Like most countries with strong culinary traditions, the secret to falling in foodie love with Mexico is getting to know regional cuisine. From the cattle ranches of northern Mexico to the famed cheese of Oaxaca, there are treats that evokes a feeling of place in every corner of the country. In Mazatlan, a mid-sized Pacific Coast city in the state of Sinaloa, that local delicacy is most definitely shrimp.
Walking through the street markets in Mazatlan’s city centre, the abundance of shrimp becomes immediately obvious. Vendors known informally as the Mazatlan Shrimp Ladies sit in front of barrels of fresh shrimp that range in size from an inch or two to half a foot in length, all available for just a few pesos. The raw shrimp comes straight off the boat: Locals will take it home to cook, but I walked across the street to a cantina where the kitchen cooked them up for a nominal fee. This is just one of the many ways to enjoy the bounty of the Pacific in Mazatlan, but feels particularly emblematic of this relaxed city’s key industry.
Mazatlan is on the coast of Mexico’s mainland, directly east of the tip of the Baja Peninsula across the Gulf of California. This all makes it prime fishing territory for shrimp, marlin, octopus, sardines, oysters and other fruit of the sea. Shrimp, however, is Mazatlan’s most famous export (with the possible exception of Pacifico beer, whose brewing facility is also on the Mazatlan coast) — the city is the self-proclaimed “shrimp capital of the world.”
Visitors looking for a touch of agri-tourism can see dozens of shrimp boats for themselves on a cruise down the shoreline. I took a “jungle cruise” with King David Tours that started near the Mazatlan Lighthouse and then went along the coast and then through a series of mangrove-lined waterways. The line of boats along the shore illustrated just how mighty the industry is in Mazatlan during shrimping season, which stretches from September to March. The King David tour eventually landed at a secluded coconut farm and a rustic outdoor restaurant called Lupita’s where we dined on plates of cooked-to-order shrimp covered with coconut, garlic butter or a spicy sauce. Sinking my teeth into the shrimp and sipping on a Pacifico less than an hour after passing both the fishing boats and the brewery on a 45-person boat somehow makes both the seafood and the beer taste even better.
While the Shrimp Ladies may provide the peak Mazatlan shrimp experience, hitting the streets and markets looking for food can prove to be intimidating to some tourists (especially those who don’t speak Spanish), which is where a good guide can come in handy. There are many street food guides available for tours in Mazatlan — I headed out with Gustavo of Gustavo’s Kitchen and Catering. We started at the carts surrounding the Plaza Republica near the Mazatlan Cathedral, stopping for deep-fried tacos filled with crispy dried shrimp. The local custom is to pour tomato consommé over the hard taco shell so that it softens and can be eaten with a spoon. Typically, food carts are positioned next to drink carts selling agua fresca — I tried tuba, a concoction involving fermented coconut sap that is surprisingly delicious. Later, I try a similar refresher called agua de cebada, which is made with barley, and like it even more. Hydration is, after all, essential when spending the day in the hot Mexican sun.
Next up, Gustavo leads me into the Mercado Pino Suarez, a maze of vendors selling fresh vegetables, meat, candy, and, of course, seafood.