There are 600 petroglyphs in Las Labradas. // © 2014 Carnival: Alejandro Linares Garcia
Once the favored holiday hideaway for Hollywood celebrities such as Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and John Wayne, Mazatlan has grabbed the spotlight as a preferred spring break destination and a perennial favorite port of call for cruise passengers.
In recent years, however, the city has found itself losing market share to Mexico’s newer destinations, with their seemingly endless construction of glitzy, all-inclusive properties. And certainly the idea of all-you-can-drink margaritas and round-the-clock buffet lines has its appeal. But as travelers are starting to clamor for more authentic experiences, Mazatlan is perfectly poised to reclaim its position as a favorite of Mexico’s tourism industry.
In addition to its prime location along the Pacific Coast, Mazatlan has a rich history dating back to the 1500s and a charming historic center. Here, merchants line the square, but instead of selling pre-fabricated souvenirs, vendors are far more likely to display hand-crafted items.
City officials are so proud of Mazatlan’s history that they have made it a part of the tourism board’s marketing slogan: “Colonial City on the Beach.” But while the city’s historic center adds to its charm, Mazatlan is a multi-faceted locale that offers a new surprise around every corner, even for seasoned travelers.
Pre-History at Las Labradas
About an hour by car from Mazatlan is Las Labradas archaeological zone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some 600 stone-carved petroglyphs can be found here, engraved with a system of ancient icons that is still being interpreted by historians. This is the largest site of its kind in Mexico and the only one in the world located on a coastal tidal zone. Although the rocks take a daily pounding from the elements — some are even submerged for part of the day — many remain remarkably well preserved.
The site is believed to possess great spiritual power. Visitors here can experience a sample of Maya culture when locals play music and perform the famed folkloric deer dance. With some advance notice, visitors can participate in a Maya blessing, or enjoy a meditation ceremony on the rocks. In spring, the spot is the home of the annual Spring Equinox festival.
A Thriving Artists’ Community
Because of Mazatlan’s low cost of living — historic homes in need of a little TLC can be purchased for less than $75,000 in Mazatlan’s historic center — artists from around the world have started to take up residence here. So extensive is the artist community that a public art walk is hosted on the first Friday of the month, between November and May. Painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and fabric artists all open their studios throughout the historic district. The walk alone is worth the time just to see how the artists have restored the homes located throughout the area. Some 25 stops and nearly 50 artists participate each week.
More than 300,000 people will descend upon Mazatlan from Feb. 27 to March 4 this year to celebrate Carnival. The “Mazatlecos” have been observing this tradition for more than a century — 116 years to be exact — and not only is the celebration the largest in Mexico, it is the third-largest in the world, with only Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans touting larger celebrations. Annual activities include a “Bad Mood Burning” ceremony, an “Anything Goes” ball and a variety of ceremonies honoring local artists.
For the Birds
Mazatlan’s shores provide a resting stop along the Pacific Flyway migratory route, and they are particularly popular with the ducks and shorebirds that travel throughout coastal Mexico. Because the area is home to diverse ecosystems, including coastal wetlands, thorny forests and high-elevation pine-oak forests, visitors can find a wide range of bird life. More than 1,000 species can be found in Mazatlan and its surrounding areas, and 20 percent of the birds are unique to this region.
Every January, the city hosts an annual bird-watching festival, which features tours, art exhibits and workshops to promote conservation efforts.
Getting in Gear
More than 15,000 motorcyclists from around the Americas gather in Mazatlan every April for the annual International Motorcycle Week event, now in its 19th year. During the week, bike fans can participate in drag-racing competitions or ride an established “endurance route.” Beach parties, regional trips and a parade along Mazatlan’s malecon (boardwalk) round out the festivities. During the rest of the year, Mazatlan Motorcycle Adventures can organize guided day tours.