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Mazatlan hits paydirt in the ‘Zona Dorada’

By Bob Schulman

Mazatlan, Mexico – It was bone-chilling cold back home in Upstate New York on Dec. 6, 1969, the day I flew off to my first trip south of the border. A couple of feet of snow had already piled up – so it didn’t take much to pry me away from my desk at the Utica, N.Y., headquarters of Mohawk Airlines. Especially for a freebie to the tropics.

It was billed as a “familiarization trip” for people in the travel industry. A planeload of travel agents, writers, airline sales reps and public relations people like myself had gathered in Phoenix for a hop down to Mazatlan on Air West. Our mission: to check out Mazatlan’s dream for the future.

They called it the Zona Dorada (the Golden Zone), and it was going to be built along miles of vacant Pacific beachfront north of the city. Our job was to talk up the project back home. Sure, I could handle that.
Getting off the plane I experienced my first 80-degrees-in-the-shade Mexican welcome. Coming from Upstate New York, it was wonderful. So were the ice-cold cervezas waiting for us in the terminal.

Next we jumped into vans for a 20-mile ride on an awful, pot-holed road (it’s now a modern highway) skirting the city and ending up at our host hotel way out on the northern beaches. It was the Playa Mazatlan, one of the area’s first two modern luxury resorts along with the nearby Playa del Rey.

There they stood – with nothing else but barren sand dunes for miles around – like a pair of sentinels guarding the gates to Mazatlan’s future.

Over the coming years, our hosts said, new resort hotels would be popping up all over the place. And there’d be championship golf courses, tennis courts, convention centers, discos, bowling alleys, arts and crafts centers, shopping malls and even a huge marina.

The Zona Dorada, they predicted, would rake in more riches – in tourism dollars – than the early Spanish mines in these parts.

I’m not privy to the cash, but their growth predictions were right on the money. Look down the beaches today and you’ll see mile after mile of tropical palaces, all told offering 9,000 rooms. And sure enough, a little inland you’ll spot the shopping centers, the golf courses, not one but several marinas and all the other attractions planned decades ago.

Meanwhile, the city’s once-seedy downtown area (about a 20-minute taxi ride from the hotel zone), has come a long way, too. Its crown jewel is a 20-block throwback to the elegance of Mazatlan’s colonial era.
A walk through the historic district takes you past lovely tree-lined plazas, painstakingly resurrected homes and shops, museums, cathedrals, colorful restaurants and the only functioning opera house (originally built in 1869) along the Mexican Pacific.

Edging the district are a number of the city’s original hotels, built in the 1920s and 1930s when word got out up north that Mazatlan was the place to go to land big gamefish like marlin, swordfish and sailfish – and, perhaps not coincidentally, when alcohol prohibition was on the books (1920-1933) on the other side of the border.

The old-time inns, most of which are in pretty good shape today, include La Siesta and the Belmar, said to have been favorites of Hollywood badboys Errol Flynn and “Fatty” Arbuckle and of superstar John Wayne. Reportedly, Wayne’s room at the Belmar was closed off after his death in 1979 — and has never been rented out again.

Well, the folks who backed the Zona Dorada had their dreams come true there and in later developments up the coast. Downtown continues to blossom. Air West and Mohawk got gobbled up by larger carriers. And I went on to handle public relations for four more airlines, including the original Frontier and also the “new” Frontier. I retired about four years ago.

More information: Visit gomazatlan.com or visitmexico.com (after selecting a language click Destinations and then Mazatlan), or phone the Mexico Tourism Board toll-free at 1-(800)-44-MEXICO.

Denver-based freelance writer Bob Schulman is a member of the Mexico Writers Alliance and the Society of American Travel Writers.

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