Mazatlan is a big city with plenty of authentic culture, nature and food experiences to lend depth to its busy beachfront banana boat/parasail/booze cruise industry. To make the most of your time, you can begin to enjoy the iconic sights before you even arrive in port; the best perspective of historic El Faro Lighthouse is when you’re sailing into or leaving port.
Mazatlan’s port is huge — one of the largest in Mexico and Central America. And you’ll find volunteer guides (they’ll be wearing blue shirts), excursion partners and cabs easily at the terminal. Although excursions are typically arranged in advance, hiring a pulmonia taxi (an open-air, golf-cart-like cab) for a round-trip journey (e.g., to the Golden Zone beach resorts and back) is one of the most fun ways to sightsee. Here are the top 11 things to do and see when you cruise to Mazatlan.
Not only are these golf cart-looking taxis the easiest way to get from cruise port to every other neighborhood, they are a major attraction in their own right. They fit four passengers, making them perfect for a small family or a duo to pile into and zoom around town — whether through old town or over to the Golden Zone, up to the lighthouse or straight to the nearest convenience store so you can pick up Coronas. (Yes, you can drink while riding.) Most of the drivers play music, making it a point-to-point party. From the port to the Golden Zone beach is generally no more than $10 each way. However, most cruisers hire their vehicle by the hour; make sure to set the price before riding.
Playa Gaviotas and Playa Sabalo lay tip to tail, and together comprise the Golden Zone beachfront that the Malecon runs alongside, all the way up to Olas Altas. Gaviotas, which fronts the hotel zone, is a prime area for sunbathing, swimming, beach bars and hotels. A lot of hotels are cruise-friendly to the point of offering a just-for-cruisers promotion, so even if you don’t book a beach break, you can often buy a couple of drinks and secure beach chairs/towels or a shade palapa. All beaches are public beaches, so there are no access restrictions.
Barely populated, super-quiet and picturesque, Stone Island has six miles of unspoiled beach, dotted with postcard-perfect tropical restaurants. It also has a turtle sanctuary that visitors can only access as part of a guided tour. Inland activities include ATV and horseback riding.
This island is right across from the cruise port, but unfortunately, it’s not close enough to swim, though it appears to be. To get there from the port, take a cab north to the small boat pier and you’ll find that a few of the boats actually ferry visitors to Stone Island. This is a great option if you’d like to explore the island on your own; cruise lines do, however, offer beach-break excursions at Stone Island and tours of the turtle sanctuary.
Sport fishing is an extremely popular day trip, even with those who aren’t necessarily fishermen. And it makes sense that Mazatlan would be the place for amateurs to give this a try, since its offshore waters hold some of the best big-game fish in the world. January to April is the best time to fish for striped marlin, swordfish and Spanish mackerel. In May and June, sailfish and blue marlin return to the area, and in August and September, black marlin and tuna become plentiful. Most cruise lines offer sport fishing shore excursions. Bibi Fleet is a top-rated independent operator if you want to book on your own trip.
Harboring 240 species of sea life and marine mammals, this aquarium is an extremely popular family destination. There are interactive exhibits, a recreational area with shows (sea lion show, bird show), an important sea turtle preservation program, and an almost-complete shark tank so large that the human viewing area will pass right under and through it. This is expected to be complete in spring 2017.
Mazatlan has three turtle sanctuaries: Mazatlan Aquarium, Estrella del Mar and Playa El Verde Camacho. The sea turtle releases are a huge draw, and most cruise lines offer some form of excursion if you are cruising to Mazatlan when the turtles are being released between August and December. Though keep in mind that even during those months it happens according to season and natural cycles, not on a schedule. At the aquarium, sea turtle eggs are protected from the time the mothers lay them. Exactly 51 days later, when the eggs hatch, the aquarium calls everyone from hotels and around the area to come to a site on the boardwalk where they release the baby turtles into the sea. It’s the most adorable thing to witness and something truly unique you won’t find in other ports.
