Mexico: Nature and culture mix in brightly coloured Mazatlan

Our cab ride from the airport was a quick one: less than 30 minutes from the curb to our beachside hotel in the historic district of Mazatlan. Along the route, my husband chatted in Spanish with our driver and I surveyed the passing scene, glimpsing fleets of shrimp boats by the dozens and streets abuzz with commerce.

This was a compromise vacation. He wanted nature, meaning a wild beach to surf and fish, and I needed culture: a town with interesting architecture, art and a lively dining scene. As we crested a hill and saw the curve of Olas Altas beach – blissfully free of rental chairs and vendors – rimmed by low-key beachfront hotels and street-side restaurants, I began to suspect we had found our place.

Located due east from the tip of the Baja California peninsula, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean, Mazatlan sprawls along approximately 12 miles of scalloped coastline at the base of the Sierra Madre. First settled by Spanish conquest in the 1500s – the name comes from the indigenous Nahuatl word meaning “place of deer” – the town grew through subsequent waves of immigrants, including German settlers in the 19th century whose decorative buildings still line the old town streets.

By the mid-20th century, film personalities such as John Wayne, John Huston and Gary Cooper arrived for marlin fishing, often staying at hotels along Olas Altas. (As the largest fishing port in Mexico, Mazatlan is home to enormous tuna-fleet operations, as well as an extensive shrimping industry.) By the 1970s, development expanded north along the coast.

Today, Mazatlan’s three distinct sections offer a something-for-everyone approach to tourism. The central Zona Dorada (Golden Zone) is highly developed, with gated high-rise condos and hotels directly on the beach, next to a bustling commercial area with bars, clubs and fast-food eateries. To the north, Nuevo Mazatlan is rapidly on its way to becoming chockablock with new developments, among them two marinas, gated condos and resorts with private beaches, golf and tennis clubs.

Our interest was focused on the southern end, in the newly restored Centro Historico, where the local historical society – along with the federal government – is working to preserve the integrity of the architecture and community.

Eight years ago, Fred Howard and Cris Garrido moved from Phoenix to the historic part of town. As full-time residents, they’ve witnessed the transformation that has put the once-sleepy postcolonial area on the up-and-coming tourist map.

“In the 1980s, Centro was in really bad shape,” Howard said. “Even the 19th-century opera house was in ruins. Its restoration in 1992 jump-started renovations.”

“The largest portion of renovations were done last year. In the past, the philosophy was ‘Let’s start from scratch,’ as in Puerto Vallarta or Cabo. But tourism around the world is changing. People don’t want to experience only a five-star hotel. They want an experience that isn’t fake,” Garrido said.

Indeed. Time and again people described the Centro to us as “Mexican with some tourists,” rather than a tourist town (ahem, Puerto Vallarta) with some Mexicans. Although English is understood, Spanish is the predominant language we heard on the streets.

A few blocks inland from the Malecon – said to be the longest seaside promenade in Latin America – the quiet Centro neighbourhood boasts streets with newly laid paving stones and brick tiles, historic street lamps with hanging planters, and uplights flush with the sidewalk to illuminate the colorful architecture.

The changes are more than superficial: A new sewer and infrastructure were part of the area’s restoration, including overhead electric and phone lines that were moved underground. The result is a visually vibrant city center with restaurants, shops and small parks, not far from a beach that retains its wild Pacific character.

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