By Jon Roe
Mazatlán is experiencing a resurgence. In the early part of this decade, cruise ships stopped anchoring in the Pacific port town, citing an increase in crime. Now, Mexico’s Pearl of the Pacific is seeing a tourism and construction boom, while reminding people why it was such an attractive destination in the first place.
I had never been to Mexico when I headed to Mazatlan for its annual Fiesta Amigos celebration. It’s easy to see why the city is appealing: lengthy beaches, award-worthy sunsets and a historic centre city with neoclassical architecture. The 20-plus-kilometre malecón, or oceanfront boardwalk, features photo-ops in front of monuments, spectacular ocean views and cliff divers. The city is a joy to traverse in open-air taxis (including the unique pulmonias) that blast mariachi music. And there are plenty of activities to partake in, including fishing, baseball games and tequila tasting.
The cruise companies are no longer worried about safety — 136 ships arrived in the city last year, a 47 per cent increase over 2018, and 150 more are expected in 2020 — but both the Canadian and U.S. governments have severe travel warnings for Mazatlán’s state of Sinaloa. The Canadian government warns visitors to avoid non-essential travel in all of the state except the city of Mazatlán and the U.S. government limits its employees in Mazatlán to the Zona Dorada, or Golden Zone, where many of the all-inclusive resorts are, or the historic town centre. Over five days I never felt unsafe but I took the sort of precautions I would in any large city — sticking with groups, avoiding late-night trips by myself. The headlines — and the warnings — are certainly scary, but it should not stop you from enjoying this beautiful city.
The city is changing rapidly in anticipation of a tourism boom by sea and by air (WestJet flies direct to Mazatlán multiple times a week during the high season of November to April). Construction dots the Cameron Sabalo Avenue and Avenue del Mar, the city’s oceanfront thoroughfares which connects the Zona Dorada and old Mazatlán. Across the city, the skeletons of new condos and hotels — six are expected to open in 2020 — are rising from empty lots.
Besides the obvious allure of warm weather — the temperature is fairly steady between 15 and 25 C during Canada’s winter — there are plenty of activities and tours to keep occupied. Our group took a tour to the nearby mangrove jungle, home to egrets, herons and pelicans, offered by King David Tours. The half-day boat tour over the Estero de Urias south of the city flew by with our affable tour guide Hugo, who told the story of Mazatlán and then tried — unsuccessfully — to get a pelican to grab a fish out of his hand on our return. The pelicans were more curious about our boat on the way there; several landed on the roof, inspecting us as we listened to Hugo.
The tour showcased the city’s south industrial shoreline, where Mazatlán’s other major, non-tourism industries are based: the Pacifico Brewery and fishing factories. Fishing is big business here and the port is home to large fleets of shrimp and tuna boats. The city’s restaurants are stocked with large shrimp — perfect for the best coconut shrimp you’ll ever have — and fresh tuna. Those looking to fish themselves can take part in sport fishing tours like those offered by the El Cid Resort’s Aries fishing fleet.
There are also trips offered by El Cid’s Pronatours that get you out of the city, where you can tour the more rustic villages, taste tequila or meet turtles at a nearby sanctuary.
The city’s centre historico is a must-see and is best traversed on foot. It’s home to cafes, an art nouveau-style central market — which serves locals with fresh meat and vegetables and tourists with knick-knacks and novelty T-shirts — and the Cathedral Basilica de la Inmaculada Conceptión, a stunning work of eclectic architecture with gothic and moorish influences and a beautifully detailed ceiling.
There’s plenty now to keep you occupied, but there is also more coming in the future. Mazatlán is in the midst of revitalizing its central Bosque de la Ciudad, currently a quiet lagoon and park. The first step was a renovation of Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, the home of the baseball team Venados de Mazatlán, which last year expanded the stadium’s capacity to 16,000 people. Baseball is as popular as soccer in some areas of Mexico and the Venados compete in the Mexican Pacific League, whose winner takes part in the Caribbean World Series each year. Major league baseball stars such as Carols Beltrán, Roberto Alomar, and David Ortiz have competed in the Caribbean World Series in the past; Estadio Teodoro Mariscal will host it in 2021. By then, nearby the stadium, construction will be well underway for a new museum and an upgrade to the city’s aquarium, built in partnership with the Vancouver Aquarium.
Despite the activities available in and around the city, the draw of cold drinks and suntanning at resorts in the Zona Dorada is strong. Resort companies like El Cid and Hoteles Palace offer family-friendly options or more upscale, quieter experiences with optional all-inclusive packages. There are pools and slides to appeal to the kids, and upscale restaurants and swim-up bars for the adults. There are daily activities like beach soccer and pool volleyball and the beach is livened up by mariachi bands. There’s also nothing quite like grabbing a tequila sunrise from the hotel bar to drink while the sunset paints the horizon and nearby islands — Isla de Parajos, Isla de Venados and Isla de Lobos (the Isle of Birds, Deer and Wolves, respectively) — shades of orange, pink, blue and purple.
Sunsets are a simple pleasure, but it highlights the beauty that Mazatlán has to offer. The coastal city is back on the map as a tourist destination for a good reason: with plenty of activities to offer and a stunning visual backdrop, it’s well worth the visit.
The Mazatlan Post