Mazatlan, facing the Sea of Cortez on the western coast of Mexico, doesn’t get nearly the attention of many other resort areas, like Los Cabos. It only has a few glitzy hotels aimed at the rich and famous and has traditionally had fewer international air connections than Puerto Vallarta or the Los Cabos area. This is also a real city, not a custom-built resort area, so there’s a history before tourism and plenty of jobs that have nothing to do with that part of the economy.
The main draws for vacationers have long been sport fishing and the terrific beaches, from the Golden Zone and “New Mazatlan” to the north down to surfer beach OlasAtlas near Old Mazatlan. Both are still the reasons many fly here on vacation, but Mazatlan also has the distinction of having a real historic district—most of it from the late 1800s—that you can stroll and dine in when you need a break from the beach.
So while there are the usual sun and fun opportunities by the water, including island excursions and water sports, Mazatlan is also a city where you can explore blocks of buildings that go back to the Gold Rush days and visit shops selling more than jewelry and cheap souvenirs. Last, you can explore it all by pulmonia, the unique Mazatlan taxis that are Volkswagens converted to covered open-air buggies.
Angela Peralta Theater
This pride and joy of the historic district of Mazatlan has been through a tumultuous history. Built in the late 1800s, it was named after a famous singer who contracted yellow fever upon traveling here to perform and died. After a period of glory the building served as a movie theater, boxing arena, and eventually an abandoned ruin. Renovated and restored to its former glory, it reopened in 1992. You can tour the neoclassical structure for a nominal fee with a guide or catch a performance at night. Except for big-name concerts, the ticket charges are nearly always a bargain and this is a center for student performances of dance, music, or theater.
An art gallery near the entrance shows off temporary exhibitions by local and international artists. Tours also visit a museum upstairs shows the building in ruins and at different stages of restoration.
Location: Calle Carnaval pedestrian walkway between Constitucion and Libertad.
The heart of the historic district is this leafy rectangular plaza, with leafy trees and palm trees both in place, many buildings painted bright colors. It is lined by restaurants, shops, and museums, plus the Angela Perlata theater is nearby, making this a good place to linger from lunch time onward. Built in 1837 by the wealthy businessman it was named after, in the center is a wrought iron gazebo from 1870.
It’s a hub of activity, especially at night when there’s frequently live music coming from stages on the plaza or performers outside the restaurant tables on the sidewalks. By day there are a few small museums worth a visit. It’s easy to walk from here to other central Mazatlan attractions that are on the edge of the historic district, such as the main square, basilica, and central market.
While this area of Mazatlan has gone through several periods of ascent and decline, a government focus on restoration incentives and sensible zoning laws has resulted in spruced-up buildings that are also functional. The exteriors remain historic, but inside the owners have flexibility in making the (often deteriorated) space work for current needs. So there’s a good range of nightclubs, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and residences. Many buildings in the Old Mazatlan area date from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the bustling port city was wealthy from shrimp, fish, minerals, and an iron foundry.
The historic sights of Old Mazatlan are concentrated in a rather limited area near the Plazuela Machado, a small, tree-filled square with a wrought-iron kiosk in the center. Nearby is the ornate, neoclassical Teatro Angela Peralta.
On the edge of the historic district are several other spots worth the walk. The late 1800s church here is an oddity in several respects, including Moorish touches and even Stars of David by the door. The main zocolo is not nearly as attractive as Plazuela Machado, but is a good spot for watching how the locals bide their time.
The Lighthouse of port city Mazatlan has been shining since 1879, guiding ships coming up the Sea of Cortez. It can be seen 30 nautical miles away. For tourists, the main reason to come here is to see the divers. From a high platform, young men sometimes make daring high dives for assembled crowds for tips.
You can hike up to the lighthouse itself though to take in the view of the port and entering ships—mostly shrimp boats, plus an occasional cruise ship. Because it sits on a high hill, it’s reportedly the highest lighthouse in the Americas, as 523 feet above the high tide line.
Estero Ecological Reserve
This estuary nature park area is quite close to Mazatlan, making it a popular excursion for those who want to explore the coastal wildlife while in the area. Some 270 kinds of birds make their home in this area, which is a mix of streams, mangrove swamps, and beach. You’re sure to see herons, egrets, and other sea birds, as well as smaller ones feeding on this ecosystem.
Most tours spend time motoring through the estuary by boat, stopping at strategic spots where different kinds of birds congregate. It’s an educational trip on local nature, the seafood industry, and coastal wildlife. The tour ends with lunch and time to spend on a deserted beach the group will have to itself.
Zona Dorada (Golden Zone)
A deserted stretch of sand just a few decades ago, the Golden Zone of Mazatlan is now the area where package tourists spend most of their time. Lined with hotels, restaurants, and bars, it pulses with activity from the morning until the wee hours. All the usual water sports are on offer and sailing trips depart to nearby islands.
Playa Los Sabalos is the center of the zone and is the best area for swimming, with a surf that is calm most of the time. There are plenty of choices for toes-in-sand dining and drinking, as well as discos that are pumping at night.
Playa las Gaviotas offers more of the same, but has rougher waters and can be more crowded because of the size of the hotels fronting it. You can walk from one to the other along miles of golden sand or catch an open-air taxi called a pulmonia.
This offshore island is a popular excursion stop for cruise ship passengers docking in Mazatlan, but most of the visitors are locals on weekends and it’s not very crowded on non-cruise weekdays. The main reason to visit is to lie on the beach, swim, and eat grilled seafood at a thatched-roof restaurant, but you can also explore the island by horseback or on walking trails. The beach here is a good spot for seashell collecting.
There are two ways to get to Isla de Piedra as it’s known locally. The independent route is to take a pulmonia to the cruise ship port and take the public launch, running every 15 to 30 minutes. Another option is to sign up for a tour that includes some time at Stone Island. Most of them also visit mangrove swamps in a jungle area to spot birds.
This aquarium is a bit of a cobbled-together affair with displays in multiple buildings spread throughout the grounds. It contains more than 300 species of fish, plus crowd pleasers like porpoises, rays, turtles, and sharks. If you pony up extra money, you can swim with those sharks or feed them yourself.
This is a varied attraction for families, with tropical birds doing tricks in an open theater and in another area, trained sea lions jumping and splashing. There are play areas for the kids and a restaurant on site with reasonable prices. You can also tour botanical gardens and a small zoo, the highlight being several aviaries with colorful birds overhead.
Location: Avenida de los Deportes 111, just off Avenida del Mar
Playa Olas Altas
Near historic Old Mazatlan, Olas Atlas beach fronts the original tourist zone. Here a long and wide malecon sidewalk is popular with joggers and in-line skaters moving past the city’s first waterfront hotels, like the Freeman—the first building in town to have an elevator. It’s a pleasant place for a stroll, with a shady cocktail or beer being just across the street.
The beach itself isn’t as wide or attractive as the Golden Zone further north, but its proximity to inexpensive hotels and downtown living quarters means it’s often just as busy. This is also one of the best stretches in the area for surfing and boogie boarding, so you can get in on the action yourself or just watch from a beach blanket.
Since a good number of the vacationers in Mazatlan are domestic ones, hotel prices here are more reasonable then many other beach resort areas of Mexico. There are only a few resorts above $200 a night, even in high season. Find the best Mazatlan rates at Bonwi and earn lots of points back that you can use on another vacation later. You can cash in points for a hotel room, rental car, or flight.