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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Exploring Old Mazatlán (Centro Historico)
It is true what they say: Time flies when you’re having fun. And that’s what we have here in Centro Historico area, or as they also call it Old Mazatlán. The average temperature hovers around 28 degrees Celsius; the sun shines every day and outdoors is the place to be.
We have had pure fun, despite the humidity and heat. Actually, we started noticing a little coolness in the evenings and early-early mornings, a subtle difference that escaped us when we first arrived here three weeks ago.
Okay so we’ve settled in our condominium, and have already soaked up some sun. We had our time around the pool and now it was time to explore the other parts of Mazatlán. We wanted to head for Pueblo Viejo (old town) because it was very close. We could see it from the rooftop terrace at our B&B property. Exploring the old town was easy as everything was within a short walking distance.
The historic area of town is home to many interesting places that tourists may appreciate. In old part of Mazatlán we have the cliff divers, the cathedral, Centenarion, the different monuments the Olas Altas beach and the seawater pool… all this at our footsteps. Touristy part of the city – Zona Dorada, is far, far away at the north end of the city. Here in Centro Historico, we don’t see many real tourists, but the area is filled with many American and Canadian snowbirds that spend whole winters here (I’m so jelous!). The old town is historical yet progressive thanks to the university and art students who make it their playground. This area is filled with all the sights in Mazatlán and possesses great charm. The center of this area is the old Mercado (market), which bustles with hundreds of shoppers and acts as the best place to catch a bus. The surrounding area is the shopping center of the city and is packed with stores and vendors.
Mazatlán Downtown & Historical Center
A short stroll down the hill from our rented condominium and we‘re at the corner of Plaza Hidalgo, home to the Benjamin Franklin Library and the Municipal Library. This plaza is the second oldest square in the city – after Plaza Machado – and was the original site of the Mazatlán central market. The plaza is often referred to as ‘Plazuela de los Leones’, because of the two lion sculptures that flank the entrance to the library. It is packed with palm trees and wrought iron benches – a great place to pause and relax in the shade.
There is also street food stand right in front of Alberto Ibarra Travel Agency. We would stop there late in the evening (they were closed during the day) to have some real Mexican fast food like Chulepa, which is a cross between taco and a pizza. This type of ‘street food’ can’t be found in proper sit-down restaurants and it cost only 70 pesos, which is about $6 CAD. It can’t be any cheaper… I’ll give you a tip if you’re eating at street vendors in Mexico: “Always look for the crowd, which not only indicates deliciousness and hygiene, but also a good price. Ask for tacos ‘con copia’, which means two tortillas instead of just one per taco. Deep-fried tacos and quesadillas are not only tastier but will fill you up better.”
Two blocks from Plaza Hidalgo is the Moorish-style Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception which serves as a good identifiable landmark with its twin towers. Across the road is the Plaza de la Revolucion with a gazebo as its center, which is a great place to sit and relax. Next door is Mazatlán’s City Hall, but it’s pretty unimpressive. Keep walking south. Down a very busy street, only two blocks away is the Central market, full of fresh produce, meats, dry goods and more; it’s a busy place any time of the day.
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is beautiful soaring 19th-century cathedral, with its high yellow twin towers and a dramatic interior, located on the Plaza Principal, which attracts legions of old pigeon feeders, and local families who patronize businesses on the clogged arteries that surround it. On the corner of Juárez and Valle, is the vibrant local Centro Mercado, full of clothes, housewares, produce, juice stands and shoppers. We watched a Mexican weeding in this Cathedral and it was very interesting.
If you plan on visiting Mazatlán, you must make a stop at the Central Market or Mercado Municipal, located in Mazatlán’s Historic Center. Steps from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on the corner of Benito Juarez and Leandro Valle, the hustle and bustle of the Market can sometimes overwhelm the unassuming spectator. It’s time to put on your big boy pants and hustle through the Market as it will be a highlight of your trip. There are 250+ vendors who sell everything from hats & jewelry to fresh produces & meat, a feature that remains a constant since its inauguration. Thousands of locals, or rather “Mazatlecos”, visit the Central Market each day for their daily grocery shopping. Vera and I did regularly shop there for the fresh meat, shrimp, vegies and other necessary food items. Streets around this market are extremely busy with many buses constantly coming and leaving.
If you like fresh seafood, you’ll love Mazatlán.
About 40 million pounds of shrimp are exported every year, giving Mazatlán the moniker of ‘Shrimp Capital of the World.’ Fortunately, plenty of the bounty stays at home to find its way onto local menus. You have many choices to buy shrimps at the market, but there is also a place just down the road, where the locals sell shrimps on the street at better price. They keep them on the ice in big buckets sorted by size and quality.
