South-of-the-Border Getaway: Mazatlán, Mexico

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One of the benefits to living in Los Angeles is its proximity to a countless variety of weekend excursions, which includes the vibrant and colorful city of Mazatlán — one of several cities in Mexico where the US State Department says it’s still OK to visit. As a short-term escape from the stress of city living, everyone from culture vultures and armchair archeologists to adventure seekers, foodies, and tequila lovers should find something unique in southernmost city on the Gulf of California. A mere two-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles, Mazatlán is one of the most accessible, tourist-friendly destinations south of the border. Here are a few ways to get a flavor for the town’s wealth of history and colorful cultural heritage.

At 13 miles in length, the Malecón is one of world’s longest scenic promenades, with an endless array of awe-inspiring scenic spots, from the Centro Historico to the waterfront Golden Zone — a stretch of walkway that was rebuilt in 2006. In the midst of the intriguing blend of modernist and classical architecture, the Mazatlán cliff divers entertain both themselves and onlookers at an oceanfront park called the Parque Glorieta Rodolfo Sanchez Taboada, or as the locals call it, El Clavadista (“the cliff-diver”). Here, expert divers plunge headfirst from platforms 50 feet high, elegantly landing in the warm Pacific waters completely unscathed.

45 minutes from Mazatlán, Hacienda Los Osuna is a bucolic tequila distillery that offers tours of surrounding blue agave, along with an inside look at both old and new forms of agave distillation. Here, visitors learn that it takes up to ten years before blue agave plants yield tequila, and that the darker the color, the longer it’s been in the barrel. Actually, there are three forms of tequila: Anejo is the darkest, aged between 17 to 18 months. Maduro (or Respado) is “rested” tequila that’s not quite as old, and Blanco is the youngest, not going through the barrel process at all. Blanco gets a bad rap because it’s the cheapest. However, experts claim that the flavor is more natural and experts prefer this type of tequila over the others because it’s more pure and closer to the source. At Los Osuna Vinata, you can sample all three and judge for yourself.

The town of La Noria is also home to the Huanacoa Canopy Adventure, located within the dense tropical foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains. Here, thrill-seekers and wannabe extreme-sports aficionados can zip-line from 12 platforms with nine mile-long cable lines up to 50 feet high.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more visible testament to Mexico’s history than Las Labradas, located near the small fishing village of Barras de Piaxtla. It’s a stunning beach of vibrant, multicolored shells, pebbles, sea glass, and giant black rocks on the Sea of Cortes. Those rocks are chunks of lava, which is strange, considering there’s no volcano anywhere near the place. Stranger still, some of the massive 1500-year-old stones have carvings documenting the lives of the region’s ancient settlers, designating the petroglyphs of Las Labradas a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

40 minutes northeast of Mazatlán, El Quelite is a town full of quaint homes topped with red-tiled roofes. On the banks of a river with the same name, its moniker comes from the word “quilitl,” which translates to herb/vegetable, and given that El Quelite is a farming town, it’s an appropriate designation. Nestled among the cluster of enchanting little homes is the Colonial Church of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a small yet ornate 19th century house of worship named after the patron saint of Mexico. In El Quelite, citizens still play an ancient sport called “the Ulama,” a ball game that Spanish Catholics once actually outlawed. El Mesón de Los Laureanos is a family-owned restaurant that feeds those citizens with traditional dishes, a rural art museum, and colorful live performances that bring the town’s history to life.

Mexico is a huge country with a range of destinations to suit all types of travelers, and while narco-trafficking and other unsavory activities have slowed down trips to San Diego-adjacent towns such as Tijuana, Ensenada, and Mexicali, Mazatlán is “the safest destination in Mexico,” according to the governor of the state of Sinaloa, where Mazatlán is the crown jewel. If this year’s record-breaking summer season and 20% increase in tourism are any indication, foreign visitors agree.