A coastal city in Sinaloa, Mazatlán has been a honeypot for foreign tourists since the stars of Hollywood’s golden age came down for fishing trips and to socialise on Plaza Machado.
Mazatlán dates back a century before and was planned by a Filipino banker who made his fortune from the pearl trade.
Most tourists will stay in the modern Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), where there’s a luxury marina and high-rise beachfront condos.
Or you might prefer the Centro Histórico, first laid out in the 1830s and blessed with the prettiest sights.
Both are linked by the long Malecón promenade and settled by healthy communities of retired American and Canadian expats.
Mazatlán also has a younger crowd, drawn to the raucous nightspots and surf breaks that are worthy of international competition.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Mazatlán:
1. Centro Histórico
Most of Mazatlán national historic landmark buildings are in the Centro Histórico, the quarter developed in the 1820s and 1830s.
In that time Mazatlán grew from a village on a swampy river estuary to the largest port on Mexico’s Pacific coast and the capital of Sinaloa.
One of the trademarks of old Mazatlán is its “pulmonías “, golf cart-style taxis with awnings that zip around its streets.
The quarter had fallen on hard times by the 1980s but has been spruced up since the 2000s, and its painted Neoclassical houses have been restored to its 19th-century glory.
You’ll keep returning to this charming part of the city for meals, street food (the shrimp tacos and tamales are a treat), souvenir shopping and to browse art galleries.
The neighbourhood turns into one large outdoor stage in June for the Día de la Música, when diversity of free concerts takes place.
Great tour to start your trip: Mazatlan 3-Hour Guided City Tour
2. Plaza Machado
Named for its financier, the Filipino pearl-diving entrepreneur Juan Nepomuceno Machado, Plaza Machado was plotted on swampy ground in 1837. The square is the most picturesque sight in the Centro Histórico, with rows of palms and hardwood trees, formal flowerbeds and an elegant wrought-iron bandstand at its centre.
Take a few minutes to admire the houses fronting the square, painted in earthy tones, and consider the diverse characters that have visited this spot over the last 180 years.
There were 49ers during the California gold rush of 1849, Hollywood actors in the 1930s and 40s and the feted soprano Ángela Peralta, who passed away at this place in 1883. According to legend, she gave one last aria from her balcony before succumbing to yellow fever.
One of the world’s longest waterfront promenades, the Malecón stretches for 8.5 kilometres from the Golden Zone down to the Centro Histórico.
The southern starting point is a monument for Pedro Infante, the Mazatlán-born actor and singer.
On this palm-lined route there are quirky works of public art, street food vendors, beaches and an abundance of bars, clubs and restaurants.
An integral part of any night out on the Malecón is watching the sun go down.
There are some craggy sections, and at the Glorieta Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada park near the southern end you can witness the spectacle of people diving from a rock 20 metres high into water just a few metres deep.
February/March is when the Malecón is given over to all the fun and craziness of the Carnaval.
4. Faro (Lighthouse)
The Cerro Crestón is the large rock at the end of an isthmus on the west side of the harbour entrance.
The summit has been used for navigation since 1828 with the construction of a primitive beacon.
This was replaced by a true lighthouse in 1879, still manned today after several modifications and with a range of 30 nautical miles.
And while this building merits a peek, it’s the view from the Cerro Crestón that makes the tricky hike to the top worthwhile.
The lighthouse is 160 metres above sea level and you have to power up more than 350 steps to get there.
Once you catch your breath you’ll be treated to panoramas of the Centro Histórico, the harbour, the Isla de la Piedra to the east and the Piedras Blancas outcrops in the water to the west.
5. Immaculate Conception Cathedral
Built over nearly 45 years up to 1899, Mazatlán’s cathedral is an opulent monument with hints of neo-Baroque, Neoclassical and neo-Gothic architecture.
The south-facing main facade has a portico-cum-arcade with elongated multi-foil arches, stones arranged in an eye-catching diagonal pattern and sculpted images of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in niches.
The three-naved interior is richly adorned, boasting the largest chandelier in Mexico, hanging from the Renaissance-style main dome.
Check out the 28 stained glass windows, each adorned with a Star of David as a show of thanks to an affluent local Jewish family that helped fund construction.
The main Baroque-style altar is highly theatrical, carved from white Carrara marble and with a depiction of the Last Supper.
6. Ángela Peralta Theatre
One of the great monuments of the Centro Histórico, the Angela Peralta Theatre was begun in 1869 at the request of the local businessman Manuel Rubio.
At that time Mazatlán was the capital of Sinaloa and needed a performance venue to match.
The theatre was completed in 1874, and in 1883 it was due to host Ángela Peralta, the famous soprano.
She disembarked in the city to huge fanfare, but died only three days later from a sudden yellow fever epidemic, which claimed 76 out of 80 members of her troupe.
The theatre fell into disrepair after a hurricane in 1975 but was fully restored in 1992. Visit this sumptuous venue for a guided tour to hear about the theatre’s difficult construction and the events of 1883, or delight in some classical music, ballet or opera in the evenings.
7. Playa Olas Altas
Translating to “High Waves”, this small golden bay is right on the Centro Histórico and is traced by the Malecón.
True to its name, Playa Olas Altas has some intense surf, attracting body-boarders and surfers.
As the place where tourism took hold in the mid-20th century, it’s fun to think that John Wayne or Gary Cooper would have trodden these sands some 70 years ago.
