Mazatlan Travel: A Budget Vacation Guide to Mexico’s “Pearl of the Pacific”
Mazatlan: The “Pearl of the Pacific”. Until recently, a relatively little known vacation destination along Mexico’s western state of Sinaloa.
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While Cozumel, Cancun and the country’s border towns offer bargain basement prices on booze-fueled vacations for college co-eds, Mazatlan has quietly evolved during the past decade as an exciting, uniquely authentic destination unto itself – a place for travelers, not tourists.
While the word authentic is bandied about in travel brochures and guidebooks, Mazatlan offers a truly authentic view of Mexico. The city is undergoing a serious rebirth. Theaters, cafes, town squares, and classic markets are all being revived in a concerted effort to blend old world charm and culture with modern hotels, exciting events, and can’t-miss attractions.
All the modern accoutrements of a resort town – yes, there’s even a Starbucks and half a dozen Senor Frogs. But dig a little deeper and the city reveals a genuine glimpse into the heart of Mexican culture – a side rarely seen in the more well-known vacation hotspots.
With a selection of five star hotel resorts in Nuevo Mazatlan, an array of traditional restaurants, attractions, and experiences nearby, and deeply discounted hotel accommodations virtually anytime of year, the city is a budget vacationer’s paradise.
We were fortunate enough to tour the city for several days side by side with a bevy of locals. Here, our quick guide for travelers with 96 hours or less in Mazatlan who are looking to hit the ground running and experience the best this seaside town has to offer.
What to Do in Mazatlan
We were fortunate enough to have the folks at Pronatours by our side for the duration of our stay in Mazatlan. Their tour guides are undoubtedly some of the best I’ve ever experienced: bilingual, extremely knowledgeable, courteous and accommodating to our group’s requests. Bottom line: our tour of Mazatlan would not have been as interesting or educational without them.
Turtle Sanctuary at Estrella del Mar
Conveniently located on the grounds of the Estrella del Mar resort is one of the largest sea turtle sanctuaries in Mexico. It’s open to the public year-round to provide a fascinating hands-on experience. Admission is free and visitors are invited to view the sanctuary’s rehab pool where injured and otherwise out-of-commission turtles are temporarily housed to ensure their safe beach release.
Lone Olive Sea Turtle at Turtle Camp, Estrella del Mar
During the past year alone, the sanctuary has released 120,000 olive sea turtles back into the wild. Their efforts have increased the survival odds for these amazing creatures ten-fold.
We were fortunate enough to witness a mass release on the day of our trip – an amazing highlight indeed.
Los Osuna – Blue Agave Distillery Tour
No trip to Mexico is complete without a little book learnin’ on the process of blue agave (tequila) production. Just a few kilometers outside Mazatlan city center, the Los Osuna distillery schools visitors in the language of blue agave.
Catch a tour from the onsite guides or Pronatours can provide transportation to and from the plantation, as well as a comprehensive walk-through of the entire distillation process. Be sure to cap off your tour with the signature Mexican toast:
Arriba, Abajo, al Centro, para Adentro!
(Literally: up, down, center, for inside)
Huana Coa Zip Line and Canopy Tour
Sadly, the one and only to-do on this list we didn’t get to experience first hand. The only reason? Too much demand. As one of Mazatlan’s most popular destination experiences, Huana Coa is nearly booked year-round, so be sure to make reservations well in advance.
Take a Mexican Beer Flight
Drinking Mexican Beer, Mazatlan
No, we’re not talking about drunken aviation lessons. I’m referring of course to a beer sampling, known as a “flight” to brew connoisseurs. Tequila and blue agave aside, Mexico is renowned for a number of distinct breweries.
Look beyond Corona and don’t miss out on lesser known beers (at least in the States) such as Tecate, Pacifico and Negra Modelo. Don’t forget to cap off any Mexican beer with a squeeze of lime – a de rigueur garnish served in virtually every restaurant.
