Going Back To Find The Real Mazatlan

The first time I went to Mazatlan with my wife to be, we danced on the bar of the Bora Bora nightclub. Fifteen years and several pounds later, we returned to see how much it, or we, had changed.


Perhaps because we spent too much time in nightclubs back then, we never fully captured the sense of the real Mazatlan. Going back we gained a deeper appreciation of so much more of what there is to see and do, as well as how large a city Mazatlan is. What seemed like a small community then is actually a city with a population of more than 600,000.


And while it didn’t feel the early growth pains of some of other Mexican tourist regions, over the last few years Mazatlan has experienced significant expansion with the construction of new condominiums, vacation homes, and even additional hotel properties, all of which are extending the outer limits of the hotel zone.


With fifty percent of the economy driven by tourism trade, Mazatlan and Sinaloa, the state in which it resides, are working hard to make their infrastructures more and more amenable to those of us who choose to visit there.


Fifteen years ago we virtually ignored the Old Mazatlan section. But today it is going through a significant renaissance. Historic colonial style buildings are being renovated and restored. The arts community has found in it an arena for expression. Businesses are setting up shop to serve the tourists who take one of the city tours, or who simply decide to wander through it to catch a piece of Mazatlan history. And the old market, traditionally a produce and meat outlet for locals, is fast becoming a tourist must-stop shopping destination.


Tour guides already boast that its Mardi Gras, after Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, is the third largest in the world in celebration, parade and attendance. For anyone who has been to New Orleans, a walk through this section of the city can almost convince you that you are actually in that Louisiana French Quarter. It’s as though its distinctive colonial architecture, complete with overhanging balconies and colourful facades, have been lifted and transported here. While it may take a few more years for it to carry the luster of the complete New Orleans flavor, it already possesses a personality of its own, that will be shaped into a prime attraction sooner rather than later.


A decade and a half ago, few cruise ships selected Mazatlan as a port of call. Carnival Cruise Lines now makes several stops here a week, and with the help and commitment of the cruise industry, the Malacon, the sheltered walkway on the beach that fronts many of the restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues, has been recreated and today is one of the longest, widest, and most interesting in Mexico. Fascinating sculptures dot the several-mile walkway which extends well into Old Mazatlan. Restaurants and shops have opened to satisfy the voracious appetite of food, photo, and souvenir hungry cruisers, as well as the one week winter escape artists like ourselves.


On our first trip, late nights and subsequent late mornings helped dissuade us from taking any excursions. Fairly speaking, many of these have been enhanced since the cruise industry and expanding tourist market ensured sufficient demand for tour operators to succeed. Today it is hard to chose between Tequila tours, turtle hatchery excursions, or the numerous others that offer glimpses of a region rich in history and scenery.


You can capture a feel for rural Mexico in colonial villages like Copala, situated near the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range. In this country, which is almost 100% Catholic, the San Jose Church, dating back to the 1600s, still stands as an architectural and religious icon for the region.


Activity-driven tourists today often look for more than unending days of sun and beach. Golf, tennis, and water sports help balance the caloric intake one is almost certain to succumb to as most all inclusive plans offer 4- and 5- course a la carte menus, in addition to the option-laden, sagging buffet tables.


The El Cid Resort complex, one of the largest in Mexico, offers all of these activities to their guests and other visitors. A 27-hole course, featuring nine Lee Trevino signature designed holes, is only a five-minute walk from the main resort, and is usually full every morning. Tennis courts buzz with activity in the evening and guests have full access to both a fitness studio and the spa treatment of their choice.


But it is sun and sand that attracts most of us during the cold months of  the winter. The Mazatlan beaches are as excellent as any anywhere. The tide rises and falls during the day, leaving wide stretches of damp, fine sand walking and jogging tracts. The only detriment to an extended walk along a Mazatlan beach is the gauntlet of hawkers you will have to pass. They are a fact of life at almost every beach in Mexico, and I am convinced there are more per square mile than anywhere else. Even they can provide the occasional lift to your day as I found when one of them said, “Meester, please stop and look at some of my Mexican junk.”


Fishing boats sit there today, but while relaxing on the beach soaking up the sun and looking at the islands that jut out on the horizon, you can almost visualize the pirate ships that once sailed here waiting to pillage the new silver coming from the mines that once were the economic foundation of the region.


Going back to Mazatlan was an exceptional experience. While the Bora Bora club still exists, we did not go inside. It is clear the demographic has shifted and it now attracts a much younger market. Or perhaps we just didn’t notice the difference then.


The sunsets are still as romantic and beautiful as ever. And today’s Mazatlan has so much to offer. It can be what you want it to be; quiet and sedate, or a place for non-stop entertainment and action.


There are many places on this planet we have not yet seen, and still want to visit. But we hope we will return here again at least once more. It not only rekindles old memories but is an excellent place to ignite new ones as well.


If you go:


For entertainment: Valentino’s is the new disco-style nightclub that fills up early every night. Senior Frog’s is an institution that everyone should spend at least one evening experiencing. Don’t miss seeing the cliff divers; they dive from a high rock formation high above the waters below.

Where to Stay: While we found everything excellent at the five-star El Cid, particularly the quality of the food in all the restaurants, including the buffet. But there is also an exceptionally good selection of multi-star properties from which to choose.

Where not to Shop: Remember that almost all the silver available on the beach is plated. For the real thing you need to go to one of the jewelry shops in town. Even here you can often negotiate.

Getting Around: Public transportation is efficient, inexpensive and often used by tourists going from the hotel zone to stops along the Malacon. A more unique option is the Pulmonia, the oversized golf cart that is commonly used by tourists.

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