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The Awe of Old Mazatlan

Elizabeth Gold, a former journalist, is an international health communications specialist living in Charlottesville, Va

So you’ve been to Cancun, had a good time, but felt as though you just vacationed in Florida. Everyone spoke English. You ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, paid for your margaritas with dollars and searched in vain for the guy with the sombrero riding his donkey down cobblestone streets. When you got home, your friends told you that you hadn’t seen the “real Mexico.”

My family and I-husband, Mark, and 5-year-old son, Sebastian-recently returned from Mazatlan, where we lived and worked for two sometimes frustrating but always genuine years. In our time there, we poked into many of the corners of this city of about 500,000 and learned many of the secrets that ensure visitors see the authentic article.

Mazatlan, on the northern Pacific Coast in Sinaloa state and surrounded by the Sierra Madre Occidental, is Mexico’s largest Pacific port. It was settled by the Spanish in 1531, but it wasn’t incorporated into a city until the early 1800s. Unlike other vacation destinations that were developed to attract the tourist dollar, Mazatlan is, first and foremost, a flourishing seaport, so it feels more like a fishing town than a tourist trap. (One of the benefits of this: A thriving shrimp industry means the shellfish is wonderfully fresh and can be prepared in a variety of ways.) In the 1940s, Hollywood celebrities, mostly fishing fanatics, began to discover this little pocket of paradise. But with the rising popularity of Cabo, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan seems to have fallen off the tourist radar.

That’s puzzling, because there are plenty of attractions-long stretches of beautiful beach, perfect weather from November through April, water sports, sailing, golf, great fishing and killer sunsets. In fact, my husband and I were watching the sun set behind the Pacific the night we decided that the pros outweighed the cons and that we would relocate to Mazatlan from central Virginia.

You won’t find the big chain hotels here, a double-edged sword for the tourism industry. The city has avoided homogenization, retaining its charm and some local ownership of its resorts. But without the clout and guaranteed numbers that big chains bring, the destination can’t attract as many flights as it would like. That could change: Construction is scheduled to begin in November on a Hilton hotel at a property near the airport that features a beautiful golf course on the Pacific.

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Visitors could spend an entire vacation in the tourist area, the Zona Dorada or Golden Zone, and never venture to the old part of town, but I think they would miss what makes Mazatlan special.

If you can pull yourself away from the beach, take one morning to head downtown to Viejo, or Old, Mazatlan, an area that’s being partly restored. If you prefer a guided tour, stop by the office of Pronatours in the lobby of El Moro tower (part of El Cid Resorts) and sign up for the city tour. If you’re more like us (and would rather sit in traffic on a sweltering day with a screaming child than join a tour), jump in an open-air taxi, or pulmonia. If your hotel doorman asks you whether you want an “open” or “closed” taxi, the answer is definitely “open” for optimal sunshine and photo opportunities. There are no meters, so it’s always best to negotiate the price before getting into the cab.

We opted for the open taxi on that pivotal spring weekend in 1998 when we came here to see whether we could live in a place that, just a few weeks before, we had known nothing about. I insisted on seeing two things: a grocery store, a practical request for a young family, and the old part of town, to satisfy my desire to live somewhere that was aesthetically pleasing. Mazatlan exceeded my expectations on both counts.

Once we were settled and living here, the trip to the old part of town became a Sunday morning routine. We would head downtown along the Malecon, a combination boulevard/walkway/boardwalk that follows the Pacific Coast for 10 miles. It’s great for walking, jogging, bike riding, roller-blading, stroller pushing or people watching-and tricycle riding, Sebastian discovered when he learned to maneuver his three-wheeler. It’s busiest on Sunday afternoons and evenings, when families and young couples stroll up and down.

We would make our way to Olas Altas (‘high waves’) and start with a breakfast at Copa de Leche or the Shrimp Bucket. At Copa, we would sit in the sidewalk cafe and enjoy the view and, often, some live guitar music. The Shrimp Bucket serves a great breakfast, particularly the heaping basket of pan dulce (sweet rolls), shrimp omelets and fresh juices. Breakfast here is a tradition among the local Mazatlecos, while dinner, which I don’t recommend, seems to attract more tourists.