Visit El Quelite: A Taste of Small Town Mexico
On the outskirts of Mazatlan sits El Quelite – a traditional town of little more than 2,000 residents. The pinnacle of our visit was a stop at Meson de los Laureanos.
Handmade tortillas, an extremely friendly staff, and an extensive variety of traditionally prepared Mexican meats, including crispy fried quail, and lingua (cow’s tongue), all make it one of the most authentic restaurants in Sinaloa. Be sure to order a pitcher or three of horchata – a tasty rice drink with hints of vanilla and cinnamon. (Tip: don’t miss the eclectically decorated restrooms!)
Once you’ve had your fill of all things meat, stop by the stand near the front of the restaurant for a bit of dulce leche – an awesome caramel dessert similar to a moist, crumbly brownie. Or take a stroll over to the town’s rustic bakery for fresh baked scones and other traditional pastries. Be sure to go early because they routinely sell out. Grab a ToniCola on your way out – it’s a classic Mexican soft drink that’s a little like Vanilla Coke.
Other highlights of El Quelite include a visit to the cockfighting training ranch at the edge of town and an ancient cemetery that features a series of stunning crypts.
Stop for a Photo Opp at the Tropic of Cancer
On your return from El Quelite, stop at the road side marker of the Tropic of Cancer (it’s small, so keep your eyes open or you’ll miss it) – a significant geographic marker for map lovers and other earth geeks. This tiny monument marks the:
“… most northerly position at which the Sun may appear directly overhead at its zenith. This event occurs once per year, at the time of the June solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun to its maximum extent.”
Mazatlan’s location along the Tropic of Cancer is the reason why they experience equinox (the time of year when hours of daylight and night are equal) essentially all year.
Pino Suarez Market
While in town, don’t miss the Pino Suarez market at the heart of old town Mazatlan. In continuous operation for more than 100 years, the market was designed by Gustav Eiffel and features a number of architectural elements similar to those used in the construction of his infamous Parisian landmark.
Vendors peddle a wide selection of goods, from fresh meats and vegetables to unique handmade crafts and Made in China tzothke. As with many such markets, be sure to haggle as the sticker price is rarely the lowest price the vendor will accept.
Cliff Divers of Olas Altas
Seen on postcards, T-shirts and an array of tourist tschotske, the Mazatlan cliff divers at Olas Altas are a staple of the city’s nightlife. After a brief climb up a stone stairway, the divers wait patiently for the perfect wave before leaping into the churning water that is rarely more than eight feet deep.
It’s an amazing sight to behold and the divers know it. Be prepared to shell out a few pesos of appreciation for their hard work.
(Tip: the street vendors in the area are ruthless. Unless you’re in the market for Oakley knockoffs or Mazatlan-branded bongs, be prepared to stand your ground.)
The Angela Peralta Theater is one lady who doesn’t mind revealing her age — more than 135 years old and looking as grand as ever. Once this theater, in the heart of MazatlÃ¡n’s Historical Center, suffered from neglect. But the city and its residents refurbished the landmark building. Now, fresh paint and bright lights adorn her elegant facade.
It’s a quaint, simply beautiful monument that harks back to elegant theater days of yore.
Where to Stay in Mazatlan
With oceanfront resort rates as low as $100 per night in the off-season, Mazatlan is a dream for budget vacationers. Our four-day tour afforded us a glimpse into the myriad of fantastic accommodations available.
El Cid – Beach Marina Resort
El Cid Marina Beach is a sprawling, four star luxury resort with fantastic ocean views from almost anywhere on the property. Located on a peninsula in Nuevo Mazatlan, guests can experience stunning sunrises and sunsets without ever leaving the hotel grounds.
A number of restaurants and bars service guests with all-inclusive packages, available for just $59 per person per day. During our stay, the staff were extraordinarily friendly and accommodating.
