Story and photography by Barbara Penny Angelakis
MAZATLÁN’S SPLIT PERSONALITY
On an unusually brisk November day before first light, I found myself barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike – me and dozens of 18 wheelers, all jockeying for position in the fast moving traffic on that cold, dark, pre-dawn morning. I didn’t know why they were rushing to their destinations, but I was heading south to Newark Airport for my flight to Mazatlán, Mexico, for Fiesta Amigos 2010, the annual celebration kicking off a month-long cultural festival.
Mazatlán is a city with a unique split personality; is it not only a beautiful beach resort with an astounding sixteen miles of pure white powdery sand and a tropical climate that ranges in the 70s and 80s year-round, it also boasts a historical and cultured past dating to the [California] Gold Rush of the 19th century. The city’s two personalities are divided into distinct zones separated by a seven mile long coastal road; on one side Old Mazatlán, featuring the historic district; and on the other, the Zona Dorada or Golden Zone, with its beach resorts facing the Pacific Ocean.
Mazatlán, meaning “land of the deer” - so named by the indigenous Nahuatl Tribes - is located in the State of Sinaloa, at the foothills of the Sierra Madre Range, just south of the Tropic of Cancer, and situated on the Sea of Cortez with Baha California to the west. It was settled by the Spanish in 1531, but unlike the Spanish colonization that flavors the east coast and central highlands of Mexico, Mazatlán’s culture owes more to the German and French influence which arrived in the mid 19th century. By 1840 Mazatlán’s harbor was a major port of call on the long journey from Europe to California when, lured by the prospect of easy riches in the gold fields, waves of Europeans passed through. Many of these adventurers were seduced to linger in a land blessed by balmy breezes, brilliant sunsets, and a sun smiling down from a sparkling blue sky… not to mention the huge natural resources of gold, silver and gem stones still present in the nearby hills even after 300 years of exploitation by the Spanish. This new wave of Europeans brought diverse skills to their adopted home but just as importantly, they brought their culture, honed for centuries in their native lands. Add their history to the rich heritage already existing in the area and you have today’s Mazatlán…“The Pearl of the Pacific”.
A visit to Mazatlán is a different and authentic Mexican experience. It offers locals and visitors alike the best of the worlds of culture and nature. There is also the added allure of an abundant bounty from the sea. In Mazatlán’s restaurants you will find the freshest, most delicious fish and seafood from local waters with the fish still bearing marks from the fisherman’s nets. If you’ve a mind to, you can buy right off the boats as the fishermen arrive with their daily catch along the malecón, an amazing walkway running along the beach for miles, punctuated by sculptures of every size and description. It is in fact an open air museum where native artists pay homage to their heroes, fables and myths. Along the malecón also you can catch the cliff divers who climb high onto a wooden platform, and for a few dollars, dive 45 feet into tidal pools to astound and delight the tourists.
Centro Historica, or historic center of town, is in the process of being returned to the grandeur of its halcyon days. The Teatro Angela Peralta (Angela Peralta Theater) a 19th century neo-classical building has undergone extensive restoration and is the impetus for the revival of the area. The once-named Rubio Theater was renamed for the “Nightingale of Mexico” in 1883 after the much beloved singer was stricken by yellow fever caught during her boat journey to Mazatlán to perform there. Tragically she died before singing in the venue that now bears her name… a venue that is at the cultural heart of Mazatlán and currently hosts concerts and performances by internationally acclaimed artists.
My first night in Mazatlán we climbed aboard the charming Pulmonias - the open air vehicles that are the symbol of the city - for a ride along the malecón to the historic center. The monuments along the malecón are illuminated at night, and with the whispering sea adding its musical accompaniment to our short journey, we ended in the center square of Old Mazatlán festively dressed with lights, people, and live music. Many of the buildings that line the square have been turned into restaurants and clubs and at night they unfold into the street for al fresco dining in the balmy air. We had dinner at the wonderful Pedro Y Lola right on the Plazuela Machado or Central Square. Music plays a vital role in this town and it is fitting that a restaurant facing the renowned theater also carries the name of two beloved singers; Pedro Infante and Lola Beltran.
A lively jazz band entertained us while signature Margaritas presented in huge balloon glasses give us time to peruse the many succulent sounding choices on the menu. Once the entrée decision was made, appetizers for the table appeared; sliced Portobello mushrooms in balsamic reduction, stewed mélange of wild mushrooms, shrimp empanadas, and a house specialty of grilled octopus in wine sauce. For the main course I choose large locally caught prawn’s sautéed in an orange citrus sauce and handsomely served atop orange halves. Rice and steamed veggies completed the platter.
