Whenever it is Mid Winter (or at least not Summer) in my soul, I long to leave the now crowded, expensive, deteriorating Bay Area to head south into Mexico. I have been to a number of haunts there, including Guadalajara, Puerta Vallarte, Durango, Chihuahua, and Los Mochis. Each has its charms, but the place I most often dream about is Mazatlan, on Mexico's Pacific Coast. One of the reasons I like it so much is that, most of the year, even in these days when drug cartels are everywhere in the Southwest, middle class Mexican families go to "The Place of the Deer" in greater numbers than do foreign tourists.
Let's go, vamos!
If you are coming with me, you must travel light, but not slovenly, and avoid tourist traps (unless you keenly observe the lessons such places teach).
First of all, we are going to make a reservation (though I personally have never found one necessary) at the Hotel Belmar at Avenida Del Mar, Olas Altas, Mazatlan. I shall not reveal the price of our room to avoid a bunch of crazies turning up on our balcony.
Just you and me, babe.
Our budget is $1500 or so for ten days, but if we are enjoying ourselves, we can add a couple of hundred bucks to that. We buy a hundred dollars worth of pesos (to get settled in our hotel) at American Express or Cook's before we leave. Our other currency exchange needs will be taken care of at Banco Mexico in the Centro of Mazatlan.
Alaska Airlines planes -- one has never crashed when I was aboard -- offer a non-stop flight, which I recommend. We may want to save a few dollars by making a stop in LA (or perhaps Dallas, if you are joining me from the East). Aero California, Aero Mexico, Mexicana, Continental and several other smaller airlines offer flights from southern hubs to Mazatlan. Naturally, fares vary widely according to distance, time of year, and who you deal with. I would always advise going through a reputable discounter, either by phone or online. Book at least a month in advance. (But remember, a discounter sometimes will receive marvelously economical tickets closer to your departure. Do not reserve too far ahead, and be sure to check back for a better deal if your service will allow it.)
Next, make an appointment to have your shots upgraded, especially for tetanus, hepatitis and flu. There is no more danger of falling victim to these conditions than there is to being caught in a major earthquake in San Francisco or suffering kidnap by the Mafia in Sicily, but it has happened. A little wise precaution never hurts. Your local health service can provide these vaccines quite economically.
You, my dear, will insist (naturally) on bringing items that I would not, but try to pack them all in one bag and a tote you can carry on board our plane. That strategy avoids a sore back, pulled muscles, exhaustion, wasted time, lost bags and spending money unnecessarily that we can put to more relaxing use. As you will see, the important belongings to pack are 1) shorts, 2) a bathing suit, 3) a couple of open neck shirts or blouses, 4) a light sweater or vest, 5) minimal toiletries, and 6) a camera with film. T-shirts, toiletries and other items are easily available in the Centro (market) or the Farmacia (drug store) after our arrival (often of better quality and at cheaper prices).
If you are apprehensive about Montezuma's Revenge (and it, too, is a possibility), buy a bottle of Imodium and begin to use it a couple of days before we leave.
On the day of the flight, dress as lightly as you can. Try to have someone deliver you to the airport (and pick you up on your return), if for no other reason than to take care of your heavier Northern clothing. I like to wear a photographer's vest, a dress shirt, light slacks (or a tropical weight suit) and carry an open weave straw hat. (Strangely, I have never come across a really good deal on a hat in Mexico.) Be sure to put all your change, pocket tools, rings, watches, any kind of metal, in a zippered side pocket of your bag. (To avoid embarrassment and unnecessary searches at the metal detectors and security stations.) The actual flying time will be reasonable. What takes eons is getting on the plane, going first through though those useless searches and embarrassing runs, living through the layovers and reaching a cab at the other end.
We land at a desert airfield about ten miles southeast from the beaches of Mazatlan. You will be asked to go through a strange little ritual of pressing a red or green button at customs. Don't worry about it. Then, hurry with me by the attractive senoritas and well dressed caballeros trying to have us go to dance or breakfast in the Dorado (Gold Coast). They inevitably lead the unwary to unreliable time-share pitches and 100 dollar+ a night hotel rooms. We step outside to the cabs, and (usually) find the drivers eager. They often own their own cars and going to the airport is going to work.
