Mad about Mazatlan

By Lavender February 29, 2008

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You’ve run into those demigods from LA, haven’t you, who perform triathlons daily, exist on salads, and consider our Midwestern lifestyle something the Taliban thought up? Well, if California is an acronym for all that’s perfect, what are they all doing in Mazatlan? Getting their knickers untwisted, that’s what. Fleeing the Image Police and actually enjoying themselves. Sunning on a beach chaise within easy reach of a margarita, wearing decidedly unfashionable swim trunks from Señor Frog’s.

Hollywood first adopted Mazatlan, the original resort on the Mexican Riviera, back in the ’40s. Well, actually, the Spanish cruise ships beat them to it, but that was back in 1530. Then came gold-struck miners to the nearby Sierra Madre Mountains. Germans next, who added their oompah beat to mariachi music, and gave tequila a run for the pesos by launching Pacifico beer. Result: roots deep into history.

That’s what I like best about Mazatlan: There’s a “there” there. It wasn’t purpose-built like, ahem, Ixtapa and Cancun. Plus, blissful beaches, to be sure. Fifteen unbroken miles of them stretch north from the historic center.

The Zona Dorada—Golden Zone, paved with sleek resorts—is connected to the Colonial center by the Malecon, a boardwalk that rivals Rio’s, lined with cafés serving seafood under thatched palapas. It’s the city’s preen-and-be-seen avenue by day and night, especially during palpitating Carnival, celebrated con gusto since 1898, and the third-largest in the world, after New Orleans’s and Rio’s.

Life is a year-round carnival in the city center, where luscious pastel facades harbor galleries, handicrafts shops, music clubs, and intimate cafés. Old men gather on the ornate benches of Plazuela Republica (also known as Shoeshine Plaza for its main enterprise), monitoring passersby under the palms. Across the street looms the unmistakable cathedral, a gaudy endeavor of the 1850s, and just beyond, the teeming Central Market, bursting with all that’s good to eat, as well as trinkets at rock-bottom prices. The seafood market (shrimp is Mazatlan’s premier specialty) and flower market beckon nearby.

It gets even better. Head south a couple of blocks to the movie-set pretty Plazuela Machada. In the shade of mango trees, an ironwork bandstand is home to free concerts—from the local tombolo version of mariachi music to the classical strains of the symphony orchestra to the cool wail of a jazz combo, such as a visit by (would you believe it?) the Buena Vista Social Club. And just around the corner stands a painstakingly restored opera house, the prettiest jewel box this side of Europe, where Mimi currently was expiring in La Bohème. It’s also home to the city’s heralded contemporary dance company.

Bordering the romantic plaza, gay bars Dionysus and Vitrolos scintillate and titillate, while back in the Golden Zone, Passion and Pepe Toro bring out the boys.

Slither back to Machada in the morning to savor a café con leche at one of the outdoor cafes that line the plaza. Then, propelled by sugar, milk, and caffeine, it’s time to shop. Under those tiled roofs and balconies dripping with brilliant blooms, I popped into one appetizing storefront after another—Etnika, for instance, offering locally crafted jewelry, quirky purses that left me panting, and other snazzy items to brighten winter in a Minnesota condo. In the Golden Zone, Michael’s offers another cache of eclectic treasures, from sleek to cheeky. I succumbed to Day of the Dead miniskeletons dressed in Prada and a crucifix decorated with bottle caps bearing art goddess Frida Kahlo’s portrait. With good timing, you can make like a local on the First Fridays gallery crawl.

More on Kahlo in the Art Museum just off the Malecon, boasting a captivating exhibit of what I’ll call Kahlo Revisited: a witty assembly of paintings by Mexico’s premier contemporary artists updating the diva’s legendary self-portraits—Kahlo at the computer, Kahlo giving the artists’ own self-portraits a hug, etc. Across the street, the Archaeological Museum showcases precious artifacts of pre-Columbian times. Pit stop for cervesa and seviche along the boardwalk, then time to hit the beach. It’s hot!—88 degrees in December.

To make it back to the Golden Zone, hail a passing pulmonia, Mazatlan’s iconic mode of transportation—half golf cart, half racing engine—named in derisive warning by rival taxi drivers, who claimed the open-air ride would bring on pneumonia (pulmonia). Not a chance. I was far more likely to succumb to exhaust fumes, as my clearly mad driver drag-races everything on the road. Bargaining the fare is the name of the game, and it’s fun and easy.

