April 12-17, 2002: Being a Tourist and Having Fun in Mazatlan
We’ve now been in Mazatlan for 2 weeks and are really loving it here! Each destination along our cruise has had its charm and it’s good and bad, but this, overall, is a great vacation destination. It has lots of charm of “Old Mexico”, but yet plenty to do for tourists. The weather while we’ve been here has been almost perfect. With the exception of a few scorcher days and a few cloudy days, it has been balmy… warm enough for beaching it or going pool side during the day or a shopping trip without working up a sweat, but cool every evening, so we do not have to sleep in sweltering humidity. Supposedly it gets VERY hot and humid here (and probably most everywhere else along mainland Mexico) from June through September, but by then, we will be out of here. But even then, I’m sure the wonderful sea breezes help out quite a bit. The Baja peninsula was so brown and desert-like, that the lush jungle-like vegetation of Mazatlan is a welcome change. The locals call this the Mexican Hawaii.
We’ve been playing “tourist” while here and have even gone on several “organized” tours to learn more about Mazatlan. I don’t want to bore you with all the details of what we saw, but thought I’d share some of our experiences and at the same time describe a little bit of what Mazatlan is like.
Mazatlan is the North-end beginning of what is referred to as the Gold Coast of Mexico’s Pacific coast line… the beginning of Mexico’s beach resorts… and is also the beginning of the Tropic of Cancer, hence, it’s “tropical” setting. Although my guide book says it’s population is 300,000, both of the tour guides we had here said the population is now around 750,000 and growing. It has the feeling though of a small city. It’s principal business, other than tourism is commercial fishing, and is “the shrimp capital of the world,” home to Latin America’s largest fleet of commercial shrimp boats. Off shore (quite close in) are 3 islands, which make gorgeous silhouettes and foregrounds for the brilliant sunsets.
The town has one “typically” Spanish section, “Old Mazatlan,” with its 1800’s Spanish- built buildings, beautiful old Opera house and theater, cathedral, and of course the Central Market where the locals buy everything from fresh fruit, vegetables, freshly slaughtered beef, fresh cheese, chickens (skinned with their heads and feet still attached) …to clothing and school supplies.
And then totally separate from that section is the tourist section, called the Gold Zone: 14 miles of continuous beautiful beachfront lined with hotels, lots of tourist souvenir shops, discos, and restaurants. All of their beaches, by Mexican law are “public.” Along the beaches, there are palapas (palm-fronded thatched roof huts) that contain small food stands (lots with barbeques that they cook over mesquite, fresh fish, shrimps, carne asada, etc) and sell beer, sodas, and sometimes a full bar. There are also, of course hundreds of vendors going up and down the beaches selling t-shirts, silver jewelry, hammocks, hats, pottery and about anything else they can carry and think they might be able to play “Let’s Make a Deal” with the beach strollers or sunbathing tourists. For those tourists who just want to read, nap, or relax without the constant “bother” though of the vendors, most of the beachfront hotels have lounge chairs on the beach and like a rope around the “private” lounge area and the vendors are not allowed to cross this boundary. Or there are always the hotel’s pools, as no vendors are allowed there either. Actually, occasionally I LIKE to have a look-see at what they are selling, but once you look at one vendor’s goods (or buy something), it’s like they have a coconut telegraph that goes out to all the other vendors and they come flocking at you from all directions to try and get you to buy something from them also. For the bargain shopper though, it can be quite fun and entertaining.
One of the tours we took our first week here was a “city” tour, which was great for us to see a lot in just 5 hours, in an opened air trolley-type bus we went winding us all around town, up to scenic views, to see the cliff divers (similar to famous Acapulco cliff divers, only not as high), , to the main old cathedral, , the central market, , the opera house. It helped orient us to where things were so we could pick out where we wanted to get back to at a later time. The other tour we took was a “country” tour and was a lot longer (8 hours). We had a big comfy air-conditioned bus, equipped with a tour guide and a big cooler of soft drinks and free beer. We made quite a few stops, visiting a place where a family makes bricks (sounds boring, but was actually quite interesting how much hard work goes into by one multi-generation family to make red bricks that they use to make most buildings and home), , and another place where they carved furniture.
We stopped and walked around on cobblestone streets in 2 “colonial” old towns in the country and up in the mountains and stopped and had lunch at one of them, famous for, of all things, banana crème pie! The children of the colonial town all met the tour bus with their burrows and tried to “peddle” rides. I couldn’t talk Joe into it, and I would have probably broken the burro’s back, so we missed that photo opportunity! Man was it hot though. We thought up in the mountains it would be cool, but with no sea breezes, it was (according to the thermometer in Joe’s camping watch) 104 degrees! I couldn’t wait for the tour to be over and to get us back to our cool oceanfront, balmy “home” on the water! When we got back that night, my anklebones had disappeared and I had pitting edema from the heat!