It is hot and dusty, possibly two o'clock in the afternoon, and we do not take the bus for a couple of dollars, but pay fifteen bucks or so to ride in style. The important factor is to be sure that the driver takes us to the right place: "Senior, vamos a Hotel Bel Mar, Olas Altas, Numero un cien-sesenta-seis, en La Ciudad Viejo, Mazatlan. Por favor." (My fractured Spanish tends to improve with the days.) It is absolutely important not, by misunderstanding, etc., to allow the driver to take us to a place where he has a financial arrangement. (You may run into such possibilities in any city where you are a stranger.)
The driver races into the sun. For half an hour, we drive by irrigated fields, little cantonments, a couple of buildings and a palm tree or two. Then, we are traveling through tiny spots, one can hardly call them villages, which give way to poor looking stucco developments, all laundry and balconies, in various sandy pastel colors. (Here live most of Mazatlan's half million residents, the people who work in the industries, catch the fish, tend the docks, serve the tourists.
Mazatlan is the northmost and oldest of the beach resorts of Mexico's Pacific Coast, and as a Mexican city, it is relatively young: 200 years-old. As a resort, it is half that age. The temperature averages 80* in the day, about 60* at night, the year around (although it is hotter, and humid, in the summer rainy season). Before Christmas or just after the New Year is an ideal time to visit.
What many tourists on the sands don't realize is that Mazatlan's estuarial bay, and docks along the Avenida del Puerto, makes it the largest and busiest port on Mexico's West Coast. In a recent year, the fleet of 500 vessels harvested 63,000 tons of tuna, 57,000 tons of sardines, over 18,000 tons of shrimp, most of it destined for the U.S. and Japan. It is a heart of the country's seafood and fruit processing/shipping industry.
Presently, we reach the Avenida Del Mar, which, by various names -- Camaron Sabalo, Paseo Claussen, etc -- sweeps 17 miles along unrivaled beaches of the resort. We make sure the driver turns, probably off Calz. Rafael Buelna on the edge of Dorado, to the left, that is to say, south toward the Old City. The Hotel lies in a cove known as Playa de Olas Altas; it is a long pink and white stucco building of five stories with many balconies and a palm tree or two.
Climbing out of the cab, we feel a wonderful breeze on our hot bodies. We cross the colorful mosaic sidewalk toward the deep, dim, entrance of The Hotel Belmar. The driver will likely come with us through the massive doors (closed in the late evening), down the long cool hallway, past a line of tall rocking chairs, to the desk in the modest, high ceilinged lobby.
The Belmar, built in 1906, was the first resort hotel in Mazatlan. Though not at all beautiful on the outside, its interior and rooms have a quaint, open, antique quality that at least a few of us find pleasing.
We indicate to the clerk that we wish to have a room facing the sea (the great majority of them do). She likely speaks English (and will be politely amused but pleased at our efforts in Spanish). We present a credit card, sign the register, and the porter takes us up in the ancient elevator to our floor. The alcove is decorated with large mosaics of fanciful animals or fish, the work of a Disney artist, who came here in the 1930's. People tend to leave their doors open to catch the cross draft from the ocean.
The room is surprisingly large, thinking what we have paid for it. A simple red tiled bathroom is on one side, then a gorgeous floor of mosaic brick, two king-sized beds on a riser, a chest of drawers and mirror, a chair and lamp, a rusty ceiling fan which is unnecessary, the balcony (and blessedly, not yet, I hope, a TV). We find a small table and a couple of stools on the balcony. (Here and on the bed is where we shall spend most of our time in the room.) Behind us, when we are alone, we can hear parrots who live at the top of the bathroom's airshaft, and in front of us the great chuff . . . chuff . . . chuf-f-f-f of the Pacific Ocean, just across the street.
