As one of the major tourist centers on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Mazatlan has a booming seaside resort business. Extending along five miles of oceanfront, its Zona Dorado (Gold Zone) is stacked with one hotel after another, ranging from simple apartment-hotels and time-shares to older (1970s) and brand-spanking-new luxury properties still under construction.
Tourism, however, is not the first industry in this city of about 350,000 (smaller than Portland), located just below the Tropic of Cancer. Mazatlan is first and foremost a fishing port — in fact, the largest shrimp port in the Americas. Hundreds of millions of pounds of giant prawns are harvested here each year, and a visit to the fishing harbor is an eye-opener. Plan to eat lots of camarones (shrimp) if you visit. One evening, at the Costa Marinera restaurant, we ordered a giant shrimp platter for two … grilled, butterflied, battered, baked al diablo served on oyster shells in a cream sauce … and paid only about US $15 apiece.
But if you want to see the real Mazatlan, get out of the Zona Dorado and head to El Centro, the traditional heart of the old downtown area. The Plazuela Machado, which dates from the early 1800s, is the center of the action. The tree-lined plaza is surrounded by small cafes and bars, where locals and tourists alike gather to watch couples promenade, mariachi musicians offer their services to music lovers, and vendors hawk jewelry and other crafts to passers-by.
The most impressive building of many in Mazatlan’s “old town” is the Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepcion, built between 1875 and 1890. There’s also a wonderful 1860s theater, the Teatro Angela Peralta, restored in the 1990s, and a small but interesting archeological museum.
Not far off the Plazuela, we found our favorite shop, a little gallery called Casa Etnika (at Sixto Osuna 50). Owner Miguel Ruiz Contreras designs and creates many of the pieces himself, from elaborate Frida Kahlo-themed jewelry to metalcrafts and silk-screened T-shirts. Ruiz, who grew up in San Diego, has also joined in a promotional consortium with three other local gallery-shops. I heartily recommend Casa Etnika as a great place to start looking for those things you didn’t know you couldn’t do without.