by Mark Chesnut
Back in 1883, Angela Peraltaa world-famous
opera singer known as the Mexican nightingalearrived
to perform at the Rubio Theater, an elegant venue in the
center of one of Mexicos most important Pacific
port cities. Fate, however, was against her on that historic
visit. Yellow fever, which was then afflicting thousands
around the world, struck the songstress, and she died
in her hotel room before taking the stage.
Today, Peralta is Mazatláns
patron tragic diva, and a symbol of the citys
strong cultural leanings. The Rubio Theater, meticulously
restored and renamed the Teatro Angela Peralta
(Angela Peralta Theater), has become the anchor of Viejo
Mazatlán (Old Mazatlán), the historic
city center thats now as big a draw as the destinations
wide beaches. So while Peralta may never have graced
the city with her talents, her name is now an icon of
Mazatláns cultural rebirth.
If gay people are drawn to divas, then
Mazatlán should be Mexicos gayest resort
destination. Indeed, the city of 600,000 seems to have
just about everything a gay traveler could want: natural
beauty, beautifully renovated architecture, cultural
activities, beauty queens (who take to the stage during
Mexicos largest Carnaval celebration every year),
and even visits from history-making celebrities of various
sexual orientations (Herman Melville, the author of
Moby Dick, visited in 1844 as a member of the U.S. Navy,
and he included the city in his classic White Jacket).
Dubbed locally as the Pearl of
the Pacific, Mazatlán is the kind of place
that doesnt change as rapidly as its counterparts
elsewhere in Mexico. Ive been visiting for nearly
ten years, and there are still wide empty lots between
high-rise hotels, and most of those hotels lack major
chain affiliations. Thats part of what makes Mazatlán
special. Unlike other resorts, it has a life beyond
tourism (its one of the largest ports on the Pacific,
and a major shrimp producer). It claims the longest
waterfront malecón in Mexico, one that is bathed
in Pacific breezes, as well as a small but growing gay
scene, and, of course, it has the allure of a tragic
diva that haunts its narrow streets.
Originally the home of Totorames Indians,
Mazatlán (which means place of the deer
in the indigenous Náhuatl language) became a
Spanish settlement with the arrival of 25 settlers in
1521. Nearly three centuries passed, however, before
a permanent colony was established in the early 1820s.
Thanks to its bustling port and plentiful
fishing, the city became an important commercial hub,
and the largest city in the state of Sinaloa. Mazatlán
was soon dotted with impressive neoclassical, tropical,
and post-colonial architecture. A massive cathedral,
built between 1875 and 1890, rose above the main square,
and businesses and wealthy residents built their homes
around the Plazuela Machado, a beautiful town
square just a few blocks away. It was here that songstress
Angela Peralta made her ill-fated visit.
Tourism got its first foothold in Mazatlán
in the 1930s, when visitors began taking advantage
of the excellent fishing and hunting. It wasnt
until the 1970s that foreigners really started
arriving in droves, drawn to a new neighborhood north
of the city, the Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), where dozens
of hotels sprouted along a seven-mile stretch of beach.
This is still where most visitors stay.
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Like many city centers, Viejo Mazatlán
(also called the Centro Histórico or Historic Zone)
went through some rough times in the 20th Century, as
residents fled to newer neighborhoods and visitors shunned
what had become an ill-kept part of town.
Fortunately, most of that neglect was
fixable. Within the past ten years, urban decay has
been magnificently reversed, as an increasing number
of locals and foreigners have invested in restoring
the precious architecture. The 180-block downtown now
has 479 buildings designated as national historic landmarks.
Businesses have returned to the city center, with galleries,
restaurants, and small hotels offering a pleasant way
to enjoy Mazatláns historic magic.
Viejo Mazatláns lovely
Plazuela Machado is the white-hot center of the
citys preservation efforts. Walking just a block
or two in any direction, visitors will discover restaurants,
cafés, small shops, cultural attractions, and
new, small hotels housed in 19th-Century masterpiece
The Angela Peralta Theater, just steps
away, offers live stage performances of music, dance,
and theater, allowing visitors to give their beach vacation
a distinctly cultural bent. The Machado Museo Casa
(Machado House Museum), in an 1846 home overlooking
the square, offers a glimpse at life during the citys
After a tour of the neighborhood, its
easy to duck into one of the many cafés and restaurants
that now populate the historic zone. Among the best
is Bahía, an old-school restaurant that
specializes in seafood; Ambrosia, a gay-popular vegetarian
restaurant; and Pedro y Lola, an upscale Mexican
restaurant with live music on weekends.