To really get to know a city, you have to walk the streets, savor the food and, in the case of Mazatlan, drink the beer. While most of Mexico looks to Spain for its main influences, after the Mexican Revolution the influx of Germans and French into Mazatlan gave this city a bit of a different flair. Germany keeps itself front and center every day in the ice-cold bottles of Pacífico pilsner-style beer that decorate pretty much every table around town. The masters behind the recipe were three Germans who founded the Pacífico Brewery in 1900, and a tour through the facilities is one of the highlights of any visit here. Plus you can literally hear Germany alive and well in the local banda music: the oom-pah sounds and the polka inspiration are unmistakable.
But back to getting to know Mazatlan… In order to walk, savor and drink in the best this beautiful seaside destination has to offer I hailed a pulmonía outside of my hotel for an open-air trip to the centro histórico. The ocean breeze quickly took the edge off the sunny, humid morning as the four-person open-sided “taxi” pulled out onto Olas Altas Boulevard and the seemingly endless malecón. Families were already strolling along the beach, setting out their towels while the kids jumped around in the waves. We zoomed (well, as much as a glorified golf cart can zoom) down the wide avenue past a series of monuments to downtown Mazatlan, including a statue of a deer (in reference to the indigenous origins of the city name); one dedicated to its famous son, singer/actor Pedro Infante; the leaping dolphins of the “Continuity of Life” and a huge copper cooking vat from the Pacífico Brewery that once held 24,000 liters of beer.
I asked my driver to drop me off at the corner of Olas Altas and Sixto Osuna, a street that leads right into Old Mazatlan. The historic downtown area is eminently walkable: a multi-year, multi-million restoration project has given the streets and the gorgeous colonial buildings a new lease on life. The streets, lined with multi-colored façades punctuated by wrought iron railings, are clean and uncluttered by street vendors. This area is the repository of most of Mazatlan’s extraordinary cultural offerings and there’s never a dull moment, day or night.
On Sixto Osuna I ducked into the Museo de Arqueología for a quick tour through centuries of Sinaloan history and culture. I saw petroglyphs, figurines and the beautiful pottery that showed off the mazatlecos good taste even back there. I’d heard about a cool little shop/gallery further down the street, so I stepped back out into the sunshine and found Casa Etnika just a few blocks away. Tucked away in an early 19th century former home, Casa Etnika is an airy, plant-filled gallery/café/boutique combo of the best sort, filled with quality handicrafts from all over Mexico. My personal favorite: a long table that showcased a treasure-trove of necklaces, earrings and bracelets. I tried on a waterfall necklace of silver milagros tied together with crimson silk cord—of course I had to take it home. I added in a couple of hand-embroidered pillow covers and some Frida Kahlo-themed greeting cards, paid my respects to the artwork-covered walls and headed out down the street.
I had two plazas in mind as I walked away: Plazuela Machado and Plazuela República. The former is the “heart” of the centro histórico. It’s a busy social center, hosting book fairs, art expos and, during February, it’s also Carnaval central. Visitors saunter along the sidewalks and locals move with more of a sense of purpose, though the mazatlecos are true to their coastal upbringing and lack that “stress gene” that defines the rat race in large cities. The plaza itself is leafy and welcoming with strategically placed benches to best view the bandstand on the nights there’s live music.
Machado square is the site of Mazatlan’s oldest social clubs, restored buildings converted into restaurants and one of the centro’s finest attractions, the Teatro Angela Peralta. The theater has undergone some ups and downs since it was built in the late 1800s, but there’s no doubt today it’s hitting all the high notes. Carnaval queens are elected here, opera singers perform here, orchestras play here and dancers… Ah… dancers do their thing here. The theater houses Delfos Danza Contempránea, one of the most important contemporary dance companies in the northern hemisphere. This is a true center for the arts: as I walked by the tall, Colonial-era windows I peeked inside and saw lithe little bodies stretching at the barre in one room, painters intent on their canvases in another and actors rehearsing their lines in yet another.
The rumble in my stomach reminded me that I had walked the streets but had yet to savor the food and the drink, so I crossed the plaza to the brightly painted Café Pacífico building. One of the many sidewalk cafés that surround the plaza (and purported to be the oldest bar in town), the Pacífico (of course), serves ice-cold Pacífico pilsners (also known locally as “Palfísico”) and one of Mazatlan’s best taste temptations: aguachile. This absolutely scrumptious dish is made of succulent fresh-caught shrimp filleted and marinated in lime juice, serrano chiles, cebolla morada and sliced cucumbers. Also on the menu: a variety of marlin-based dishes, including smoked marlin tostadas. I would wax poetic about those, too, but that’s best left for the Food Channel. I do, however, want to say a word about the beer at the risk of being labeled a traitor. Truth is, I’m not a beer drinker. Surprisingly enough, my waiter’s smile never faltered, and instead he offered me a cielo rojo (because, as he said, nothing goes better with aguachile on a hot day than a cold beer). The concoction of Clamato, lime juice, a few drops of Jugo Maggi and a Pacífico served over ice was, needless to say, just what the doctor ordered.
Sufficiently restored in body and soul, I asked for directions to the nearby Plazuela República, though I could see the yellow-tiled spires of the Cathedral from where we stood. The lushly planted plaza is the site of the Palacio Municipal and the Basílica de la Inmaculada Concepción, the city’s largest Catholic church. Built in the 1800s, the Cathedral is a splendid combination of Moorish and Gothic architecture (along with a very unexpected Star of David in every one of its stained glass windows.) A few short blocks away, I quickly made the transition from sacred to secular when I stepped into the Mercado José Pino Suárez. An absolute riot of sights, smells and colors, the mercado sells pretty much anything you can possible desire, including potions for attracting husbands and repelling bad luck, chicharrones, pigs feet (and heads), t-shirts and sundries. It’s perfect for a good 30 minutes or more of artistic digital pictures, not to mention a bagful of inexpensive souvenirs. On the way out, I snagged a couple of bright yellow cocadas, taking care to stay away from the bees.
As I climbed aboard a taxi (with the requisite banda music playing on the radio), I took a quick look at my watch: 2:30 p.m. Plenty of time for a power nap in my air-conditioned hotel room before heading back to el centro at night. Something tells me it’s going to be a blast.