Getting there: Mazatlan is equidistant from Mexico City and Nogales on the U.S. border--720 miles in each direction. Highway 15 from Nogales is two-lane blacktop. If you want to come by car, be young, adventurous and absolutely indifferent to the fate of your vehicle's springs and brakes. Four first-class and two second-class bus lines also serve the city, but bus travel is recommended only for the young and resilient. Mexicana (213-646-9500), Alaska (800-426-0333) and Delta Airlines (213-386-5510) offer regular service from Los Angeles. With a seven-day advance purchase, prices range from about $240 to $300 round trip.
Where to stay: The Hotel Playa Mazatlan is one of the oldest resort hotels in Mazatlan, but has been continually upgraded to keep apace of the amenities offered by newer inns. Further up the beach is El Cid, one of the largest high-rise complexes, somewhat less friendly in appearance and appurtenances but extremely popular. Los Sabalos, almost next door to Playa Mazatlan to the south, is a soaring maze of what were supposed to be condominiums. Pretty but pricey. The Holiday Inn is a blocky hunk of a high-rise with a good location but ordinary amenities. The Camino Real may be the poshest of the resorts, but it's built on a bluff over the ocean and requires a funicular to get down to a tiny fingernail beach.
Getting around: City buses will take you anywhere you want to go almost for free. Current fare is 300 pesos, or about seven cents. Avoid morning and evening rush hours because the buses get stuffed to the gills. Charming little vehicles called pulmonias (meaning, literally, pneumonias ), which are a cross between a go-cart, a VW bug and a surrey with the fringe on top, zip all over town for a few dollars. Be sure to establish the price before you board. There are no meters. The taxis, too, are not metered. Make sure the driver knows your destination and how many are in your party. Some drivers have been known to play the game of "the price is 10,000 pesos," and when you arrive, they add, "each."
What to do: Catamarans, surfboards, jet skis, wave runners and parasailing are available for hire along the beaches of the Zona Dorada. Amphibious vehicles regularly troll the beach for passengers to Deer Island, one of three just off the coast where snorkelers congregate. Most major hotels have pools and some have tennis courts. There are two 18-hole golf courses--one at El Cid Hotel on Avenida Camaron Sabalo, the other at the Club Campestre on Highway 15, 20 minutes from town.
Deep-sea fishing is a big--and competitive--business. Sales reps ply the beach, holding up photos of their boats and making reservations on the spot. But it's a good idea to meander down to the port some day and look over the fleet in the late afternoon after the craft have returned from a day on the bounding main. Some look more seaworthy than others. Horses can be rented at Guadalupe Ranch, minutes from the hotel zone.
The downtown Mercado Municipal is fascinating. Many of the typical souvenirs--T-shirts, shorts, sweats, knickknacks, etc.--are cheapest here. The tonier shops, with exquisite arts, crafts, gifts, clothing and shoes, are concentrated along Camaron Sabalo and Avenida Rodolfo Loaiza, the two streets that run through the Zona Dorada.
Where to eat: Senor Frog's on Avenida del Mar is far and away the most popular place in town with locals and tourists alike. It's loud and rowdy and chock-full of craziness, but offers about as much fun as a human is permitted to have. Plus the food is terrific. Though Mamuca's at 404 Simon Bolivar West is now being listed in tourist brochures, it was one of those best-kept secrets for decades and still offers some of the best authentic Mexican-style seafood in town. It's funky, off the beaten path and very no-nonsense. Casa Loma, 104 Gaviotas Ave., just a couple of blocks off the Zona Dorada, has a pretty courtyard (avoid the garish red inside dining room unless it's raining) with a plashing fountain. Along with excellent seafood and steaks, the menu frequently includes such All-American entrees as lamb shank.
For prawn lovers who can forgo the fancy stuff, go to the open-air Shrimp Factory on the Avenida Rodolfo Loaiza just north of the Playa Hotel on the corner of De La Garza. There they serve nothing but prawns scooped from the sea that very day. They're not cheap but they're the best in town.
Night life: If your fun quotient isn't expended at Senor Frog's, there are a variety of discos that thump through the night.
Valentino's, Avenida del Mar at R. Buelna Ave., looks like a church, so stunning is its soaring architecture, but it's really just a shrine to good times. Laser shows punctuate the driving dance beat.
The Caracol Tango Palace in the El Cid Resort, Avenida Camaron Sabalo, is a multimillion-dollar disco showplace. Bring money. And earplugs.
Frankie Oh!, at 226 Avenida del Mar, is both a disco and a video theater and advertises a separate "romantic disco," whatever that is.
For real romance--Latin rhythms and perfumed cheek-to-cheek dancing--there's no place like the terrace at the Hotel Playa Mazatlan smack in the center of Avenida Rodolfo T. Loaiza in the heart of the Zona Dorada.
Getting help: Mazatlan stands out in all of Mexico for its tourist service. The only lawyer who works solely for the benefit of tourists, Edna Aguirre, is stationed there at the City Tourism Bureau, 100 Avenida Rodolfo Loaiza (across the street from Los Sabalos Hotel, through an archway, into a courtyard and look to the left). Ms. Aguirre speaks flawless English and is apparently very persuasive in court.