Our cab ride from the airport was quick, less than 30 minutes to our beachside hotel in Mazatlan’s historic district. As my husband chatted in Spanish with our driver, I surveyed fleets of shrimp boats and streets abuzz with commerce.

This was a compromise vacation. He wanted nature, meaning a wild beach to surf and fish. And I needed culture, a town with interesting architecture, art and a lively dining scene. As we crested a hill and saw the curve of Olas Altas beach, blissfully free of rental chairs and vendors and rimmed by low-key hotels and street-side restaurants, I suspected we had found our place.

Mazatlan — due east of the tip of the Baja California peninsula, where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean — sprawls along about 12 miles of scalloped coastline at the base of the Sierra Madre. Settled by Spanish conquest in the 1500s, the town grew through subsequent waves of immigrants, including German settlers in the 19th century whose decorative buildings still line the old town streets. Its name comes from the indigenous Nahuatl word meaning “place of deer.”

By the mid-20th century, film personalities such as John Wayne, John Huston and Gary Cooper arrived for marlin fishing, often staying at hotels along Olas Altas. (As the largest fishing port in Mexico, Mazatlan is home to enormous tuna-fleet operations, as well as an extensive shrimping industry.) By the 1970s, development expanded north along the coast.

Today, Mazatlan’s three distinct sections offer something for everyone. The central Zona Dorada (Golden Zone) is highly developed, with gated high-rise condos and hotels on the beach, next to bustling bars, clubs and fast-food eateries. To the north, Nuevo Mazatlan is on its way to becoming chockablock with new developments, among them two marinas, gated condos and resorts with private beaches, golf and tennis clubs.

We were focused on the southern end, where the local historical society and federal government are working to preserve the integrity and community of the newly restored Centro Historico.

subhead: Authenticity preserved

Fred Howard and Cris Garrido, who moved here from Phoenix eight years ago, have witnessed the transformation that has put the once-sleepy postcolonial area on the up-and-coming tourist map.

“In the 1980s, Centro was in really bad shape,” Howard said. “Even the 19th-century opera house was in ruins. Its restoration in 1992 jump-started renovations.”

“The largest portion of renovations were done last year,” said Garrido. “In the past, the philosophy was, ‘Let’s start from scratch,’ as in Puerto Vallarta or Cabo. But tourism around the world is changing. People don’t want to experience only a five-star hotel. They want an experience that isn’t fake.”

Indeed, people time and again described the Centro as “Mexican with some tourists,” rather than a tourist town (ahem, Puerto Vallarta) with some Mexicans. Although English is understood, Spanish is the predominant language.

A few blocks inland from the Malecon, said to be the longest seaside promenade in Latin America, the quiet Centro neighborhood boasts streets with newly laid paving stones and brick tiles, historic street lamps with hanging planters, and uplights flush with the sidewalk to illuminate the colorful architecture.

The area also got a new sewer and other infrastructure, along with buried electric and phone lines. The result is a visually vibrant city center with restaurants, shops and small parks, not far from a beach that retains its wild Pacific character.

Cathedral with Stars of David

So we set off exploring. Surrounding Plaza Machado, a rectangular park with wrought-iron gazebo, lush grass and palm trees, are colorful two-story buildings housing a lively collection of restaurants, cafes, art galleries and bars. By day, the plaza is an oasis of calm. On weekend evenings, a festive mood prevails as musicians roam the brick perimeter, craftsmen sell their wares and diners enjoy alfresco breezes at candlelit tables.

Just off the plaza, the restored Angela Peralta Theater is at the heart of the cultural revival. Named after the legendary opera diva, who died of yellow fever in Mazatlan in 1883, the building is home to a stunning 800-seat theater with elaborate Italianate mezzanine and balconies. It offers classical and contemporary dances, symphony concerts, opera, jazz and more by performers from around the world. The complex also has a municipal art center, art galleries and fine-arts school.

We wandered most of the nearby 20-block historical area. Much of the architecture dates from the 19th century, including an impressive archaeological museum, history museum, and former shops and homes of wealthy merchants. But a number of intact Art Deco and mid-century buildings add to the visual appeal.

Facing the Plaza de la Republica, another palm-filled park with a Victorian filigree bandstand, we spied the twin yellow-tiled spires of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. In addition to the expected soaring columns, gilded arches and sparkling chandeliers, the eclectic neo-Gothic basilica has a soaring interior with a surprising piece of history. Each of its 28 stained-glass windows contains a Star of David, commemorating a donation made by a wealthy local Jewish family in the late 19th century.

Beyond the cathedral, the central market beckoned. The bustling indoor bazaar offers phantasmagoric displays of local food. Counters were piled high with glistening fish — Spanish mackerel, sea bass, red snapper, snook — and mounds of golden and red mangoes, bursts of red tomatoes, orbs of cheese, tubs of spices, stacks of hot sauces, cases of coffee, and chicken or beef cut every which way. Small eateries served casual fare while shops offered T-shirts, hats, beachwear and other touristy trinkets.

subhead: Slurping bivalves by the sea

After our nearly three-hour walk, we hailed a pulmonia, the iconic little cab (like a golf cart with a roof) created in Mazatlan in the 1960s. During our five-day stay, we never needed to rent a car, not even to explore the remote and wild northern beach, Playa Bruja. Pulmonias and regular taxis are plentiful and inexpensive.

Serendipity played a part in our daily adventures. While enjoying a breakfast of eggs with tuna chorizo at our hotel, we marveled that such a thing as tuna chorizo even existed. Our waiter disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the label from the product and directions on where in the Golden Zone to find Dolores Market, a modern, all-things-tuna emporium. (We traveled home with a dozen frozen packages.)

By chatting with others along the way, we learned where to enjoy the best sunset cocktails (the roof terrace of the 11-story Posada Freeman Best Western); where to find a fabulous meal (Hector’s Bistro, a stylish and jazzy spot helmed by Mazatlan-born chef and owner Hector Peniche, a catalyst for enticing creative eateries to the Centro); and where to hear live jazz in Plaza Machado (La Bohemia).

Fresh seafood naturally is popular in the Centro’s chef-owned restaurants. Perhaps the best tip for two oyster aficionados was where to slurp fresh bivalves on the beach. A brief pulmonia ride brought us to Playa Los Pinos, a shallow wading beach popular with families with small children. Seated at plastic tables and chairs, shaded by umbrellas, we enjoyed two dozen freshly shucked Pacific oysters ($5 per dozen). The gnarly creatures, resembling prehistoric beasts, were sweet and perfectly complemented by the locally produced Pacifico beer.

Nature and culture? In Mazatlan, we had both.


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