Relax poolside at the Holiday Inn Resort (choice of three pools, actually, including an alluring infinity type that “floats” above the ocean, and another with swim-up bar and soulful guitar music). Call for a $3 happy hour margarita in time to watch the hot-pink, throbbing sun as it dives into the water. Waves twice my height—a surfer’s dream of glory—crash and retreat, as fellas stroll the sand, picking up shells and other fellas. Happy hunting! (In fact The New York Times in December hailed Mazatlan as the second-most-popular rendezvous for gay vacationers.)

Just promise me you won’t take him to Señor Frog’s, or our relationship is over. Nor to that cute little Italian bistro, either, buddy. We’re in Mexico, for heaven’s sake, country of exquisite flavors ready to perform back flips on your palate. Hike down the street (or hail a pulmonia) to Guadalajara, and rest your elbows in the open air (or inside), while you see what this modern chef is up to. Spicy skirt steak taquitos in adobo marinade, cilantro, and salsa verde, along with tomatillo flautas, are among the starters—or maybe mahi seviche—followed by mole-gilded chicken stuffed with plantains and chilies, or the kitchen’s addictive shrimp, big as Chihuahuas, sauced with a sweet-hot marriage of mangos and chipotles.

Head downstream, and downscale, to El Tunel, across from the opera house. A grandma in white apron beckons diners to the courtyard with its oilcloth-covered tables and industriously laboring fan, where her family has been pleasing mostly locals since 1945 with posole (the classic pork and hominy stew fired with red chilis), choice of tacos at a buck apiece (try the smoked marlin version), chicken mole enchiladas, and multitudes more.

Or check Panama (several locations), brimming with locals—families, boys night, date rendezvous, the works, but nary a tourist—in a vast, bright diner-throwback setting, where stunning waitresses of catwalk caliber pleasantly push carts of appetizers (can’t resist the sumptuous guacamole) and irresistible cakes from the adjoining bakery. In between, feast on shrimp ranchero-style; carne asada with all the trimmings ($8!); and, for the unredeemably undecided like me, lots of combination plates. Panama serves gorgeous breakfasts, too.

Instead, my habit was to hike a half-mile along the sea to rival side-by-side beach shacks—Tony’s and Loco’s—with views of kids surfing the waves from its bright, no-nonsense tables, where orders of huevos rancheros with all the trimmings go for $4.

Having just consumed my own weight in guac and tortillas, I was fueled for a jaunt into the countryside. We headed north, through banyan and papaya trees, cascading plumeria blossoms, and spires of spiny cactus, to a vintage tequila plant—Los Osuna—and through fields of blue agave, to learn how a margarita gets its kick, and taste the grades, from white (save for swabbing cuts) to reposado, anejo, and extra-anejo, each aged a bit longer than the next to achieve mellowness.

Then, it’s on to the tiny village called Quelite, population 2,800, where the town’s doctor has turned entrepreneur-slash-benefactor by converting an 1870s establishment into a destination café called El Meson de los Laureanos. Vintage photos dress the walls (along with those of more recent celebrations, such as one with genial Dr. Marco greeting President Vincente Fox). Antique decorations vie for time share with whimsical contempo touches, such as a life-size metal pig as biffy washbasin, lit by electric bulbs in the white skull of a cow. Quail is the specialty here, but my beef-eating guide dove into the carne asada with obvious pleasure. Tortillas come straight from the griddle to slather with pico de gallo and soft white cheese.

The doctor is readying a guesthouse. In the meantime, he’ll hook you up with welcoming locals for overnight stays. Wander the narrow cobbled streets to the farm, where roosters are readied for their professional life as fighters, then peek into the town cemetery next door, decked, today, with flowers for Day of the Dead. If crowing roosters really could wake the dead, this would be the place.

Visit a mining town. Go horseback riding, sailing, or sport fishing. Jump on a ferry to the nude beach on the green island not far from shore. Or, you know what? Do nothing. Even those Californians have learned that’s not such a bad idea.

Direct flights from Minneapolis via Sun Country and MLT Worryfree Vacations, or fly through Phoenix. For information, contact Mazatlan Hotel Association at (800) 432-7772, or visit www.gomazatlan.com.

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