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By Judy Waytiuk

Think of it as Puerto Vallarta, further north, but cheaper.

Mazatlan, the largest city along Mexico’s Pacific coast, has always been a major port city and became a popular North American budget sun-and-sand tourist destination in the mid-1950s. But unlike other Mexican travel hotspots, this destination doesn’t get the kind of massive PR support and media exposure enjoyed by the likes of the Mayan Riviera, Los Cabos, or the Mexican Riviera (PV and environs as far south as Acapulco). So this spot is unlikely to be at the top on anyone’s bucket list for must-do vacations.

But it should be. It’s a gorgeous, under-rated location, and because it’s so much less popular, air/hotel package prices are ridiculously inexpensive compared to virtually all other hot Mexican destinations.

A little price-checking shows Mazatlan boasts European plan and all-inclusive hotels that may not be the majestic, extravagant Taj Mahals of the Mayan Riviera, but that do offer good, simple, basic value for budget-conscious vacationers.

And vacationers know that. In spite of recent worldwide economic woes, the city recorded more than 19 million visitors in 2009, up more than four per cent over 2008 and continuing a seven-year trend of numbers growth. Mazatlan even took the Best Family Beach title in Travelocity Mexico’s July 2010 “Battle of Destinations.” Pulling in more than 73 per cent of the online votes cast, the “Pearl of The Pacific” scored a landslide victory over major rivals Cancun, Acapulco and Ixtapa.

Mazatlan’s always in a few charter package booklets, at least for a page or two’s worth of hotels, almost all of them located in the traditional Golden Zone – where tourism began here when Scandinavian Ulysses George grabbed a chunk of gorgeous beach that was, at that time, far from town, and built the Hotel Playa Mazatlan. That venerable hotel is being sold this year by Signature Vacations, along with the Riu Emerald Bay in a newer tourist zone, the Costera Cerritos.

Westjet this year is offering the bargain Las Flores, an older hotel, and a pair of the four El Cid properties in Mazatlan – El Cid Granada and El Cid Castilla. Guests at any all-inclusive El Cid can use the facilities at the other properties.

Sunwing has the inclusive Costa de Oro Beach hotel, one of Mazatlan’s original beachfront properties, Oceana Palace, El Cid Castilla, El Cid Granada Country Club, and Royal Villas Resort. Some offer optional European plans, others are solely all-inclusive.

And while all-inclusive’s a good thing for families and even better for vacationers who want to know to the penny what they’re going to end up spending, in a place like Mazatlan, European plan hotels give you the chance to explore the area’s cracking-fresh seafood restaurants and local cuisine, and to head out on some of the day tours offered. Even all-inclusive vacationers, who may get one or two tours included, will want to try others – there are easily half-a-dozen – and there goes that firm, unbudging budget.

The city is divided into Old Mazatlán and the Golden Zone, with an 11-kilometre coastal road between the two – with a newer hotel strip, the still-secluded Costera Zone, where the newest hotel offering to be had is the four-star European Plan Coral Island Hotel and Spa. Local pulmonías, four-person, golf-cartish open-air vehicles, carry tourists around the old town.

Surrounding villages and mining towns are well worth daytrips off the beach, especially the colonial town of La Noria and its historic churches and ranches specializing in handmade pottery and leather goods. El Quelite, Copala, Concordia, Cosalá, and the mining town of Rosario all offer unique history and souvenir-hunting opportunities, and all represent living slices of traditional Mexico. Seaside Teacapan, about 90 kilometres south of Mazatlan, is smack in the middle of major-league mangrove country and is an ecotourist’s delight.

There’s more active eco-adventure with dolphin and whale-watching tours, coastal bike rides, hiking in the Sierra Madre Mountains and kayaking through mangrove flats. The Huana Coa Canopy Adventure tour runs a ziplining thrill ride at the Hacienda De Los Osuna, where more grounded visitors can explore the 130-year-old Blue Agave tequila distillery and plantation.

Beer lovers can tour the Pacifico brewery (yes, samples are offered – unlimited, if you’re thirsty. And if you like a light ale, this beer beats Corona hands down – though that is a point of personal taste, and it must be confessed that Pacifico is owned by Corona).

A visit to pretty little coconut grove-riddled Stone Island can yield horseback riding, boogie-boarding and snorkeling, with a few palapa restaurants selling fresh fish, and a seahorse farm. Three other beach islands, are Isla de Chivos (Goat Island), Isla de Pájaros (Bird Island), and the Isla de Venados (Deer Island) nature preserve, are a short boat trip from town.

