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The Magic Of Mazatlan Land Of Fabulous Climate, Friendly People And Affordable Prices

The morning action on the beach at Las Gaviotas has changed little in over a century.

As the rising sun breaks over Mexico’s west coast and shines down on the city of Mazatlan, fishermen are polling their brightly colored skiffs ashore. Before long, a small crowd emerges from the foot of the city, bidding for the day’s catch and chattering about yesterday’s news.

For generations the families of Mazatlan have looked to the sea for their livelihood. Fishing is the lifeblood that grew this remote village into a bustling city. Even today, despite productive farms, a growing manufacturing base and a boom in tourism, the city continues to boast one of the largest shrimp fishing fleets in the world.

But commercial fishing alone does not put Mazatlan on the map these days. Sunshine, fabulous new resorts, great beaches and world-class sport fishing do.

In Mazatlan’s harbor there is one fleet that hasn’t stopped growing. More and more of the boats tied up at the docks are designed or being converted to carry growing numbers of anglers, many of whom travel thousands of miles just to stalk trophy blue marlin and sailfish on the Gulf of Cortes.

And as the fish mongering fades away under the heat of mid-morning sun, and noisy sea birds that had fought over handouts and scraps have scattered, the beaches are taken over by sun-starved North Americans. Mexicans and a few savvy sporting types have made holiday and vacation pilgrimages here for generations. “Fun” was a local staple long before Cancun was conceived, back when Puerto Vallarta was little more than a small, remote fishing village. Mexicans had begun to desert Acapulco because of its crowds, development and a penchant for dollars over pesos. Mazatlan, with its beautiful beaches, fabulous climate, affordable prices and friendly people, proved a winning alternative.

The area has always been frequented by hard-core sportsmen who came for the hunting, fishing and camping. But today’s crowd leans more towards families and couples. A large part of Mazatlan’s appeal is the fact that it is not an artificial, planned resort. It’s a real city, with real people, and the rhythm of life is apparent on every street corner. As a result, prices are still modest, beach vendors are more entertaining than annoying, and natural attractions have yet to be traumatized by the demands of mass tourism.

The “Old City” of Mazatlan, downtown, sits on a small peninsula protruding into the Pacific. The streets are quaint, narrow, and many remain cobbled, shaded by a lush growth of tropical trees and coconut palms.

While architecture does not appear spectacular, the mostly singlestory structures are typical of Mexican towns. Mazatlan was the hemisphere’s first west coast port city, occupied by Spanish explorers in 1576. The older buildings reflect this strong Spanish influence, with plain facades, though many have beautiful interior courtyards with gardens.

Near city center, where the streets are most crowded with activity, sits the Cathedral de los Azulejos (“of the glazed tiles”). With its peaked arches, imposing domes and two towering spires rising above the surrounding city, a Moorish influence is obvious in this big church.

Across the street is El Zocolo, the city square and a traditional gathering spot for locals. After visiting the cathedral, it would be a shame not to relax here on one of the many benches, enjoying the shade and aroma of the thick, lush growth of flowering trees.

During afternoon siesta, the park is packed with school children, lunching workers, and food vendors selling Mexican specialties from tiny carts (tasty but not recommended - healthwise - to the uninitiated). In the evening there is often musical entertainment with a lively tambora or mariachi band atop the picturesque band shell, while refreshments are served to merrymakers from a little bar directly beneath the platform.

A few blocks away is El Mercado, the original market place, and an interesting spot to shop for necessities as well as flowers, jewelry, native clothing and Mexican blankets. Beyond the Mercado lies Mazatlan’s enclosed commercial harbor used by the fishing fleet, cruise ships and the overnight ferry running from here to Cabo San Lucas near the tip of the Baja Peninsula.

Near the mouth of the harbor stand several prominent, rocky outcroppings, left over from ancient volcanic activity. Cerro de Vigia, also known as Lockout Mountain, was once used for that purpose by Spanish naval officers. If you make the 20-minute climb to the top, you will find the world’s oldest and second-highest manned lighthouse as well as the old cannon batteries. You are also rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the coastline, city and surrounding islands.

Another vista is atop Cerro de la Neveria, a giant stone with manmade tunnels that once stored the ice used to pack and preserve fish. A small restaurant, El Mirador, is on top and can be reached either by climbing the steep stairs from El Malecon or a short drive up the narrow, winding road behind. Either way, this is an ideal spot for lunch when in town or to enjoy an early dinner while watching the sunset.

Following the beaches north, a transition is evident. Suddenly the older Mexican city gives way to a newer neighborhood of hotels, condos, restaurants and upscale shopping. This northern area is appropriately named “The Golden Zone,” and even the beaches are wider, smoother and gentler.

In addition to night life, Mazatlan also has a reputation for dining - the genuinely fresh seafood that is well prepared, inexpensive and abundant in a town where the fleet is out casting nets all night. Dining spots preferred by visitors include The Lobster Trap, El Patio, Pepe Toro’s for steak, Senor Frogs and Banana Ranas for lively crowds, and Doney’s (downtown) for local specialties.

Above all, shrimp is what Mazatlan cuisine is famous for. Two spots are requisite to any seafood lover’s visit: the Shrimp Factory in Old Mazatlan and the Shrimp Bucket in the Golden Zone. Jumbo shrimp, pulled from the water only hours before, are served and sold by the pound (kilo actually, but who notices?), to enthusiastic connoisseurs who roll up their sleeves and gobble the tasty crustaceans as if they were peanuts. Prices are climbing, but are still less than half the cost of stateside restaurants, and the shrimp come prepared hot or cold with an assortment of delicious sauces.

By far the most famous of Mazatlan’s hotels is the locally owned El Cid. Already the largest resort in Mexico, the 900-acre complex continues to grow with construction under way on a new marina, second golf course, and a fourth hotel. It already boasts three hotels (El Moro, El Cid, and El Granada), with more than a thousand rooms, as well as 17 tennis courts, 16 restaurants, six pools, a water sports center, private golf course, and the largest disco on the west coast. The beauty and charm of Mazatlan is something Mexicans have known about for generations. The only wonder - and to some, a blessing - is that sun-starved Northerners have taken so long to discover it too.

MEMO: A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “If you go.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story and photos by Michael Peterson Special to Travel

A sidebar appeared with this story under the headline “If you go.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story and photos by Michael Peterson Special to Travel


 

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