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Mazatlan has more to offer than the club-filled Fiestaland. Colourful architecture competes with tea-coloured beaches for your attention.
Mazatlan has more to offer than the club-filled Fiestaland. Colourful architecture competes with tea-coloured beaches for your attention.

Ignore the headlines: Here's why you should vacation in Mexico Add to ...

Barry McGavin, a chemistry teacher-turned-guitarist from Vancouver, is tonight’s entertainment at Pedro y Lola’s restaurant in Plaza Machado. He starts up a jazzy rendition of Elvis’s Burning Love on the patio and rocks away into the soft evening air. White lights on palm trees wink down and the atmosphere is festive as we tuck into our fresh shrimp cooked in orange and Cointreau. Couples, local artists and tourists who have ventured away from the beach strip known as the Golden Zone fill the square, in search of something different.

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Here in the Centro Historico of Mazatlan, you will not find any Senor Frog outlets, mariachi bands or vendors trying to braid your hair – though the ocean is just 10 minutes away. Instead, artists and jewellers sell one-of-a-kind silver treasures and paintings, and restaurants offer up everything from sushi and Argentine beef to a tequila nightcap at the Jonathan Boutique Hotel’s ultrahip rooftop bar around the corner.

Less well-known than Puerto Vallarta to the south, this port city of 500,000 on the Pacific Ocean will always have the draw of its soft, tea-coloured sand, shallow-water beaches, 21-kilometre esplanade, or malecon, and incredibly varied bird life (147 species live here, notably fat and aggressive pelicans).

But Mazatlan is hoping to market something a little more than sol y playa (sun and beach) and attract a new kind of visitor – one interested in Mexico’s rich culture and art. The city’s tourism industry suffered a setback during the U.S. economic recession and the violence that followed Mexico’s crackdown on the drug cartels. Mazatlan is in the state of Sinaloa, home of the world’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman. Though the cartels target one another, not tourists, and are not known to be active in the city, three different cruise lines, Princess, Holland America and Disney, pulled out of Mazatlan in 2011 after a shooting occurred in a hotel parking lot. (It did not involve tourists.) The beating last year of a Calgary woman in the Hotel Riu Emerald Bay also brought the wrong kind of attention.

Now, the city is trying to counter the negative publicity, which it says is unwarranted. Marketing focuses on Mazatlan’s rich colonial past – a smart idea. The city’s authenticity, even in the grittier parts, contrasts to the shine and gleam of other Mexican destinations, such as Cancun, which was built specifically for tourists and never quite shakes that artificial feeling of perfection.

Mazatlan is a working port town, known for its agriculture, fishing and historical area – as well as the Golden Zone, with its family hotels, chain restaurants and casual beach-side eateries. Spanish explorers and Indians first settled here in 1531 on the hunt for silver and gold, followed by later waves of immigrants, including French, Portuguese, Italians, Germans and Filipinos. A lighthouse, built in 1879 with a lamp handcrafted in Paris, remains a famous landmark.

The 10-block radius around the Machado square, in the historical area, features carefully restored homes built in the tropical neo-classical style with red-tiled roofs and vivid exteriors of turquoise, yellow and orange. There is a cathedral dating back to 1899, a market, a fine-arts school and the gorgeous Angela Peralta theatre, built in 1874 and named for a famous Mexican opera singer who died of yellow fever in the hotel next door. On the first Friday of every month, the community holds a free art walk, with 40 artists showing off their sculptures, prints and paintings at 24 different studios and galleries.

Glen Rogers, an artist from California, drove down with her print machine in a trailer more than a decade ago, and now offers classes and operates the Luna contemporary art gallery. Even Hotel Machado, opposite Pedro y Lola’s in Machado square, functions as an exhibit space. Its quaint rooms, with Juliet balconies and old wooden shutters, go for as little as $60 a night. Three sleepy senoritos play backgammon and sip instant coffee in the entrance of the tiny lobby.

“You walk through a door here and you discover a colourful courtyard with a renovated space. It is like Alice in Wonderland. There are so many different worlds,” says Cindy Xiao of Toronto, who visited Mazatlan in January.

This part of the city feels like it is on the verge of greatness, a hidden gem of architecture, culture and good eats. It hasn’t yet fulfilled its potential, and that is part of the charm. Down by the beach, cliff divers put on a show, but even that seems homespun as they make the sign of the cross and ask God to keep them safe before plunging 45 metres into shallow waters.

Later during our one-week visit, we take a boat tour – that includes unlimited mai-tais beginning at 10 a.m. – to Deer Island (Mazatlan is a Nahuatl word meaning “place of deer”), one of three protected islands not far off the mainland. There is no dock, so we put on our beach shoes and wade ashore.

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