Skip Cancún and Cabo for Mexico's Hidden Beach and Food Oasis
Tasty street eats meet endless surf and sun.
When looking for a beach getaway in Mexico, most people choose either Los Cabos or Cancún. And while there is local culture to explore in the surrounding villages and jungles (the cenotes! Maya ruins!), these spots cater more to the spring break crowd with their mega-resorts and shot specials. If you’re looking for more action than the hotel pool, make your way over to the beach town of Mazatlán, just across the Gulf of California from Cabo, instead.
Sure, Mazatlán also has resorts, but, unlike Cancún, which was built by the hospitality industry—Mazatlán is rich with history and heritage all its own. You'll find plenty of 19th-century colonial architecture coated in vibrant colors, a buzzy seaside promenade full of street performers, traditions that include cliff jumping into the ocean, Parisian-style cobblestone plazas with cafe tables lining the street, and fresh ceviche served out of residents’ windows.
Among Mexico’s safest coastal destinations, Mazatlán is still one of the less-visited by international travelers—which means the 20-mile stretch of sandy shores won’t be overrun by tourists. You’ll also find a Carnival celebration in February, plus a food scene that’s one of the most dynamic in the country. Mazatlán’s beachfront locale brings bountiful seafood to tables across the city daily. Plus, the “Pacific Pearl,” as the city is sometimes called, happens to be in Sinaloa, the state that provides a full third of the entire nation’s produce. A bulk of the agricultural production here is small-scale, family-farmed, and inherently organic—it’s always been that way—so expect pure, fresh everything wherever you find yourself in the region.
Getting to Mazatlán
If you had really, really strong binoculars, you could look across the water from Mazatlán and see Los Cabos in the distance. But, you'll be better off flying directly to Mazatlán. The city's international airport (MZT) receives daily nonstop flights from five US cities: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and Minneapolis. If you’re not coming through one of these, you can easily connect through Mexico City International Airport (MEX). Uber is delightfully cheap in Mazatlán, but they’re prohibited at the airport. So, your options are a taxi ride for about 430 pesos ($22) or a shared shuttle for about half the price—but keep in mind these only leave when there are at least four passengers.
Bask on as many beaches as possible
It's almost impossible not to be on a beach as soon as you arrive in Mazatlán. But, you'll still probably want to know which ones are the best. Start with Playa Sabalo, a relaxing beach at the northern end of the Golden Zone (the main tourist zone). You'll also find Playa Gaviotas and Playa Camaron nearby, both of which have a Mexican beach party vibe. Think beach bars, live music, and energy that keeps going after sunset.
One of the best-kept secrets of Mazatlán is Stone Island. First, it's not really an island, but you do need to take a boat to get there. It's a beach area to the south of the Port of Mazatlán—and it feels like it's another world away. The wide, sprawling sands extend for miles and are bordered by hilly jungle—meaning you’ll have sweeping views unencumbered by development. There are a few small hotels here and many outdoor restaurants perfect for a cold beer, a fish taco, or a shrimp cocktail.
Sample street food of all styles
You won’t have trouble finding street food in Mazatlán: From food trucks to sidewalk carts and even plates served out of house windows, options are plentiful (lines outside are good signs you’ve come to the right spot). Look for charcoal-grilled chicken rubbed in spices, chili lime corn on the cob, and ceviche fresh from the day’s catch. Word to the wise: Hot dogs here are usually wrapped in bacon and dressed with condiments and sauces Americans would typically reserve for hamburgers. Definitely delicious, but know what you’re getting.
If you want to try as much as you can, you could opt for a food tour—Tomatl is a fantastic one, and was created by a local Mazatleca. They offer tours devoted to street food or one specifically centered around tacos, mezcal, and beer.
Elevate your dinner game
You could fill yourself from dawn till dusk toddling between street vendors, but step it up for dinner and visit some of Mazatlán’s top-notch restaurants for a gussied-up meal. Casa 46 dishes updated regional fare like confit duck enchiladas and pescado zarandeado (grilled red snapper with a chile-citrus sauce), along with plenty of international plates. The meal is crowned by a sweeping view overlooking the town square, Plazuela Machado, at the heart of historic Mazatlán—a perfect place for an after-dinner stroll. You’ll find the restaurant across the plaza from the exquisite Teatro Angela Peralta, which dates back to 1874.