I arrived in Mazatlan on the eve of the Day of the Dead and in Mexico that means fiesta. Everyone takes to the streets to eat, drink and celebrate. On the day itself, people dress in their finery and go to the cemeteries with armloads of flowers and decorations to honor the dead. It was a fun time to be in Mazatlán, that is, short of Carnival. That annual Mardi Gras event dates back to 1898 and purports to be the largest celebration in the Americas after Rio and New Orleans. In Mazatlán they really know how to throw a party.
In the morning, we circumvented the cemeteries and headed to the Acurio Aquarium and the dancing seal performance. I never saw a seal dance before and it was an amazing show of affection to see the seal balance on its flippers to embrace its trainer. Of course all manners of fish were on display but their biggest draw is the 4.5 million gallon shark tank that is built to hold Tiger, Yellow, and Mako sharks where people can swim, feed, and interact with them. One of our group volunteered to don mask and flippers. As he was being slowly lowered into the tank, his body kept bouncing out of the buoyant water. Finally weights were attached to his waist and he was able to feed, swim and then hold a shark! Next to the Aquarium was an aviary with magnificently colorful birds flying free. There was a controlled entry but once you passed through, it was just as if you were in their natural habitat and woe to you if a bird – especially a male peacock - took a dislike to you. I tried to make friends but the clever birds just looked at me inquisitively as if I were the object of investigation… to them I was another species to be tolerated.
From the Aquarium we headed towards the water and the Alagua Restaurant facing the beach and ocean. This restaurant is a seafood lover’s paradise; briny oysters, fat succulent shrimp and scallops, and fish so fresh it practically swam onto your plate. Among our selections was the best coconut shrimp served with freshly made mango sauce that I ever ate. To walk off lunch we headed back to the historic district to see it during daylight and it was hard to believe the same magical square where we had dinner the night before was now transformed into a walk down memory lane. Pastel colored 19th century buildings stand side by side, with manicured shade trees lining the streets leading up to and around the square. We headed towards the imposing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with its magnificent miniature statue of Mary enclosed in a glass receptacle. Curiously the Catholic Church has prominent Jewish star stained glass windows and the street lamps surrounding the church are topped with winged dragons, an observable concession to pagan beliefs. Obviously the church builders in Mazatlán were taking no chances and considered inclusion, rather then exclusion, as their religious canon.
Next day we drove north past New Mazatlán where the vegetation noticeably changes from desert to tropics and where wild purple morning glories grow in such profusion they literally create a fence along the road. New Mazatlán is experiencing a building boom where villas, condos and high rise hotels are growing like morning glories out of the fertile land. We were headed to Vinata de los Osuna, an award wining tequila farm and distillery. Tequila is fermented from the Agave plant and the process was described to us before we were invited to taste the resulting product. Of course live music accompanied our tasting, making it all the more festive. Lunch was at a local family eatery down the road from Vinata and proved to be the most authentic of our dining experiences. The Casa de la Abuela at la Noria had a large open-air dining room facing the unpaved road and the mountains in the distance. The kitchen, also open-air, was in a small area behind the dining room. Here Mama was deftly making blue corn tortillas while Papa was marinating the beef and various children, cousins, etc. were grilling, plating, or serving. The hit of the meal was the molcajete dish, a 3 legged volcanic stone pot in which meat or chicken is stewed with vegetables and spices in sauce and toped with cheese.
No time for siesta as the beach beckoned and night falls early in November. Our hotel Playa Mazatlán, is a popular destination located right on the beach in the Golden Zone. The year was 1955 and Hotel Playa was the first to be built on the miles of virgin beach, which was devoid of much of life’s necessities i.e. water, electricity, roads, etc., let alone luxuries. The locals questioned whether anyone would travel to this forsaken destination, but come they did, and what began as a modest two-story building with 80 rooms just south of the little fishing village of Mazatlán was the beginning of what is now a robust tourism industry. Hotel Playa boasts hosting some of the biggest names in Hollywood in the early days; John Huston, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and many others, who could enjoy total anonymity in the natural environment. The hotel now has 400 rooms and covers a large area with beautifully landscaped gardens and pools scattered throughout the property. Hotel Playa has a loyal following with guests returning year after year, lured by the beach, the ocean, and the hospitality Mexico is renowned for. The rooms are spacious and the grounds are handsome but there is a laid back manana attitude in terms of service and décor which is uneven at best. www.hotelplayamazatlan.com
For information visit: www.gomazatlan.com
© January 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.