestone streets of Old Mazatlán are lined with restaurants and hotels in restored buildings that evoke a Belle Epoque atmosphere. Highlights in the 175-block historic district are restored 19th-century buildings, such as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with its gilded triple altar; and Ángela Peralta Theater, where performances are still held. A good spot to take a break from sightseeing is Plazuela Machado, the city’s original plaza, which is lined with restaurants and cafes. During my recent visit to Mazatlán, I spent hours strolling the streets and capped it off with a dinner at Presidio Restaurant, an elegant restaurant in a restored 19th-century mansion.
While some resort destinations in Mexico are burnishing their appeal for high-spending travelers, Mazatlán is taking a different approach, and is targeting the mid-range traveler. The city is especially popular with snowbirds flying down from Canada and the U.S., as well as the domestic Mexico market. The city also has a large number of expatriates from the U.S. who are attracted by the affordable Mazatlán lifestyle.
Mazatlán Tourist Aides are blue-shirted volunteers — mostly expats — who are stationed at various points throughout the city, making themselves available to answer travelers’ questions. Mazatlán is a busy cruise ship port and the service can be a big help to cruise ship passengers who have limited time to explore the city.
Fans of beach cities such as Rio de Janiero and Santa Monica will appreciate the Mazatlán experience. In Mazatlán, hours could be spent exploring the city’s historic quarter, and then, turning on a dime, travelers could walk a few blocks to Las Olas Altas, the city’s main beach, for a cool dip in the waves and an al fresco lunch at a beachside palapa restaurant.
A large part of Mazatlán’s appeal is its beachfront malecón (boardwalk) which stretches 12 miles and bills itself as the largest boardwalk in the Americas. The malecón is the heartbeat of the city, where a constant flow of people stroll back and forth. There are numerous sculptures depicting a range of subjects: mermaids, dolphins, seahorses and a crowd favorite, Mazatlán-born movie star Pedro Infante aboard a motorcycle. There are scores of restaurants along the boardwalk, from informal beachfront palapa-style eateries to more established restaurants, such as the El Fish Market, and the family-friendly Shrimp Bucket.
Mazatlán also has the real deal appeal of being an industrial city — this is not a city that depends solely on tourism. Mazatlán is the center of Mexico’s shrimp industry, and travelers could spend a few days circumnavigating the array of dishes on offer, from bracing aquachiles and ceviches, to Mazatlán’s version of comfort food, bacon-wrapped shrimp. Mazatlan is also home to the Pacifico brewing company, and many meals are accompanied by buckets of iced beer. A highlight of my visit was the raucous “Las Changueras,” the shrimp-selling ladies along Aquiles Serdan in Old Mazatlán. Slow down for a look and you’re apt to have a huge shrimp thrust close to your face by a smiling vendor.
My recommendations for a Mazatlán visit is to spend a couple of days exploring Old Mazatlán and varying that with some time on the beach. A must is at least one trip in one of Mazatlán’s iconic taxis, open-air vehicles called pulmonía, which is Spanish for pneumonia.
Those with even more time should consider renting a car and making day-trips to some of the surrounding historic small towns, such as El Quelite, El Rosario and Cosalá. One of my most memorable mornings was breakfast in El Quelite at the restaurant El Mesón de los Laureanos, which had an open outdoor area with chickens, ducks and goats roaming free. A stroll through town brought me to the quaint church, on through the local cemetery, and finally to a fence-enclosed cockfighting ranch where fighting cocks were guarded by two huge German shepherds.
After spending a few days in Mazatlán, I felt like I’d experienced several different eras. I’d had a glimpse of colonial history in Old Mazatlán, and then a more immersive trip back to the 19th century touring the district’s restored buildings, a dash of 1950s-era dining in some of the venerable restaurants along the malecón, and then — here came the present-day — with young Mexicans strolling the malecón, taking selfies and proudly wearing the hippest brands.
Mark Rogers, Special for USA TODAY