Wanna live on a beach and see sunsets every day for cheap?
Then come on out to Cartel paradise!
You’re going to want to read my Latin America travel tips blog before checking out any of my city guides, current or in the future.
Do not make all of your entry-level mistakes in a foreign country when all you had to do was read a 10 minute blog post instead.
For Westerners, Mazatlan is a resort city sure, but a bit higher up the advanced ladder than Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, etc.
But the novelty and uniqueness alone make it more than worth it.
I can’t even remember exactly when I went down (dates bleed together when you’re nomadic), but I’m thinking it was early 2022 for reference.
Mazatlan, Mexico has a population of around 500,000. This really excited me.
The chance to be in a more under-the-radar beach town that actually had large-city infrastructure was a huge appeal. You don’t ever really see a combination of these factors much of anywhere until you start getting down into South America.
Latin beach towns are either resort-y as shit (just go to Florida instead — you’ll barely notice the difference), or very slow and sleepy (I don’t need to decompress, I need action. And I don’t surf).
So I committed 2 months to see if a place like this could be my Latin base.
For some people, Mazatlan is absolute paradise in every way.
I played it very wrong in many ways, to be completely fair.
Now you get to learn from my experiences, and have a much better time as a result.
I cant believe this blog is still free.
Let’s Talk About the Cartel
Mazatlan, like Acapulco, was a bustling travel destination back in the 1980s.
Growing up as a kid in the 80s, I remember vividly people on TV talking about going to Acapulco as a dream vacation.
I remember Mazatlan being one of the prizes on the game show Press Your Luck. It was one of the squares, and it had a sailfish on it.
ADD gives you an insane long-term memory as a trade-off for never knowing where you put your keys in the morning.
But in the 90s, the cartels came in and took it over. Transitions like this are never clean and seamless. And the cartels were pretty new and pretty sloppy back then.
Both of these towns got bloody in a hurry, and remained that way for a long time.
Now, both are on the rebound, which means two things:
- They’re cheap by comparison
- They’re not infested with shitty backpackers and annoying gringas wearing Smokey the Bear hats (Why are 100% of these women squawky and horrible?)
- There is still a lot of dangerous activity away from the resorts. Check the numbers.
But let’s clear the cartel stuff up now and forever, because even though we’ve learned over time not to believe anything we see on mainstream media, when it comes to cartel spook stories, every single one of you believe what you see in the mainstream media.
Allow me to clear this up a bit.
When Westerners think of Mexico, they mostly think of beach resorts, or a desert warzone where foreigners go to die.
If you weren’t already aware, Mexico is a very big country. Don’t travel to the border like a fucking idiot. Fly over it, and keep going past the desert.
That’s literally all you have to do to experience a very safe and wonderful country.
But it’s not Singapore. You can’t just go anywhere you want in most cities. Common sense still goes a long way.
In the case of Mazatlan, it is the vacation city for a lot of Mexicans, in particular from places like Culiacan and Durango.
Culiacan is the headquarters for the Sinaloa Cartel. Plenty of regular people from Culiacan too, but there is zero reason to travel there.
But the Sinaloa Cartel has gotten wise over the years, and taken a lot of their money and put it into legit businesses, like hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc.
This keeps them out of trouble, and provides a fantastic avenue to launder money.
So the last thing the cartels want is for tourists to get fucked with. In fact, if anyone is caught endangering a tourist (unless you’re really really asking for it), that person will probably never be seen again.
This makes for a VERY safe environment.
If I see a resort or club I know is cartel-owned, I’m probably going to want to check it out. I’m sure it’s going to be super nice.
Now yes, recently they arrested El Chapo’s son, and things got heated between the Sinaloa cartel and the feds for a few days.
Highways in Mazatlan were blocked, and a few empty planes were set on fire.
In the end, some tourists missed their flights, and a few locals got caught up in the battle and died.
This can happen, but the odds of it affecting you are near zero.
As safe as Mexico is, things like this can pop off at any time.
But you’re more likely to die in an earthquake, or a tequila overdose.
If tensions start to mount again, you should have time to simply leave and wait for it to subside, but again, this would be a rare occurence.
The tourists who die here are almost always mixed up in drugs or prostitutes. If you come to Latin America for that, you deserve the risk.
