Mazatlán wakes up when the banda music starts to play.
The residents and tourists of Mazatlán, a sun-soaked port and beach town along the Pacific shoreline in Mexico’s Sinaloa state, wake up as usual: at sunrise. Save for a few stragglers who, depending on the day of the week, can be seen sneaking home after a jovial night of partying, which may or may not have involved drinking Pacífico, a locally-brewed, pilsner-style beer that’s easy on the wallet.
But once mid-afternoon hits, it’s banda time, which is when the rhythm and soul of Mazatlán, a Nahuatl word meaning "place of deer,” springs alive.
Banda music, which consists of brass, wind and drum instruments, first emerged in Sinaloa in the 1880s.
Banda bands can involve anywhere between eight and 24 musicians, playing trumpets, trombones and tubas – leftover influences from mid-19th century German settlers who, it’s believed, kickstarted the genre by fusing Bavarian folk music, like polka, with traditional Mexican music.
In Mazatlán today, banda can be heard blaring from restaurants and beaches all over town.
On beaches in front of hotels, in particular, roving bands will park on Mazatlán’s brown sugar-like sand out front and play banda for hours, on a pay-for-play basis, filling the ocean air with squiggling horns, booping tubas, clattering drums and crooning Spanish vocals, well into evening.
For tourists looking for peace and quiet, this type of “beach banda” can, potentially, be bothersome as it cuts through Mazatlán’s laid-back ambience of crashing waves.
Depending on how long musicians play for, and the time of day, the music can be viewed as either a symphony of melodies or a chaotic band practice
“They’re like a walking jukebox,” as Alejandro Velarde, a sales agent at Hoteles Palace Mazatlán, told PAX during a tour of the region last November. “People pay for an hour, the band plays. People get up and dance. They create their own party on beach.”
That’s what makes banda fun. And oceanfront Hoteles Palace Mazatlán, a four-chain brand located in the town’s Golden Zone, is banda central: live music can be heard from the property’s breezy beachscape every afternoon, with bands, placed in between snack stands, sun chairs and gift vendors, typically piping up at the 2:30-3:00 p.m. mark.
As far as local experiences go, listening to banda in Mazatlán is a must-do, and this festive genre quickly won us over during our one-week stay at Pacific Palace, one of brand’s newer towers.
The live music was a welcome side dish to each sun-kissed day. Ice-cold Pacífico on the beach…with a side of banda, por favor.
But in colonial city-meets-beach town Mazatlán, banda is just the beginning.
With a 21 kilometre-long Malecón boardwalk – said to be the second longest in the world – its Centro Histórico district, and a blossoming food scene, the “Pearl of the Pacific,” as Mazatlán is called, is full of cultural intrigue.
Pata salada is a term given to those who are born and raised in Mazatlán. Translated, it means “salty feet,” referring to people from the coast who get their feet salty from the Pacific Ocean.
When visiting Mazatlán, pata salada moments begin with a good view, which is something Hoteles Palace Mazatlán has covered.
Each of the brand’s four oceanfront buildings – the side-by-side Star, Oceano, and Pacific Palaces, and Luna Palace, just down the street, sit across from Bird Island, a nature-covered hump some three kilometres off the coast.
The view of this hilly and rocky landmark, either from one of Palace’s elevated pools, restaurant terraces or oceanfront rooms, is exquisite.
Especially at sunset hour, when Mazatlán’s sky erupts into a fiery show of oranges, pinks and purples, turning the giant island way out there into a dramatic silhouette on the horizon.
Bird Island is one of three major islands that face Mazatlán (Deer Island and Wolf Island are the other two in the bay) and each are protected ecological reserves, home to hundreds of bids species, and other forms of wildlife, such as lizards and butterflies.
Uninhabited by humans, the islands are open to visitors, who are allowed to come ashore by boat or kayak (some even swim there!) to enjoy their white sandy beaches, hiking trails, plant life and crystal-clear waters in tropical seclusion.
Deer and Bird Islands are the most accessible and taking a day trip to one of these natural wonders is a must.
We visited Deer, “the middle island,” and because Pacific Palace is offered by Sunwing, the logistics in getting there are handled by NexusTours via Sunwing Experiences.
A sanitized bus picks you up at the hotel and transports you to Mazatlán Marina, five minutes away, from which a catamaran sails roughly 25 minutes out to the island, where you can enjoy your own piece of paradise, surrounded by sparkling Pacific water, away from the mainland, visible in the not-so-far distance.
Banana boat rides and snorkelling are included. So is all-you-can-drink booze and lunch, so expect to make some chatty, tequila-loving friends along the way.
The cocktails have eyes
Home, however, is Hoteles Palace, where warm-natured, Spanish and English-speaking staff treat guests – from international tourists to many Mexicans thanks to a new highway from the interior that’s made Mazatlán more accessible – like family.
Hoteles Palace (which is not affiliated with Palace Resorts) is close to bars and restaurants along Mazatlán’s buzzing Golden Zone strip, where pulmonias (gas-powered open-air taxis that look like golf carts on steroids) zip up and down the main avenue.
The chain has options, including all-inclusive (or just breakfast-included) plans, at reasonable prices.
Star Palace, with 120 units, typically attracts remote workers in town for a night or two (the rooms have desks). Still, it’s very family-oriented with a pool that’s connected to the beach.
Next door is the 257-room, remodeled Oceano Palace, the first in the chain to be built, 40 years ago, and loved by all markets, from families to couples to honeymooners.
The attached 140-room Pacific Palace, where we stayed, draws international crowds and has the biggest rooms of all four properties. The super-spacious units have kitchenettes, too.
