By Stuart Wasserman
A lot has changed since my parents visited Mazatlan many years ago. In the 1990s it was known for the row of beach hotels in the Golden Zone and big-game fishing. There are fewer fish now due to overfishing, but travelers who desire an ocean voyage can go whale-watching. Whales pass by the coast of Mazatlan beginning in mid-December and ending in April.
About 15 years ago the folks in Mazatlan — or Mazatlecos, as they refer to themselves — realized they had a treasure in their Old Town, the colonial city stretching for about 50 square blocks that was built by the Spanish and French. Some say the restored and repainted buildings of Old Town Mazatlan resemble the French Quarter of New Orleans.
For the last five years Mazatlecos have enjoyed a monthly art walk spearheaded by American artist Glen Rogers, who now calls Mazatlan home. A full-color free map guides visitors to the 25 art galleries that open their doors the first Friday of each month between November and April, when Americans and Canadians migrate to Mazatlan to escape the blizzards of winter.
A dozen or so restaurants provide outdoor seating on the square known as the Plaza Machado. Pedro y Lola is the granddaddy of restaurants at the corner of Carnaval and Constitucion, but now other restaurants are popping up within walking distance of the plaza.
Young people born in Mazatlan who migrated north and worked in restaurants during their 20s and 30s are now coming back and opening restaurants of varied styles and cuisines. They recognize the jewel they have in the preserved historic architecture.
El Presidio, which opened in 2012, is located in a grand old mansion on Ninos Heroes Avenue. The mansion has 3-foot-thick adobe walls, and the garden setting is something to experience even if only for a drink. Chef Diego Becerra, who previously lived in San Francisco, prepares sumptuous dishes of pork and chicken spiced delightfully.
Molika's Chef Hector Peniche, who lived in London for more than a decade, is a real foodie who models his restaurant after a European bistro. Molika has its own bakery, and the cranberry walnut bread is said to be killer. Standout dishes are the pickled prawns, swordfish steak and duck.
Peniche is currently celebrating the opening of a small culinary market located a couple of blocks from the plaza that features meats, organic produce and a cappuccino shop. One Mazatlan blog says: "Gotta like having specialty meats and breads in a single one-stop location."
El Ajibe, about three blocks from the plaza, is owned by a chef from Spain who opened his restaurant in the Old Town cistern that once held the city's water supply. It is a very cool place on warm Mexican nights.
Places to stay in Old Town are proliferating. The Melville is centrally located a block and a half from the Plaza Machado. It is a classic structure built in the 1870s by Germans for commercial use. In those days Mazatlan was a bustling port town that was the last stop before San Francisco for Italian, German and Irish immigrants leaving New York for the gold rush. Once the gold petered out, many came to the realization that the weather was better in Mazatlan, at least in wintertime.
The Melville is the perfect base for operations, and security is good. Though the doors of some of the units look like they could use some updating, the walls are nicely painted in pleasing tones from the Mexican palette and good art hangs on the walls.
Another choice within the perimeter of Old Town is the Old Mazatlan Inn, located on Pedregoso Street No. 18, two blocks up from the Shrimp Bucket and the waves of Olas Altas Beach.
The inn has more than a dozen tastefully decorated units , a new patio, swimming pool and an incredible rooftop view where visitors often congregate for an incomparable sunset. The Best Western Posada offers a similar view, but often it is windy there while the inn is protected by Ice Box Hill.
Casa de Leyendas is the queen of Old Town B&Bs. It is tucked away just a block from the beach and across from a cute little public plazuela with art and archaeological museums located within a stone's throw. "My home away from home," is how one guest described her recent visit.
Glen and Sharon Sorrie are hoteliers with a personable touch. Three years ago they opened the restaurant cafe Maccaws in front of their B&B. Offering free live music two nights a week, it has quickly become a new popular hangout outside of the plaza.
Canadians and Americans meet mornings under the veranda of the Looney Bean, which is set on the promenade in front of the Belmar Hotel. This is a once-illustrious property that counted among its prominent guests John Wayne, who would hang out there between movie shoots up in the high desert territory around Durango.
Looney Bean has a sister location at the north end of Cerritos Beach, one of the best swimming beaches in Mazatlan. That area's Cerritos Beach now sports five towering condos and a huge new shopping center nearby. Some refer to this area of Mazatlan as "the platinum zone."
But it is the history and architecture around Old Town and the proximity of waves at Olas Altas Beach that draw me back there repeatedly. Here I'm just blocks from good food and good coffee and small but powerful waves. Winter temperatures in Mazatlan average 80 degrees during the day and 68 to 72 at night. Tuesday nights there is a jazz jam at La Bohemia on the Plaza Machado with no cover charge. Saturday mornings there is an organic food market from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. at nearby Zaragoza Park.
Best of all, two years ago a bike rental shop opened in Olas Altas. Now visitors can ride the waterfront while they enjoy Mazatlan's often-magical sunsets.
WHEN YOU GO
For general information about lodging and activities: www.gomazatlan.com
For a daily calendar of events in Old Town, visit www.mazatlanlife.com, which is run by Canadian ex-patriots.
The tropical waters off the west coast of Mexico are an important breeding and calving ground for the North Pacific population of humpback whales. While the peak season for calving is January and February, the crew of Onca, a new whale-watching service, sometimes see humpback whale mother- and-calf pairs as early as Dec. 15 and as late as April: www.oncaexplorations.com.
Stuart Wasserman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.