Where would we like to revisit, live, or retire? We have very different answers to these commonly asked questions, but when it comes to our “golden years” … Mazatlán, Mexico has dibs on us. With 300+ days of sunshine per year, beachside apartments for less than $250/month, incredible food, affordable health care, and a two-hour flight from the U.S., it’s no wonder over 20,000 expats call this place home. More than paradise on paper, the “Pearl of the Pacific” is full of character and rich with history. This Sinaloa city completely wooed us, and while we aren’t planning to flop down in a beach chair anytime soon, Mazatlán’s charms will always keep us coming back for more.
How It All Began
What has brought us to Mazatlán twice in two years? It all began with Vermont mud season. While watching the fall leaves turn to barren trees, we remembered this little thing called housesitting. It’s a barter service where you take care of a homeowner/vacationer’s pets in exchange for staying in their fabulous abode. We signed up for HouseCarers.com and applied for gigs in Barcelona, Cappadocia, and Mazatlán…a place we’d never even heard of. The Mazatlán homeowner, Susan, reached out to us for a Skype interview and within two weeks we had a house on the beach and a cute pair of dogs to call our own. Round #1 of housesitting was October/November 2014, when we got to experience the world-famous Day of the Dead (watch this video), Stone Island by horseback, road trip to the charming El Quelite, and had so much fun, it left us wanting more. We don’t often return to the same place twice but when Susan needed help again in spring 2016, we jumped on the opportunity.
The Wonders of Housesitting
Housesitting is the fastest way to feel like a local in a new place. When Susan told her neighbors we’d be taking care of her home, they welcomed us with dinners, tickets to cultural events, and an open-invitation into the community. Unlike a hotel guest or even a vacation renter, we were seen as a friend. With a home and pets to care for, we weren’t on holiday…we were living like a Mazatleco.
Now for a bit about Mazatlán…settled by the Spanish in the 1500s with the Germans arriving in the 1800s, the city is a lovely cultural and architectural mashup. Neoclassical plazas, Bavarian breweries, Banda/Ooompa-music bars, old-school markets, trendy cafes, taco shacks, and grand seaside promenades give it European style with a Mexican tropical twist.
In the 1950s, Mazatlán was one of Mexico’s top beach destinations (long before Cancun and Cabo) but it fell into disrepair in the late 20th-century and still has tons of renovation projects in the works. Some might see a few abandoned buildings as a bad thing, but we think it makes Mazatlán sooooo much cooler. Trees and street artists have taken back the city. 19th-century mansions have branches bursting through the roofs and graffiti murals decorating their walls. Walking the streets feels like a treasure hunt, full of unexpected delights. (We walk the dogs three times a day, as much for their exercise, as our own excuse for exploration).
Monthly Art Walk
One of the best ways to get inside Mazatlán’s historic homes and the vibrant cultural scene is the Art Walk. The first Friday of the month from November to May, artists open up their homes and studios to share their work, wine, and conversation. There are over 20 destinations on the walk but we’ve never made it past five because we wind up having too much fun hanging out in these inspiring spaces.
Plaza Machado is the heart of the city’s cultural scene. It’s lined with incredible restaurants (we <3 Pedro y Lola’s), all with outdoor seating to take in the festive ambiance. Every weekend, artists and jewelry designers set up their stalls, a band plays in the central gazebo, and everyone is out strolling the manicured gardens or people-watching from one of the cast-iron benches. Around the corner on Calle Carnaval (a block off our street) is the feather in Mazatlán’s cultural cap: The Angela Peralta Theater. We’ve seen three different performances (opera, dance, and classical music) and they were all incredibly impressive, as was the sheer volume of shows each month.
On any given weekend, people flow from Plaza Machado to the Malecón seaside promenade. The main strip of Paseo Olas Altas is lined with bars, full of people drinking micheladas, playing dominos or dancing to a mix of banda and Latin pop. The seawall is just as packed with impromptu parties (open container laws aren’t even a notion) with groups of friends mixing drinks, strumming on instruments, and sparking up their own couples dance sessions. Weekend or not, when the sun sets…the whole town seems to stop and take a moment to enjoy the beauty of the day. (Why don’t we all do this more often?)
