When I first visited Mazatlán over 35 years ago, the journey – a 20-hour slog on a cramped train from the border town of Nogales through a slew of tiny Mexican villages — was the most memorable part of the trip. Since moving to San Diego in the late 1980s, I’ve been to dozens of Mexican cities, but Mazatlán never reentered the picture.
Earlier this month, I gave this colonial port city that sits on the northern Pacific Coast of the Sinaloa state a second chance. This time I made it to Mazatlán in just over two hours, flying nonstop out of Tijuana International Airport after parking my car at the Cross Border Xpress and taking a five-minute stroll across CBX’s enclosed pedestrian sky bridge.
Why the Cross Border Xpress? Flights to Mazatlán out of San Diego were over $700 with two or three stops. My direct flight from Tijuana to Mazatlán was less than $200.
When my wife and I arrived on a Monday night on the first day of November, the city was bubbling with anticipation for the week’s events. As it turns out, our timing was perfect — Mazatlán was celebrating Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, a two-day Mexican holiday where families honor their relatives who’ve died.
Dia de los Muertos
Many visit the graves of loved ones and build elaborate altars featuring bright flowers and decorations. The sacred holiday, which stems from pre-Hispanic traditions brings those who left Mexico back home, which may explain why our Monday afternoon flight was so packed.
This year’s Day of the Dead celebration was especially poignant for the nearly 600-year-old city, known for having one largest shrimping ports in the world and 17 miles of idyllic beaches. Last year’s festivities were canceled because of pandemic restrictions.
The city’s first annual Day of the Dead parade through the cobblestone streets in Mazatlán’s Centro Histórico wasn’t green-lighted by the city’s mayor, Luis Guillermo Benitez Torres, until late October.
“Most people in Mazatlán are now vaccinated, so we’ve been opening up little by little,” Benitez Torres said. “This Day of the Dead celebration is the grand opening for these kinds of activities.”
The mayor looked on proudly as the streets overflowed on an 80-degree night with thousands of Mazatlán residents taking in the parade’s pageantry of elaborate floats, dancing pirates, marching bands and fire jugglers.
The parade was preceded by a mesmerizing performance by a local theater troupe at the Angela Peralta Theater, a stunning 19th-century opera house named for Mexico’s diva of the day.
The narrow streets of Old Mazatlán after dark have a Paris or New Orleans French Quarter vibe with lively outdoor cafes, street vendors, murals, boutique hotels and renovated buildings with elaborate railings and ornate facades.
Benitez Torres, who became Mazatlán’s first mayor to win reelection, seems intent on turning his city into a tourist destination that rivals Puerto Vallarta, which lies 370 miles south.
“We are part of a national transformation movement to root out corruption,” Torres said. “All of the money that corruptors used to take is invested now in the streets, a new Malecon, the soccer and baseball stadiums, a world-class terminal for the cruise ships and a new aquarium. The objective is to make Mazatlán the best visitor destination in Mexico.”
Mazatlán is just getting the party started with its Day of The Dead festivities. The city’s Carnival, which started in 1898, is the third-largest in the world behind Brazil and New Orleans. The week of nonstop partying begins Feb. 24 next year and runs to March 3. The parade often draws over a half-million to the streets.
Things to do
For dramatic panoramic views of the city, the hike up to the lighthouse, Faro Mazatlán, is a must. The hike itself is relatively easy, taking about 20 minutes, and is paved with over 300 steps. Once you climb to the top, there’s an impressive glass bridge, which happens to be a spectacular spot for a picture.
The recently opened Observatory is an excellent way to experience the history and culture of Mazatlán. Visitors are treated to a 40-minute guided tour of the building that dates to 1873. A bird sanctuary housing mostly rescued parrots, macaws and toucans allows visitors to interact and even feed the birds a snack.
And for those interested in tequila and mezcal, part of the tour includes the history of how these agave-based spirits are made. If you’re thirsty after the tour, stop at the bar for a cold Pacifico, founded and brewed in Mazatlán.
For baseball fans who can’t wait until next February for the start of spring training, the first pitch for Mazatlán Venados of the Mexican Pacific League began in November and continues through February. The Venados’ stadium was recently remodeled, doubling in size from 8,000 to 16,000 seats.
The soccer 27,000-seat soccer stadium, home to Mazatlán F.C., opened last year and is one of the jewels of the Liga, Mex, Mexico’s renowned professional soccer league. In the spring, the city will unveil a $70 million aquarium in Parque Central. The public-private project will include 19 exhibit rooms, four million liters of water in its tanks and 260 species.
Places to stay and eat
Fresh off a $27-million makeover, the original Pueblo Bonito beachfront resort is a perfect spot for romantic getaways or family vacations. Located along the city’s Golden Zone, the lush tropical resort offers 248 guest suites, most with ocean views, two pools and four restaurants, including a new oceanfront bar.
The all-inclusive brand’s other Mazatlán hotel, Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay, is a 414-room property overlooking a breathtaking crescent beach in an exclusive area known as New Mazatlán.
Still not relaxed? A soothing massage, body scrub, detoxifying body wrap or facial at the Armonia Spa isn’t a bad way to end the day. Mazatlán is all about seafood and there’s no better place to enjoy it than Casa 46, which has a spectacular view of Plaza Machado.
The elegant restaurant is a transformed museum offering cuisine influenced by French, Spanish, German, Asian and American culture. It’s hard to go wrong ordering fresh, locally caught shrimp anywhere in Mazatlán — the wrapped shrimp almond tartare appetizer and shrimp confit in lobster butter with bacon, butter broccoli and passion fruit mole are to die for.