This article is from the August – September 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
Old Mazatlán, Newer Isn’t Always Better
by David Simmonds
I hate being one of these people who basks in the memory of “the good old days.” I really do. I think I’m a fairly progressive person, one who listens to the music of Jewel and the Wallflowers, wears baggie swim shorts (actually leftovers from when they were popular two decades ago), and can cruise the net as fast as my aging modem capacity will allow. I’m a social liberal who embraces change, anticipating the millennium with excitement, knowing new ideas will abound and shape a different world for my son. Change is coming…except, of course, for our two political parties who have surreptitiously merged into one. However, I have bemusedly noted that not everything is necessarily improved by change. The Ford Mustang and rock-and-roll music quickly come to mind. Now add to that list the once beautiful sandy coastline running several miles north from old Mazatlán. This is the new Mazatlán, and friends, it’s a where-was the-local-planning-department mess. It’s like going to a frat party that never ends. Animal House without the college degree. Sure, you can have some fun for a day or so, but then the hangover sets in, and all you want is some QUIET. Or at least some cultural landmarks to remind you that you have traveled a far distance at considerable expense.But then, maybe that is part of the problem. Comparatively, you can go to Mazatlán fairly inexpensively. This is the “package deal” Mecca of Mexico. Three and four day junkets are available from many of the U.S. cities for about the price of a good VCR. Many of the people arriving on these deals get off the plane running, and they don’t stop until it’s time to return home sporting skin the color of Bazooka bubble gum. They like those goofy straw hats that they toss to the bottom of their closets when they get home, never to wear again. Ask them if they have been to the colorful mercado in town and you are looked at as if you had just dropped in from Pluto or Roswell. Don’t even think of discussing Mexican politics or history.
I won’t waste a lot of space here describing what it used to be like, other than that I liked it a lot. Camping in one of the campgrounds on that gorgeous beach with the unparalleled sunsets, perfect waves for body-surfing and meeting other travelers either coming or going further into the interior…that was what Mazatlán was to me. It is the setting of many of my best Mexico memories.
ALL IS NOT LOST
Although Mazatlán has been long known for its fishing and beaches, it has a rich history pre-dating the arrival of the Spaniards. And it is the old section of town, around the Olas Altas beach area, that is now a far more interesting place to visit than the tourist zone to the north.In the 17th century Mazatlán became an important port for exploration of the Baja California peninsula. Later on it was a major port for Spanish galleons sailing to and from Manila. The gold and silver from the nearby Sierra Madre were loaded onto ships and attracted some of the notorious pirates of the day, including Sir Francis Drake.
At about the time of Mexico’s independence in 1821, many German immigrants settled in Mazatlán, bringing with them farming skills and supplies that turned the surrounding barren soil into a fertile garden. The German community flourished and at one point even took over control of the expanding port. The German influence is in evidence today in Mazatlán’s regional music, employing brass instruments and drums. It is also seen in the Pacífico brewery whose origins are German. 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.
The wealth of that time is in evidence today in Mazatlán Viejo and the large elegant houses and buildings that have survived. The old town consists of a twenty-block area basically comprising the area from the Plaza Pricipal to the Olas Altas waterfront.
The center and heart of the city is Plaza Principal (also known as Plaza Revolución) with its neo-Gothic, twin-spired cathedral, Basílica de la Immaculada Concepción. Day and night the plaza bustles with Mazatlecos shopping, eating and lamenting the daily turn of events. I like a plaza with mango trees; I know I’m approaching the tropics and life is going to slow down a notch.Two blocks up Calle Benito Juarez from the plaza sits the mercado municipal, one of the truly great markets in Mexico. Because of its proximity to the agricultural diversity of the Los Mochis/Culiacan area to the north, the tropical fruits to the south, and the bountiful Pacific to the west, the market displays an amazing array of fresh foods for remarkable prices. Even more amazing to me is that the perishables (fish, meat, and poultry) are now actually refrigerated, although this has changed the smell of the building considerably. I was also surprised to see far more meat than fish stalls. I know they are still taking a lot of fish out of the sea, so most of it must be sent elsewhere, to world markets far and wide.
