by Lee Foster

Mexico’s Mazatlan offers the traveler ample beaches, lively restaurants, plus a major traffic in art and crafts from throughout Mexico.

Commercial fishing boats operate from this vital west coast port and protected harbor, which has attracted ships since the 17th century.

Described as the Pearl of the Pacific by appreciative Europeans and as the Place of the Deer in the local Nahuatl Indian language, Mazatlan has always been an important land-sea crossroads. Lush tropical vegetation, especially palms, marks Mazatlan as a broad transition zone between the cactus and thorn forests of the north and the denser jungles south to Puerto Vallarta.

The best overall views are from the major hills. Ask a taxi to take you to Cerro de la Nevera. Park for a moment at the high point to view the older part of town and the beaches extending to the north. From another hill, simply called Lookout Mountain or the Mirador, you get a good view of the port and the town. The main town begins at the base of the hills and then fans north along the coast, with the newer hotels in the northern area. If you are energetic enough to walk a half hour up a hillside, you can view the harbor and the sea from a third promontory, 505-foot El Faro Lighthouse, billed as the highest natural lighthouse in the Western Hemisphere.

Back downtown, the fabled Spanish era of silver-and-gold-laden galleons can be recalled at the Old Spanish Fort. Today only a battlement and a spare cannon remain.

ALONG THE BEACH

Mazatlan’s downtown area stretches along a five-mile arc of cream sand beach between the green jungle and the azure Pacific. The town behind the beach is protected by a combination seawall, boardwalk, and waterfront boulevard, malecon in Spanish. This long promenade is the defining characteristic of the city, with the urban area flourishing in the blocks between it and the protected inner harbor. Along the seawall, a stone Fisherman’s Monument reminds visitors of the industry enabling people to survive here.

Much of the vitality of the city can be seen along this seawall, as small-scale fishermen unload their boats and sell the catch. Local daredevils dive for a few dollars into the wave-filled crevices from a 40-foot platform known as Glorieta rock. The local populace enjoys an evening stroll in the hour before sunset.

The seawall begins its existence with the appropriate name, Olas Altas or High Waves street, which metamorphoses to Paseo Claussen as the road continues. Along the streets by the seawall you’ll find many craft and art stores, such as Indios. Exquisite silverwork is their specialty.

Shrimp Bucket is an example of the appealing restaurants along the seawall. The meal starts with a platter of fresh vegetable sticks, including jicama root. Try the grilled shrimp, washed down with the locally-brewed Mazatlan beer, Pacifico.

A few blocks into the city from the seawall lies the Immaculate Conception Cathedral and town square, typical of Mexican city plazas. Shoeshine boys work aggressively on the shoes of elderly men, who pass their time in front of the ornate bandstand. Brass bands serenade here on Friday afternoons. The blue-and-gold Moorish motifs on the Cathedral are architecturally noteworthy.

A block from the square is the Mazatlan open air market, Mercado Municipal, the most substantial such market on the west coast. There you’ll see a cornucopia of tropical fruits, such as mangoes, bananas, papayas, and pineapples, plus mounds of tomatoes and chiles, and whole carcasses of freshly-slaughtered cattle.

To see the market, square, and town you can walk on your own or ride to destinations in cabs and pulmonias, three-wheeled open mini-cabs. Pulmonia means pneumonia in Spanish, a reference to the vehicle’s breeziness, especially in the cool of the evening.

With the surge of traveler interest in the sea as a subject of meditation and wonder, it was appropriate that Mazatlan install an aquarium to celebrate the ocean heritage. Acuario Mazatlan is a half block off Avenida del Mar, a third name for the seawall. The complex includes 52 seawater tanks, showing sharks, seahorses, and over 250 species of reef fishes. The facility includes a small marine-life presentation area and art gallery.

Besides the downtown, there is a modern tourism resort area starting with the Playa Mazatlan Hotel, the first hotel-right-on-the-beach. You can walk there along the seawall, but take a taxi if the distance seems too great. Playa Mazatlan Hotel has always been one of the liveliest hotels in Mazatlan. The veranda, overlooking the beach, lets you view a parade of craft sellers plying their wares. Craft sellers, especially those with colorful wool blankets, cotton shirts, abalone jewelry, and baskets, amount to a daily open-air show. Some of the craft sellers journey from as far away as Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Thrice weekly the hotel puts on a Fiesta Mexicana show. From these beaches you can make a parachute ride, pulled behind a speedboat.

Beyond the Playa Mazatlan is the major cultural resource of Mazatlan, the Arts and Crafts Center, devoted to an elaborate display of Mexican art and artisanry. The walk to the Arts and Crafts Center passes a non-stop bazaar of small craft shops. At the Arts and Crafts Center you can see several artisans at work at any given time. Perhaps a weaver, wood carver, and metalsmith will be making their artifacts. This is the best place along the west Mexico coast to find, under one roof, an elaborate array of Mexican artistic genius, working in everything from fabric to onyx.

Beyond the Arts and Crafts Center are the most upscale resort hotels, such as the Hotel Camino Real and the El Cid, which plans to add an ambitious marina.

Besides the downtown and the Arts and Crafts Center area, boat tours are available at the Mazatlan harbor. A three-hour pleasure yacht trip departs from El Faro dock and amounts to a margarita-enhanced view of the harbor, fishing fleet, and city. The daily joviality approaches, but does not exceed, the passions of Carnival that surge through Mazatlan in February, just prior to the abstemious period of Catholic Lent.

MEXICO’S LARGEST PORT

Mazatlan is the largest Pacific port in Mexico, giving substantive employment to a portion of the city’s 400,000 people. Millions of pounds of shrimp are processed here and exported each year, mainly to the U.S. and Japan. A large number of travelers are imported. A ferry journeys daily from Mazatlan to La Paz in Baja, taking trucks and cars, local people and travelers.

At the harbor you can charter fishing boats and pursue legendary black marlin, sailfish, sea bass, red snapper, and other finned trophies in the temperate waters, which rarely fall below 68 degrees. Some big fish get away, others are catch-and-release, but about 5,000 trophy-size examples are displayed each year on the docks in Mazatlan. Fishing aficionados rank Mazatlan among Mexico’s best sport fishing locations.

Also from the harbor, non-fishing boat trips can be made to the several small islands near Mazatlan. The trips are popular with travelers who want to snorkel, view birds, or savor a Mazatlan world beyond the urban area.

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MAZATLAN: IF YOU GO

For further information on Mexico, contact the Mexican Tourism Board at 800/44-Mexico. They can send a packet of information on the country. The Mexican tourism web site at http://mexico-travel.com is also useful, providing a gateway to many regional tourism web sites. Be sure to bring proof of citizenship to Mexico. A passport is best, but a certified birth certificate will do.

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