My wife and I had not been to Mexico for five years since the death of her mother and we had lots of personal business to attend to. I wished to drive but, due to reports of violence, we decided to fly. Going online, we booked a flight and reserved a rental car.
It's amazing how different the prices are on various days and during different time frames. It's also a shock to find out how difficult it is to get to a major resort such as Mazatlan. Before, one could fly Southwest to Phoenix, connecting there to Mazatlan. No more! We ended up flying American to LA and Alaska to Mazatlan. Our first experience with LAX was having to take a bus to the right terminal. All the walking didn't help that much as, even with a cane, it ain't easy anymore. God but I hate this getting old.
The last time we went, we stayed in one of the hotels in what was then called The Golden Zone [now called The Hotel Zone]. It was undergoing construction and we had to put up with jackhammers all day long. The bed was a thin mattress atop a block of cement and I had to sleep on a pull-out bed. To make matters worse, it was cold! We tried to buy a space heater, but there were none to be had. [This time, we found a variety of them in every one of the Super WalMart type of supermarkets all over the city.]
So, we tried to search for the time-share hotel we had previously stayed at. We had lost the receipts and couldn't remember the name so, thanks to Google Earth and the ability to get a street view, we located Hotel Solamar. We contacted them and they helped us make reservations for the same apartments we had previously stayed at.
I cannot say enough about our accommodations in Mazatlan, The Hotel Sombrero and Suites. http://www.vacationsinmazatlan.com The pictures of the Ole apartments are NOT just for publicity! That is exactly what they are. And, unlike the major hotels, these beds are inner-spring mattresses. And, HOT WATER! Not just tepid, but hot enough to scald without adding some cold water. The refrigerator was adequate, although the freezer lacked a bit. The most used item was the coffee maker. Filters and coffee are available in the small store downstairs. The microwave works. Daily maid service was included, along with a large plastic bottle of drinking water. While there were fifty or so television channels, to get more in English, one needed to pay a bit extra in the office – that additional one increasing the number to 200+. The hotel restaurant is about 4.5 out of 5 stars but with a good selection of food and beverages. The service is excellent. I will never stay elsewhere in Mazatlan.
The countryside has a unique smell – smoke from burning trash fires. Every little house has a small pile where they burn their household trash. That does not include the amazing amount of trash found alongside the roads and highways, especially small byways.
Traffic is unbelievable. Not just because drivers ignore speed limits, but every known rule of the road – except that the biggest, fastest, or with the mas grande juevos wins. Even the major thoroughfares are poorly designed, far too narrow, and filled with ruts and potholes. The other roads have massive speed bumps to slow traffic, so the multitude of pedestrians won't be slaughtered. And, in spite of the huge number of motor vehicles – of every known type – there is a large number of pedestrians. The residential streets are barely three vehicles wide with narrow and uneven sidewalks.
And buses – most made by Mercedes – are everywhere. And go at great frequency. There are no marked bus stops. You want a bus? Just wait until the one you want comes along and hold out your hand to stop it. And, there are other types of public transportation. One is made up of small, red pickup trucks with a canvas roof and wooden seats in the back bed called an aurigua [sp?] that cruise the streets seeking fares. You establish the price of the ride before you get in. The same holds true for “pulmonias”, open seated four-wheeled, four-seated, motorized golf carts. Again, you discuss the fare before you get in.
The one major improvement I noticed from my last trip five years ago were the traffic lights. Far more visible. Blinking green announces the change to a very quick yellow. Lots of turn arrows.
A so-called major highway [ruta cuota] now exists between Villa Union just south of Mazatlan to Tepic and Guadalajara. All but a few kilometers are two lane with wide, well-marked shoulders. Trucks – and very few passenger vehicles – will pull far to the right to allow faster vehicles to pass. The truck drivers were most courteous and considerate. As were the long-distance bus drivers, the vehicles far more modern and commodious than those of Greyhound. It cost us $26 to drive from the start to where we got off about 40 miles north of Tepic. Even with the ruts and truck traffic, it's far better than the free highway [ruta libre]
We saw construction in the Hotel Zone, but not very active. There were lots of new condos and time-shares. What I noticed most was the lack of tourists. January should be a very popular month, but far too many businesses were hurting by the lack of customers. That made it good for us as we were able to bargain for some things we wanted.
I have to admit that the non-tourist meals we ate were with family members. For other meals, we stayed to one single restaurant, the Panama in the Hotel Zone. A very good menu with reasonable prices and generally excellent service. Most of the staff speaks English.
We flew American from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, changing there to Alaska. I hate the LA terminal! Old. And achingly big. Free public buses go from terminal to terminal, but it's not a place for someone with a gimp unless you want someone to push you around in a wheelchair. Also not well laid out and it takes a bit of searching to find a place for a snack. Our return was via Alaska where we had to walk for a couple of miles to get to Customs and another mile to get our luggage to go through the second customs screening. And then, another long walk to drop our luggage for the second leg, followed by yet another achingly long trudge to the Delta terminal. The Alaska people in Mazatlan were most accommodating and helpful. Be prepared – if there are any extra charges, one needs to pay with plastic or Mexican Pesos. No American cash accepted. I was blown away by our flight from LA to Las Vegas – less than a third of the 124 seats occupied. Only six of the 12 First Class seats with passengers.