From the balcony, we look out on the Pacific and the palm tree-lined Avenida del Mar, which curves up and away from us on both sides. To the South is the strangely abandoned Hotel Freeman, a constant eerie light reflecting strobically on its windows, and the Colegio de Pacifico on Punto Derecha, and beyond, an old fort, Cerro de Vigia, looking out on El Faro, one of the highest (though not tallest) lighthouses in the World. To the North, we see the Hotel Siesta, home of the original Shrimp Bucket, then before the avenue twists out of sight, Cerro de la Neveria (Ice House Hill), where it is said General Carranza in 1914 carried out the second air raid in history as part of the Mexican Revolution.
We unpack, and tired as we are from the journey, the breeze is making us sleepy. We lie down for a short siesta before we shower and change our clothes to go to dinner.
A small bar (in but not of) the Hotel is on our left as we go out. Here we can sit outside and drink the hometown Cerveza Pacificos, which is brewed a mile to the east of us. (About 75 cents a bottle in this bar.) A few doors to the south, we eat simply, a Mexican plato perhaps, or, with Margaritas (as refreshing as a splash of sea foam) some Marriscos (shrimp for which Mazatlan is justly famous). We watch the sunset over the ocean from our outside table. It is wise to turn in early, the first night, at least.
One reason I dream of the Hotel Belmar is that, lying on the large bed with may be a sheet over me at most, I have seldom slept so well as an adult. All night the steady lullaby of the surf makes me think I'm on a ship. The occasional car passing is drowned out. After Midnight, a mist rises, and a little after first light I awake cool and refreshed. I like to sit on the balcony, watching the Avenue wake up: an elderly man in a beach suit striding by, a woman walking her dog, two girls jogging and laughing to each other on the edge of the surf.
Between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. each morning, the little overnight ferry from La Paz (on the tip of Baja de California to the North) appears in the distance out to sea and glides across the placid waters like a toy, disappearing around Punta Derecha into the Harbor of Mazatlan. How often I experience the sensation of sailing out of my past, being on the balcony and also on the boat at the same time.
This morning, we eat breakfast on the sidewalk at the Copa de Leche Restaurant Bar (aka Antojitos El Farol) a block north of the Hotel at Av. Olas Altas 33. The sea air has made us hungry, and we begin with juice and a fruit plate (from citrus and melons grown in tropical orchards to the Southeast, behind the jungle surrounding Puerta Vallarta). We follow with Huevos Rancheros (eggs, sausage, black beans, tortillas), or you may want a full American breakfast with a pot of excellent coffee. In either case, it will set us back five dollars, more or less. (Breakfast, as we often like it, can be relatively the most expensive meal in Mexico).
The mist is gone, and the air is warming. The boulevard is coming alive. A large perimeter bus rumbles by, which, for thirty cents or so, may later take us to the Mercado in the Centro for supplies. Little surreyed golf carts (installed with Volkswagen engines), known as Pulmonias (and unique to Mazatlan), putt-putt past, carrying visitors to the beaches or the Dorado.
In the early days of the resort, horses and carriages conveyed vacationers from the Old City along a dirt road to the unspoiled beaches. There were no glitzy American, British or German hotels on the shores. In the 1930's and 1940's, Hollywood personalities and other celebrities (Ernest Hemingway, Gary Cooper, Kate Hepburn, etc.) stayed at the Hotel Belmar. In recent years, many hotels have been built to the north, and the luxury section of the Dorado has grown up. It has left the Hotel Belmar with a slightly old hat reputation, a delicious secret.
After our breakfast has digested with a stroll in the cool of the morning to the bank and the Mercado, for money and supplies, we climb into the back of a Pulmonia (generally cheaper than cabs), and for a couple of dollars, we are driven several miles to Playa del Sur, where we walk and splash in the surf, lie in the sun (not too long), and after a couple of hours, we stroll up to my favorite beach restaurant in Mazatlan.
The Puerta Azul is a simple palapa (thatch-roofed) structure right on the sand, with tables in the shade. Every day about noon, the cooks arrive with fish caught that morning, ice, beer, tortillas, salad makings, rice and beans. They fire up a couple of wood burning grills and start to cook. We go up to the headman, whom I recognize from years past. He has lived in Chicago, speaks excellent English, but indulges my Spanish. He shows us half a dozen, iced, bright-eyed Pacific Red Snapper, about eighteen inches to two feet or so, glistening in the light.