Brewers here have been making Pacifico for more than 100 years. The brewery, with fabulous ocean views, is located at the edge of the port. Long pants and closed-toe shoes are required to tour; the minimum age to tour is 18, and it’s 21 to taste beer. Most cruise lines offer tours of the brewery as a shore excursion. Cruisers can tour independently but guides may not speak English and the hours are not consistent, so it’s best to go with a cruise group.
Right at the cruise port as you disembark, you will find a group of people wearing blue shirts. These are volunteers, expat Americans and Canadians, who are there to help and direct cruisers. They’ll show you to the “blue pass” or blue directional line that guides people through the Old Town streets and all the way to the market square, passing the landmark cathedral, city hall and main plaza. Brightly painted cafes and shops abound, often with apartment residences neighboring them or sitting right on top of them. Disconcertingly, land crabs scuttle about underfoot from dusk onward, and if you’re not careful, you might step on one. The streets are much narrower than in the U.S. and are crowded with more locals than tourists.
The open market’s food stalls provide taste bud overload: giant smoked fish, pig carcasses with the full heads gazing outward, cheese stands selling wheels and ropes of unfamiliar cheese, bakeries with dozens of tempting pastries, and juice stands making fresh agua fresca.
Then there are countless craft and jewelry stalls where you are expected to ferociously haggle over items. Vendors are persistent (but friendly) about trying to get your business.
It’s only a 15-to-20-minute walk through the historic district to the main plaza if you go straight there, but people tend to make lots of stops on the way while they see everything for the first time. It’s easier to be more efficient with time on your way back.
Corn tamales are a simple but essential staple of classic Mexican menus in this region. Panama coffee shop, on the route from the cruise port to the market square, is an historic restaurant of note, and it specializes in local fare, from the humble tamale to chile de queso cream soup made with poblano peppers.
Seafood, specifically shrimp and tuna, is another must-try. And while Mazatlan is known for its prodigious shrimp harvest, what’s not as well known is that this city has the largest tuna packery in Latin America. Basically, if you love seafood, you’ll be one happy foodie exploring this town.
Aguachile is the traditional way to prepare raw shrimp with special “chile water” salsa. Zarandeado, a marinated and grilled whole-fish presentation, is also a regional signature. Ceviche is perennially popular, though it has been recently overtaken by the Japanese-styled sashimi. But perhaps the simplest yet most decadent way to enjoy fresh seafood is by the “tower.” A shrimp tower is a classic splurge, but tuna towers are just as delicious. La Costa Marinera (in the northern part of the Golden Zone, right next to Oceano Palace) is the ultimate special occasion restaurant, serving all the seafood dishes with mariachi entertainment.
Barracrudas — not on the tourist strip, but very close (less than half a mile) — is an ill-kept secret for its great seafood, particularly the tuna burger and the sashimi.
One of the first leather purchases to make here is the traditional Mexican sandals that people used to wear in villages and ranches. Many stalls sell them at the open-air Mercado Municipal. One or two merchants can custom fit them for you right there in 15 minutes. This market is also a great place to find women’s leather handbags.
If you want to expand your sights toward a bigger selection or harder-to-find items, take an excursion to La Noria. Pronatours takes serious shoppers to the best leather factories in this well-known artisan village. You can find excellent deals on bags, boots, masks and hand-tooled saddles. And it’s duty-free.
This sweetener is in high demand from certain visitors because many believe it is a safer option for people with diabetes. Many people buy liters of it in Mexico because it’s cheaper and available as either granules or syrup. You can usually find it at Los Osuna Distillery, which is known for producing a blue agave spirit very similar to tequila but not allowed to use the name because of appellation of origin restrictions.
The distillery is in the country, a 35-minute drive from Mazatlan, but it’s the only one in the area. You can either book a local independent tour or just hire a cab for the day to bring you there if the cruise line is not offering the tour. Note: If you hire a car, you may only get to see the factory, not get a walk-through explanation, because the distillery itself doesn’t always have a staffer to show guests around.