Wayne, Rudolph Valentino, Gregory Peck and Rock Hudson all stayed at the Hotel Belmar backing the beach.
In the morning you can see the fishermen come in on their pangas and sell their catch direct to restaurants, while in the evening the sunsets at this west-facing beach are as romantic as they come.
8. Mazatlán Aquarium
The only standalone aquarium on Mexico’s pacific coast, this attraction has more than 50 tanks showing off the species that inhabit the Pacific next to Sinaloa, as well as freshwater life from tropical regions worldwide.
There are over 250 species, including sea turtles, sharks, octopuses, piranhas, clownfish, eels and mudskippers that can breathe out of the water and use their fins as legs.
The marquee tanks are the Oceanic Fish tank, holding almost two million litres and the stingray pool containing six different stingray species.
The aquarium also has an extensive outdoor environment, with an aviary and botanical garden.
Under the branches of a magnificent elephant-ear tree you can watch birds of prey take flight.
9. Isla de la Piedra
Water taxis will carry you from Mazatlán’s port board across the channel to Isla de la Piedra (Stone Island) for $30 pesos per round trip.
Less developed, this is more of a peninsula than an island, and is fronted by a long coarse sandy beach about 200 metres from the dock.
On the west side, closest to Mazatlán, the beach is backed by a string of restaurants, some of which are proper sit-down establishments and others casual palapas (palm huts), depending on what you fancy.
Many of the restaurants have their own sun loungers and beach chairs, which come with the price of a meal.
You can also go on a catamaran excursion to tour the mangroves in the channel and explore caves once used by pirates on the coast.
10. Las Labradas
In the Cacaxtla Plateau wildlife reserve around 40 kilometres north of Mazatlán is one of the oldest traces of culture in northern Mexico.
Las Labradas are hundreds of glyphs carved on volcanic rocks on the beach, a site with no equivalent in the Americas.
These stones date between 2000 BC and 300 AD, depicting humans, plants, animals and geometric shapes, and some of the patterns show highly sophisticated workmanship.
Go with a guide who will explain the meaning of these mysterious carvings and the lives of the people who made them.
There’s also a small interpretation centre attached for more context.
11. Playa Bruja
A bus or taxi ride from the centre of Mazatlán, Playa Bruja is past the Golden Zone in Cerritos, a northern oceanfront area where high-rise hotels are cropping up by the year.
The beach is a few hundred metres of sand washed by lively surf.
The swells can get up to two metres, but Playa Bruja is on a gentle slope and the waves break quite far out so there’s lots of shallow water to splash around in.
Surfers love the breaks at Playa Bruja and you can watch them in action and investigate a couple of the highly-rated local seafood restaurants like Mr Lionso and Mariscos Los Tiburones.
As you may have guessed, Mazatlán and this part of the Sinaloa coast is surfing heaven.
Within an hour there’s a massive variety of beaches and swells, catering to everyone from novices to experts.
And there’s no lack of schools and camps to help you conquer these waves.
Instructors at Mazatlán Surf Center and Jah Surf School can pick out the breaks that are right for you, and help you ride your first wave or get back to your best.
If you want a holiday devoted entirely to surfing, and maybe some kayaking and excursions into Sianloa’s biodiverse interior you could book into a surf camp like Barras de Piaxtla or East Pacific.
Mazatlán has the oldest official carnaval in Mexico, taking place in its current format since 1898. Mostly unfolding on the waterfront, the Carnaval is an eruption of street performances, live music and parades led by characters like the Reina (Queen), Rey de la Alegría (King of Joy) and Reina Infantil (Children’s Queen), Rey Feo (Ugly King), all crowned at the start of the celebrations.
The candidates for these roles are announced several months before, while in the weeks running up to the Carnaval you’ll see sculptures along the Malecón representing that year’s given theme.
On the Saturday at Olas Altas beach there’s a mock naval battle using fireworks to commemorate an invent during the French Intervention in 1864 when the battleship “Cordeliere” was repelled from the harbour.
14. Whale Watching
Between December and March, Mexico’s pacific coast is among the best places in the world to see humpback whales.
This species migrates down from Alaska to calve in tropical waters south of Mazatlán around Puerto Vallarta.
Throughout the season there’s a high chance of close-up experiences with this remarkable creature, whether you see fins, blowholes tails or whole whales breaching.
You may also discover an orca, fin, Bryde’s or grey whale, while dolphin species like roughtooth and bottlenose inhabit these waters year-round.
Between June and January, one company, Onca Explorations also provides trips to the El Verde Camacho Sea Turtle Sanctuary where you’ll journey into the mangrove forests to help release sea turtle hatchlings into the ocean.
15. Regional Gastronomy
When it comes to food and drink the first thing we have to talk about is Pacífico, the local pilsner beer, brewed in the city since 1900 and served practically in every beach bar and restaurant.
Pacífico has the Cerro Crestón on its label and pairs well with the robust flavours and spices in Mazatlán’s cuisine.
That might be gobernador tacos with shrimp or snapper “zarandeado”, in a rich ancho chilli and soy sauce marinade.
is shrimp in a sauce with chilli, lime juice, onion and coriander, while chilorio is perhaps Sinaloa’s hallmark dish, and is pork, slow-simmered and then fried in a chilli sauce with garlic, onions and cumin.