Spiced and seasoned, prepared as sizzling barbecued kebabs enveloped in soft tortillas, or conjured into a frigid shrimp cocktail, you can enjoy juicy shrimp dozens of different ways here. My wife is an expert cook and I licked my fingers clean after each delicious shrimp meal which I washed down with a locally produced cold Pacifico, a beer made in the city for over a century.
Only couple of blocks further from the main market to the west and we were at the corner of Avenida Carnaval and Constitución, where we find ourselves in the middle of the tree-lined Plaza Machado. The plaza and surrounding streets are abuzz with art galleries, cafes and (expensive) restaurants. The ‘Plazuela Machado’ is about four blocks south west from the main city Cathedral. This small park is surrounded by colorful colonial buildings which are home to cafes, restaurants, a museum, a theatre and the Hotel Machado. On weekends the small street that intersects this area is closed down to vehicular traffic and the surrounding restaurants set up tables on the street and provide live music to accompany your dining experience, with affordable prices. On the other side of the plaza is a line of restaurants, all offering sidewalk tables for your enjoyment. Starting from the east end of the block is Pedro & Lola’s, which is an incredible restaurant with live music most nights. The restaurant is named after two famous musicians from Mazatlán. Next is Altazor café, which has the best coffee to be found in Mazatlán and offers live music as well. Finally, at the far end of the block is Café Pacifico which is a great bar with atmosphere, a good selection of drinks, and free pool.
Although residents in Mazatlán are refurbishing the older part of town, it is still quiet and relatively unpopulated with tourists. In the evening, the streets quiet down and in the smaller parks, the benches fill up with people relaxing from the day. Most of the best restaurants in Mazatlán are in the Centro Historico and there is almost no street food. Near the remodeled old Teatro, there are several new outdoor cafes. This is the place where we would end up every evening for people watching or having drinks. We ate here only once because in our opinion the restaurants along near by Malecón were more attractive. Still, at the Café Machado we enjoyed good cinnamon coffee. Down half a block, we could hear a small ensemble playing chamber music inside The Royal Dutch Cafe. This area is a good change from the rock ‘n roll disco golden zone.
If you walk the surrounding streets as we did almost every evening, you will see a cultural renaissance happening. After recent restorations all cables from the air have been moved underground, giving the area a more open uncluttered feel for cultural events. New palm trees, artistic lighting and iron benches throughout plaza added romantic touches for the evening enjoyments. Each bench is adorned with a plaque identifying the donor. Old buildings are being restored into colorful boutiques, restaurants and wine bars. The transformation is amazing. The 10 minute walk back from the Malecón through the narrow streets, at a little before midnight, was quiet and serene. We spotted a few teenagers hanging out in front of their homes and, once in a while, a car would drive by, but most of the time we were alone.
Teatro Ángela Peralta
The other nearby center of attention is the Teatro Ángela Peralta, half a block south of the plaza. Constructed between 1869 and 1874, the 1366-seat theater was a thriving center of local cultural life for nearly a century, first as an opera house, then as a cinema. Abandoned in 1964, and battered by Hurricane Olivia in 1975, it fell into decay and was slated for demolition by the city government, before dedicated local citizens came to its rescue in the late 1980s. Declared a national heritage site in 1990 and reopened to the public in 1992, the three-level interior has been restored to its former splendor, and all kinds of cultural events are again staged here, including the annual Festival Cultural Mazatlán. During November they were presenting the following shows: Blockbuster Broadway, Flamenco music, La Traviata and the Sinaloa Symphony… We didn’t watch any shows while there, but one day we took a free tour during the day to see this place from the inside. Remarkable!! Definitely worth a visit!
Playa Olas Altas
Another area to check out is a short walk from Plaza Machado towards the sea, where you will come to the seaside area known as Olas Altas (tall waves). This Sunset beachfront is lined with restaurants, gift shops and is perfect for watching the Pacific sunsets and for surfing. This is a great place to find a really cold ‘cerveza’ on a hot afternoon. ‘Ah… a bucket on ice, please!’ Arriving from Plaza Machado we hit Olas Altas Street right at the Café Marisimo, an excellent breakfast spot. For 20 pesos you get your choice of eggs, a good onion-potato dish, beans, tortillas, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee (real coffee not Nescafe). Here you’ll find Hotel Belmar, Mazatlán’s first resort hotel, and it’s still operating. The breezy seafront road, Paseo Olas Altas, strongly evokes 1950s-era Mazatlán, with a couple of faded relic hotels.
Olas Altas always seems to have people on it, sitting watching the ocean, walking, running, skateboarding, rollerblading, visiting, or romancing. The beach is fascinating, the sand is moving from one end to the other several times each year. This phenomenon just occurred during our stay and the beach totally changed. The south end has this beautiful sandy beach, the other end is a pile of large rocks. It is amazing that the sand changes depth by probably 10 feet, covering and uncovering the rocks. ‘Oh, I do love the feel of sand between my toes.’ All in all, we both loved the Malecón, especially the Olas Altas end. Always something to see!
