We headed to Mazatlan as much because of its illustrious past as Mexico’s first truly glamorous beach resort and to see what’s become of it lately. We were pleasantly surprised on both fronts. Yes, Mazatlan’s Zona Dorado (Golden Zone), the main and more-modern drag, is a kind of low-rent Cancun or Fort Lauderdale with high rise resorts of certain era (one 1,000+ room monster is literally called a Mega Resort), lots of restaurants offering buffets or hamburgers and a half-hearted attempt at style. However, the original heart of Mazatlan is still a charmer.
Playa Olas Atlas, just a few blocks from the center of Old Mazatlan, was one of the first resort areas in Mexico.
Located down at the Playa Olas Atlas end of town, the original part of Mazatlan was once referred to as the “Pearl of the Pacific.” John Wayne used to keep a boat here and Ernest Hemingway spent more than a little bit of time in town. The area has long since let go of the last vestiges of its glamorous past and embraced–either out of choice or out of necessity–its decidedly faded present.
The result is an old travel battlehorse so comfortable in its peeling, slightly-crumbling skin that visitors are instantly made to feel perfectly, casually at home as well. A fresh crop of hip bars, a thriving arts scene and a growing number of boutique hotels (we’re talking about you Melville Suites and Hotel Machado) and bed and breakfasts keep the area from lurching into has-been-land.
More on the chic lodgings later. For now, let us stress that Old Mazatlan is also home to some exceptional hotel bargains, like the Belmar Hotel, a faded but still perfectly acceptable budget option (clean, safe, central, functioning Wi-Fi, secure parking) where we got a room with A/C for 200 pesos (about $13). Yep.
The Hotel Belmar was the first resort hotel to be built in Mazatlan. Opened in 1918 it was, at one time, THE place to stay. Now old school, open-air Pulmonia taxis pick up and drop off budget traveler guests at this ramshackle diva.
Old Mazatlan combines the pastels of Miami with the wrought iron and languid patios of New Orleans and many of Old Mazatlan’s original buildings have been (or are being) renovated, giving the area a kind of lazy boom-town feel. Another quirky Mazatlan plus? Free calls to the US and Canada from house phones at most of the hotels–even the penny-pinching Belmar.
The restored buildings in Old Mazatlan bring color and style to the neighborhood.
The sights and sounds of a low-key seaside town like Mazatlan make a seafood meal sound good and we spent plenty of afternoons at Mariscos Tono enjoying wonderfully fresh ceviche and 12 peso cervezas. We were also tipped off about a great taco place called Taqueria Playa Sur. Tender, tender beef and a bustling turnover. Want a tablecloth and live jazz and a wine list and a cappuccino? Restaurants like Pedro y Lola in Old Mazatlan deliver that too.
The heart of Old Mazatlan is the Plaza Machado which is surrounded by cafes and the beautifully restored Angela Peralta Theater.
Street art on one of the buildings in Old Mazatlan is too good to be called graffiti.
The 19th century cathedral in Old Mazatlan.
Though we originally checked into the wonderfully frayed (and equally wonderfully priced) Hotel Belmar we were intrigued by the number of really chic little boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts we walked past on our daily strolls through Old Mazatlan. One of them, the Casa Lucila, is right on the waterfront and has a story as irresistible as its location.
Opened by Conchita Valades de Boccard and her husband Christopher, this stunner is named after her mother and the eight over-sized rooms (many with sea-view patios) arenamed after Conchita’s eight sisters. The restaurant and lounge is named for Conchita’s father, Mazatlan crooner Fernando Valades Lejarza. Conchita jokes that she’s going to have to open another hotel so her five brothers can have rooms named after them and she’s done such a wonderful job with Casa Lucila that we really hope she follows through on that threat.
A native of Mazatlan, Conchita bought the property in 2007 and photos of the building at that time prove that calling it a shambles would have been a compliment. Today the tranquil and stylish two story hotel is properly dressed in Italian stone and windows and doors and plush linens. There’s even a plunge pool and a lovely one-room spa. The sublime custom mattresses are made by hand in Mazatlan by a man who can only be called an artist.
As if to seal the deal, the location of the hotel, on a slight rise above the seawall, provides gratis views down the long, sweeping crescent of Olas Atlas Beach. All in all, Casa Lucila is a wonderful new take on Old Mazatlan.
Sunset on the Pacific.