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Mazatlan: Mexico's Pacific Pearl Shines Brightly Again

By Kim Conley

The shine may have worn off for a couple of decades since the heyday in the mid- 1980's, but today, Mazatlan, known as "The Pearl of the Pacific" of Mexican beaches, is recovering much of its luster. Aside from being a popular stop for several West coast cruise lines, it's also known as an affordable deep sea fishing destination popular with Mexican vacationers.

This 250 year-old Mexican city is nestled snuggly between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre Mountains, a few hours north of Puerto Vallarta and directly across the Gulf of California from Cabo San Lucas. Although it is often lumped in with these two beach resort destinations, Mazatlan's charm is unique. While certainly a part of the "Mexican Riviera," its laid-back yet adventurous personality is all its own.

It's hard to put into words the charm and beauty of this city. Throughout the years, Mazatlan has somehow managed to remain one of the few family destinations left in Mexico that is still "under the radar." That translates into bargain prices and relatively good weather outside of the hot summer months. It's a balanced family destination where adults will enjoy great restaurants, theatre, arts and culture, while children will enjoy the beach, street performers and nighttime family entertainment.

Balloon salesmen, food carts and musicians stroll up and down Mazatlan's waterfront, making it a charming year-round destination. Although the majority of visitors come to Mazatlan from January through April, there is much to do in the other months as well. Public beaches abound, luring families, surfers, parasailers, jet skiers and street performers alike. Local merchants sound their whistles and peddle their crafts, divers show off their bravery jumping off boulders into the open waters, and gorgeous old statues grace the Malecon immortalizing everything from mermaids to "pulmonias," the popular open air modified taxi cars. Restaurants also abound, from "Senor Frogs" at the south end of the Malecon to the north tip of the marina where Coco Loco's quench thirsty travelers at the restaurant "Las Brujas".

Mazatlan's locals are friendly to foreign tourists, and in fact, even embrace them. Maybe it's because tourism isn't necessarily a priority. That's part of what separates Mazatlan from other resort cities. Less emphasis on tourism keeps prices lower than in places like Cancun, Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta, but that, my friends, is rapidly changing.

For those families that enjoy fishing, one of the attractions will definitely be deep sea fishing with the kids. Starting at around $350 a day, families can rent a staffed 28-foot fishing vessel for several hours. It's one of the most affordable prices you'll ever find for this level of sport fishing anywhere in the world.

Horse lovers will enjoy a nice ride on the beach with "Ginger's Bilingual Horses" located north of the marina right next to "Las Brujas" restaurant. Guided tours for adults and children cost about $25 an hour per horse for a 6-hour ride. This is a great bargain, considering that's just over $4 an hour for a guided tour.

For those traveling with teenage children, the annual spring "Carnaval" might be enjoyable experience. The Latin version of the American Mardi Gras focuses more on costumes, music, and floats and less on heavy drinking and partying. This annual spring event is one of the largest in all of Mexico and a true cultural experience.

Historic Mazatlan
For those families that enjoy visual arts and architecture, The Centro Historico downtown is undergoing a complete makeover. Walk along the historical district and you'll think you stepped back 200 years. Mazatlan is in the beginning stages of a revival of sorts. Recently declared a historical zone by the government, most of the 200 year-old buildings are being restored to their original opulence. The five-year historical restoration plan to be completed near 2012 has already made a huge difference. Investors are quickly buying old structures, gutting them, and restoring them to their old glory.

Spend one weekend in the beautiful Plaza Machado in the Centro Historico or take a stroll with your family down the Malecon and you'll quickly see the importance the locals place on "family". On weekends, the Machado fills with musicians, jewelry merchants and artists, and all sides of the Plaza are closed off to cars. Restaurants cover the old roads with tables, straw chairs and colorful umbrellas create a warmly embracing environment reminiscent of old Paris, Mexico style. Music often plays late into the evening as visitors eat and drink while children play chase and dance to traditional music. It is a true cultural experience.

One of the central focal points of central Mazatlan is the Angela Peralta Theater, with quite a colorful history of its own. The theater is a spectacular facility that hosts plays and performances weekly at reasonable prices. It's a great option for families looking for that rare mix of beach, history and the arts, all in one destination. Overall, historic downtown Mazatlan is an eye-catching beauty of an old Mexican town, with stimulating colors, textures and rich architectural lines. It is a true photographer's dream.