The top choice in town for al fresco dining is El Presidio (reservations are highly recommended), where you can indulge in upscale Mexican cuisine in a lush courtyard of stone and vine that once belonged to a 19th-century home.
Stroll the malecón
A staple of oceanside escapes, the beachfront esplanade—known as a malecón throughout Mexico and Latin America—is always popular with morning joggers, afternoon bikers, and evening gallivanters. But the malecón in Mazatlán goes beyond all that. At six miles, it’s not only among the longest in the world (and should take about 13,000 steps, if you’re someone who tracks those), but its wide pavement is exceptionally clean and packed with art, monuments, and the occasional entertainer.
Time your trek to pass by El Clavadista at Paseo Claussen in the late afternoon, when you’re most likely to catch the decades-long tradition of cliff divers plummeting 50 feet into the swelling surf below (a miscalculation in timing would limit the depth to only six feet of water). So far, no injuries have occurred since the unofficial daily feats began in the mid-1900s.
Day trip to El Quelite
There are several ways to reach the enchanting village of El Quelite from Mazatlán, and all that matters is that you choose one—this will be a highlight of your journey. If you’ve rented a car, the drive is straightforward and should take just under an hour. Otherwise, there are abundant options for booking a guided day trip, but you can also take a public bus for far less, and it only adds about 20 minutes to the commute, while giving you the full day to explore at your leisure.
Once in El Quelite, stroll the streets to shop for souvenirs, climb to the chapel overlooking the region, and appreciate the vibrant local cemetery (which is totally allowed) at your whim. Just be sure to enjoy lunch at the charmingly chaotic El Mesón de los Laureanos in the center of town. Let the cacophony of color and wild animal sounds entice you—you’ll have all manner of exotic birds strutting around your table, iguanas scuttling about on overhangs, and likely a cat or two will cross your path. But understand that this single restaurant and its owner, former doctor Marcos Gabriel Osuna, revitalized the village of 1,500 by preserving the region’s family farming and stimulating a steady outlet for its production.
The massive menu is powered by the organic output of countless local families who farm produce, raise livestock, and hand make cheeses with the support of Osuna and his restaurant, both devoted to healthy production and healthy consumption. You won’t find fresher flavors or a better story of local renewal and success elsewhere.
Where to stay in Mazatlán
You’ll want to spend most of your time combing the city and exploring its inviting villages, but it doesn’t hurt to allow yourself some creature comforts during your downtime. Bank on a solid stay somewhere like all-suite Pueblo Bonito Mazatlán, which recently underwent a massive facelift while still remaining a recognizable beachfront favorite in the Golden Zone. Along with the sparkling spruce-up came a new seafood restaurant showcasing Mazatlán’s best and an additional bar (a welcome addition to any resort)—which are bringing new life to the tranquil atmosphere of this midsize resort. You’ll find amenities galore, but won’t suffer the mega-resort energy of the Cancún behemoths you’re trying to avoid. You can also pop over to sister property Pueblo Bonito Emerald Bay—just a short cab ride away—which sports its own private beach and a swanky spa complete with aromatherapy steam rooms and a reflexology hydrotherapy path.
Another locally-owned option is El Cid Hotels & Resorts. There are four El Cid resorts to choose from in Mazatlán: one in the marina and three in the Golden Zone. While their designs are humble and retro (unironically), you'll have the beach right out front with the best views of Mazatlán’s iconic three islands just off the coast.
For the best stay near Centro Historico, book a room at boutique hotel Casa Lucila. This colonial-chic spot is packed with history and charm—in fact, it was once a restaurant frequented by John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway. All eight rooms overlook Olas Altas and are within walking distance of the Centro Historico. Plus, there’s a small rooftop infinity plunge pool, which is perfect for sipping a Pacifico and taking in the views.