Our driver did a good job showing us the sites on that first visit, but we soon learned that the best way to see the old part of the city is on foot. From the Shrimp Bucket it’s an easy walk to Plazuela Machado, in the heart of the old city at Carnaval and Constitucion avenues. The plaza is surrounded by charming colonial-style buildings, most of them converted into cafes and restaurants.

One of our favorite dinner spots, Pedro y Lola, is on the plaza; you can eat outdoors or in. Whenever family came to visit, we took them here for dinner, and it got rave reviews, even from my older sister, the culinary maven. We always started with the garlic mushrooms and shrimp ceviche. For the main course? The Pedro and Lola Shrimp, of course, made with a Grand Marnier sauce. If you choose to eat outside, be sure to take a look inside at the paintings by local artists displayed in this 19th century building.

Stop in the Angela Peralta Theater, a stunning 19th century opera house named for Mexico’s diva of the day. The 1860s building is ornate Italian style with Mexican accents. As you enter, you’ll see a huge open atrium, which was designed to keep theater-goers cool before the days of air-conditioning. The theater has a dramatic history of its own: After an initial failure, it changed hands and was renovated. With its new-found elegance, it attracted Peralta, known as “the Nightingale of Mexico,” but she fell ill-some say cholera, others say yellow fever-and died in 1883 without ever performing in the theater that would bear her name. Renovated and restored after damage from hurricanes and humans, the theater today plays an important role in training children in the arts. With nightly music and dance performances, it is also the center of Mazatlan’s annual November cultural festival.

Just a few blocks from the theater is the Plaza Repblica, also known as Plaza Revolucion, Mazatlan’s oldest square and the center of town. Musicians often entertain on Sunday afternoons. At Christmastime my son and his friends loved to visit the life-size creche in the square, which was inhabited by live rabbits, donkeys and goats. Directly across the street from the plaza is the cathedral, built in 1875, whose blue and gold spires (added in 1935) are a city landmark.

For shopping in this area, we used to stop at the central market (mercado), where we could find nearly everything, from clothing, leather goods and handicrafts to meat, seafood, produce and tacos, at prices that seemed more reasonable than anywhere else in town. It’s not for everybody, though. When my mother visited, she had seen enough (and smelled enough raw fish) after five minutes. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, spent hours wandering around, finding bargains on blankets, handicrafts and gifts to take to friends in L.A.

For a real taste of Mexican handicrafts-ceramics, jewelry, masks and more-I recommend Viejo Mazatlan, a new gallery/store offering high-quality arts and crafts created by indigenous Mexican cooperatives, many under the Fair Trade Initiative. (This means that more of the profit goes directly to the artists rather than to middlemen.) The shop is one block from the Plaza Machado, across from the Panama Bakery. I furnished half of my Virginia home with treasures from this shop. The gallery’s owner, artist Elaine Kemp, recently added a back room for showing paintings by local artists.

Before returning to your hotel, ask your taxi driver to show you the view from El Cerro del Vigia, or Lookout Hill, above Olas Altas. You can see both sides of Mazatlan, the harbor and the Pacific. Several times when I was feeling beaten down by the daily frustrations of adapting to another culture, the climb up this hill and the view restored my spirits.

As tempting as it is to relax on the beach all day, Mazatlan is well situated for exploring. Several interesting and easy day trips will give you a feel for a typical Mexican colonial village. Despite my allergy to tours, I like the country tour offered by several of the local tour operators. We visited two picturesque villages: Concordia, known primarily for handcrafted furniture and clay pottery, and Copala, an old mining town at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Its cobblestone streets, red tile rooftops, charming town square and 1740 church fulfilled my vision of a Mexican village.

Don’t leave Copala without trying the banana coconut cream pie served at Daniel’s and Copala Butter Co.