We select one to the smaller ones, and the "outdoor" cook takes us over to an old oil drum, cut in two lengthwise, full of burning embers. He opens the fish out and places it on the grill. Then, he seats us at a round table. He suggests the fixings, and brings us some ice cold Pacificos. He is soon back with a splendid platter of Pescado Zarandeado, surrounded with rice, beans, salad, vegetables, limes and other fruit. The flesh of the fish is perfectly cooked and incomparably flavorful. With several rounds of Pacificos, the whole feast comes to about $10.
Picking a restaurant can be tricky. I do buy bottled water, and I don't eat much of the salad unless I know the place. I drink a fair amount of beer and tequila, making sure always to stay hydrated. But the only time I have ever been at all sick is after eating in the fancier hotels of the Dorado. Watching the cooks at the Puerta Azul work (and they are under your nose), I have no worries. Again, most of these problems we hear bemoaned, are just a product of a different scene or our own carelessness.
After another walk on the beach, glancing occasionally at some of the mildly impressive hotels across the boulevard, we board another pulmonia to return to Hotel Belmar and a siesta, with the cool breezes wafting through the open door and windows from our balcony. Take that siesta, for it is true what they say about Mad Dogs and Englishmen (and American tourists, too).
Perhaps, we shall go up this evening to Valentino's, a most impressive nightspot on the edge of the Dorado, for a light meal, a frozen Margarita and some dancing in the disco.
In the days that follow, we shall occasionally visit another hotspot, such as the Bora-Bora Club, which stays open sometimes to 5 a.m., but frankly, I like to hang in the Old City. The first time I came to Mazatlan a dozen years ago, blocks of early 19th Century buildings, immediately behind the Hotel Belmar, were just starting to be restored. You could see the interior of the buildings, empty and stripped, sometimes roofs open to the sky. Today, in the Historical Preservation Area, most of them are cleaned, brightly painted, or newly stuccoed homes for neat little cafes and clubs that have little of the hype of the conventional tourist traps a few miles away. If ever I saw a city doing something right, it is Mazatlan. Let's hope they keep it up.
There are so many sights and adventures to experience in the Old City and environs: tours, theaters, museums, aquariums, the docks, etc. For instance, a beautiful restored theater is the 1875 Teatro Angela Peralta, named after Mexico's opera diva, which can be toured for half a dollar. You may be lucky to attend a musical performance there.
For a change, I like to buy a $10 bus ticket to travel due east, and almost straight up on "The Devil's Hairpin" into the Sierra Madre Occidentales, to the plateau city of Durango. Built in the 16th and 17th Century by Conquistadores and those who followed, it is real Wild West, a cattle and timber town. And a Movie town! Over 150 American movies alone, including many John Wayne films, were shot at Chupaderos and other movie locations near Durango. The first time there, I noticed the attention men paid to boots, and bought a pair at a very reasonable price (under $75). I have returned there several times since.
I came once when brave Captain Christianson and I made our epic journey on the Copper Canyon Train and drove across the Chihuahuan desert and montana, by way of Durango to Mazatlan. I went there again after entertaining Grace, the love of my life, and her beautiful daughter Melinda at the Hotel Belmar.
That land, with its strange conical volcanic mountains is like no place I've seen, but I am always glad to return to the beaches of Mazatlan, and the welcome of Regulo Osana, the manager at Hotel Belmar, who always greets me kindly. A couple of days remembering the burros making their way on the mountain roads; then a couple more, plunging into the Pacific, eating scrumptious seafood, snapper and marlin, watching the sunset with a Margarita; and I am ready to fly home rested to San Francisco.
Enjoy our stay in Durango and the Old City of Mazatlan, my dear. The Devil's Hairpin is being widened for huge timber and gondola trucks to take the last riches from the montana; the men wear Adidas more often than boots now. The New World Order may already have discovered this little paradise. I hope not.
Enjoy it while you can.
Causes Alex Fraser Supports