Getting around in Mazatlan. Taxis from the airport to the city are readily available and have a set rate.
Travelocity set us up with Dollar Rentals. We reserved a particular vehicle with a quoted price. In order to ensure we could cover it with plastic, we called and got a price for the 14 days, including insurance. But, when we got there, we learned the price was TWICE of what we were quoted. We ended up going next door to Alamo where the clerk appeared to be most helpful. He offered us a smaller car that he said was well within the $800 we had set aside – based upon the Dollar estimate – for TEN days, indicating we needed to deposit more in the account in order to have it for the full 14 days. They do not accept cash of any kind at any of the rental companies. Credit or debit cards only.
This is where we ran into the first major problem of the entire trip – sending cash back to the states – or even converting cash from Dollars to Pesos. In order to transfer the cash from Mexico to our US bank account, the bank required we open an account. That was fine as it was something we had already planned upon. BUT, Mexican law says Americans cannot open accounts in Mexican banks! My wife could, with me as a secondary signatory - but only if she had her Mexican voting card. For that, we had to go to the central post office and get a form, followed by a stop at a copy shop. From there, we went to another government office in one of the neighborhoods to have a photo and fingerprints done. Unlike US government agencies, this was all FREE. They then required two citizens with cards to guarantee she was a Mexican citizen. As we had only taken her sister, another person there willingly signed for her. But, that was only the first part – we were told she needed to wait four to six weeks before her voting card was ready.
A bit of explanation and the clerk indicated she would do everything possible to have the card ready before our departure.
That meant no more cash in the bank until she got her card so we could open a bank account.
With six days to go before departure and two before the rental for the car was up, we went to Alamo in the Hotel Zone and were told we were good until our departure date and not to worry about anything.
The card was there on the morning of our departure. We went to the bank to open the account, all done with an incredible amount of paperwork as part of the contract between us and the bank. We were then told we could transfer the money for a 30 Peso charge [about $3] but not for 24 hours until the card was activated.
We returned the car to Alamo at the airport and were told the final tab would not be more than the $800 we had set aside. We did get charged $104 for a minor scrape in the front bumper – probably far less than Stateside. We were on our way home and Alamo even helped get our luggage to the terminal.
The second morning after our return, we checked our bank account to discover Alamo had charged us $360 for the 4 days and the dent! Fortunately, we had the money in the bank to cover it.
Moral – DO NOT BELIEVE THE RATES AND AMOUNTS QUOTED BY THE CAR RENTAL AGENCIES! Not even if you call to confirm them.
The first week we were there, the climate was nowhere as advertised online. Very fresh – even cold – in the mornings and a bit too fresh in the afternoons for a dip in the ocean. I can't remember seeing anyone swimming or even strolling along the beach. The second week was a bit warmer but still too cool for bathing. Also didn't see anyone in the various hotel swimming pools.
Did notice one thing, a big push to be ready for Carnival. Huge figures along the Malecón. That, by the way, restricts access to the beach not in front of particular hotels or condo units.
The plethora of small shops and street-side businesses impressed me. No business licenses. Want to set up a small neighborhood shop? No problem. If you don't provide what your neighbors want, you go out of business. Not sure whether the business is sanitary and the food is good? Just see how many customers/clients it has. The only regulation I learned of is a group of inspectors that go around to ensure businesses selling alcohol are closed by 11 pm.
One thing you will notice just about everywhere, are small, movable food stands. They park in the streets wherever people gather and receive a lot of business. Is the food safe to eat? It must be as they get a lot of business.
There are dozens of small money exchanges in the Hotel Zone. All seem to have the same rate. We tried changing money in the bank where we wanted to open our account and learned American citizens are only permitted to change $1,500 per month! [They will make a copy of your passport and send it to a government agency along with the paperwork for the exchange.] And, while my wife had no limits, she couldn't exchange money unless she had an account at the bank. Hotels, restaurants, and so on will exchange money for you, but at a much lower rate – right now about 1,200 Pesos to $1. Oh yah – Mexico uses the $ sign for Pesos so you have to be careful to check for USD in the prices. Mentally converting is easy – just delete the last number or put a . before it. $45 Pesos is actually $4.50 reduced by about 10%. The standard cost of a meal for the two of us at The Panama restaurant [with lots of food] came to about 255 Pesos or $23 USD.
Communicating is not difficult. Far more Mexicans speak passable English than Americans or Canadians speak Spanish. Of course, I had no problems as I almost exclusively spoke Spanish. If I didn't understand, my wife explained it for me.
For two weeks, I came no closer to the ocean than 100 yards atop the Malecón as the weather was not warm enough. We had little to distract us as we spent most of the time either with family or conducting business. There are a couple of casinos in the Hotel Zone, but I wouldn't recommend them. As I told my brother and sister in law, if you have money you want to throw into the street, use that in the casino where you'll lose it just the same. And, of course, if you're willing to barter, go to the central market to buy the same things far cheaper than in the Hotel Zone. There are a number of agencies to provide guided tours to some interesting places nearby. And, of course, if the weather improves, there are lots of things to do on the beach. Carnival will be the 2nd to 7th of February – when the weather isn't all that great. The place will be jammed but, if you're into that sort of thing, go for it!
Next time we go, it'll be by car and we'll take our little Chihuahua puppy dog with us. We might even get a chance to rest and relax.