A revitalized Mexican town with golden sands and a time-warp historic centre – an expert guide to Mazatlán

Sally Howard
Mazatlán, Mexico - istock

Why go?

Mazatlán has the sweeping golden beaches of competitors Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. But it’s the city’s Centro Historico, with its handsome Art Nouveau plazas and time-warp cantinas, that make it worthy of dropping anchor. Happily, the Mazatlán government has improved security since a spate of attacks targeting tourists in the early 2010s.

Cruise port location

The cruise ship dock is located in the commercial port area. A two-minute open-sided bus ride ferries passengers from the dock to the cruise terminal (tips welcome, you can’t walk for safety reasons), which is a mile southeast of the Centro Historico. Taxis are abundant and take about five minutes to the centre of the city from around US$10 (£8) per cab. If you're planning to go to beaches at the Zona Dorada, it's a 20-minute ride.

Can I walk to any places of interest?

The cruise terminal has several overpriced bars (with an onus on the local tipple, tequila) and a market selling textiles, leatherware and ceramics. Old Town Mazatlán (the Centro Historico) is an easy 20 to 25-minute walk from the cruise port, although pavement kerbs are high.

Getting around

Sábalo Centro Tourist buses run from the ferry terminal a few minutes’ walk west of the cruise terminal along the length of the Zona Dorada (Golden, or beach zone to the north of the Centro Historico), so are a good option if you want to go to the beach. Tickets cost around MS8 (34p, every 15 min from 5.30am to 10.30pm). Four-wheeled options abound, including open-sided pulmonias (around £3 to hire, shared between passengers), regular taxis and aurigas (pick-up trucks, which cost around £9 to hire and seat eight to 10 people). 

Mazatlán, Mexico - istock

What can I do in four hours or less?

Cruise lines often up-sell Mazatlán excursions for reasons of safety. However, don’t let Mazatlán’s erstwhile reputation put you off a self-guided stroll around the charming, and now safe, Centro Historico. If you do go solo, walk to the central Plaza Republica along Ave Carnival, or pick up an open-sided pulmonia from the cruise port for around US$8 (£6) to the same spot, which is an adventure in itself. Playa Olas Altos, which is a 20-minute walk west from the Centro Historico and the nearest beach to the old centre, has golden sands but a strong undercurrent and little shade (take transport to the Zona Dorada if you’re keen to bathe).

If you don’t fancy the walk to the Centro Historico, all of the cruise lines that stop at Mazatlán offer city tours, which cost from £23, last around two to three hours and include a visit to the Plaza República and neo-Gothic Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción and Art Deco Pino Suárez market for souvenirs. Princess Cruises offers a hyped excursion to the pretty oceanside park El Clavadista, where young locals perform hair-raising cliff dives (from £15 for the excursion, though you'll be hassled for tips).

Additionally some lines, including Princess and Carnival, offer a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus service, which cycles between the Centro Historico, beaches at the Zona Dorado and cliff-diving at El Clavadista. Princess’s half-day tour of the Zona Dorada, meanwhile, is well-guided and easygoing, with a pit stop at an excellent beachside cantina (£23).

Mazatlán, Mexico - istock

What can I do in eight hours or less?

Amongst the day-long excursions, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess and Carnival all offer a highly rated five and a half-hour Salsa + Salsa cookery demonstration and dancing excursion at a Zona Dorada resort (£74, including margaritas and snacks, with a couple of hours free to lounge around at the resort pool).

For a flavour of a sleepier Mexico, take a boat from the Embarcadero Playa Sur, adjacent to the cruise terminal, to Isla de la Piedra, a rustic peninsula that’s great for swimming and lined with palm roofed seafood-speciality restaurants and swaying palm trees (boat trips every 10 minutes, 50p each way).

Eat and drink

Mazatlán is famed for its shrimp dishes, and your cruise line will probably offer spins on local classics such as shrimp broth and shrimp tamales (corn husk steamed shrimp) with salsa verde. In the Centro Historico, the Mercado Culinario food hall is great for handheld snacks such as tacos and European-style tarts and sarnies from Bredhaus. Or, if you’re brave, you can buy fresh oysters beachside from the fishermen who shuck their oysters on the sands at Playa Olas Altas.

Don’t leave the city without...

Embroidered shirts and dresses from Mercado Pino Suarez. Precious stones from jewellers in the Zona Dorada (Pacific Jewelry at Av. Gaviotas 413 is reputable). Or the local treat, coconut marshmallows (known in these parts as pedos de monja, or ‘nun’s farts’), from a stall in the Centro Historico.

Mazatlán, Mexico - getty

Need to know

Safety

In 2011, a number of cruise lines cancelled stops in Mazatlán due to rising crime, including a number of attacks explicitly targeting tourists. By 2015, most cruise lines had resumed stops in the city and security is now good, especially in the tourist area of Zona Dorada. It’s wise not to carry large amounts of cash, however, particularly if you’re walking in the Centro Historico early in the morning or at nightfall. If you’re planning to swim, look out for coloured flags on the beach (red for danger, yellow for caution and white indicating the presence of jellyfish).

Best time to go

Spring and autumn and winters are the best time to visit in terms of weather, as summer is hot and humid with frequent rains. As ever with Mexican resorts, avoid Spring Break weeks in the United States, unless you’re happy to run into margarita-fuelled American students. Winter is the peak time for cruise arrivals.

Opening times

Most shops, apart from those in the touristy Zona Dorada, are open Monday to Saturday from 9am or 10am to 6pm or 8pm, closing on Sundays. Many museums, including the Museo Arqueologico and Museo de Arte, close on Monday.