Street-side car washing
Walking all over the city ‘Centro’ we noticed many guys there with buckets of water, that will hand wash the outside of your car for a tip. They apparently do a great job. It was interesting for me how little water they need to do such a great job. Between them and English costumers almost no English is spoken; most communication involves a lot of gesturing, pointing, and poorly spoken Spanish and English words by all participants. One must ensure that all bargaining is done in Pesos as conversions to either Canadian or a U.S. dollars invariably involves some problems and sometimes a little deceit. Every day there were several guys waiting all day long for dirty cars in front of the ‘The Fish Market’ restaurant at Olas Altas beach.
‘Carpa Olivera’ – the ocean-fed public swimming pool
Nearby to the north is the seawater pool ‘Carpa Olivera’ – the ocean-fed public swimming pool in Olas Altas that positions Mazatlán among World’s Elite group of cities worldwide with scenic ocean-fed swimming pools as there are very few saltwater pools in the world. Located on Paseo Olas Atlas below the statue of Carpe Olivera, the pool draws crowds of visitors’ every day. A family-friendly place, it is particularly popular with parents who have small children. A distinctive curving water slide deposits you into the recently rebuilt pool, and at night a host of fountains spurt water 12’ into the air.
Clavadistas, Cliff divers
If you walk past this pool along the Malecón and under the large Mexican flag high above the Passeo Olas Altas, you’ll get to the one of Mazatlán’s most unique attractions: platform from which the clavadistas (cliff divers) cast their bodies into the treacherous ocean swells for our enjoyment. You’re most likely to see the divers perform around lunchtime on Saturday and Sunday (they won’t risk their necks until a crowd has assembled). They are expecting tips…
There are also bunch of food stands along the Passeo Olas Altas. Here you will find pescado zarandeado, shrimp albondigas, empanadas of marlin, aguachiles, callo de hacha (scallops), and all sorts of local specialties. Eating street food in Mazatlán is en economical and delicious dining option that is a part of life for most Mazatlecos of all economic classes… and a real culinary treat for savvy tourists and ex-pats who reside in this area.
More Things to do in Mazatlán:
When in Mazatlán you have to visit either Deer Island or Stone Island – both are unique and involve a pleasant boat ride. Vera and I went to the Stone Island… twice! The catch is to find a place from which the small ferry boat takes off. The boat ride will take only few minutes and for $30 pesos (roundtrip) will take you across canal to Stone Island. The boat goes every few minutes until midnight, but remember to keep your ticket for your way back, as they take it back at that time. Beautiful beaches and a few very good restaurants right on the beach.
Also you should travel around the city and you will quickly discover the flavor of the historic towns just outside of Mazatlán. El Quelite, Copala, Concordia and El Rosario are examples of charming ‘true Mexico.’ We did visit them all and enjoyed the experience traveling in the buses with locals. It cost only 30 pesos to get to Concordia and another 30 to visit Copala, which is situated little further in the Sierra Madre mountains. Take a walk on the Malecón and enjoy an early-morning or sunset stroll along this ocean promenade that stretches for almost 20 kilometers.
Hike up Cerro Creston hill
At the peninsula’s southern end, a prominent rocky outcrop is the base for El Faro, which is 135m above sea level and said to be the second-highest lighthouse in the world (after the one in Gibraltar). This is Mazatlán’s highest hill. We rode our bikes to the bottom of the hill and climb up on foot for a spectacular view of the city and coast from the top. El Faro is worth the effort if you want the full Mazatlán experience.
Mazatlán is a great beach destination, a good place to absorb some culture and it’s quite affordable. Mazatlán is a perennial favorite with North American sunbirds and snowbirds alike. Endowed with a shoreline sprinkled with beckoning islands, a lovely seaside promenade, miles of golden beaches and blue lagoons, it really lives up to its moniker, ‘Pearl of the Pacific.’
Sometimes, when you’re planning your holidays, you have to make a decision: sun and sand or culture and history? Mazatlán has the distinction of offering the best of both worlds: in the newer Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), developed in the 1960s, you’ll find most of the major hotels, shops, bars and restaurants scattered along the idyllic beaches; meanwhile, in Old Mazatlán or the Centro Historico (Historic Center), life carries on as it did before tourists arrived in the markets, cafes, churches and shady plazas throughout the traditional neighborhoods. I hope that I managed to describe well what you can expect in Centro Historico and you should now be ready to have a great day!
It’s cold and dreary here at home in Edmonton, but if I close my eyes I can still picture that beautiful blue Pacific and sandy beaches in Mazatlán. Warm & friendly culture, tropical breezes, warm climate and a short flight from Canada. Isn’t it time you came down to good ol’ Mexico?
Hasta luego. Have a good and healthy year!
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