When I moved to Mazatlán 15 years ago, I didn’t know everything it had to offer. I just knew it felt like “home” and had beautiful beaches, colonial architecture and was more affordable than other more popular Mexican tourist spots.
Since then, it’s been discovered anew for all those same reasons and is consistently named in the top five winter and retirement destinations. A thriving year-round cultural scene with an international roster of events, fantastic fresh seafood and a friendly community of locals, expats and snowbirds all add to its charm.
Mazatlán’s culinary landscape has some major players you’ll love: shrimp (it’s one of the biggest shrimping ports in the world); fresh fish, including tuna, marlin, swordfish, mahi-mahi and snapper and beer that’s literally cheaper than water.
Coffee anyone? Find the best — fresh-roasted, organic Mexican beans — at any of four Rico’s locations or two Looney Bean cafés. Sample a traditional Mexican breakfast of machaca, huevos divorciados or chilaquiles at La Fonda Chalío, Rincón de Natasha or Chayito’s.
No trip to Mazatlán is complete without at least a cocktail at Casa Garcia / El Presidio, a gorgeous, restored hacienda in Centro Histórico. Nearby in the Plaza Machado is Casa 46, upstairs in another gloriously renovated building; down the street is Topolo, where salsa Mexicana is made table-side. El Tunél, across from the Angela Peralta Theater, offers home-cooked traditional Mexican food in a simple setting; La Marea offers breakfast, Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner, with fantastic views of Stone Island and the lighthouse. North of Mazatlán in Villa Union, find the famed Cuchupeta’s serving traditional Sinaloa-style seafood since 1987.
Street food is a must; look for a taco cart crowded with locals (dinner set-up begins about 6:00 p.m.) and sample papas locas (fire-baked potatoes with all the regular fixin’s plus carne asada, guacamole and salsas) or a criminál, a gigantic flour tortilla stuffed with meat, cheese, grilled onions and more. Go on a Taco Tour with Chef Alistair of Water’s Edge to sample a variety of tacos and artisanal beers at Tres Islas Brewery and try your hand at tortilla-making too. Enjoy a refreshing raspado, shaved ice drizzled with fruit syrups, from street vendors with wheeled or bicycle carts.
For beachfront (or toes-in-the-sand) dining, try Pancho’s, Surf’s Up and Lety’s on Stone Island. Along the malecón, La Corriente is one of the palapa-roofed eateries offering pescado zarandeado, marinated whole fish grilled on an open fire and agua chile, fresh raw shrimp marinated in lime juice and chiles. Stunning sunsets and Happy Hour prices draw folks to Joe’s Oyster Bar, Puerto Viejo and Diego’s Beach House.
Young chefs are making their mark: Mano Santa, Agáta, Casa María and Esinti offer unique takes on traditional recipes and ingredients. La Olivia’s menu includes vegan options like grilled cauliflower ceviche and “Purple Toast” made with beet hummus.
Getting around is a cinch: The city is very walkable, and taxis, buses and Mazatlán’s signature transportation, the pulmonia (open-air golf cart taxis) easily get you wherever you want to go.
Known for its exciting tapestry of festivals and fun things to do – many of them free – Mazatlan’s year-round calendar of annual events includes Carnaval (third biggest in the world), the Pacífico Marathon, attracting an international coterie of runners and Día de Los Muertos / Day of the Dead, celebrated for two days with family-friendly parades and theater events. Bystanders are encouraged to dress up, paint their faces and join in the fun.
Try to attend a performance at the gorgeous, renovated Angela Peralta Theater, home to a smorgasbord of music, dance and theater events. These include the annual eight-week Cultural Festival and Día de la Música (10 outdoor stages in Centro Histórico). Many are free; ticket prices are usually US $15-$20.
Get in the vacation mode with a morning walk or bike ride on the malecón, the miles-long boardwalk along the glittering Pacific Ocean. Along the way, you’ll see cliff divers and a dozen bronze statues depicting local people, wildlife and lots of mermaids. Challenge yourself with a walk up El Faro lighthouse to the new glass-floored lookout for a spectacular 360-degree view. Golfers flock to courses at Estrella del Mar and El Cid.
Sunset-watching is a spectator sport, and Deer, Bird and Wolf Islands offshore make a postcard-perfect backdrop. All are environmentally protected, but visitors are permitted on Deer Island, reachable by Jetski, kayak or via the trimaran Kolanahe. Get up-close-and-personal with migrating whales and dolphins on an unforgettable Onca Whale Watching excursion led by a marine biologist.
Spend a day at Stone Island (Isla de la Piedra), with miles of empty beach and a dozen palapa-roofed restaurants serving coconut shrimp, ceviches and ice-cold cocos fríos. No need to pay for a tour: Take a pulmonía to the dock, pay 30 pesos (round trip!) for the short boat ride across the channel, walk 50 feet and you’re there. Take an excursion to Las Labradas petroglyphs, an hour north of town, and walk among stone carvings thousands of years old scattered on the beach.
From November to April, Centro Histórico’s First Friday Artwalk opens the studios of 30+ artists for free self-guided tours. Wandering around the cobblestone streets of Centro looking at the beautiful renovated colonial houses and the Plaza Machado is delightful, especially if you end up at La Bohemia for the weekly jazz jam. Another music favorite is Brenster’s Beach Bash, where you can dance in the sand to the sound of the waves and oh yes, the music too.
Find yourself an English-speaking pulmonía driver and take a city tour to learn about Mazatlán’s long history, see sights like the Pacífico Brewery and even the condo where El Chapo was caught. (A popular photo op!) Do visit the Mercado Pino Suárez, where a maze of stands offers everything from embroidered blouses to lucho libre masks, fresh mangos and aguas frescas.
Mazatlán has accommodations to fit every budget, from low-cost Airbnbs and hostels like Funky Monkey to luxury beachfront condos and penthouse suites. Big names in the hotel zone include Playa Mazatlán, El Cid and Pueblo Bonito, all sitting on the sand with the islands almost close enough to touch. Farther north, rent a beachfront condo through VRBO, or a suite at the Torre Mazatlán or the luxurious Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay, where flamingos and peacocks stroll the grounds.
In Centro Histórico, Casa de Leyendas is a renovated hacienda just steps from the beach. The Melville Suites is a gorgeous turn-of-the-century building with a sunny courtyard, gurgling fountain and antique-appointed rooms. The Freeman Hotel’s secret spot is the rooftop bar and pool, with a fantastic bird’s-eye view of the city.
Some tips: most stores accept credit cards and dollars, but the exchange rate will be less than at a bank. Bartering is only OK for beach vendors, not in shops, where prices are fixed.
Casa Etnika offers exceptional artisan crafts, jewelry, clothing and more from all over Mexico in a charming historic building. Four locations of Michael’s Gallery are filled to the brim with quality ceramics, glassware, et al. Nid-Art, a family art collective, makes leather masks and pottery plus classic gelato; Designer Bazaar is the place for natural manta (cotton) clothes. And tourist souvenir shops everywhere happily offer silly t-shirts, shot glasses and logo-ed everything.
Janet Blaser is a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Contact Janet or read her blog at whyweleftamerica.com.