We hadn’t been back to Mexico for at least six years and we missed it. We missed the climate, the culture, the food, the people, the music… Mexico has a dear place in our hearts from more than three decades of visiting it.
For more than a decade we had been going to Zihuatanejo every February, staying in a house that was only a 10-15 minute walk from the downtown. Over the years, we met a lot of people, made friends with locals, with three generations of family that owned the house, and got to know the city pretty well. But after our long absence, we decided to try some place new: Mazatlan, a city much further north along the west coast, roughly on the same latitude as Cabo San Lucas in Baja.
Mazatlan is much bigger than Zihua: about 500,000, and is a bustling, active municipality, not just a resort. Yet it didn’t seem overly crowded or busy. The usual traffic mayhem was on the main roads, but the core area was quiet and relaxed.
Although the area was known to the Spanish as early as 1531, it wasn’t colonized until the early 19th century when it was opened as a small port. It was never very large, and mostly remained an industrial city, until the 1940s, when tourism gave it a boost. Over the past 50 years, the population grew substantially.
It’s also known for the fishing. Mazatlan is the shrimp capital of the world, and you can get shrimp in so many varieties, sizes and dishes, I couldn’t begin to cover them all here. And the main Pacifico brewery is there, so you know the beer is always fresh. Well the Pacifico is.
There is a large and attractive heritage zone in the core, of mainly 18th century buildings, punctuated by tiny plazas and parks, with narrow streets.
There is a core group of Canadian volunteers who help tourists find their way around, and provide free maps. You can find them in the plazas. Nice folk.
The majority of the downtown buildings are extremely well kept and attractive. They still function as businesses, residences and government facilities. Surprisingly, a lot of the restored buildings are apparently owned by Canadians, who also seem to make up the majority of the tourists to the city. That surprised us.
The core area is clean and attractive. Lots of small shops, galleries, bookstores and services.
One place we wanted to see in particular was the Melville Hotel, a small boutique hotel that boasts a plaque saying Herman Melville stayed in Mazatlan in 1844 (although the hotel was built in the 1870s). It reflects the traditional Spanish style – high ceilings, tall doors, central courtyard – and has rooms named after famous artists, writers and photographers like Jack Kerouac, Pablo Neruda and Anais Nin. Whether they all stayed in Mazatlan or even the hotel, I wasn’t able to learn (although I knew before that Kerouac stayed in the city briefly in the 1950s). Some day, we hope to stay there, too.
This trip, with only a week available, we did something we have never experienced in the past: we stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Of course, we are far too restless and curious to stay cooped up in a hotel, and spent considerable time exploring what we could. We also ate outside several times, sampling different local dishes in restaurants and bars. Our explorations were limited, but enough to give us some ideas of where to go and what to see next time.
The hotel – one of the oldest in that region – was in the zona dorado – golden zone – about 5-8 kms from the core. It’s a 10-minute cab ride (we always rode the pulmonias; the open-air golf carts), a bit longer by bus, or for the more energetic, a 45-minute walk to the old district, where we went almost every day. The walk is easily done along a broad sidewalk parallel to the malecon, or seafront, that is 10m or more wide most of the way. It’s busy with young joggers and cyclists – the city has a couple of universities and technical schools in it. We found it quite a safe place, with plenty of visible police.
The main action downtown is focused around a couple of places: Plazuela Machado is the heart, and is surrounded by cafes and restaurants. A couple of blocks away is the cathedral and the city hall, skirting Plazuela Republica. Then there’s the mercado – the market – a block-sized indoor shopping experience that is worth a visit. We walked around through many blocks, just sightseeing and taking photos (I went looking for a music store to see if I could get a short-scale guitar or similar instrument made in Mexico. Didn’t find one, although we stopped in three different music stores…).
And if you do eat downtown, make sure you pay some of the buskers for music. We were stunned by how good they were, and one man’s voice raised goosebumps on our arms.
Our hotel – the Playa Mazatlan – was fair; not too large, with comfortable, clean rooms, and several modest pools scattered around the grounds. It’s a bit hard to judge these places since we’ve never tried an all-inclusive place before. Food was okay (although a lot of guests seemed to ignore the Mexican dishes and go for the unexciting western fare…), entertainment was generally good (although too loud at times), staff pleasant and helpful. Water was good, too – you can drink the tap water, although they provide bottled water in each room.
