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.
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.
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.