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Mexico's Mazatlán a worthwhile bargain, if you know where to look
Travel Agent / June 27, 2005

By Larry Luxner

MAZATLAN, Mexico — Most of the city's modern area isn't exotic, and some aspects of it are downright tacky. But Mazatlán — a Pacific resort destination that's finally regaining popularity after several years in decline — offers unexpected delights to visitors willing to climb out of their beach chairs and immerse themselves in local culture.

It's also an incredible travel bargain compared to most Caribbean resorts.

Tourists who come to Mazatlán generally end up staying in one of the many big resorts and timeshares along the Zona Dorada, a long hotel strip whose main boulevard is lined with palm trees, fishing boats and snack vendors. That's nice, but what really gives Mazatlán its charm is the city's colonial zone.

Probably the best way to get your bearings in Mazatlán is to hop into a taxi and tell the driver you want to visit "El Faro," the lighthouse at the end of the Zona Dorada. The trip will cost no more than $5.00. From there, the lighthouse — second-tallest of its kind in the world — can be reached only by hiking up a hill and climbing 330 steps to the top.

Your exhausting efforts will be rewarded by a breathtaking, sweeping view of Mazatlán, a large, modern metropolis of 300,000, capital of Sinaloa state and a major port for the Mexican fishing fleet. This devoutly Catholic city boasts a relatively low crime rate and a beautifully restored yet compact colonial center, complete with the mandatory cathedral fronting its main plaza.

Yet the Catedral Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepción is no ordinary church. Look carefully and you'll find a Star of David in each of its 28 stained-glass windows. Built by Padre Miguel Lacarra over a 24-year period in the late 1800s, the cathedral was financed by a Jewish family whose name appears nowhere in official history books.

"The Star of David was a way of saying thanks to this family, so the priest had one put in each of the windows," explains Germán, a local tour guide. "It's the only Catholic church like it in the world."

Another thing that makes Mazatlán unique is its homegrown mode of transportation, the "pulmonía." A modified electric golf cart with a canvas roof, the pulmonía was invented in 1965 by Don Miguel Ramírez Urquijo. Around 500 of these contraptions exist; they offer tourists a cheap, enjoyable way to see the sights without catching a cold or getting rained on.

In fact, a bronze scale model of a pulmonía and accompanying plaque along the waterfront Avenida del Mar — across the street from the Aquamarine Resort — attests to the pulmonía's importance in local lore.

Mazatlán is also the birthplace of Señor Frog's, a retail chain that sells T-shirts and souvenirs. Unfortunately for purists, Señor Frog's now has outlets throughout the entire Caribbean.

Marcelo Santana is general manager of the Torres Mazatlán Resort, a 126-room timeshare property consisting of 80 one-bedroom, 40 two-bedroom and six penthouse suites.

"In the Caribbean, you have English, Spanish, French and Dutch influences. It's an amalgam. In Mexico, you've got thousands of miles of ocean, but only one single culture," said Santana, a Puerto Rican who settled in Mazatlán six years ago. "You can also can buy much more with your dollar than in the Caribbean. The minimum wage is equivalent to $4 a day, so the cost of living is incredibly cheap for Americans."

Another advantage: very little violent crime.

"Old Mazatlán reminds me of Old San Juan in the 1950s," he said. "I walk there every night and have nothing to worry about, which unfortunately I cannot say about the barrio where I grew up. Here the big drug lords kill each other, but you don't find the magnitude of violence on the streets that you do in Puerto Rico."

Tourists do get ripped off, however, and usually by con artists on the beach. In fact, at the beachfront Hotel El Cid — right in front of a gaggle of young men in straw hats hawking jewelry, handicrafts and other trinkets to tourists — is a big sign in English that says "Warning: Do not buy anything from peddlers on the beach. El Cid will not accept any responsibility for these transactions."

The 1,310-room El Cid complex offers nightlife, though hardly suitable to all tastes. The resort's La Pergola Theater puts on a rather amateurish drag show consisting of a Celine Dión/Michael Bolton improvisation, Moulin Rouge dancing girls, a lip-sync rendition of "Grease," some Dominican merengue music and finally a faux version of "Phantom of the Opera."

Thankfully, there are other things to do in Mazatlán. For instance, there are three big championship golf courses, and two more on the way.

You can also take a nice little side trip is to the town of El Quelite, a town of 2,000 inhabitants located just north of the Tropic of Cancer, about a half-hour's drive. Founded in 1574, El Quelite is famous for its cockfighting roosters, raised in cages and chained to the ground. These roosters sell for $250 and up, though this is the sort of place that would make animal-rights activists' blood boil.

Another interesting nearby town is Concordia, just past the Wal-Mart on the edge of the city. While waiting for the Concordia bus at the Mazatlán central bus terminal, I stopped at a kiosk and ordered a "tropicalismo," which consists of carrot, celery, beet, tomato and lemon juice. They cut up the veggies and threw it into a blender as I watched. It was delicious and cheap at only 14 pesos, just over a dollar.

Mazatlán also hosts the World Billfish Series Grand Championships, an annual event that attracts the world's best offshore anglers. The fertile waters off its coast teem with Pacific sailfish as well as blue, black and striped marlin.

Last year's series was held at the El Cid Marina, which offers fishing packages starting at $486 per person based on double occupancy. This rate includes hotel accommodations in a junior suite with kitchenette, two days of deep-sea fishing and taxes.

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