And if you do see people getting kidnapped or extorted, those are from low-level banditos that mauraude the country roads. The Cartel has more money than God. They don’t need $1500 from your mom and dad.
Again, you would have to really be trying to get into trouble to actually have it happen.
Drivability outside of the cities varies by state, some are amazing, others are frustrating at best, and sketchy at worst. Not recommended as a tourist. Spend more time there first.
I would be willing to bet the US media keeps their news about Mexico scary to make sure people don’t relocate to a warmer, cheaper and safer country and take their money with them. I’d bet good money on that actually.
Okay, so all that being said, are you done being scared of the boogeyman now, you pussy? Let’s move on.
I see no other way to get in comfortably than to fly into MZT airport, which is small, but has a surprisingly long list of directs to pretty far away North American cities (often in Canada — more on that later).
Always check out flightsfrom.com first to see if you can get a direct. This site is a huge favorite with the digital nomad crowd.
Unless you’re near an airport like IAH, DFW, or LAX, most of you will need to fly into the always-frustrating MEX airport first, and then connect. If you allow for time, this won’t be much of a problem.
Then you will have to cab in from there to the coast. Takes about 25-30 minutes Uber not recommended, or possibly not allowed at the airport, nor would you want to risk it. More on that later as well.
Zones Matter A Lot
As big as Mazatlan is population-wise, it unfortunately seems very small, because there’s the coast, and then there’s everything else.
“Everything else” is a part of Mazatlan you likely won’t spend much time in, and the inhabitants rarely go to the tourist areas unless they want to hang out on the beach.
But I really played this wrong, so listen up.
I would break down the Mazatlan Coast into 5 major zones. Let’s break down each.
So I drew a line separating the coast from everything else, because this is where you’re going to be. Unless you’re coming in from the airport or you want to go to a soccer game, there is really no compelling reason to not be west of my red line.
There are 5 main zones you can stay in. We’ll break each down.
1 – Siberia
I don’t even know what this area is officially called, but unless you’re 85 years old, there’s nothing for you here. I took a risk and it did not pay off.
Worse, I thought I was getting an AirBnB by the beach, but their pins are….let’s just say not geographically accurate sometimes, and I ended up at the end of a a gated subdivision about 2 mi away from the coast. I had no car, and if I wanted to get an Uber/Cab I had to walk 3/4 mi to the front gate.
No pinche bueno.
At the very NW point, there are some cool outdoor restaurants and a couple of bars that aren’t always open, but a pretty uniquely local experience when they are, I’ll say that, but not worth the trip overall.
2 – Sabalo Country
I could have bucked up and stayed in a resort hotel overlooking the sea, but remember, I was looking for a place to live potentially, so Sabalo Country made more sense.
Cheap AirBnBs, and lots to do.
Most of your average Mexican tourists will stay here, and I do see the appeal.
Lots of tourist shops, cheap places to eat, and lots of good coastline.
And it has the one thing Mexicans love more than anything else on Earth.
Holy shit is this place noisy, especially at night. There are lots of bar-like restaurants that turn into clubs and live music venues later on after sunset, and even though I was staying two roads east, and these places all face west towards the ocean, I still had trouble sleeping most nights.
But at least I had the tranquility of the beach during the daytime.
LOL, no I didn’t. Ever heard of “Banda”? You can’t get away from it here. 5-8 piece bands that prowl the beaches during the daytime, taking paid requests from the tourists.
The locals LOVE this shit. Gringos, less so.
As a reprieve from the very Mexican culture, you do have a large community of retired Canadians here. The richer ones own homes on the north side of Sabalo Country, and most of them inhabit the neighborhoods on the coastal interior.
And they all congregate at La Catrina Bar, day and night. You should go one time, for the scene alone.
I would go there on Saturdays because they would have the UFC pay-per-view on — but only on one TV screen. The others were for hockey.
You will never see a happier bunch of retirees though, I swear. Huge place, but everyone knows each other, and they all get up and dance all night to live hits from the 70s and 80s. A lot of them get absolutely freaking lit too, it’s hilarious.
I was often the youngest guy there, and no kidding I was the belle of the ball once those cougars got a few drinks in them. Good thing UFC was on, so I had an excuse to ignore most of them. I may or may not have obliged once though. Pickings were slim in Mazatlan, more on that later.
