The Mexican Coast You Didn’t Expect: Four Reasons to Visit Mazatlan

It’s late January, and you’re sighing a lot.

The excitement of the holidays, including playing with all the new toys you got, has worn off. Regaling coworkers and friends with tales of your New Year’s Eve exploits is no longer acceptable. The weather is probably inhospitable enough where you live that you don’t want to spend too much time outdoors – and if it happens to be nice out where you live, you’re still stuck inside at your desk, staring out the window.

It’s simple. You need a vacation.

Spring Break? That’s eight long, cold weeks away. What you need is a sunny beach locale that’s budget-friendly, has a good tourist infrastructure so you don’t have to think about anything but relaxing, and yet doesn’t entirely insulate you from the local culture. Mazatlan, that somewhat forgotten former Spring Break hotspot on the west coast of Mexico, offers all of this.

Mazatlan may not rank as highly anymore with tourists headed to Mexico as cities like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas, but it’s a great option for a winter getaway that won’t break the bank or make you succumb to the all-inclusive resort world that could leave you feeling empty inside.

Here are four reasons to head to Mazatlan for your next beach vacation.

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Mazatlan is cheaper than you might think

Whether you’re saving up for a bigger trip this summer or you’re just budget-conscious by nature, you’ll appreciate how cheap Mazatlan is to visit. The airport in Mazatlan is small, and you may find that flights into Mazatlan are at slightly higher prices than flights to Cancun, but once you’re in the city your on-the-ground costs are lower.

(Let’s face it – we know that all-inclusives are popular for many reasons, one of which is that they can help budget travelers save money. But for culture-lovers, those resorts often lack personality, leaving the visitor to think they could be just about anywhere. That’s not the only way to save money on a beach vacation, however.)

The big resort hotels in Mazatlan aren’t in the historic center – they’re in the far-less-charming “Golden Zone,” about a half-hour’s drive up the beach. Stick to the smaller hotels in the picturesque historic part of town and you can find plenty of rooms for under $50 per night. These places don’t come with their own private beaches or rooftop pools, but they’re within walking distance of the beach, and they’ll save you a ton on lodging.

There are some restaurants in Mazatlan that are touristy and therefore more expensive, but avoid those – eat where the locals eat – and your money will go much further. Not only that, you’ll eat better food, too. Duck into a cenaduria, sit elbow-to-elbow, and slurp up a hearty bowl of pozole (pictured above) for 50 pesos – or about $3.75. Grab a few tacos from a street vendor and you’ll have a light lunch or breakfast for less than a dollar. You’ll actually have to work pretty hard to spend a fortune on food in Mazatlan, once you get away from the resorts and touristy spots.

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This is no fabricated tourist town

As mentioned, there are all-inclusive resorts in Mazatlan. Unlike other Mexican beach resort towns that grew up around the all-inclusive hotels, however, in Mazatlan there’s been a city right on the beach since the 1530s, and much of the historic town we see today dates from the 18th-19th century. The retro-cool Hotel Belmar (currently being renovated) overlooks the Olas Atlas beach in the old town and was once a favorite of the likes of John Wayne long before there were all-inclusives up the road.

Long-neglected, the historic center is undergoing a renaissance that started a little over 10 years ago – the tree-lined Plaza Machado, once a dangerous square even the locals avoided, is now alive with outdoor restaurants and families on evening walks. The pretty 19th century Angela Peralta theatre has been completely renovated, down to the red velvet curtains on every gilded box. The Pino Suarez market may have souvenir tchotchke stands near the door, but delve a little deeper and you find residents shopping for chicken feet, beef tongue, and pig heads. The sidewalk taco stands are busy each morning as workers stop for breakfast, nary a tourist in sight.

Yes, Mazatlan has tourist income to thank for some of the revitalization of its historic center, along with the dedication of a few locals who hated what their beautiful old town had become – but the renovations aren’t turning Mazatlan into one big all-inclusive. This community is fixing up its historic heart for its own benefit – the fact that it makes for a more culturally interesting holiday in the process is just a huge bonus.