While visiting the market, try one of the small restaurants upstairs. I recently had a fresh fish lunch that was perfect…sitting on a balcony overlooking the street. The food, the street scene, an occasional flash of lightning out over the Pacific, a terminally slow waitress…all for about three bucks, including beverage and tip. Try that back home.
A few blocks from the Plaza Principal, on the way to Olas Altas is the Plazuela Machado.
This is the jewel and focus of the restoration that is being spearheaded by the Old Mazatlán Association. Named for a Filipino immigrant, Juan Machado, the plaza is the antithesis of the tourist areas that rock and roll day and night. Most people are astonished to find such a refined and genteel oasis in this town of fun and sun. At one time the plaza was the commercial center of the city, but now is being resurrected as the cultural and entertainment center. Its outdoor cafes and old stately buildings are attracting the intellectual and artistic community of Mazatlán, as well as travelers looking for a break from the fast lane. And now is a good time to see it, before the word gets out and it gets overrun with fellow gringos, all looking for the authentic Mexican scene. Let’s hope the Hard Rock doesn’t pay a visit in search for future sites.
Just off the corner of the Plaza Machado is the Teatro Angela Peralta, built in 1865 as the Teatro Rubio. It is now fully restored after five years of work. Angela Peralta was a much admired opera star from the 19th century who, after giving her only Mazatlán performance, died of yellow fever in the hotel Iturbides, next door to the theater. Her remains now lie in the Rotunda de Hombres Ilustres in Mexico City. Entertainment of all varieties is now performed in this beautiful building, and you can also tour it during the day from 9 am to 6 pm for a mere three pesos.
Plan on having lunch or dinner at Plaza Machado. I especially enjoyed Cafe Pacífico and the restaurant next door, Hostería Machado. You might think you are in Pamplóna (without the bulls). This is where you can meet the intellectual and rising-class people of the city, many of whom will confide to you that they rarely go to the Zona Dorada, the tourist strip of hotels to which I have alluded.
One of the most striking aspects of Mazatlán Viejo is how many stately old buildings stand empty, presumably waiting to be restored. It’s hard to believe that the process of rehabilitation hasn’t progressed further than it has. I am sure that lack of money is an issue, but there must be some good deals available. As they say in real estate and youth tennis camps, “there’s tremendous potential there.” These buildings need to be used and lived in. It’s very rare to have an historical area like this in a coastal city. Acapulco is the only other one in Mexico, the other major port city on the West coast. Whenever I visit a colonial town I always think, “This is great…now if only there were a beach down the street.” Mazatlán has a great beach down the street.
PLAYA OLAS ALTAS
This was the beach when Mazatlán first became a tourist destination, primarily by sport-fishermen. John Wayne used to keep a boat here. Later the surfers discovered why it was named Olas Altas (tall waves). Best of all, this beach hasn’t changed much over the years. The entire stretch of sand, located between rocky points, is fairly short, perhaps a seven minute walk end-to-end on a parallel sidewalk. There are two hotel choices you should consider. The six-story Hotel Belmar is the more run-down of the two, but you can get an ocean-front room with balcony for about $16US. And it’s not really in bad shape, although it could use a little spruce job after eighty years in business.My choice, and I think this is one of the best room deals in all of Mexico, is the Hotel La Siesta. It too faces the ocean with second and third story balconies. The ocean-front rooms are almost entirely glass, looking out to one of the best sunset views you will ever see. They come air-conditioned, clean and fully equipped, with all the ocean breeze you can handle. The balconies are full sized, running the width of the room…the kind of balcony you can actually use instead of those claustrophobic, foot-wide diving platforms you encounter at so many high rise tourist zone hotels. There are perhaps quieter rooms in the back, overlooking the inner courtyard, but you should opt for the ocean-front.
