Mazatlan, Mexico is reinventing itself.
The seaside city on Mexico’s west coast once had the reputation as party central, a magnet for spring breakers who packed the nightclubs in the city’s famed Golden Zone until the wee hours. But no more.
The city’s business leaders now prefer to call Mazatlan the “Colonial City by the Beach” and are focusing their efforts in attracting couples and families. The focal point of the new Mazatlan is the city’s historic Old Town, with buildings dating back to 1837. It is the area around Machado Plaza just a few blocks from the beach. Think of it as a cross between New Orleans and Key West, adorned with old colonial buildings painted in bright colors. Tourists and locals alike crowd the restaurants and cafes around the plaza every night. The gazebo in the center of the plaza regularly hosts concerts.
The area was virtually abandoned 15 years ago. But thanks to tax incentives and entrepreneurs who saw the district’s potential, the Old Town is back and helping to transform the city as a beach destination with history, culture, and beach.
If you want to stay in a hotel in Mazatlan, your options are more than just the modern high rise mega-resorts, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The Old Town now has 11 boutique hotels—with character and history.
The latest example, The Jonathan, opened in September 2012 and is already creating buzz. The property was once a large private home and more recently a kindergarten. Four Korean-American friends from the Los Angeles area bought the building a couple of years ago, sunk nearly $3 million into it to transform the structure into one of the most upscale properties in Mazatlan. Designers have artfully kept the shell of the old building and blended it with the most modern fixtures, furniture and electronics.
Why visit Mazatlan over the more popular vacation destinations of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta?
Mazatlan is the seventh most visited tourist destination in Mexico. For the visitor, that translates into more of a small-town feel than what you would find in those more popular destinations. But you will still find the nightlife that made Mazatlan famous, along with a spectacular beach and spacious resort. Prices of hotels and restaurants are also lower than the average in Mexico’s resort towns.
Mazatlan biggest attraction undoubtedly will be its beach which is framed by a more than four-mile long oceanfront walkway called the Malecon. Stone sculptures dot the Malecon depicting the city’s colorful colonial history. Daredevil divers work for tips as they take the plunge for tips off one of the overlook vistas built into the Malecon.
The icon of Mazatlan is The Lighthouse or El Faro. Built in 1879, it sits at the top of steep hill 515 feet above the sea. It is a great hike for those who like to mix their exercise with sightseeing. El Faro is the highest operating natural lighthouse in the world. The lighthouse at the top of Gibraltar is taller but it is no longer in operation.
The Mazatlan Aquarium is renowned throughout Mexico. It boasts 53 fresh and saltwater tanks, dolphin aquatic shows, and spectacular botanical garden.
The Mazatlan International Center was constructed in 2009 and is the city’s newest landmark. It serves as the region’s premier convention center. The complex’s largest auditorium can accommodate nearly 4,000 people. The mural on the side of the building illustrates Mazatlan’s Native American history and has been named by the Guinness World Records as the largest in its category.
Deer Island, just off Mazatlan’s main beach, is a great inexpensive excursion. For about $40, including lunch and unlimited drinks, tour companies offer getaways that afford visitors up close views of dolphins and sea lions along the way. Once you get to the island, you have your choice of kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, or if all that is too slow, you can take a ride on a high speed banana boat.
The town of El Quelite (pop 1800) near the Tropic of Cancer in the Sierra Madre foothills is about a 45-minute ride outside Mazatlan and well-worth seeing. Its century old buildings and churches give visitors a taste of what Mexico used to be like. The restaurant El Meson de los Laureanos is a tourist favorite. The restaurant’s ornate bathroom fixtures are worth the price of meal alone.
If want to step back in history, way back in history, visit Las Labradas. Native American petroglyphs carved in the stone there date back 3,000 B.C. It is all less than a half-hour’s drive from Mazatlan.
Mazatlan may soon itself be an excursion for a brand new Mexican resort town called Playa Esperitu. It is twice the size of Cancun and plans are in the works and it will contain 44,000 hotel rooms. It is a 1.5 hour drive from Mazatlan and when a new highway opens, that drive time will be cut in half. It will be another ten years with a combination of one billion in public and 13 billion in private investments before that Playa Esperitu will completely up and running. That new highway, by the way, will also dramatically speed up driving time from Durango, which will literally pave the way for even more tourists.
Mexico tourism has been hard-hit by the recession and the drumbeat of news of drug violence that has plagued border towns far from the city. With rare exceptions, the resort cities of Mexico, including Mazatlan, are safe if not safer than most American cities. And tourists are finding their way back. Last year, Mazatlan recorded its greatest number of visitors since 2008.
Stay a while
Carlos Berdeque is the Donald Trump of Mazatlan —in a good way. He owns the El Cid Hotels, the largest collection of accommodations in the area. In addition to being Mazatlan’s biggest booster. Berdeque is well known for his philanthropy. The crown jewel of Berdeque’s properties is the Marina El Cid. The property is all-inclusive, so you never have to leave. It has it all, from a private beach to swimming pools, to a waterfall. By the way, the high season in Mazatlan is from December 15 to April 15, so if you want to save money on accommodations, book outside those months.
Mazatlan’s artist community has adopted the Old Town as its own. An ex-pat from the San Francisco Bay Area named Glen Rogers is helping to keep art alive in the Old Town through an Art Walk which she began a couple of years ago. The Art Walk runs from 4-8 p.m. on the first Friday of the month from November through May. Anywhere from about 80-200 people make the trek from 24 galleries where they get to meet the artists and sample wine and cheese. Rogers is an old hand at this. She helped get San Jose’s Art Walk going.