If you’re afraid of the water, or just want to see even more ocean life, the Mazatlan Aquarium and Botanical Garden’s Mexico’s biggest, with hundreds of marine life species and daily sea lion shows. On a drier note, the Sea Shell City Museum houses exactly that – a huge collection of sea shells, including some genuinely rare ones.

22434982J Matzick/ShutterstockUpgrade Update
The beaches, of course – all 21 mainland kilometres and a number of island idylls, (Cerritos Beach on the north side of Mazatlan, Gaviotas & Camaron Beach in the Golden Zone, tiny, sweet Los Pinos Beach, North Beach in the city’s scenic section, Olas Altas Beach, and, further afield, Venados Island Beach two kilometres off the coast) are the top draws here, and for a number of years the Golden Zone rested on its inexpensive laurels without refreshing or updating product.

But a lot of recent and continuing revitalization has perked up some of those tired old hotels and shopworn attractions.

A new, $61 million convention centre has opened, and a major restoration program’s underway throughout the city’s tourism area. Almost $5.5 million is being poured into new landscaping and theatrical sidewalk “spotlighting” in the Golden Zone (partly to assuage tourist worries about safety) and the tucking of electrical wiring tidily underneath the Zone’s picturesque oceanfront malecon that runs all the way to town and beyond. Another $15 million in 2009 went to continuing a long-term Historic District project to spice up and spruce up Old Mazatlan and its 479 national historic buildings, with 2010 expenditures expected to add up to $17 million, including the restoration of historic Plazuela Zaragoza, a major fulcrum for tourists exploring the old town.

The ambitious Marina Mazatlán project, for which the convention centre acreage is a linchpin, covers more than 39 square kilometres, and its plans include high-rise luxury hotels, residences, restaurants, spas, shopping and recreational areas. The new Marina Mazatlán Golf Course here added its second nine holes in November 2010.

17981800Ramunas Bruzas/ShutterstockAlways Something
But Old Mazatlan is worth lengthy exploraton. Nineteenth-century colonial buildings around Plazuela Machado, the Spanish settlement’s original central square, are filled with cafes, clubs, galleries, and street theatre. At the 1874-vintage Angela Peralta Theater, the restoration of which in 1992 launched a full rehabilitation of Old Mazatlan, there’s always something musical going on. And there’s almost always a festival of some sort happening in the area: the Mazatlan Cultural Festival, State Festival of Arts, International Dance Festival, Mazatlan International Film Festival, Mazatlan Book and Arts Fair, International Guitar Festival, even a Bird Festival.

6709564J Matzick/ShutterstockDuring Carnaval, the third-biggest next to Rio’s and New Orleans’, almost half-a-million partiers flood the city’s cobbled old streets, sugar-sand beaches, and malecon fringing the Historic District, with plenty of places to sit and stare at the sea, lots of vendors peddling everything from shrimp-on-a-stick to silver to kids’ helium-filled toys, and, across the road, an abundance of cafes and restaurants if the aforementioned shrimp doesn’t appeal. The city’s very first tourist hotels are here – the Belmar and the Posada Freeman. So are a series of seaside monuments: The Monument to Mazatlan Woman, the Fisherman’s Monument, the Continuity of Life fountain and the Deer Monument (“Mazatlan” means “Place of the deer.”)

117912Alan Freed/ShutterstockPerched on top of the city’s highest hill, El Faro is the world’s second-highest lighthouse (next to Gibraltar’s in the Mediterranean). It’s about a 45-minute climb from the base of the hill to the top, but it gets you a stunning view of the city below just after sunset.

Getting to Mazatlan from the airport is easier this year, with the newly renovated Terminal A Gates in Mazatlán International Airport, and new bus service available that can save passengers more than 65 per cent on the usual cab fare.
See? We said cheap, but inexpensive might be the better descriptor for a spot that’s not nearly as well-loved by Canadian snowbirds and winter vacationers as it should be.

 Recent Upgrades

Along with restoration and clean-up of infrastructure and Old Mazatlan, a number of hotels have done major refreshment work on their properties. They include:
* Playa Mazatlan
* Holiday Inn
* Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay
* El Cid Castilla Beach
* Riu Emerald Bay
* Crown Plaza Mazatlan
* Ramada Resort Mazatlán
* Las Flores Beach Resort
* El Cid Marina Beach
* Azteca Inn
* Quijote Inn
* Oceano Palace
* Luna Palace
* D’Gala Mazatlán