Mazatlán is a coastal city in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, less than 15 miles south of the Tropic of Cancer. Like Ville-d’Avray in France (Mirror Feb. 16-22, 2005), Hamm in Germany (Mirror Feb. 23-March 1, 2005), and Fujinomiya, Japan, it is one of Santa Monica’s four sister cities.
The history of Mazatlán began well before the arrival of Spanish conquistador Nuño Guzman in 1531— petroglyphs found on nearby islands are 10,000 years old. When Guzman landed, the region was inhabited by the Totorames, a hunter-gatherer society that also practiced agriculture and fishing.
The Spaniards looted the inland mines and decimated the Totorame culture through slaughter and disease. Those who survived were forced into slavery. Three centuries passed before a permanent colony was established by German immigrants.
Mazatlán debuted as a tourist destination in the 1930s, attracting mostly sports fishermen and game hunters (Mazatlán means “place of deer and venison”). The first hotels sprang up along Playa Olas Altas in the 1950s. Within 20 years, development had mushroomed northward and today shows little sign of stopping.
Who’s In Charge?
The current mayor, or presidente municipal de Mazatlán, is 42-year-old Alejandro Higuera Osuna, a member of the National Action Party (PAN). This is a sequel to his 1998-2001 reign, but because mayors are directly elected and can serve for only one term, he had to wait out the interim three-year period.
Second-in-command is the secretario (sort of a city manager), followed by the regidores (representatives of various political parties), directors from each of the city’s districts, sub-directors, and department heads.
So who makes the decisions? According to one city hall employee, “the mayor makes suggestions” and “the regidores follow them.”
Mazatlán’s economy is heavily invested in tourism, which accounts for 8 percent of Sinaloa’s gross domestic product, but it’s not the only game in town. Pacifico and Corona brew and bottle their beers here. The shrimping industry is huge, with most of the catch exported to the United States.
Visitors who come to Mazatlán for the weather and never leave the beach are missing out on the treasures of old Mazatlán: Plaza Republica (the city’s main square) with its Moorish cathedral, the 19th century Teatro Angela Peralta, and museums of art and archaeology. The area also has shops that sell exceptional artwork and crafts produced by local artists.
Alfredo Gómez Rubio heads Proyecto Centro Histórico, a project started 10 years ago to preserve and revitalize Mazatlán’s historic downtown. “Urban development,” he explains, “has divided Mazatlán into two distinct areas. In the north, there is the Golden Zone with its great hotels and beaches, nightclubs and shops. In the south there is Old Mazatlán, rich in culture, architecture and memories.”
The preservation movement got a boost in 2001, when Mexican President Vicente Fox declared 480 buildings in Old Mazatlán as national historic landmarks.
“We believe in the necessity of preserving our character and identity,” says Rubio, “and returning Old Mazatlán to its 19th-century splendor.”
Who Lives Here?
Jesús Alberto Aguilar Padilla, the governor of Sinaloa, says his goal is to give the state “a new image – that of a warm and welcoming people, dedicated to their work and cultural values.”
It’s hard to imagine a welcome any warmer than the ones I received in every corner of Mazatlán. I was invited into people’s homes (immaculate). In restaurants – even those far removed from tourist areas – chefs gladly served up platters of vegetables to this non-meat-eater adrift in surf-and-turf territory (delicious). A businessman took time to guide me to an artisan’s shop, when all I asked for was directions (gracious).
Jenny Gonzalez Duran and Horacio Gomez Ochoa are typical of Mazatlán’s working class residents. Horacio is a manager at Valentino’s, a beachfront disco. Jenny, the mother of 5-year-old Anna Maria and 2-year-old Luis, works at a cyber cafe and attends nursing school.
They live in a row house in Colonia Benito Juarez, next door to Jenny’s brother and two doors down from her parents, where her grandmother and great-grandmother also live. Her mom is a primary school teacher and her father a key maker.
Home businesses (“live/work” spaces to Santa Monicans) are common in Mazatlán, with front rooms converted into offices or other work areas. From his quarters, Jenny’s brother runs the family’s key business.
Mazatlán’s population is approaching 750,000 and includes a number of expatriate Americans and Canadians, many of them refugees from cold climates, like the couple from Edmonton who phone their former neighbors to gloat over the 100-degree temperature difference.
Another couple, Phyllis and Sam, moved to Mazatlán from Denver to stretch their retirement dollars, buying a condo for “a tenth of what we sold our home for and a tenth of what it would cost for a condo in Southern California.”
“Everything’s cheaper,” Phyllis says, “especially our medications.”