3 – Golden Zone
This is where most people will tell you to stay when you’re in Mazatlan, and to this day I can’t figure out why.
Yes, this is where most of your mega resorts, clubs, and nice restaurants are but…
This place is super derelict. Junkie-ass shops, sketchy pharmacies, I can’t believe anyone with 2 pesos to rub together would actually want to live here.
I would much rather stay in a neighboring area, and commute to the Golden Zone when I felt like it.
On the map, it looks like a can’t-miss, but trust me, miss it.
4 – Malecon
Probably too expensive to live here, but if you’re coming in for a week or two, this area is beautiful.
Close enough to Golden Zone, the nearby restaurants are nothing to write home about, but for sheer aesthetics, you can’t beat it. Especially if you can swing a hotel room with a view.
Beaches are a bit quieter, though not as robust.
When I come back, I’ll probably be staying here.
5 – Centro
But this is where I should have stayed from the beginning.
Not super-duper nice, but very functional, which I need, and close enough to everything.
Fun bars, good cheap restaurants. and a few nicer ones.
Lively atmosphere too, like Mexico City in a lot of ways, always something going on at all hours.
Can be noisy depending on where you are. Again, nobody here is ever going to be quiet on your behalf.
But for extended stays or more budget travel, this is the place, and Sabalo Country would be second if you’re younger and don’t mind all the ruckus.
Personal Ratings For Mazatlan, Mexico
And what many of you have been waiting for.
Let’s get into it.
Gotta start here. This place is cheap as shit.
For a beach resort town, I couldn’t believe it.
Yes, there are cheaper places all over Latin America of course, but for a Mexican beach town, the cost of most things here are crazy cheap.
When I would come to Mexico City from the US, I was always amazed at how cheap things were, but once you get outside of the major cities, it gets cheaper, as long as you’re not in gringo resort cities like PV or Cancun.
I remember buying a 2-liter bottle of water for 7 pesos. Like 40 cents USD.
I’m surprised I don’t have a picture of it, but in Sabalo Country, I would go to this place for lunch right on the beach and eat a piece of fresh fish, rice, beans, broccoli, bread, tortillas, chips and salsa for $7 USD. I couldn’t believe it.
$40 parasailing, $20 canoe and rowboat rentals, jet-skis were closer to $50 if I recall, but you had them for hours.
The one thing I completely forgot to do was go deep-sea fishing, which I’m still kicking myself for. I’m sure it was affordable compared to most places, but I would have bucked up for something like that. Do that if you go here.
On the high-end food-wise, there was a nice Italian restaurant I liked where I would also get fresh fish (robalo) and sides for about $15 USD, and then a glass of Albarino for $5.
Side note, Sinaloa is known for a unique cuisine that involves shrimp and spicey tomato sauce, but I’m allergic to shrimp, so cannot comment. It’s like world famous though.
No good bourbon in Latin America, but I was drinking Havana 7 rum in most places for $3-4 a glass.
Mazatlan is where they brew Pacifico, and I don’t drink beer anymore so sadly couldn’t tell you the cost, but I’d imagine it’s quite cheap too.
You’re getting a much more authentic Mexican vibe here for a fraction of the overall cost.
This place actually made me wish I had a car, and that’s hard to do.
“Oh I’ll just Uber everywhere”, think again.
This city has like 10 Uber drivers. And 7 of them will message you and ask if you can pay cash, and if you can’t/won’t they’ll cancel on you. Then the next Uber will be 30 minutes away.
I was always told that DiDi is a lot more common here, but many Americans have issues with DiDi, and there’s no more to really explain there. But if you are cool with DiDi, make sure you have it ready here.
Cabs on the coast are unique, and a very fun ride. They look like this, and are faster than they appear.
But they usually only congregate around hotels and higher congested areas.
You may get lucky and find an available one in front of a Wal-Mart or grocery store, but don’t expect to.
As cool as they are, they are a bit pricey as well. But for a nighttime ride into the nice part of the Golden Zone, it’s a great experience.
Unfortunately though, apart from Centro, Mazatlan is not very walkable, much to my chagrin.