On the way up the mountain, our tour bus got stopped by the local federales and had to pay a mordita (a bribe) so we could continue. According to our tour guide (who, along with the bus driver, were quite angry that the police would have the nerve to stop a tour bus full of American tourists), it is common for Mexican vehicles to be stopped and rather than bother going into town to pay the ticket, the drivers have to pay the mordita (which translated means “a bite.”) There was also a tour bus behind us, and they also got stopped. Kinda like being held up for ransom. Our guide says, they don’t stop Gringo tourists much anymore because the Gringos write down the policemen names and file complaints and kick up a fit! Mexican’s I guess, just accept it as “normal” and pay the “bite”… and so the corruption continues.
One of the great things here (that we did NOT have in Cabo nor La Paz) is a great and CHEAP transportation system. They have public buses that are easy to use and go all up and down the Gold Zone (tourist beach area) to all over town for only 30-40 cents. They also have a vehicle that is unique to Mazatlan called a “pulmonia,” which means “pneumonia,” and so-named because they are totally open-air. They are similar to a golf cart only with more oomph, and originally were built from Volkswagen motors. Some of them are even propelled by propane tanks. They are a lot of fun to ride if you like the fresh breeze blowing through your hair. These cost about $4-5 per ride (so if you have 3 or 4 people loaded in, that’s not too bad either) and will take you all over town.
The other thing that is nice about here is “familiar” businesses. They have McDonalds, Burger King, Dairy Queen, and Pizza Hut. One day, Joe and I were walking along in the tourist area, and decided to stop for a margarita. We sat on some barstools in an open-air place and after ordering, found out we were bellied up to the bar in a Subway Sandwich place. The little girl, who was the bartender for us, also went behind another counter and was making Subways (same menu as back home even)! THAT you won’t find in the U.S. of A! Other familiar “faces” we’ve found is a Sam’s Club (similar to our CostCo) and an Office Depot. We’ve restocked our boat with some goodies from both places that we never thought we’d see once we left home.
The supermercados (Supermarkets) here are really top notch, some so big and clean and well stocked that they put my back home, Vons and Ralph’s to shame. All of them have their own bakeries (with not only baked goods, but hot off the griddle fresh made tortillas) and creameries (with freshly on-site made multi-flavored yogurts, hundreds of kinds of cheese, and of course crème), plus of course, delis. The delis have probably 60-80 of kinds of hams and chorizos (Mexican sausage), bolognas (even turkey bologna), salchicios (hot dogs), and turkey. Unfortunately though (and we’re getting pretty tired of turkey and ham sandwiches), no roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, salami, etc. The produce sections have most of everything we have “back home” PLUS a large variety of exotic fruits (several different kinds of bananas, mangos, papayas), cactus, and probably 15 different kinds of fresh chilies. In Sam’s club, I even found Portobello mushrooms! Price-wise, some things (fresh produce, cheeses, deli items, bakery goods) are a lot cheaper than the US… and others that are imported, of course are more precious… so I guess if we even it out, it is close to what we’d pay in the US.
I’ve made a few friends here with some of the other cruising ladies who had been here for a while, and they have taken me all over town “grocery” shopping… we leave on one of the buses and then return to the marina in a pulmonia loaded up with sacks and sacks of groceries flopping in the breeze. Because it’s kind of a challenge to find certain items, it’s actually been kind of fun (and I didn’t think I’d ever call grocery shopping fun!) One of the rules of shopping though while cruising is “if you see it, buy it.” As you may never see that item again in another port! Even Joe, (although he probably won’t admit it) has had fun in the Supermercados. He doesn’t want to skip walking down any aisles in fear of missing something important he might need. Oh, I forgot to mention, besides grocery items, the Supermercados also have inside of them K-mart/Wal-Mart type items (items for gardening, auto repair, clothing, house wares, fabric, etc.)
We also went one Sunday with some of our cruiser friends, Tom and Rosalie, to a local Flea Market. Wow what a sight that was... the "market" wove in and out of streets and alleys and covered at least 4 city blocks. And it seemed to be a very popular place to be on a Sunday as the streets were crammed with all ages of people. In some ways (other than being a lot larger), it was similar to a combination of stateside flea markets (with it's share of junk and old stuff, like electronics, tools, clothing, old place setting and mix-matched dishes, etc.) AND a harvest market (with tons of fresh fruit and vegetable stands, fresh farm eggs, milk, etc.) I bought some fresh stawberries and some huge tomatoes.
