Mazatlan: Mexico’s Pearl of the Pacific
Mexico is the sixth most-visited nation in the world, and the government and tourist board go to great lengths to support the country as a major destination.
A big part of that is the Mexico Tourist Board’s annual Tianguis Turistico summit, held in a different location each year. The purpose is to market and showcase the country’s 31 diverse states by bringing together trade exhibitors, travel industry professionals, buyers, and media from around the world.
I attended this year’s three-day event, which took place in the sun-drenched seaside Pacific resort city of Mazatlan in the state of Sinaloa.
Long before Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, and Cabo San Lucas took center stage as Mexico’s permanent beach-holiday hotspots, Mazatlan was dazzling Hollywood elites like John Wayne and John Huston, lured here by the excellent sportfishing.
Since the mid-1950s, visitors to the “Pearl of the Pacific” have been immersing into Mazatlan’s seductive “tropical neoclassical” architecture along with its palm-lined Malecon boardwalk and over twelve miles of pristine sandy beaches.
I decided to embark on a fact-finding mission to discover the pulse of the metropolis of nearly 500,000 residents and its nearby enclaves.
The Spanish Conquistadores established Mazatlan in 1531. An unlikely collaboration between a group of German immigrants who arrived in the mid-19th century and local native tribes saw it develop into a thriving port city.
I headed for Old Mazatlan, the city’s Centro Historico. The old buildings around Plazuela Machado—Mazatlan’s first “plaza principal” or main square—have been restored to mint condition, painted in eye-popping color swatches.
The area is a vibrant artist colony and hip bar and restaurant scene. The ambiance comes to life at sundown when locals flock to cafes buzzing with energy, as people from all walks of life meet at outdoor tables while talented street musicians and other artists perform around the tree-lined main square.
Since its inception in 1848, Mazatlan has been home to Mexico’s biggest carnival, or “carnaval” in Spanish. Most party revelers don’t know that Mazatlan flaunts the world’s third-largest carnival after Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. Nearly 500,000 people flock to the streets for the seven-day event, which is held the week before Lent.
The festival features gorgeous carnival queens dressed in ostentatious gowns studded with jewels and paraded around town on floats; reenactments in the bay of past naval battles; world-class fireworks extravaganzas; and a gastronomic fair with food and drink from throughout Mexico.
The Malecon Boardwalk
Mazatlecos say that life begins at the beach, and the Pacific gem holds bragging rights as the longest beach promenade in all of Mexico. I enjoyed the colorful beach scene as I strolled along it from end to end.
Hotels, eateries, palm trees moving in the breeze, and art installations adorn the 13 miles of beachfront. During the day, surfers carrying their boards cycle alongside meandering couples on a seaside stroll. Locals arrive at the beach for impromptu sunset parties in the sand.
Day or night, the pulse of the city stretches from the Centro Historico to the Golden Zone.
Like most of Mexico, Mazatlan gastronomy is on full display: breakfast in Sinaloa is more like a ritual than an ordinary meal. Chilorio consists of Sinaloan Pork in a sauce of ancho and pasilla chiles. The pork is simmered for up to four hours and also blended in scrambled eggs. As a port town, seafood, fish tacos, and ceviche dishes are abundant and found throughout the city.
Street food is seemingly everywhere. A taco stand specialty is vampiros (crispy vampire tacos), which arrive hot off the grill, open face piled on with melted cheese, carne asada, or carnitas and beans.
In the old town, in and around the plaza town square is where the action is for creative dining. For a unique dining experience, eat at Chef Diego Becerra’s El Presidio, an al fresco restaurant in the playful jungle ruin motif of a 19th-century mansion. Contemporary takes on classic Mexican dining include shrimp tacos stuffed with chicharron; sweet and tangy candied pork belly served over a pasilla chili marinade; and sashimi hamachi imported from Japan also combined with Mexican chillis.
An hour south of Mazatlan is the Pueblo Magico-designated hacienda-like town of El Rosario. A Pueblo Magico town offers visitors a “magical” experience due to features such as natural beauty, cultural richness, historical relevance, or great hospitality.
El Rosario was a significant mining town in 19th century. The baroque-style Our Lady of Rosario church is a national treasure of the state of Sinaloa. It was built in 1731, but in the early 20th century was demolished due to ground movement; it was taken apart piece by piece and painstakingly rebuilt in 1934.
The town’s most notable citizen remains nationally acclaimed ranchera singer and actress Lola Beltran. Her hacienda still stands and is one of the highlights of a visit.
Editor’s note: The Canadian government advises exercising a high degree of caution in Mexico due to high levels of criminal activity. It also advises avoiding non-essential travel to several states, including Sinaloa (except the city of Mazatlan).
Nicholas Kontis is an award-winning travel journalist and author of “Going Local – Experiences and Encounters on the Road.” He calls San Francisco
home, while also spending time in the Napa Valley, Greece, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.