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. …