Finally, 70-room Luna Palace, a less than five-minute walk down the street, is an old-school hideaway, popular with Canadians and long-term guests.
It’s a “back in the day hotel,” Velarde said, as the suites, which also have kitchenettes, resemble that of a ’40s-era Mexican home.
Here, there’s a poolside bar, with swings for seats, manned by a bartender named Jose, who, during the week, was insistent on randomly surprising me with a creative cocktail, served directly within the body of a tropical fruit, like a melon or pineapple.
Each drink was delightfully boozy, but the pièce de résistance was the way in which Jose would build a smiley face on each beverage using sliced limes, melons, pineapples and cherries, meticulously pegging each piece into the fruit’s shell using mini swords and toothpicks.
In my books, this is how you earn the title of Best. Bartender. Ever.
You haven’t experienced Mazatlán until you’ve tasted the region’s unique cuisine, which is another area Hoteles Palace Mazatlán excels in.
From machaca (dried spiced beef) with eggs at breakfast to charro beans (pinto beans submerged in a flavourful broth) at dinner, to must-have staples, like enchiladas, the brand serves key cultural dishes that pull the city into sharper focus.
Mazatlán is Mexico’s shrimp capital (it has the largest shrimp boating fleet on the country’s west coast), making fresh seafood a key part of the culinary experience.
The shrimp is plump and juicy, as we saw over lunch at Eclipse, the restaurant at Luna Palace, where four yummy variations of monster-sized shrimp – bacon-wrapped, cheese-smothered, coconut and butter – are served.
But one need not look any further than the vibrant streets of Mazatlán to get a shrimp fix.
On Aquiles Serdan at Avenida Zaragoza, there’s a market led by a group of ladies who sell different types and sizes of freshly-caught shrimp, at reasonable prices.
Shrimpgazing starts here as there are literally buckets of tailed crustaceans on display for all to see.
Walk, talk and eat
Founder Paola Osuna, a bona fide pata salada, restaurateur and chef, curates her itineraries with expert foodie knowledge, having worked in food scenes all over Mexico.
Guided by the belief that the best way to learn about a destination is to walk its streets, talk to people and taste local food, Osuna whisks guests to local eateries – from A to B, in the back of a truck – that most tourists likely wouldn’t find themselves.
She designs her tours “as if my best friend was coming to town,” unwrapping local flavours that Mazatlecos are proud of while sharing interesting details about neighbourhoods.
We discovered dishes like caguamanta, a stew made with manta ray, cabbage, cilantro, onion and lime juice, served hot at Dona Mary (P.º Claussen 93, Centro). This is comfort food, Mazatlán style.
There was to-die-for ceviche at Mariscos El Toro (Av. Rotarismo 128), the freshest seafood tacos ever at Mariscos Piquillas (Av. Miguel Alemán 915), among treats at other local joints.
Her tours combine tastes with tales, one ingredient at a time, so if your client is a foodie, Tomatl is a good place to start building a tasty itinerary. (Click here to learn more).
Mazatlán food is very affordable and deliciously fresh. (Here, it’s not catch of the day. It’s catch of the hour).
For a more upscale experience, there’s Water’s Edge Bistro (Sixto Osuna 48, Centro), run by Canadians Chef Alastair and his wife Tracey, in Mazatlán’s Old Town, not far from Plaza Machado – the “heartbeat” of the Historic District where restaurants, coffee houses, and the iconic Ángela Peralta Theatre surround the perimeter of a gorgeous park where locals have gathered for almost two centuries.
Or try El Presidio (Blvd. Niños Héroes 1511, Centro), a fancy “garden house” locale, built within the lush courtyard of a former mansion residence, where succulent pork carnitas, shrimp risotto and braised pork shanks are served.
But before you dine anywhere, be sure to visit Mazatlán’s 1873 Observatory, a look-out at the top of Cerro del Vigía, 75 meters above sea level, for a sunset cocktail.
Originally a military observation post, this attraction transports guests up a steep slope via funicular railway track, and at the top, there’s a museum, an exotic bird sanctuary, cacti and agaves and Skybar 360, an open-air lounge that truly offers the best views of Mazatlán.
Facing electric sunsets, with the faint sound of banda playing in the distance, this is where the magic of Mazatlán comes alive.
Osuna summed up the vibe best: “Even if you’re having a bad day, go out, see the open sky and ocean, and then you’ll know that life is good.”
Other Mazatlán must-dos
The Malecón is a roughly 21-kilometre long seawall that runs the length of Mazatlán’s bay along the Avenida del Mar and around a point into Olas Altas. It’s a great place to people watch – folks walk, run, cycle and socialize here at all hours. The Mazatlán sign and monuments are also found along this boardwalk, such as “Continuity of Life” – a fountain made up of leaping dolphins.
El Clavadista is where you’ll see Mazatlán’s famous Cliff Divers, fearless daredevils who leap from a platform some 40-50 feet up and dive into roaring waters that measure just six to ten feet deep.
Mazatlán’s Old Town charms with cobblestone roads and 19th century buildings painted pink, yellow, green, purple and baby blue. Within this neighbourhood sits The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a stunning 19th century church that’s open to the public.
Hike up Cerro del Creston, a hill 159 meters above high tide, where El Faro Lighthouse is located. The trek to the top is steep, but the soaring views of Mazatlán’s beaches, harbour, islands and Old Town at the top make every step worthwhile. Be camera-ready for the glass-bottomed lookout!
Sunwing Vacations offers weekly packages to Mazatlán from multiple gateways across Canada, including Toronto, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Quebec City, Ottawa and Edmonton.
Hoteles Palace had their cameras rolling (and drones flying) while PAX experienced the sights and flavours of Mazatlán!
Watch the exclusive on-location video here!