The floor level of the hotel houses the popular El Shrimp Bucket restaurant, the flagship of the country-wide Carlos Anderson’s chain of restaurants. Besides serving some of the best seafood in Mazatlán, this is a good place to get your day started with a plate of machaca and a bracing cup of café. You’ll meet some of the old-time expats of Mazatlán here, as well as down the street at La Copa de Leche, a long-time open-air restaurant that the tourists have now been avoiding in great numbers for years. It’s a swell place to sit for a bite and a cold beer, knowing that forty years have not changed the place at all.
Just south of the Playa Olas Altas the road curves around a rocky outcropping to El Faro, the second highest lighthouse in the world at almost 500 feet. For a spectacular view, walk the trail that leads up to the top. From here you can see north up to the tourist zone, the city, and to the south, the sportfishing fleet and harbor. That tall building just past the town center is the Pacifíco brewery. You might be able to arrange a tour if you inquire.
Just south of the lighthouse, across the water, you will see Isla de la Piedras. You can take a boat for three pesos to get there (it’s not actually an island, but a peninsula). This is a nice way to spend a day, walking to the far side where there is a long, sandy beach and several palapa restaurants. The last boat stops running at 6:00 pm.
THE OTHER BEACHES
The several-mile-long beach you usually see in postcards of Mazatlán is Playa Norte. This was the second wave of tourist development that occurred during the sixties and early seventies. The hotels are not in the luxury category and are uniformly moderately priced. Any guidebook or travel agent can locate one for you, but frankly, this stretch has never appealed to me. All of the hotels are on the east side of the heavily traveled Paseo Claussen, opposite the ocean. The beach here can get some heavy surf, so swim with caution.Proceeding north, the next point of separation is Punta Camaron. This is the start of the massive row of hotels that have blighted this once pristine strip of coastline, commonly referred to as the Zona Dorada. Ironically, the first hotel built here is the one I would recommend today. The Hotel Playa Mazatlán retains an authentic ambience of Old Mexico, without the garishness of the nearby El Cid Resort.
Other good possibilities are the co-owned Motel Marley and Suites Linda Mar. These beach-front, small properties have one and two bedroom units with kitchens on nicely landscaped grounds. Although reservations are desirable, there were vacancies available on my recent trip. The clientele is somewhat older than at many of the larger resorts, and thus, serenity and quiet are two common characteristics. An ocean-front double is currently $55US.
In the upper-end category, the now twenty-year-old Camino Real and the five-star Pueblo Bonita will give you your $100US per night value. Actually, none of the Mazatlán hotels are in the same class as their counterparts in Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco or Cancun.
For a hotel off the beach in the Zona Dorada, you might try Hotel Plaza Gaviotas. Located across from the Hotel Playa Mazatlán, the Plaza Gaviotas offers spacious, clean rooms for a good price in a relatively quiet setting
Near the Camino Real a new, massive marina is being built. Beyond here the road continues north for a few miles where little has been built, but much is planned. And although all beaches in Mexico are public and not private, they have made it difficult to access much of the coastline along this stretch.
IT’S WORTH THE TRIP
So, you may be wondering, is Mazatlán a city I want to visit? And the answer is: probably. The beaches are fine, there are numerous activities to pursue (fishing, kayaking, golf, tennis, surfing, jungle tours, nearby hunting, vegetating), plenty of fresh seafood and you can party till you drop. The old town section is coming along nicely and it is basically a friendly, tolerant section of the city. There are art galleries, musical concerts, plays, an archaeological museum and an aquarium. The weather is nearly perfect, despite the occasional hurricane. And compared to Cancun, the prices to eat, sleep and drink are very reasonable.Like any place, you can search for the best and ignore the worst. And if you do, Mazatlán will leave you satisfied and glad that you went. I think.