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The Awe of Old Mazatlan

Passing up those plastic beach resorts and reveling in the real feel of this city by the Pacific.

March 25, 2001|ELIZABETH GOLD | Elizabeth Gold, a former journalist, is an international health communications specialist living in Charlottesville, Va

MAZATLAN, Mexico — So you've been to Cancun, had a good time, but felt as though you just vacationed in Florida. Everyone spoke English. You ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, paid for your margaritas with dollars and searched in vain for the guy with the sombrero riding his donkey down cobblestone streets. When you got home, your friends told you that you hadn't seen the "real Mexico."

My family and I-husband, Mark, and 5-year-old son, Sebastian-recently returned from Mazatlan, where we lived and worked for two sometimes frustrating but always genuine years. In our time there, we poked into many of the corners of this city of about 500,000 and learned many of the secrets that ensure visitors see the authentic article.

Mazatlan, on the northern Pacific Coast in Sinaloa state and surrounded by the Sierra Madre Occidental, is Mexico's largest Pacific port. It was settled by the Spanish in 1531, but it wasn't incorporated into a city until the early 1800s. Unlike other vacation destinations that were developed to attract the tourist dollar, Mazatlan is, first and foremost, a flourishing seaport, so it feels more like a fishing town than a tourist trap. (One of the benefits of this: A thriving shrimp industry means the shellfish is wonderfully fresh and can be prepared in a variety of ways.) In the 1940s, Hollywood celebrities, mostly fishing fanatics, began to discover this little pocket of paradise. But with the rising popularity of Cabo, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan seems to have fallen off the tourist radar.

That's puzzling, because there are plenty of attractions-long stretches of beautiful beach, perfect weather from November through April, water sports, sailing, golf, great fishing and killer sunsets. In fact, my husband and I were watching the sun set behind the Pacific the night we decided that the pros outweighed the cons and that we would relocate to Mazatlan from central Virginia.

You won't find the big chain hotels here, a double-edged sword for the tourism industry. The city has avoided homogenization, retaining its charm and some local ownership of its resorts. But without the clout and guaranteed numbers that big chains bring, the destination can't attract as many flights as it would like. That could change: Construction is scheduled to begin in November on a Hilton hotel at a property near the airport that features a beautiful golf course on the Pacific.

Visitors could spend an entire vacation in the tourist area, the Zona Dorada or Golden Zone, and never venture to the old part of town, but I think they would miss what makes Mazatlan special.

If you can pull yourself away from the beach, take one morning to head downtown to Viejo, or Old, Mazatlan, an area that's being partly restored. If you prefer a guided tour, stop by the office of Pronatours in the lobby of El Moro tower (part of El Cid Resorts) and sign up for the city tour. If you're more like us (and would rather sit in traffic on a sweltering day with a screaming child than join a tour), jump in an open-air taxi, or pulmonia. If your hotel doorman asks you whether you want an "open" or "closed" taxi, the answer is definitely "open" for optimal sunshine and photo opportunities. There are no meters, so it's always best to negotiate the price before getting into the cab.

We opted for the open taxi on that pivotal spring weekend in 1998 when we came here to see whether we could live in a place that, just a few weeks before, we had known nothing about. I insisted on seeing two things: a grocery store, a practical request for a young family, and the old part of town, to satisfy my desire to live somewhere that was aesthetically pleasing. Mazatlan exceeded my expectations on both counts.

Once we were settled and living here, the trip to the old part of town became a Sunday morning routine. We would head downtown along the Malecon, a combination boulevard/walkway/boardwalk that follows the Pacific Coast for 10 miles. It's great for walking, jogging, bike riding, roller-blading, stroller pushing or people watching-and tricycle riding, Sebastian discovered when he learned to maneuver his three-wheeler. It's busiest on Sunday afternoons and evenings, when families and young couples stroll up and down.

We would make our way to Olas Altas ('high waves') and start with a breakfast at Copa de Leche or the Shrimp Bucket. At Copa, we would sit in the sidewalk cafe and enjoy the view and, often, some live guitar music. The Shrimp Bucket serves a great breakfast, particularly the heaping basket of pan dulce (sweet rolls), shrimp omelets and fresh juices. Breakfast here is a tradition among the local Mazatlecos, while dinner, which I don't recommend, seems to attract more tourists.

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