My City Pick for 2011 – Mazatlán

By David Simmonds

One of things I like best about Mexico is its diversity, from blazing desert, to nose-bleed high mountains, to dense monkey-dwelling jungles, to thousands of miles of undeveloped, pristine beaches. There is the cosmopolitan, worldly chic of Mexico City and Monterrey sharply contrasting the many hidden indigenous villages that have remained mostly unchanged for centuries. After over 40 years of traveling this great country, I have seen, if not all, a good portion of it.

My first trip to Mazatlán was in an old VW van in the summer of 1970. After driving south for several days through the Sonora desert from San Diego (spending several days in San Carlos north of Guaymas at the Catch-22 movie set) we were ready for the sun and warm-water waves that we had been promised in the early guide books. We limped into the Mar Rosa campground on the Sabalo beach north of town, a place I would return to nearly every summer for the next decade. After camping for days of surfing and Coleman-stove meals it was always time to clean-up for a day. So we would get a room at the Playa Mazatlán Hotel just down the beach from the campground for the then wallet-emptying $50 splurge. Many of my best memories can be traced to that beautiful stretch of beach plotting with my friends how we would stay out of the dreaded “rat-race” that awaited us back home.

I hadn’t been to Mazatlán for about 10 years when I was recently invited on a trip to stay at – The Playa Mazatlán! Anxious to see how the town had changed, and to visit the sanctuary hotel from my van days, I “hell yes, sign me up” accepted. Good choice.

As it always has been, Maz is a very easy town to like. The pace is slow and the locals display a sophisticated, worldly friendliness as a testament to an interesting mix of its native and European roots. Many Germans settled in the area in the early 1800’s, bringing farming skills that turned the region into a major agriculture center. The early German influence is evidenced today in the local music that employs brass instruments and drums, as well as the venerable Pacifico brewery. The growing city also attracted a multi-cultural population of Japanese, Chinese, Greeks and Americans. In the early 1800’s the city had become a major trade center. Today it so remains, hosting a large percentage of the port business in tuna and shrimp from the Pacific and the Sea of Cortez. Once the railroad arrived about a hundred years ago, the city was connected to commerce by land and sea.

Mazatlán continues to evolve. For whatever reason, it has never become a beach tourist-magnet like Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta or Cancun. They have instead focused on developing a more cultural setting, featuring a very impressive “old town” section of centuries-old restored buildings with sidewalk cafés, that tell the story of the town’s rich history, as well as a world-class opera, stage productions, and a symphony orchestra. They relate to San Francisco and Boston more than Miami and Malibu.

But don’t sell the sun ‘n sand scene short – not at all. As I told people on my recent visit, Maz might have my favorite beaches in Mexico. The water is warm, the waves abundant, and the sun frequent. And as a bonus, the hotel options range from basic to fabulous, all for a fraction of the price as the aforementioned destinations.

We strive to keep our posts shorter than magazine articles on this web site, so I will continue to write more about Mazatlán throughout the year, featuring resorts, events, expat news, etc. I am glad to see that I was right about this place 40 years ago. This is a great city that more people should know about.