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The beaches are public and free

In some parts of the world, we take our public beaches for granted (thank you, Oregon!), but in most beach-centric places there are huge swaths of sand (usually the best bits, naturally) that are roped-off, members only, pay-to-play. All-inclusive resorts will have their own private beaches that don’t require you to pay anything extra, but what if you want to avoid the all-inclusives? In Mazatlan, you don’t have to budget extra money to have beach time every day.

Mazatlan’s beaches in the old part of town, away from the all-inclusives, are public and free – and, as mentioned earlier, they’re within walking distance of all those small, cheap hotels in the historic center. You’ve come to Mazatlan to soak up the sun, let’s be fair – the cute old town is just the icing on the cake – so it’s an enormous relief to a budget traveler that you can save big on a basic hotel room and pay absolutely nothing extra to lie on the beach or play in the water.

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Resort town perks + historic charm = Mazatlan

Part of what makes a beach holiday relaxing is that you don’t have to think about anything – you can drift through your whole vacation in a kind of sun-induced stupor. Do that in certain sunny locations, however, and the next thing you know you’re doubled over the toilet because you forgot that the ice in your Coke is made from the water you’re not supposed to drink.

While most travelers I know prefer historic atmosphere, there’s no denying that “ease of use” ranks highly when it comes to vacations – and Mazatlan delivers both. The city’s tourist infrastructure means there are plenty of options when it comes to hotels, restaurants, tours, and transportation, and – perhaps most important – you can drink the water. I’m not just talking about drinking from the tap within the big all-inclusives. You can drink the water in Mazatlan pretty much everywhere. If the sidewalk taco stand’s only water source for hand-washing is a bucket and there’s no fresh water spigot in sight, you might want to be careful, but you don’t need to be shy about ordering icy drinks throughout town – and that’s a relief to anyone with limited vacation time who doesn’t want to spend half of it in the bathroom.

Of course, another perk of tourist towns is that English, while not an official language, might as well be. Your few words of Spanish will be appreciated, and you’ll obviously run into people who don’t speak English (since, y’know, it’s not the official language), but for the vast majority of the places you’ll go in Mazatlan English will be spoken well enough by shopkeepers, waitstaff, and hoteliers.

Mazatlan is, in many ways, the ideal combination of a touristy beach town and an historic town, taking the best of both without compromising on the overall experience. If that doesn’t fit the bill for a no-hassle winter getaway, I don’t know what does.

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Further Reading:

Full disclosure & whatnot: I visited Mazatlan as a guest of the Mazatlan Hotel Association. My opinions – not to mention the pleasant surprise I felt at genuinely loving the historic center of the city – are my own.

Photos by: Renee Silverman,  DennisSylvesterHurd, all others by Jessica Spiegel and may not be used without permission

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  • Eldon Janzen said at 2012-03-07T22:29:47+0000: Mazatlan is a great place to vacation in..friendly fun and did I mention fun..lots to do and see we will be back for sure, visit the saloon bar for great food/drink and sports on tv!
  • Christine Russell said at 2012-03-08T06:50:17+0000: Mazatlan is fantastic! And it's not just the beaches in the old part of town that are public and free. ALL beaches in Mazatlan are public, even those in front of the resorts. Beaches in Mazatlan are owned by the federal government up to the high tide mark, so while hotels may have the sand between the hotel grounds and the high tide mark, the rest of the way to the water is free and open to everyone!
  • Scott Jochum said at 2012-03-07T18:40:21+0000: Can't wait to get back there. Hope Mexico cleans up its act soon.
  • Scott Jochum said at 2012-03-09T02:10:41+0000: I love Mazatlan, and would dearly love to return, but even if I am totally safe there, I'm not going to pretend that everything's hunky-dory, and spend my money there until the country makes some headway in the drug cartel situation.
  • Scott Jochum said at 2012-03-09T01:59:43+0000: So, Christine, it's all our own fault? I could say to you, "keep your drugs to yourself, and get your residents to quit using illegal guns."
  • Os Hernandez said at 2012-01-24T16:36:32+0000: awesome... mazatlan is so fun. safety and cool!1