Mazatlan: Where old Mexico and “new” Mexico stand side by side

Buzzards surveying the scene near Playa Bruja in Mazatlan, Mexico.

On the Pacific coast of Mexico where a tectonic event caused the land commonly known as the Baja Peninsula to break away from the mainland sits Mazatlan. Once a haven for Hollywood’s glitterati, this temperate city’s historic quarter has undergone a renaissance and through careful restoration it has been transformed. Here, old Mexico and “new” Mexico stand side by side. 

While walking the wide empty beaches north of the city, you are likely to discover modern homes brushing lot lines with hardscrabble plots of land. The lots separated by ramshackle fences constructed of found wood, branches and rusting barbed wire call to mind scenes straight out of classic Western movies. Along the shore, you’re as likely to see frigate birds and pelicans soaring high above the waves, as you are buzzards in search of their next scavenge. 

I chose Mazatlan when I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip and wanted to visit a coastal Mexican city I’d never been to. Mazatlan, which in the indigenous Nahuatl-tongue means “Place of the Deer,” was not unfamiliar to me. I recalled hearing about it on reruns of the popular 70s/80s television show, The Love Boat. No one I knew, however, had ever been there. 

Wide empty beaches of Playa Bruja.
Wide empty beaches north of the city.

Positioned just below the Tropic of Cancer, the area temperatures were mild and the Pacific breezes gentle, passing through palm fronds and across sunbathers with barely a whisper. I discovered you could spend an entire afternoon on the near empty beach and not get over-heated. The place felt like paradise. 

Coastal Mazatlan may not be as crowded as Puerto Vallarta or Playa del Carmen, but it is no less beautiful or less inviting. The city has simply never had to rely on tourism dollars to survive. This is due in part to the region’s temperate climate, as well as its position as one of the most important ports on the Pacific.

Once a favorite of pirates who trolled the coast for Spanish galleons to plunder, the deep water bays are still a draw for boats large and small. The legendary sport fishing culture remains popular and harkens back to the Hollywood heavyweights that helped put the place on the map.

Islas de Pajaro, Ciervo y Lobo. rest offshore
Islas de Pajaro, Ciervo y Lobo rest offshore.

From the 1920s-1960s, familiar names like Hemingway, Mitchum, and Wayne sailed their yachts south in search of big gamefish and free-flowing alcohol. By day, they fished the Sea of Cortez, landing black marlin and swordfish. By night, they partied in the Zona Dorado or Golden Zone—a stretch of resort hotels curled along the coast.

Though I arrived by air rather than by sea, the shuttle ride to my hotel allowed me to observe the ebb and flow of life here: mothers, their toddlers in tow, going to market; uniformed children, their schoolbooks in hand, waiting at bus stops; auto repair shops, their garage doors open wide, fixinging cars; farm trucks, their beds laden with tomatoes, heading to market; and street food vendors, their colorful stalls at the ready, advertising carnitas, roasted corn and agua frescas.

I thoroughly enjoyed my shuttle introduction to the city, but I wanted more and reserved a city tour. Though I always do research beforehand, I have found city tours invaluable in getting the lay of the land of any place I visit. They provide a good introduction to the cityscape, some historical detail and an overview of what I might like to explore further.

Stairs leading to cliff-diving platform - a popular sport here.
Stairs leading to cliff-diving platform – a popular sport practiced off the malecon.

The morning tour was exactly what I expected. In addition to the various markets, old city and historic buildings, I was also introduced to Mazatlan’s many beaches. I found the rugged sweep of Playa Bruja north of town preferable to the more centrally located resort beaches along the malecon.

The ocean just seemed to glitter brighter and the waves to break larger along this stretch of shore and their power was palpable. Perhaps, the power was a result of the waves crashing into the huge rocks jutting out from the coastline or, perhaps, it was something else? But like the brujas (witches) rumored to have once gathered there, I was drawn like a moth to flame.

Waves breaking against the rocks along Playa Bruja.
Waves breaking against the rocks along Playa Bruja.

I may be a beach lover, but I also enjoy exploring cities. Mazatlan’s El Centro is the lively center of all things tourist. From woven hats emblazoned with the city’s name to machine-embroidered beach cover-ups to thumping club music and unusually colored margaritas, it’s all there if you desire. In addition to open-air and covered markets, there are also over 500 National Historic Landmark buildings waiting to be discovered. 

The grande dame of the landmark buildings is the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Her double spire punctuates the skyline of old Mazatlan, beckoning both area residents and the curious alike. On approach, the building’s golden facade dazzles in the late morning sun. Inside the basilica’s cool interior, the city’s patron saint takes center stage on the baroque main altar. Offering an amalgam of architectural styles, the sanctuary’s Renaissance domes and gothic arches soar over the nave.

The church’s interior provided a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle outside. Save for the lone pigeon that flapped in and was frantically trying to find its way out, I was content to watch the rays of color cast by the stained glass windows dance around the walls and floor. The plentiful windows lining the galleries above varied in style and a few featured Stars of David at their apex—a curious and surprising detail in a Catholic church.

Begun in 1856, this center of worship took over 40 years to build. The long construction period has been attributed to the ups and downs of the city’s fortunes, as well as Mexico’s turbulent, colonial history. The cathedral finally opened its doors to the faithful in 1899 due in part to funds donated by the local Jewish community. The Stars of David were a nod to their generosity. 

As in so many Mexican cities, architectural details fashioned from wrought iron pop up everywhere. From the basilica’s exterior sconces to the ornate bandstand in the adjacent Plaza de la Republica to the structure underpinning the historic Pino Suarez Market, Mazatlan is no exception. The Art Nouveau style of the covered market was inspired by the work of Gustav Eiffel and possesses the same open ironwork he employed to construct the Eiffel Tower.

Nicknamed the “Iron Palace” when it opened in 1900, the busy market is still a central part of life in the old city and is as colorful as one might expect. Fruit, vegetable, meat and spice vendors abound. You can also grab a cafe con leche (coffee with milk), a pastry or bread, as well as get your boots shined. Cowboy boots seem to be the favored footwear of men across Mexico.

Stretching over 180 blocks, the Centro Historico is the heart of old Mazatlan and colonial architecture is the norm with many of the buildings dating from the early 1800s. The narrow cobbled streets lined with orange trees pruned into topiary shapes are alive with color. The stucco buildings painted in shades of melon, pistachio and spruce are certainly attractive, but so are the wrought iron balconies overflowing with yellow, orange and fuchsia flowers. The color, like the Pied Piper’s flute, draws you along until you come upon the old city’s jewel: the Plazuela Machado.

This popular gathering place named for the Philippine banker and entrepreneur, Juan Nepomuceno Machado, was built in 1837. No stranger to opportunity when he found it, Machado made his home here in the 19th-century and grew rich from his interests in pearl diving and silver mining. His philanthropy contributed greatly to the city’s coffers and cultural character.

Recently restored, this jewel box plaza is filled with charming cafes, museums, galleries, boutique hotels, street performers, restaurants and the famed Angela Peralta Theater—billed as the only functioning opera house on the Mexican Pacific. Similar to Barcelona’s La Rambla, though much smaller in scale, this vibrant area is perfect for strolling, shopping, eating or watching the passersby.

With its authentic flair, gorgeous beaches, modern conveniences and cosmopolitan air, Mazatlan is an inspiring place to visit. The oldest part of the city may have undergone a renaissance, but with careful restoration and sensible zoning laws it has not lost its old Mexico charm. People from all over the world are finding their way here again, falling in love and making “new” Mazatlan home.

2 thoughts on “Mazatlan: Where old Mexico and “new” Mexico stand side by side”

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