Land of the Deer – The charming coastal city of Mazatlan is dedicated to attracting tourists with an appreciation for history, art, and culture

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A puff of black exhaust belched out of the bus in front of us. For a moment, I envied the air-conditioned comfort of the passengers inside, but that feeling passed as quickly as the cloud of diesel. When our open-air pulmon’a–the taxicab cousin to a golf cart with a fringe canopy–scooted around the bus, a warm breeze off the Pacific Ocean surrounded me like a hug. It was exhilarating to be bumped along in the busy traffic of Mazatlan, a coastal city in Mexico with roots in European culture.

I had seen few signs of tourism in Mazatlan, and the lack of obvious commercialism was refreshing. An emphasis on cultural appreciation was evident everywhere, even here, amid the traffic. Rather than sunscreened visitors, the lumbering bus contained students from a school of performing arts.

Some coastal cities in Mexico are dependent on attracting sand- and sea-loving tourism, but Mazatlan is entirely committed to its roots. That commitment is demonstrated in the continuing adoration of a beloved opera singer who visited Mazatlan in 1883 and died shortly thereafter. Angela Peralta was the “Mexican Nightingale,” an artist revered throughout the country in the nineteenth century.

Born in Mexico City and trained in Milan, Italy, Peralta made her European debut at seventeen. After touring in Europe for five years, she returned home and was greeted with great fanfare when she came to perform in Mazatlan. Tragically, she fell ill soon after her arrival and died of yellow fever in the Iturbide Hotel. The city mourned her sudden passing intensely and still grieves her loss today.

In 1943, the opera house–originally built in 1874–was renamed Teatro Angela Peralta in her honor. Photographs in its museum and articles on display in the lobby attest to her creative gifts. Peralta’s enduring popularity is indicative of Mazatlan’s appreciation for culture. Within the old city there are numerous museums, galleries, and performing arts venues. Even working-class Mazatlan reveres the many forms of artistic expression.

Mazatlan is a port city named for the thousands of wild deer that roamed the surrounding hills during the eighteenth century. The first settlers arrived as early as 1531. Although a garrison was built to guard the port from marauding pirates, it took years for a “founding” to be recorded. In fact, Mazatlan’s government wasn’t officially established until 1793.

The port was opened to foreign trade by a decree of the Spanish Parliament in 1820. After Mexico gained its independence in 1821, the city’s commercial status solidified. During Mexico’s war with the United States, it was seized for several months until the Americans left in the spring of 1848. After that, it became one of the most productive and significant ports on the Pacific coast. The surge of international trade further strengthened the influence of European lifestyle and culture in Mazatlan.

But peace was illusive. Once again under siege, the city was attacked and occupied by the French in 1864, who remained for two years. Many French and German families subsequently moved to Mazatlan, and the French influence remains today. Neoclassic, Art Nouveau, Moorish, and Art Deco buildings are all evident in the neighborhoods surrounding the oldest part of the city.

Today, Mazatlan is divided into two separate areas, the old city and the new Golden Zone (see sidebar). In the early 1980s, its beautiful beaches were discovered by American college students on spring break. Fearful of becoming a party haven, the city changed its image by ceasing all commercial promotion.

Most of the people who have visited Mazatlan in the past decade have heard about it from a friend or relative. This approach has worked: Mazatlan has become a well-kept secret for a low-key cadre of Americans and Canadians who visit several times a year. Many come to the city because it offers a tremendous value compared to more popular coastal destinations in Mexico. Others are drawn by the charm and cultural history of old Mazatlan.

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The old city

The heart of the old city is the Plazuela Machado. The eighteenth- century square is now a gathering place surrounded by coffee shops and galleries. The plaza offers free performances for those who cannot afford to attend concerts, theater, or ballet at the nearby Teatro Angela Peralta. On Carnaval Street near the plaza, the City Arts School is housed in the former Iturbide Hotel; it provides students with lessons in theater, music, painting, and ballet.