About a 35-minute drive from Mazatlan (on the road to La Noria) is Rancho las Moras, a 19th century ranch at the foot of the mountains where tequila was once made. You can spend the night in one of the casitas featuring authentic Mexican furnishings and art, or just go for the day and have lunch, take a horseback ride and have a dip in the pool. The casitas go for about $200 a night. We spent our 11th anniversary weekend there, and because it was June and the slow season, it felt like vacationing on our own private estate. The service can be slow in the poolside restaurant, so be prepared to have a leisurely lunch, and don’t go there hungry.

We found the hacienda to be an ideal day trip with our son. Peacocks wander the property, and there are ducks, pigs, horses, baby goats and rabbits to keep the kids entertained while you wait for lunch. It’s better to go early in the day; horseback riding stops around 3:30 p.m. A steep walk up to the chapel on the hill is worth the climb for a view of the Sierra Madre foothills and valley.

When friends ask me now whether I miss Mazatlan, my answer is an emphatic yes. I don’t miss the heat and humidity of August, or standing in line at the phone company to pay the bill. (If you’re visiting and plan well, you’ll miss both those experiences.) We’re back in the States now, but we’ve brought home the best parts of Mazatlan. When my son sprinkles chile on his watermelon, can’t fathom a party without a pinata and jumps up to dance in the middle of a restaurant, we know that’s Mazatlan’s gift to its visitors, no matter how long they stay.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Guidebook: Inside Mazatlan

* Getting there: From LAX, nonstop service to Mazatlan is offered on Alaska and Aero California, and connecting service is offered on Aero California, America West, Mexicana and Aeromexico. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $200.

* Where to stay: Mazatlan does not offer a wide selection of luxury hotels, but the upside is that prices are more reasonable here than in other Pacific Coast towns. By far the nicest options are the Marina El Cid, where we stayed on our initial visit, and the Pueblo Bonito. Marina El Cid, Avenida Camaron Sabalo S/N, P.O. Box 813, Mazatlan, Sinaloa 82110, telephone (800) 525-1925, fax 011-52-69-14-1311, Internet https://www.elcid.com, is a low-rise, Mediterranean-style hotel with two swimming pools, one with water slides and caves, and a hot tub. Every room has a marina view, and some have ocean view. A free shuttle service takes guests to El Cid’s other properties (Castilla, El Moro, Granada, Country Club), where they can take advantage of the fitness center and spa, water sports, 27 holes of golf, tennis, shops and restaurants. Doubles begin at $115.

The Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Bonito Hotels and Resorts, 220 Surrey Drive, Bonita, CA 91202, tel. (800) 990-8250, fax (619) 267-6698, https://www.pueblobonito .com, is an all-suites beachfront hotel. Doubles begin at $160 until April 30. A more moderately priced option is the Hotel Playa Mazatlan, 202 Rodolfo T. Loaiza, P.O. Box 207, Mazatlan, Sinaloa 82110; tel. (800) 762-5816, fax 011-52-69- 140-366, https://www.playamazatlan .com.mx. Doubles begin at $89.

* Where to eat: Mazatlan’s best bets for breakfast are Copa de Leche, 1220 Olas Altas, local tel. 982-5753, where you can get American or Mexican-style breakfasts for $5 to $7. The Shrimp Bucket, below the Hotel La Siesta, tel. 981-6350, offers great omelets, fresh-squeezed juices and pan dulce. Breakfasts run about $5. For excellent shrimp dishes, Pedro y Lola, 1303 Carnaval, tel. 982-2589; dinner for two runs about $40. For a kid-friendly, party atmosphere and good food, try Guadalajara Grill, 335 Avenida Camaron Sabalo, tel. 913-5065.

* For more information: The Mazatlan Hotel Assn. Web site at https://www.gomazatlan.com. Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., 5th Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; tel. (213) 351-2069, fax (213) 351-2074, https://www.mexico-travel.com.


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