We’ve been eating out again quite frequently (4-5 nights a week), mostly because there are really some great places close by to eat. Lately we’ve been going out with several other cruising couples, which has also been fun to share stories of our adventures. We’ve found great shrimp (being in the “Shrimp Capitol”), barbequed ribs, plus of course “local dishes” such as grilled over mesquite, tacos, carne asada, mocojete (a stew like dish with either chicken or beef served bubbling hot in a fire-hot lava stone pestle shaped dish at the table), pescado zarandeado (mesquite-broiled whole fish), and chimurro (a slow cooked pork leg). There is one other place that I’m anxious, but we’ve yet to try, famous for it’s cabrito (roasted goat). One night (still playing the tourist), we bought tickets for the Mexican Fiesta night at one of the other El Cid Hotels. They had a buffet dinner with dishes typical of various regions of Mexico and a floorshow with singing, and a dance troupe doing dances typical of fiestas from various Mexican states. Many of the footwork (stomping-style) of the dances reminded me of the flamenco dances of Southern Spain from when I lived there, and probably was brought here by the Spaniards 200 years ago. Although touristy, the show was colorful, professional, and we enjoyed ourselves! (Oh yes and we certainly got our moneys worth as the cost included also all the drinks you could drink for the 3 ½ hour event!
We arrived in Mazatlan the day before Easter, so that week and the following, everything was mobbed with Spring-Breakers… I was surprised that even high schoolers have joined in the groups taking their breaks down here. Then 2 weeks after Easter, the college and high school kids departed and the bikers showed up. There was a big rally of Harley Davidson’s and other “bikers” who traditionally show up at that time for 4-5 days, coming in from all over the US as well as Mexico. The town has now quieted down quite a bit. Our pool at the resort is practically empty and we again have the restaurants to ourselves. Cruise ships still come into town though on Wednesdays and Thursdays so we’ve been told that’s the days to avoid shopping, as prices in the tourist areas go up and your bargaining power decreases.
This past Sunday, we got an invitation from a Mexican man that we met here to take us to Stone Island. He showed up along with a Canadian friend of us and we took off for an adventure to a beach mostly only locals go to. We had to take a panga (Mexican fishing boat) across a short passage of water to the island, and then once there a pulmonia to the beach. Along the way, they stopped at a little tienda (Mexican 7-11, usually run out of a room in someone’s house) and bought a case of beer and a bag of ice. In the case of beer (which holds 20 bottles,) the shopkeeper removed one bottle from the case, as the Mexican law says they can only sell 19 bottles at one time (to keep people from getting too drunk???), and then she sold him the 20th bottle separately (he had to carry it outside of the case. Also what was interesting is they sell here these little tiny beer bottles, poquitos, about half the size of a regular bottle. They told me it’s because it gets so hot in Mexico, that within a few minutes after taking the bottle out of the ice, the beer gets warm. So they’ve “invented” these tiny bottles so after a few swallows, they can grab another iced cold one. Anyway, our friend knew that we didn’t drink beer, (and I had mentioned in passing that we liked Cabernet red wine), so he had gone and bought Joe and I TWO full bottles of red wine … Although that would not have been my choice for a hot sunny beach day… we graciously managed to drink them down as our friends finished off the entire 20 bottles of tiny Pacificos (a popular Mexican brand of beer made and bottled in Mazatlan)! What was interesting to me is we went to one of the beach palapas (huts like I described above), and the owner brought out a cooler for the ice and the beer, plastic cups for our wine, and let us sit there under his palapa for the day. In return, I guess as long as we ordered food from him, he didn’t care. We had great grilled dorado (mahi-mahi) with of course, the fresh tortillas, beans and rice. It was really a great day, for 3 hours, just enjoying watching all the local Mexicans and especially their children playing in the water and building sandcastles. Plus of course, I couldn’t resist and bought a few trinkets from some of the vendors.
Also while we were sitting under our palapa, 2 young guys came to our table with 2 iguanas and put one on each of my shoulders for Joe to take pictures. Then someone said, “too bad they don’t have a 3rd one to put on her head.” Sure enough, one of the guys open up his backpack and takes out another iguana, and placed him on my head! Then of course, Joe’s batteries were dead in the camera at just that moment. So off the guys went to one of those little tiendas to buy Joe some more AA batteries, and then returned and again placed the iguanas all over me for the photo. All I could keep thinking about is “I wonder what Iguana poop smells like and how I’ll get it out of my hair!”
Well, I’m about done writing this chapter of my sharing of tourist snapshot thoughts and experiences in Mazatlan. An update on Joe’s chopped off finger bed… all stitches are out, and although numb, tender and very distortedly ugly (hopefully it will get more aesthetically finger-looking when more swelling is decreased), all is well.
We will be here for another 1 ½-2 weeks (weather pending on our scheduled departure date of 1 May), and then will be heading further south along the Gold Coast to Puerto Vallarta with several stops enroute to an off shore island (bird sanctuary) and several little sandy beach-type anchorages. It SHOULD be an easy passage, down wind, and not too far off — shore… but I don’t hold my breath as NOTHING so far, sailing-wise, has been “as it should be.”