The only inhabitants are two stray dogs; the only action, five shade umbrellas and an abandoned volleyball net – though the tour company does drag along a banana boat and sea kayaks to keep people occupied. The sea is warm and the rocky volcanic outcrop is beautifully craggy.
I spend my four hours swimming, sunbathing and watching a hermit crab skitter across the sand. Perfection.
Another morning we venture out for a whale-watching tour aboard Onca Explorations. Oscar Guzon, a genial oceanographer, founded the company in 2006 after discovering that this part of the Sea of Cortez is a breeding ground for humpbacks. At three nautical miles out, we spot our first. It comes to the surface to breathe, blowing out a column of vapour and slapping its tale on the water.
The sea is choppy, however, and while our Mexican hosts do not appear to notice, almost all of the gringos aboard, including us, are grateful for the sea-sickness pills Guzon handed out before we boarded.
But we’re glad we came as we see several more whales breaching, hear a high-pitched whale song captured with the ship’s hydrophones, and consider such curious facts as a whale’s longevity – 70 years.
Back at Pueblo Bonito Hotel that afternoon, I run into several Canadians, including a couple from Alberta. They have been vacationing here for 22 years.
“This is a much more tranquil place than Puerto Vallarta,” says the woman, a nurse from Edmonton who is feeding Crinkles, a giant turtle who lives on the grounds. “I take local buses and every day we walk all along the beach into the city centre and back to the hotel. We have never had anything bad happen.”
Overall, there is no doubt that security has worsened in Mexico since the previous government declared a war on the drug cartels. Yet most of the casualties are linked to the drug trade and centred in the border areas: The latest government report found that almost 80 per cent of homicides connected to organized crime took place in just six per cent of the country’s municipalities.
Violent acts against tourists remain unusual, and generally, organized criminals do not target foreigners. The Yucatan Peninsula, for example, remains very safe. Overall, Mexico’s homicide rate is lower than that of most other countries in Latin America
Still, every incident involving tourists is one too many. Recently, six Spanish women vacationing in Acapulco were raped, cementing that city’s reputation as a place to avoid (its homicide rate increased in 2011).
The tourists I spoke with swear they have never visited a more secure city. “It is safer here than Philly,” says a sun-kissed woman named B.C. Marks, who moved here eight years ago, one of the 8,000 expatriates in Mazatlan, at least 40 per cent of whom are Canadians. “I leave restaurants and bars at 2 a.m. and nothing has ever happened to me.”
Will this be Mazatlan’s turnaround year? Already tour operators are celebrating the fact that cruise ships are starting to return. It remains a place full of surprise, with much to offer beyond the Golden Zone’s giant Fiestaland, a white Disney-land like complex filled with nightclubs, and the Galactic Bowling Alley.
It is deserving of a visit, at least, so that people can make up their own minds.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: Pueblo Bonito is a reasonably priced, hacienda-style family resort with two pools, a swim-up bar. But the best feature is the location, right on a long stretch of beach and large units, with generous self-catering kitchens. Rooms from $108 (U.S.); pueblobonito.com
Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay Resort and Spa is a Conde Nast Traveller Award-winning resort with the largest spa in Mazatlan and ocean-view suites with private terraces and luxurious feather-top beds. Exclusive and peaceful – a world away from the congestion of the Golden Zone. Rooms only from$120 (U.S.); pueblobonitoemeraldbay.com
Places to eat: Pedro y Lola’s Fantastic location in a 19th-century historic building facing the square in Mazatlan’s Centro Historico. Live jazz, fabulous seafood and great ambience. Pedestrian-only street during weekends.
Pancho’s This is a casual, child-friendly seafood restaurant across the street from Pueblo Bonito, on the edge of the Golden Zone. Come here for great shrimp, guacamole and tortilla soup and free appetizers. Also serves hamburgers.
La Puntilla An excellent local seafood restaurant way out of the way overlooking the harbour where the cruise ships used to dock. Popular with locals and reasonably priced. Definitely worth a visit and an easy pulmonia (taxi) ride from the Golden Zone.
Marina Jimenez is an editorial writer with The Globe. She has written extensively about Mexico. This trip was supported by the Mazatlan Hotel Association. It did not review or approve this article.