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SUN • SEA • CULTURE
MAZATLÁN

by Mark Chesnut

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Back in 1883, Angela Peralta—a world-famous opera singer known as the Mexican nightingale—arrived to perform at the Rubio Theater, an elegant venue in the center of one of Mexico’s 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 Mazatlán’s patron tragic diva, and a symbol of the city’s 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 that’s now as big a draw as the destination’s wide beaches. So while Peralta may never have graced the city with her talents, her name is now an icon of Mazatlán’s cultural rebirth.

If gay people are drawn to divas, then Mazatlán should be Mexico’s 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 Mexico’s 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 doesn’t change as rapidly as its counterparts elsewhere in Mexico. I’ve 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. That’s part of what makes Mazatlán special. Unlike other resorts, it has a life beyond tourism (it’s 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 1820’s.

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 1930’s, when visitors began taking advantage of the excellent fishing and hunting. It wasn’t until the 1970’s 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 Mazatlán’s historic magic.

Viejo Mazatlán’s lovely Plazuela Machado is the white-hot center of the city’s 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 buildings.

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 city’s early days.

After a tour of the neighborhood, it’s 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.

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stay at the very gay-friendly Hotel La Siesta on Olas Altas Beach...do not stay in boring Golden Zone.
- Dale Humphrey , San Francisco, CA

Where's a gay place to stay? going to bridge tournement at grand playa in jan.
- richard , snat rosa calif

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