To appreciate the city’s dramatic coastline, you’ve have to hike to El Faro. It’s the highest lighthouse in the Americas and offers the best vistas of the islands and jagged coast. We’ve hiked it three times and most recently with our Mazatleca friend Alejandra. She’s friendly with the Faro keepers and sweet-talked our way into the light itself with its 100-year old lenses and panoramic views. Gracias, Ale!
The Islands of Mazatlán
The islands that sit before Mazatlán push the bay’s beauty to another level. Sailing to the beaches of Deer Island, gliding between the Two Brothers Rocks, and waving to the sea lion colony is a rite of passage. You could explore by catamaran, party boat, or kayak but we think the ultimate way to experience the Bay of Mazatlán is with Onca Explorations. More than an eco-tour operator, they are marine biologists and ecologists who have been doing research on the bay’s dolphins and whales for ten years. We went on their Wild Dolphin Adventure, which combines the traditional island loop, snorkeling the reefs, and a deep-sea trip to swim with the pods that cruise this corridor of the Pacific.
Wild Dolphin Adventure
Heading 20 nautical miles off the coast, passing the islands and a half dozen bobbing sea turtles, we slowly approached a pod of 200 pantropical spotted dolphins! Before we could blink, there were dozens swimming along our bow and leaping through the air. They were so close, their blowholes shot us like squirt guns. (watch this crazy video). “Andale amigos, put on your snorkel gear,” said Oscar, Onca’s founder and chief researcher. As we were getting ready, he lowered the hydrophone and the waters sounded like Grand Central, with countless whistles and calls. “Dolphins are social creatures, so just remember to be calm and respectful and they’ll likely swim alongside you.” We slipped in with as little splash as possible, and entered a marine world of wonder. We saw three adolescent dolphins gliding in unison below us and had adults come so close we could count their spots. After about ten minutes, we hopped back in the boat to keep up with the rest of the pod. We entered the water three different times on the expedition, each with fantastically intimate encounters with these beautiful creatures, not to mention the manta rays and sea turtles! We’ve taken all sorts of snorkel and scuba trips around the world…but we’d never experienced dolphins like this.
With its incredible architecture, beaches, nature, food, music and people, Mazatlán just feels right. Our first visit was so magical, we wondered if it would still sparkle the second time around. It wowed us even more.
Where to Stay: Casa Lucila (chic boutique hotel right on Olas Altas beach) and Casa de Leyendas (across from the museum plaza). We highly recommend staying in the Centro Historico for the best of Mazatlán, but if you want to mix in a few lazy beach days, Pueblo Bonito is a great pick in the Golden Zone.
Where to Eat: Mariscos Los Especiales (best ceviche in Maz’), El Presidio ( al-fresco restaurant in the ruins of a 19th-century mansion), Pumba’s choreada stand in Plaza Leon, Taqueria Playa Sur for steak vampiros and quesadillas, and Pedro y Lola’s–best music and people-watching on Plaza Machado.
Where to Drink: Freeman Hotel’s rooftop bar for sunset happy hour, Joe’s Oyster for late night dancing, Belmar Hotel’s sidewalk café for monster micheladas, and the Malecón’s sea wall with a pair of a Pacifico Ballenas (translates to “whale” size beer ) and join the Mazetlecos for sundowners.
What to Do: Hike El Faro, Huana Coa Ziplining + tequila taste, Onca Explorations’ Wild Dolphin Adventure or whale watching, Las Labradas petroglyphs (an hour drive north of Mazatlán), horseback ride Stone Island (ask for Elysse), kayak to Deer Island with snorkels and a picnic, take in a show at Angela Peralta Theater, and do your best to catch their annual celebrations, Day of the Dead and Carnival.
How to Get Around: On Foot: the Centro Historico is incredibly walkable and charming at every turn. Bike: The Malecón is essentially a 13-mile bike path that connects the Golden Zone and Centro Historico while roads downtown are easy to navigate. Pulmonia: These souped up golf-carts work like taxis but they’re way cuter and more affordable for zipping around. (Funny Sidenote: Pulmonía translates to pneumonia, mischievously named by the taxi commission to deter people from riding them…don’t worry, the breeze is good for you.)
Check out the Mazatlan Slideshow