The Golden Zone
To the north, there is the "The Golden Zone," an area full of hotels and restaurants catering to tourists. There is no shortage of steak houses and other fine dining restaurants around here. Thousands of trinkets and Mexican keepsakes can be found around this area along with fine jewelry stores and other specialty shops. Unfortunately, most of Mazatlan's tourists spend most of their time in this part of the city as most of the "major brand" hotels are here. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with staying in the "Zone." Just make sure you spend at least one day exploring the historical side of town and the southern part of the Malecon.

Stone Island
Stone Island is just a short, inexpensive ferry ride away from the city. The island's main attraction is its miles of undeveloped beaches that are particularly enjoyable on horseback. Enjoy open air restaurants serving fresh seafood and have a siesta in woven hammocks rocking ever so gently in the wind. One of the region's top resorts is located here. The "Estrella del Mar" (The Sea Star) Golf and Beach Resort is a true luxury facility, with a world-class golf course and a beautiful spa perfect for indulgent traveler.

Mazatlan's Booming Popularity
A real estate development boom is also beginning in Mazatlan, as this Pacific Coast city seems to be transforming into a major travel destination. Many structures around the Malecon that are still remaining from the prior real estate boom in the 1980's are slowly being replaced by modern, shiny, taller, trendier condominium towers and businesses as investors from around the world have taken notice of this little known Mexican gem. North of the city, past the Golden Zone, another bubble of development is bursting as developers are buying up large chunks of land and building waterfront condos, luxury homes and marinas. With prices starting around $200,000, new prime ocean view condominiums are still affordable, but they are expected to rise significantly in the coming years as Mazatlan's popularity increases. Chances are that this city's skyline will also change dramatically and Mazatlan will become a household name like Cancun or Cabo. Now is the time to discover this beautiful place.

If you're fortunate enough to visit, look around and enjoy, word is traveling fast and it will surely bring more visitors. So, if you're looking to discover that great affordable family destination, you'd better hurry. Those great bargain days are starting to wind down. Five years from now, things will be very different. This Pacific Pearl of a city will be discovered by the masses, probably sooner than you think.

If You Go:

Good Restaurants
My personal favorite is Las Brujas (the witches) located in Playa Bruja north of the marina. It offers wonderful seafood bargains, and it is located right on the beach and next to Ginger's bi-lingual horse rides.

For good old American comfort food, there's no place like Heather's Place. It is located at 300 Camaron Sabalo, across from the Oceano Palace Hotel, and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

On the southern end of the Malecon, a must see for the whole family is the rooftop pool and eating area of the Freeman Best Western Hotel. It offers the most amazing viewpoint in the whole city and good food at decent prices, too. Non-guests of the hotel are welcomed, providing that a purchase of food and/or beverages is made.

The Shrimp Bucket opened in 1963, and today it is still a local favorite, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is located across the street from Olas Altas Beach in the Historic District on the Malecon.

In the Historic District, the "Beach Burger" is nice family-friendly restaurant with roadside tables lined up against the quiet park. This restaurant is a sure bet, providing a great variety of burgers for the whole family.

Half a block from the Plaza Machado is "Te Amo Lucy," a small restaurant where hosts Tony and Lucy treat customers to authentic Mexican food while lavishing them with genuine friendly service. This is the place to go to for a meal when checking out The Angela Peralta Theater. Located on 622 Calle Constitucion.

Family-Friendly Hotels and Lodging
Estrella del Mar Golf and Beach Resort: www.estrelladelmar.com; (800) 967-1889
El Cid Resort: www.elcid.com; (800) 716-9800
The Holiday Inn Sunspree: www.holiday-inn.com; (800) 716-9707
Los Sabalos Resort: www.lossabalos.com; (800) 716-9700
Playa Mazatlan: www.hotelplayamazatlan.com; (800) 716-9567
Pueblo Bonito Mazatlan: www.pueblobonito.com; (800) 699-9000.
Loro de Oro Inn, located in the Centro Historico. (714) 369-8205

Kim Conley is a freelance writer, photographer and associate television producer who has contributed to Stone Magazine, Hooligan TV and National Geographic Channel. She lives on Lake Travis near Austin, Texas and has traveled extensively especially to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

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