Museums are plentiful in the old town. The small Museo de Arqueolog’a features a collection of artifacts of the nomadic tribes that would later settle in central Mexico and found the Aztec empire. Just across the street is the Casa de la Cultura, where the works of both national and international artists are exhibited.

Those seeking insights into Mazatlan’s cultural history should visit the Casa Machado. Formerly the home of a European aristocrat, it has been converted to a museum. Its Victorian rooms provide a peek inside what was once a playground for European socialites. Photographs depict the contrasts of refined, aristocratic living and the bucolic revelry of Carnival in Mazatlan.

The yellow spires of the Cathedral of Mazatlan tower over the Plazuela Republica in the heart of the city. A compilation of many architectural styles, the cathedral’s facade was built in 1875. During my visit, Sunday services were in progress. The doors had been left open on all sides of the cathedral, and anyone was free to join the hundreds already jammed inside the ornate sanctuary. In sharp contrast to the grand spectacle of the church, a single priest, standing in front of a cloth-covered folding table, was preaching in the market nearby. His audience was much smaller: a group of about fifty people, holding plastic bags of fresh shrimp and vegetables, perched on rickety chairs to hear his message of deliverance.

Like the church, the surrounding market hummed with activity. A covered block of colorful vegetable and fruit stands, it also offered arts and crafts, spices, and handmade clothing. Around the perimeter of the market, several women with cheerful, wrinkled faces and bright eyes dished up fresh carne asada burritos and warm tortillas. Children dressed in fluffy pastel dresses and tiny suits gulped down salsa-laden tacos while I implored a shy grandmother with a beautiful face to smile for the camera.

Effortless artistry was on display everywhere, from the tiny dishes of red, green, yellow, and white condiments neatly lined up on the taco stands to the historic costume of a child carried in her mother’s arms. Amid the tolling of cathedral bells and prayers of worshipers, I discerned the uneven harmonies of children. Orphaned charges of the church, they gathered on the streets and sang for donations. In Mazatlan, it seems, the performing arts are encouraged even in charitable endeavors.

The new city

Leaving the market, I asked my driver to head for the beach. Earlier in the day, I’d seen a marker–an enormous, tile assemblage of colorful images and curious symbols. A local guide, 29-year-old Karla Gonzalez, agreed to help with the interpretation. The deer, she said, symbolized the native Nayarit people, who settled here in the land of the deer. The anchor stood for the port of Mazatlan. On either side were two mermaids, one reading poetry and the other holding a mask. The free expression of joy and enthusiasm, such as Mazatlan’s exuberant art festivals and Carnival, she explained, must be balanced with quiet appreciation fostered by reading poetry, studying the arts, and painting.

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With that balance–or contrast–in mind, I directed my pulmon’a driver out of the city and along the waterfront. Extending for more than twenty miles along the coast, from the historic old city to the Golden Zone of new Mazatlan, the route was a study in contrasts. Shrimp boats, their faded paint peeling, sat on the sand below a dramatic bronze statue titled the Queen of the Seas. A tall golden image of Our Lady of Puntilla stood nearby, fresh flowers at its feet. A string of raw shrimp hung around the statue’s neck, an expression of gratitude from fishermen. The empty windows of the abandoned Seaman’s House stared out over a stretch of pristine beach. Built in the 1950s as a shelter for sailors of the world, it remains a vision unfulfilled. Next to it was the oceanfront fort that defended Mazatlan from the French, its old cannons still pointed out to sea.

Every piece of public art testified to Mazatlan’s values and history. A dramatic string of graceful bronze and gold statues marked the old city waterfront. Farther along the avenue, a graceful bronze fountain of a leaping dolphin depicted the harmony between nature and man.

From the old city, looking across the bay, and down the coastal boulevard, the new city, with its elegant high-rise hotels, was just visible. Though seemingly remote, the two experiences are only a twenty-minute pulmon’a ride apart. Somehow, the fine art of balancing old and new thrives in Mazatlan.n

Laura Byrd is a contributing editor to The World & I. She would like to thank the Mazatlan Hotel Association and AeroMexico Airlines for assistance with this story. Information on travel to Mazatlan is available at www.gomazatlan.com.