Mas in Mazatlan

This mellow old port town has some pleasant surprises in store

By: By Patricia Alisau


Hotel Playa Mazatlan
Mazatlan Billfish Classic
Mazatlan Hotel Association
This Mazatlan-based tour operator can arrange trips to El Quilite as well as activities through ONCA Explorations, including dolphin spotting, island snorkeling and petroglyph excursions.

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Read Cruise Editor Marilyn Green's suggested Mazatlan Shore Excursions now.


Shore excursions in Mazatlan are varied and take advantage of the unique features of the destination, which is famous for the calving of the gray whales, which are coming back from near extinction; exceptional mountain biking; gorgeous beaches; and history and traditions dating back to the 16th century. 

Among the options offered by the cruise lines are horseback riding tours, both in nearby Stone Island or from Hacienda Las Moras into the Sierra Madre foothills. Or there is more conventional sightseeing offered in "The Pearl of the Pacific," with its 15 miles of great beaches, interesting architecture and historical sites. Most include Mazatlan’s famous Golden Zone, an area of upscale resorts and shops, as well as a mix of the exciting cliff divers, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the public market, the El Faro Lighthouse, art galleries, Fisherman's Monument and the marina.

Between December and March, Mazatlan is directly in the path of huge pods of whales that travel into the Sea of Cortez and continue down to Puerto Vallarta and the Baja to calve. The tours help fund whale research and preservation efforts, and a portion of the fee goes directly to these efforts. It's not only the funding — the crews collect information on the ecology and behavior of the whales, their behavior and numbers. In some cases, the whale-watching experience is combined with a swim with the dolphins.

Mazatlan is known internationally for its outstanding mountain biking and played host to the 2000 World Cup Mountain Biking championships. The surrounding hills are filled with singletrack, doubletrack, and hard-packed back roads offering panoramic vistas of Sinaloa State, Mazatlan and the Sierra Madre mountain range. And guided tours are available for all skill levels.

Mexican tradition and culture is celebrated in a Mexican Fiesta or Prehispanic Show. Customs and legends are experienced through original music, traditional costumes, songs and dances passed down through the centuries. The Mucha Fiesta Spectacular is a favorite for all family members.

After the show, many passengers walk next door and try the two 394-foot zip lines, which extend high over the grounds of Hotel Playa Mazatlan with wonderful views of the Golden Zone, the Pacific Ocean and the islands of Mazatlan in the background. Mazatlan's only rock-climbing wall is right there, as well, with full safety gear provided.

There’s more to Mazatlan than I ever expected. For those who haven’t visited in a while, this mellow old port town has some pleasant surprises in store.

The graceful 19th-century buildings of Old Town, for example, have long intrigued Rak Garcia, owner of the Nidart art studio. His studio is one of many attracting attention in this beautiful, historic neighborhood. Old Town has been quietly going through a Renaissance, and it’s becoming one of the most appealing parts of the resort.

An interesting sculpture for sale at Nidart studio in Old Town // © Patricia Alisau 
An interesting sculpture for sale
at Nidart studio in Old Town
It starts with year-round music, dance and theater performances at the Angela Peralta Theater which, until 16 years ago, was an abandoned ruin. The grand, European-style opera house, built in the 1870s, was named after a famous Mexican soprano who died of yellow fever before she ever set foot on its stage.

Garcia and his wife, Loa, both artists, bought an equally-abandoned house across the street at about the time the theater reopened. Now, they have a flourishing neighborhood art center with leather and pottery workshops. A dozen more galleries that sponsor a new First Friday Art Walk have recently opened, too.

All this is part of the government’s push to add a little more flavor to the sun and sand image of the port,
according to Alfredo Gomez, head of the Old Town Revitalization Project.

“We want to create a stronger cultural image for Mazatlan,” Gomez said. “It’s a strategic move to reposition the city.”

Gomez is owner of Pedro and Lola in Plaza Machado, one of Old Town’s first restaurants.

Plaza Machado has transformed in the past few years from a run-down square to the pulse of Old Town with its lively street scene. Several old mansions have been converted into sidewalk cafes overlooking a tree-filled park with a lovely wrought-iron kiosk. A budget hotel just debuted in what used to be an old pharmacy along with charming coffee shops and snack bars that line the walkway beneath the colonial colonnades. The square has also become a staging point for Mazatlan’s colorful Mardi Gras, which has been going on for more than a century.

After strolling through the park, I walked to the yellow, domed cathedral and, later, the indigenous market, with its stacks of vivid, red tomatoes and dates, grown by local farmers, and browsed leather belts and sandals made in outlying villages. It’s easy to spend a couple days exploring Old Town and it’s equally as easy to get around on foot.

A few town traditions have kept me going back. One is the Malecon or palm-lined ocean promenade, which, at 13 miles, is the longest in Mexico. It’s one of the best beach walks and it’s here where I usually flag down one of the famous pulmonias.

A Mazatlan first, the open-air taxis with tarp roofs appeared in the 1960s, only then they were three-wheeled electric carts. Rival taxi drivers called them pulmonias or “pneumonia” to discourage riders from using them but they only grew in popularity. Today, they’ve been replaced by safer, four-wheel Safari Volkswagens, but the idea is the same.

Another mainstay is the Fiesta Mexicana at the Hotel Playa Mazatlan. Its three-hour show with a buffet and open bar is still one of the best bargains around at $35 a person; it has been playing nonstop for around 40 years. Besides folk music and dances, the family-style show has a little magic, a little burlesque and seasoned performers. Gran Danel, the magician, has been working the crowd for 31 years and championship roper Oscar Osuna is one of four brothers who have appeared in the show since its beginnings.

The hotel, a sprawling 400-room property, was Mazatlan’s first beach hotel in the 1960s and started out as a 40-room lodge. Back then, Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne made Fiesta Mexicana famous when he came to Mazatlan to hunt and fish.

If your clients are pre-Hispanic history buffs, consider booking a tour to El Quilite, where male villagers routinely play ulama, a pre-Conquest ball game on a dusty patch of field dressed in deer skin loincloths. In ulama, widely considered a precursor to modern-day soccer, players ricochet a seven-pound rubber ball off their hips. Boys as young as 5 years old play alongside their fathers to keep up the tradition. A more elaborate version is played along the Riviera Maya at Xcaret, where players are often imported from places like El Quilite.

Or, if your clients prefer deep-sea fishing, they can get in the game by signing up for the Billfish Classic, part of the 2008 International Game Fish Tournament in Mexico. Mazatlan is one of Mexico’s oldest sport-fishing capitals and its waters teem with billfish all year-round. The tournament is scheduled for Nov. 12-15 with a purse of $250,000.

For something less traditional, clients can take in a whale-watching tour put together by Mazatlan marine biologist and ONCA Explorations founder Oscar Guzon. Humpback whales can be seen from December to March, and passenger insurance is included in the price.

In any case, it’s clear that Mazatlan’s newly emerging cultural scene and new attractions only add more luster to its rich traditions.