Mazatlan is Mexico’s Pearl of the Pacific

Sunset over Deer Island in Mazatlan. Photo by Terri Colby

 I made my first visit to Mazatlan, Mexico’s “Pearl of the Pacific,” earlier this month and found a new favorite beach town. But this city of 600,000 in the state of Sinaloa, is much more than a beach resort. It’s a city of history, a city of culture, a city of giant shrimp. It’s also a city with colorful colonial architecture and a Germanic influence that extends to the modern day and the locally brewed Pacifico beer. 

After a nearly effortless experience at baggage and customs at Maztatlan International Airport, I headed to my destination hotel in the city’s Zona Dorada or Golden Zone, the Hotel Playa Mazatlan.  Frozen Margarita in hand, I followed the bell hop who was leading me to my room. Through a tiled corridor we went, turned left and then quickly right and wow: the Pacific Ocean, surface glistening in the sun, Deer Island lush and dark in the background. It was absolutely breathtaking. I made it a point to take this tile pathway every time I entered and exited the hotel.

My room on the fifth floor delivered another stunning view. From my balcony I could marvel at the smooth sand below, the sound of the waves disintegrating onto the shore, islands and city buildings in the distance. All of this painted a captivating portrait in daylight. But evening offered another charm: a night sky dark enough to reveal the stars and raise the volume on the waves crashing onto shore.

But, as I said, there’s more to Mazatlan than beach and ocean views:


The four-person open-air vehicles that look like golf carts and operate like taxis are fun, fun, fun and have become a symbol of Mazatlan. There’s even a monument to the Pulmonias along the city’s boardwalk. Make sure to take one from the Zona Dorada into old town at sunset. Ask the driver to turn the radio up loud. And think about asking him to stop to snap a picture of the sunset. This close to the equator, the sun dips below the horizon very quickly. The cost from the Zona Dorado into downtown is about 80 pesos.

Aroma Spa

A low-cost downtown destination for massages, facials and more. I had an incredible 90-minute massage for $25. That’s not a typo. Yes, the massage, by the nimble-fingered Evelyn, was one-and-a-half hours and it cost just $25. I also had a facial and a pedicure. I would pass on the facial next time. The pedicure was great because it cost just $12. But Aroma isn’t for everyone. It’s a funky place that looks like a combination college apartment and beach shack. Surfboards hang from the ceiling, the walls are painted bright colors and fake flowers dangle among the starfish and seahorses tacked to the walls.  Pedicures are done in the main lobby/waiting room. There is no Zen elegance or muted flute music here. But I can’t wait to go back. I will ask for Evelyn and maybe book 2 hours. Make sure to have cash. They said the credit card machine was broken. A complaint I had read about on Tripadvisor, too. I would have left Evelyn a bigger tip if Aroma had accepted plastic.

Alagua restaurant

Lunch at a new beachside restaurant wowed everyone in my group. The casual Alagua, which translates as “to the water” is a place I would happily recommend to anyone.

Don't miss the shrimp ceviche at Alagua in Mazatlan's Zona Dorada. Photo by Terri Colby

It’s inexpensive, but delivers million-dollar views and world-class cuisine. Fresh red snapper is sold by the kilo and arrives on large platters fine for sharing—or not. Shrimp molcajete arrives in the signature dish, along with onions, nopales (cactus) and cheese, with just enough spice to add a kick. But the biggest winner, in my mind, was the shrimp ceviche. I returned to the restaurant a second time on my short five-day trip just to get the ceviche and the locally brewed Pacifico beer.

The shrimp

About 200 commercial shrimp boats work the waters off Mazatlan and visitors can buy the fresh catch in the downtown markets. Shrimp are one of my favorite foods and eating the large, fresh camarones at many meals on this trip, was a definite treat. The shrimp I had, and saw at the market, were larger than those you usually find at supermarkets in the U.S. Some we saw in the market weighed about 4 ounces each. That’s means just four shrimp per pound. For shrimp lovers, big is the way to go.

The Sand

Mazatlan is known as the Pearl of the Pacific and it has the softest sand of any beach I’ve experienced in Mexico. I loved the beach in Puerto Vallarta, about 250 miles south of Mazatlan, for its people watching and beauty. But not for its rough shore where rocks and shells mingle with the sand and are hard on bare feet. In Mazatlan, the sand is soft and I encountered only smooth sand and a gentle decline as I walked into the water.

El Centro Historico

Mazatlan is not just a beach town. With a population of 600,000, the city’s historic district, once the commercial center,  has been refurbished as a cultural and entertainment hub. The roughly 180-block area is anchored by the stunning 135-year-old Angela Peralta theater and the quaint Plaza Machado, surrounded by restaurants, art galleries, jazz clubs and shops.

The Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion in Mazatlan. Photo by Terri Colby.

Don’t miss the Catedral Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepcion, completed in 1890 with a Moroccan-tiled facade, Baroque interior and Stars of David in its stained-glass windows in memory of the Jewish family who contribued signifcant amount of money to the cathedral’s completion. The colonial district is home to 479 buildings designated as national historic landmarks. The vibrantly colored buildings, fanciful ironwork and winding brick pathways are the perfect backdrop for young lovers on benches, old men relaxing at shoe-shine stands and tourists smiling as they take it all in at sidewalk cafes.

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