Have a plan here. Better yet, find a cabbie you like, tip them well, and get their card for later.
Cabs only take cash BTW, so have plenty on you.
If you’re staying at a hotel this is less of a concern really, but for living, don’t be like me, have a plan in place beforehand. I really struggled at times, especially early.
Not good. I had such high hopes.
Again, vacationing here and living here are two very different things. There are no real grocery stores in all of Sabalo Country and whatever the hell the area north of that is called.
$30 round trip to Wal-Mart, or the main large grocery store, or the mall.
Centro is the play here if you want to avoid much of this.
Not a lot of English spoken here, which is odd for a resort town.
Then again, I did not stay at a hotel one time, so maybe hospitality folk speak it better.
But most of the retirees here do not speak a lick of Spanish. I know because they brag about it. And they all get around just fine here, so why couldn’t you?
Great. It’s great on purpose.
So many different ways to do it. You have your restaurant/bar turned club like I described earlier.
You can slow-play it with the retirees (they do party though) or at a never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get locals joint.
It’s all high-energy though. No chill anywhere. People come here to let loose.
You have places in the Golden Zone like Joe’s Oyster Bar, which in 99% of all cities would be the most banging place in town, but instead it’s where a lot of people go BEFORE they hit the real clubs.
And those “real clubs” are freaking gigantic. I spent 15 years in Vegas, and I was impressed. If you like places like that, you’re in a very good town.
So hard to say, because who is from where here?
There is a very noticeable lack of sophistication here compared to the more popular resort cities, even in the expensive hotels.
This is no surprise considering it’s a town not for stuffy gringos, but it’s laid back and obnoxious all at the same time.
That’s not to say people aren’t nice in Mazatlan, they certainly are, albeit a bit more in-your-face.
I felt there were a lot of similarities to Mexican-American culture here above anywhere else not near the border.
Oh, and nobody at all gave a fuck about covid FWIW. A welcome departure from Mexico City, for example, depending where you stand on all of that.
Very good, and consistently good.
You’re on a beach, so it’s going to be hot, but it’s never too hot or too rainy here.
Pay attention to monthly forecasts, but damn comfortable compared to the majority of beach cities south of the US.
Oddly enough, you don’t get a ton of bugs out there either.
-2 out of 10
Yes, that was a minus in front of the 2.
First of all, it needs to be said, Mexico is more obese per capita than the US is, which is very hard to accomplish.
You would never believe this if you were in one of the main cities. But once you leave a main city, it becomes very, VERY apparent.
I had always heard about these amazing local Sinaloa girls. I never saw them.
Never saw any noticeably gay people here either, if that applies to you. There are certainly more in Puerto Vallarta.
Plus, Mazatlan is the absolute worst environment for a single male. Here’s why.
I don’t use dating apps because I’m comfortable talking to women — but I really should have started using them here.
This isn’t the West. Young women don’t have the money to get together with other girls and take a trip to a beach town.
Groups of girls are typically what single guys look for. And they just don’t exist here.
Sure there are girls here. Lots of them. But they’re all with the guys who brought them to Mazatlan.
What you’ll normally see are a lot of couples, and also a lot of larger groups of couples as well on holiday along with a decent amount of families — but apart from retirees this is what you’re going to be looking at.
Even if I was in the middle of the Mexican jungle somewhere, at least I would have a smelly backpacker chick or a comely monkey to cuddle up to.
But in Mazatlan, I’m supposed to go to a 150-decibel nightclub and hit on girls with my broken Spanish when their man might be just around the corner, and might also have cartel connections?
No thanks. I’ll just go watch UFC and politely let Linda from Calgary know I’m not interested.
Mazatlan taught me that what I really need at this stage of my life is a big city. For convenience, sophistication, networking, friends, dating, etc.
But this place is so unique and so vibey, you really need to go. Even if on the surface it’s not your cup of tea.
Despite its faults, many of which didn’t become clear until later, I couldn’t imagine not having this experience.
If anything, starting your day by having the ocean air hit you in the face every morning from your $600/month AirBnB is worth a bit of time here.
Just know what to expect going in, and plan your stay accordingly.
Next time I go, and there will be a next time, I’ll just bring a girl and enjoy the tourist experience instead.