Mazatlan, I had heard, has two faces.
There is the Zona Dorada (the “Golden Zone”), which is where the beautiful people–or at least most of the tourist people–hang; and there is the pueblo viejo, the old-town center, which is the aging dowager, the vintage jewel, that has only become more lustrous with age.
Call me dorky, but I knew where I wanted to hang, and that was away from the commotion.
Still, as soon as I got off the bus frenzy swarmed in. Traffic zipped along the malecon–the seaside road. Golf cart taxis darted about like seagulls, and people in various stages of (un)dress dodged through traffic to get to the beach.
I was going to the Belmar, an old and fabled hotel right on the Olas Altas beach in old-town Mazatlan. The Belmar has graced Mazatlan’s waterfront since it was still a fishing village.
You can afford this kind of extravagance and financial risk if you are a mining magnate like Louis Brandbury, a Californian who made his fortune in Mexican silver and gold. He built it in the 1920s. Even then, the place was lavish–a ballrooms, restaurants, gardens, pools. A host of luminaries stayed there, but the name most associated with the Belmar is John Wayne, who stayed on the fifth floor.
My room, however, was located in the crumbling part of the hotel because it matched my budget. This room was not lavish, nor did it have an ocean view. Still, it exceeded my low espectations. The roach in the shower kept to itself, and while I used my homemade sleep sack, the bed was also tolerable. The room lock was a flimsy affair, and the staff didn’t like me using my personal padlock, so I took my valuables with me. The room cost less than $20 per night.
The only novel element was the swallows (many of them) that roosted each night above my door, leaving the predictable deposits and requiring long arms and caution when opening my door.
Parts of the building that I didn’t see must be fine because I heard that it is a popular place for North Americans to spend the winter. And although I’m not a beach person, preferring to sweat on dry and overheated land, even I couldn’t resist the allure of the sun dropping into the Pacific right across the street.
Mazatlan’s old town is delightful. The streets are clean and lovely to explore. The town doesn’t have the rich and storied history of other Mexican cities, although it’s been around as a fishing village since time immemorial. Tourists began arriving in the 1930s, and by the 1950s, Mazatlan was a destination.
The spruced-up buildings, clean streets, and lovely plazas are a result of renovation that gave the city a fresh look in the 1980s. Now, the Plazuela Machado is as pretty a square as any you’ll find in todo el mundo. It was so pretty, and there were so many tourists that I missed the Mexican vibe of less popular destinations. I heard a lot of English in Mazatlan and a lot of classic rock from the 1960s. To be fair, it’s also a vacation destination for Mexicans and Europeans as well.
Away from the beach and the plazuela, the plaza principal, which is anchored by the Cathedral, and the mercado begin to feel like Mexico, with food stands and dead animals and everything in between.
I spent four days in Mazatlan, not one of them on the beach because I am just that lame. I walked the neighborhoods and found the famous ice cream place (it was good, but Merida has a better one) and a lot of restaurants and galleries frequented by North Americans.
Day 3 or so, I set myself the task of climbing to El Faro, the lighthouse, which is the second-highest one in the world, behind Gibraltar. It was a hot climb, good exercise, and a great view.
On the walk back I took a sit-down with a old guy selling coconuts, a common refreshment here. First, he hacked away the husk with a machete (scary). Then, he chopped open a hole and inserted a straw. There was a surprising amount of milk inside. and we chatted as I did my level best to suck it down. The man spoke bitterly of his daughter in the US (Georgia, I think). He never hears from her or sees her. More to the point, she never sends any help. “And so here I am,” he said, selling coconuts.
I was feeling pretty indignant about the ingrate daughter, and then he said that he had ten children, many of whom live close by. He also described his job on a boat that traveled all over coast of Baja California, necessitating, I’m sure, long stints away from home. So the family history, like most of ours, was more complicated than one ungrateful child.
By then I’d drained the coconut. He took it back and scraped the pulpy flesh from the nut (this type of coconut doesn’t have the sweet, crisp flesh we’re used to) squirted it with lime juice, salt, and chili, and handed it back to me. We continued chatting about kids and life in general as I ate the mushy tart, salty, hot interior.
My final outing, which was one of those day-trips Mexicans do so well, involved a short ferry ride to Isla de la Piedra, where restaurants shaded by palm-covered palapas line the beach in front of coconut groves. Vendors walk around selling everything from horse rides to hamacas to photos with their pet iguanas, for which you will be asked to pay if you so much as stop for a nanosecond. Ask me how I know.
Even I could see how much fun a day on the island could be as I hunkered under the palapa sucking down fresh pineapple juice.
Time in Mazatlan slipped by like sand through fingers. After four days, I felt I’d seen the place and was ready to move on.
Maybe to Teacapan, I thought. Lonely Planet described the mangroves and bird-watching and natural beauty of this tiny village on the Pacific coast, in such glowing terms that I decided to step off the beaten path and take the bus(es) there.
Here’s what happens off the beaten path…