Las Villas Hotel & Spa at Estrella del Mar
An 816-acre mega resort with over three and half miles of beachfront, Estrella del Mar is an amazing property. Tuscan-inspired décor and clever, open air architecture combine to provide a persistent feeling that hotel guests are always outside. The common areas and rooms offer a lavish, elegant feel without the heavy handed, overdone atmosphere common in many luxury resorts. The most amazing part? Rooms start at around $120 per night.
Hotel Riu Emerald Bay
The Hotel Riu Emerald Bay is a large, lavish, Vegas-style resort with all the amenities of a modern cruise ship. This includes nightly shows, all-you-can-eat buffets and plenty of alcohol and poolside fun to keep your head spinning for an entire vacation.
For a quick escape, head back to a private suite for a dip into your balcony’s whirlpool Jacuzzi overlooking the Pacific ocean. All-inclusive nightly rates in a double room with ocean view balcony and complimentary in-room bar start around $140 USD pp.
Where and What to Eat
Pedro y Lola
Located in the heart of Old Mazatlan across from the famous Plazuela Machado Pedro y Lola boasts a well-deserved reputation as one of the city’s most popular restaurants. The lively, open air atmosphere provides the perfect blend of old world charm with a slightly modern flair.
Arnold, PyL’s sole restaurateur, was kind enough to join us on our first night for a sampling of some of the best food Mazatlan has to offer. He was quick to recommend the chef’s signature garlic octopus – a soft, tender rendition of a classic Mexican favorite with plenty of garlic sauce.
Ask about the chef’s special fish stew, which may or may not be on the menu. Served in a light broth with only the freshest octopus, shrimp, and local fish.
Gus y Gus
A fantastic open air restaurant directly on Mazatlan’s main strip, Gus y Gus features live music nightly and plenty of traditional Mexican dishes. Our waiter was quick to recommend the Gus Gus Shrimp. If Mazatlan is known for one food, it’s shrimp.
We went just for the aquachile – a traditional dish similar to ceviche – butterfly shrimp marinated in lime juice and served with onions and cucumbers and tostada chips. Add in a liberal dose of green chile sauce for a spicy kick.
Nieve de Garrafa
Nieve de Garrafa is a family owned ice cream stand that has been serving Mazatlan-ians for more than six decades. The setup is a no-nonsense affair – a small food cart just outside the main square. Flavors range from simple favorites such as plum and vanilla to queso (cheese).
The Seafarer Restaurant
The Seafarer Restaurant
Not surprisingly, The Seafarer Restaurant in Nuevo Marina MazatlÃ¡n offers a variety of premium seafood. The ahi tuna is fresh, rare and flavorful.
Be sure to sample a paloma – a simple Mexican cocktail that consists of tequila and Fresca, served in a large, salt-rimmed glass. Think of it as a simpler, more refreshing take on the traditional margarita.
After dessert, head to the restaurant’s rooftop deck to relax in one of a dozen chaise lounges overlooking Marina Costa Bonita.
Lastly, for a taste of authentic Mexican cuisine, try a slice of guava pie. Although prepared in a variety of ways, the dish is most typically served with a whipped filling in a graham cracker crust and topped with chopped guava. For those not in the know, guavas are similar in texture and taste to green apples, but with a more tart aftertaste.
Getting To Mazatlan
From the U.S. and Canada
Most American and Canadian cities offer indirect flights; while daily non-stops are available from Houston, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Denver.
There are daily flights to Mexico City from major European cities with frequent connections to MazatlÃ¡n. There are also connections through Los Angeles.
When to Visit
Aside from a brief, slightly rainy season during the months of June-September, Mazatlan weather is temperate and dry almost every day of the year.
Calendar of Events
Mazatlan International Carnival – third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the world
November – December:
Mazatlan Cultural Festival – features cultural events that range from rock concerts to ballet, drama, film competitions, art gallery tours and photography shows
Pacifico Marathon – rated one of the Top 10 in the world
Festival of the Light – amazing fireworks show and laser lights all along the MazatlÃ¡n’s MalecÃ³n
For the latest, up-to-date information on Mazatlan travel and events, visit the official website: GoMazatlan.com.