Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

There's more to Mazatlan

Beyond beaches, Mexican resort town boasts rich culture

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The living are celebrating their dead on the historic streets of Old Mazatlan in Mexico. And seconds before the vibrant Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) parade gets underway on cobble-stoned Calle Constitucion in Machado Square, a small group of costumed expatriates are hurriedly extolling the virtues of this warm, friendly land they currently call home.

"It's paradise here," shouts American expat Susie Morgan, a reveller outfitted as the iconic female skeleton, La Catrina. "People reach out here. And if you care enough to learn the language, you will be immersed and welcomed with open arms into a whole new world full of tradition and customs. And great food!"

It's true.

This sub-tropical Land of the Deer in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa -- where the average temperature hovers somewhere near 27 C -- is a favourite destination for winter-weary Winnipeggers who turn up regularly for the scorching temperatures, fresh shrimp and miles of white-sand beaches that run along the Pacific Coast. But Mazatl°n, a beautiful resort town situated at the earth's imaginary Tropic of Cancer, offers so much more than just sand and sun. It's enormously rich in history and with 68 cultures, 62 dialects and a host of indigenous dishes, this place offers so much more:

Las Labradas Archaeological Zone

WITH her slender back facing the Sea of Cortes, yogini Dayanna Gonzalez quietly chants her mantra on the rocks of the Las Labradas Archaeological Zone.

"Feel the power of this place," Gonzalez hymns as the gulf's forceful waves crash loudly against the dark, volcanic rocks that make up the vast shoreline.

Situated 80 kilometres north of Mazatl°n -- only a one-hour drive along the scenic Maxipista highway-- Las Labradas Archaeological Zone is one of Mexico's highest concentrations of engraved stone drawings. The UNESCO World Heritage Site -- the only one of its kind in the world -- contains 640 petroglyphs, a collection of carved rocks that date back to somewhere between 1,000 BC and 300 AD and depict geometric humans, animals and plant figures. Look closely at the prehistoric spirals and you'll be sure to distinguish marine and land animals, celestial figures and reptiles.

It can be a precarious venture along the slippery rocks, but a good pair of hiking shoes will make it well worth the trip.

Seaside Boulevard

MAZATLAN'S Malecon is more than 21 kilometres long and lined with new and old hotels, warm, sandy beaches and fascinating sculptures such as the Pacifico Brewery Monument and the Fishermen's Monument, which celebrates Mazatl°n's fishing industry. During the day, sun seekers stroll the lively avenue or enjoy the sandy coast, but at night Avenue Del Mar becomes a vibrant meeting place for locals and visitors alike.

It was here, near Parque Glorieta Rodolfo Sanchez Taboada, where we met Mario Gonzales Aguilar, a former cliff diver who took his first plunge more than 50 years ago in Acapulco. At 62, Aguilar doesn't do much diving from the 15-metres platforms scattered on the Pacific Coast shoreline anymore. Those days are long behind him. Today, he leaves that up to the younger Mexican men who cheerfully leap headfirst off the El Clavadista for tourists. At night, they hold torches so spectators can see them fall. Remember to pack some pesos for tipping the relentless showmen.

El Quelite

AS we near the traditional Mexican town of El Quelite, Mazatl°n tour guide Ernesto Pina is chattering non-stop about his urbane homeland. His voice is soothing and calm, with a heavy accent that makes it sometimes difficult to understand. And on this day, as our luxurious tour bus travels along the undulating roadways of the vast Mexican countryside, he imparts that the culture in Mazatl°n has remained unchanged since the 19th century, when German settlers arrived from Europe and turned the area into a thriving fishing seaport.

"These are the original people, born and raised here," he says of the Mayan descendants who were naturally predisposed to the 'ooom-pah-pah' sounds and traditional polka dances of the landed Bavarians. It's a sound that can still be heard coming from the tiny homes in El Quelite, a traditional Mexican farming town situated 40 minutes north of Mazatl°n.

Here, Dr. Marcos Osuna still plays recorded German music in his popular restaurant, El Mesòn de los Laureanos, a traditional eatery where the grub is bona fide Mexican and skittish roosters roam freely at your feet. He has lived in this outlying community all of his life and later became the town's doctor. These days, as a restaurant owner, he takes every chance he can to commend the quaint village where he grew up and its people.

"I know the fauna and everything about this town," he says. "We are proud of our identity and our culture."

GO TO: WWW.GOMAZATLAN.COM

Artwalk

OLD Mazatl°n is gaining a reputation as a popular destination for artists and art enthusiasts alike. Painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, fabric artists and more have set up their studios throughout the glorious colonial Old Town.

Our self-guided tour in the Historic District started off at the Glen Rogers Studio on Baltazar Izaguirre Rojo. Rogers, an artist who relocated from San Jose, California more than a decade ago, converted her lovely colourful home into an art studio and offers workshops there. She started Artwalk Mazatl°n to give locals and tourists an avenue to visit artists' studios and meet the artists directly.

Visitors should really grab hold of this unique opportunity to see the work, ask a few questions and delve into the artists' motivations behind a painting or sculpture.

"Get inspired, take home a unique piece of art or just enjoy the moment of sharing," says Rogers, whose work includes paintings, prints and public sculptures. She is inspired by archetypal symbols, images from nature and pilgrimages to ancient sacred sites.

Free Artwalk tours are held from 4 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of the month from November through to May and features the work of 50 artists at 27 venues within walking distance.

GO TO: WWW.ARTWALKMAZATLAN.COM

Zip lining

THERE'S really nothing to it. Zip lining over the tropical, deciduous jungles and blue agave fields of Huana Coa Canopy Park in Mazatl°n is much easier than the trek up the precipitous foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains in a rickety old all-terrain military vehicle. And when the ride is finally over, you'll find yourself at the first of nine platforms. Here, you need to be all ears because this is where one of four friendly, experienced zip-lining guides will explain how to keep from spinning around in mid-air and, more importantly, how to slow down and stop with one gloved hand. After the guide secures your torso to the zip line, be sure you've committed to memory a few crucial Spanish words. For instance, when he asks "tu lista?" be sure you really are ready before he nudges you on your way.

Interesting note: only five regions in Mexico can call their blue agave alcoholic brew Tequila. And Mazatl°n isn't one of them. So afterward, at the 130-year-old Los Osuna distillery in La Noria, the other zip liners and I are treated to a blue agave "spirit" tasting. It's part of the unique package offered by Huana Coa Canopy Adventures and costs $75 per person.

GO TO: WWW.HUANOCOAMAZATLAN.COM

Back at the Republic Square, where thousands of rejoicing Mexicans are strolling through the streets, Morgan and her sister Julie are waiting patiently to join the procession that is slowly heading their way.

"Thank you for coming here and telling everyone about Mazatl°n," says Morgan, as she dissolves into the sea of revellers. "The people in Mazatl°n really need this."

leesa.dahl@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 E3

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