After three weeks of cities and canyons, most of which was almost stiflingly hot (not that I’m complaining, mind), it was time to hit the beach. Mazatlán was the obvious choice, sitting almost half way between El Fuerte, where I left the CHEPE behind, and Guadalajara, where I was due to meet my friends. I’d heard mixed reports on it, but I was just happy to see the ocean. While I was only there for a couple of days, over that time it revealed three rather different sides to me.
Mazatlan: the Torquay of Mexico
My first impression on arrival was that the city had clearly seen better days. Its heyday had been in the 50s, when I’m sure it was a rather chic little resort. Ever since it seems like it has made a gradual, graceful decline as it’s been upstaged by newer and smarter resorts. The impression was confirmed when I arrived in my cheap hotel, where it turned out most of the residents were Americans and Canadians spending the winter in the sun. By the looks of it, they were in the perfect place, as I suspect most of them had been at their most glamorous back in the 50s. That’s not to say I didn’t like it – I’ve always found fading seaside resorts to have a charm about them, like they’ve been slightly frozen in time, and all the nicer for no longer having to fit in with the latest trends. This part of town also revealed what the city must have been like back even before it developed as a resort, as the section of beach near my hotel was full of fishing boats bringing in the morning’s catch. To this day fishing still rivals tourism as the city’s big earner. The other highlight of this part of town was a chance to see the Clavadistas (cliff-divers) in action – they perform for tourists for money, and it’s a pretty impressive spectacle seeing them sail way out over the rocks and into the shallow churning ocean below.
Mazatlan: American cruise-ship destination
The next day I made the long walk along the beach, round the bay, up to the Zona Dorada (golden zone), where all the smarter, newer hotels and condo blocks are situated. I didn’t like it one bit. The hotels were huge, blocking out the view of the beach, and all were big and anonymous, like they could have been situated in any glossy resort in the world. The beaches were full of tourists who’d been bussed down from their cruise ships, with hundreds of hawkers milling around them, trying to earn a few pesos. I thought it was sad that all of these tourists were missing the older, more charming part of town. I quickly left and headed back down to the quieter, nicer beach near my hotel.
Away from the beach is the old town, and handsome quarter of smart colonial buildings and pretty squares, a world away from the crumbling hotels of my part of town and the glitzy blocks of the Zona Dorada. It was in this area that I got my taste of the third face of Mazatlan, the one that would be my favourite.
There I was, enjoying a quiet meal of local seafood in a pretty little restaurant on the main square, when a clown turned up making a balloon animals (seriously – don’t come to Mexico if you have a clown phobia. They are EVERYWHERE. Seriously. I have never seen so many in my life. They must make up about 1% of the Mexican population. Weird). He made one for me, which then attracted the attention of a group of Mexican girls at the next table. They started off taking photos, and next thing I knew they insisted I join them for a drink.
Once we’d got the usual Anglo-Mexican formalities out of the way (Yes, England is beautiful. No, it doesn’t rain all the time, and Yes, English food is terrible – I’ve given up arguing on that point now, even describing the best bits still sounds pretty horrible to them. The only concept I’ve managed to impress any of them with is Horseradish sauce, as Mexicans are pretty disdainful of anything that isn’t spicy. Oh, and baked beans too – seeing as no Mexican meal is complete without a side-order of Frijoles, it’s comforting to know we have our own version), they made me get down to some serious drinking, and it ended up being a hilarious night, as they made fun of my accent (they’re more used to hearing American English accents), then moved on to talking me through the range of Mexican accents, with hugely exaggerated impressions, and then onto talking about all areas of Mexican life. Like all Mexicans, they were hugely proud of their country, and seemed to love having a foreigner to talk to about it. Despite my protestations that I had a bus to catch at 7am the next day, they wouldn’t let me leave until they’d taken me dancing, and we ended up down the road in a little backstreet club, where a Cuban band was playing, and the crowd were dancing and singing along, at various points various punters being invited up to sing various standards. I stopped worrying about the bus* and relaxed into enjoying myself, happy that I was having a much more Mexican experience than the cruise-ship passengers down the road. This is why solo travel is best, it’s so easy to get swept along into these kinds of situations.
*something I regretted somewhat when the alarm woke me up at 6am the next morning.