Michael Veselik met his wife in Acapulco. She is, he says, “one of the few Mexicans who doesn’t like living in the U.S.” So they relocated to Mazatlán 13 years ago. Veselik owns a bar in Zona Dorado (the touristy “Golden Zone”) and publishes the Pacific Pearl, a monthly, English language newspaper.
Who Visits Here
Let’s face it. People come here to buy drugs — not off the street, but from the profusion of farmacias that offer wares at prices most Americans only dream of. (I bought an antibiotic for a friend for which, in Santa Monica, she paid $45 with insurance. I picked up the same thing for $26, no insurance – or prescription – needed.)
Mazatlán is also popular with the time-share crowd. And if you’re not one of them already, there are brokers on every street corner anxious to draw you in.
Most tourists seem to be Americans working on their melanoma and determined to increase already record-breaking cholesterol counts. Embarrassingly, I heard more than one complain that ‘the people here don’t speak English.’ (No, not everyone in Mazatlán speaks English, but then neither did the Armenian cab driver who took me to LAX.)
On the Waterfront
When it comes to coastal resources, Mazatlán is part Santa Monica (recreation/tourist destination) and part Long Beach (bustling port). There’s sand and surf for vacationers, and docks that welcome cruise and cargo ships alike.
The beaches are narrow by California standards, but remarkably clean, despite the presence of not just dogs, but horses as well.
Sunsets are dazzling and pre-dawn hours hushed, without the rumble and roar of complex machinery grinding up debris and burying it under a sandy carpet. Beach cleaning crews in Mazatlán are basic: men with plastic bags and rakes. And it works.
One of my favorite adventures was a trip to Stone Island. I sidestepped the tourist excursions (starting at $40), opting instead for basic transportation ($1). The beach here is lined with coconut groves and palm-thatched restaurants that were, on this morning, deserted, save for a mongrel dog who cajoled me into a round of fetch-the-stick.
In the light rain, it took 30 minutes to walk the red-mud road into Stone Island’s main village. After a stroll, I hopped aboard a different passenger vessel – for locals, not tourists – at the town dock. The fare was 50 cents.
We landed at Mazatlán’s shrimp docks, next to the Naval yards, where fishing boats were returning from early morning runs. I was the only gringa in sight, but even the locals were outnumbered by pelicans vying for leftovers, swooping so low that their powerful wings ruffled my hair.
Attractions & Activities
Unlike Santa Monica, Mazatlán is affordable to a broad economic range of visitors. Hotel rooms start at $30 a night, with deluxe accommodations available for $100. There are also RV parks and campsites overlooking the beach.
Public transportation is excellent. The bus network is cheap and easy to navigate. Taxis are plentiful, as are pulmonias, which look like electric golf carts but are actually gas-powered Volkswagens. I always felt safe walking alone, even at night on lightly traveled streets.
The Zona Dorado is the primary tourist mecca, with downtown’s Mercado Centro (Central Market) a close second. As in most beach communities, there are too many vendors hawking tacky T-shirts and plastic knickknacks. But Mazatlán also has some stellar shops that sell original artwork and clothing that equal anything found in Los Angeles. Jewelry is a bargain throughout the city.
There are countless restaurants, bars and cafes in Mazatlán, primarily in the Zona Dorado and Old Mazatlán. A local favorite is Panama, a restaurant and bakery where the uninspired decor is forgiven by those in search of extraordinary pastries and desserts.
Mazatlán’s biggest celebration is its flamboyant Carnaval, a weeklong, citywide party with nonstop music and dancing that ends on Ash Wednesday. It is the third largest pre-Lenten festival in the world, after New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.
I especially enjoyed my catamaran sail to Bird Island, where hundreds of different species nest year-round, and a visit to Cerritos, a fishing village north of Mazatlán (gracias, Jenny and Horacio).
Baseball is a favorite pastime in Mexico. Mazatlán has its own team, the Venados, and a large stadium for them to play in. Tickets range from $1.50 to $4.50.
While Old Mazatlán still reflects the city’s proud culture and history, the influence of el Norté is evident elsewhere — in traffic calming bumps, in a supersized Wal-Mart, and in Señor Frog’s, which started out as a bar for the wet T-shirt contest set. Now, it has spawned several offspring and fallen under the spell of an ambitious merchandising manager. There are more Señor Frog souvenir shops in Mazatlán than there are coffee shops in Seattle.
In the January issue of Pacific Pearl, the publisher quoted a former columnist, the late John Amrock, who described his philosophy on thinking ahead as “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.” Veselik called this “the Seven Ps” and went on to apply it to “the flipflop by the [Mazatlán] City Council on changing Carnaval 2005 dates.”
Sounds like sensible sisterly advice.
Alaska Airlines has direct flights daily between Los Angeles and Mazatlán. Call (800) 426-0333, or visit the website, www.alaskaair.com.