We’d return if we ever choose to do another all-inclusive – but there’s a caveat (see below about the aggressively noisy, anti-tourist Ramada and Joe’s Oyster Bar next door).
The hotel was building a new pool area with a swim-up bar, but it wasn’t open when we were there. That’s probably the most attractive thing about an all-inclusive place. Maybe next year it’ll be ready for us.
The ocean is clean (at least it looks so) and warm. And shallow. The beach extends for kilometers along the peninsula, and you can walk out around 100 metres into the water and still touch bottom. Waves were modest and there was no appreciable current we could discern.
The weather was perfect. A steady 83F every day, but cooler in the evenings – in the high 60s or low 70s. No rain fell while we were there, either. Equally comfortable for sitting by the pool or hiking around the town. But don’t simply do the former: get out of the resort and see the town. We met some folks in the airport who did just that: never once ventured outside their resort. What a sad statement about life that is.
Several places advertise tequila tours to distilleries outside town, although we didn’t go on any excursions. We found a small in-town distillery – Onilikan – in the north part of the zone where we sampled some of their wares.
These places are not making tequila – although they claim to use blue agave, Mexican law says it cannot be called tequila in Sinaloa state. Only agave spirit. But we tasted some, and I even bought a bottle of reposado to bring home. It may not be tequila, but I’ll bet few aficionados could tell the difference. We also tasted some other local spirits, mostly fruit-based, although I was unable to find any source for sotol, racilla, mezcal or bacanora.
The tourists seemed generally to be around our age: mostly retired, although in the hotel we saw many Mexican visitors – mostly in family groups with children. Thanks, I suppose to their presence, the hotel had some Mexican dishes in the buffet, like tamales, which we enjoyed (as opposed to the hamburgers and chicken wings for the unadventurous gringos).
Possibly the only real disappointment in the “all-inclusive” was the paltry selection of drinks. There was some of everything, but only two types of beer were free (Tecate light and Indio) and four tequilas (only two of which were 100% agave and both were low-shelf production brands). The rest you had to pay extra for. No big deal – we went outside to nearby bars for other beers. But the prices for the top-shelf stuff were rather higher than necessary.
As for the hotel’s buffet food – meh. It was not stellar, merely acceptable (at breakfast the huevos revueltos were good if you got them fresh with a healthy dosage of pico de gallo… and the fruit was always fresh). The twice-a-week outdoor BBQ had some good shrimp and chicken with a decent salad bar and the Italian restaurant on the second floor did a passable pasta.
A week isn’t long enough to really say much about any place, and we really only skimmed the surface of a large city with many opportunities to explore. We hope to return in another year; not sure if that will be next year, but we will be back.
Beside Hotel Playa Mazatlan is a Ramada with Joe’s Oyster Bar. Clearly neither want the tourist demographic that predominates the city – seniors and families – because the bar is host to a raucous disco Thursday to Sunday that runs until 3 or even 4 a.m. If you are older than 25, or have children, you DO NOT WANT to book the Ramada hotel. You will get no rest, no relaxation, only misery. Look online and you’ll find all sorts of complaints about this place.
Everyone within a few hundred metres of the bar is treated to the ear-shattering bump-thump-clump of noisy disco music. We had a hard time simply talking at normal pitch to one another within the room, while it was going. It was so loud it rattled our windows, and after three sleepless nights, we had to move rooms, fleeing into another building as far away as we could get. Even then, a full city block away and facing in another direction, it kept us awake the fourth night.
Ramada seems to be in an aggressive noise war against tourists over the age of 25. It’s a nasty war, too, because it’s the one thing that makes me hesitate to recommend staying anywhere in Mazatlan within a kilometer of the golden zone. As a result of the noise, we vowed to never, ever stay in a Ramada property anywhere we travel, be it on business or pleasure.
If you do go, bring earplugs. Seriously. And if you stay at Hotel Playa, make sure you are NOT in the building closest to the oyster bar or overlooking the swim-up bar. Ramada made four of our seven nights hell and they will do it to you, too.
Obviously someone in Mazatlan’s government has been bought, so that enforcement of noise laws are ignored. It’s called la mordida – the bite – those bribes that let offenders get away with crimes.