You might think that three popular coastal resort cities along Mexico's Pacific side Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan would compete with each other for precious tourist dollars, but you'd be wrong. Each has its own personality and appeals to tourists lured by its distinctive features.
There are dozens of reasons why repeat visitors choose their particular destination: Puerto Vallarta for its affordable all-inclusive hotels as well as the charming El Centro and family friendly Malecon; Mazatlan for its world renowned sport fishing and festivals; and Los Cabos for the beaches, marine life and celebrity-spotting. If you haven't decided where to relax your winter-weary bones, here's a snapshot of three popular resorts.
PUERTO VALLARTA - Although the population of this city of cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings on Banderas Bay is around 350,000, it retains a festive, small-town atmosphere. Walk along the oceanfront Malecon at sunset and you're bound to see Mexican families with kids running freely and climbing on its quirky public sculptures. Runners hit the pavement here in the cool early morning and street entertainers from spray paint artists to fire dancers and mariachi bands emerge as the sun goes down.
You can drop a bucket of pesos on a meal at one the city's very finest restaurants, or you can just as easily shell out some pocket change for frozen fruit on a stick and a messy taco at one of the many stands. You can dine at popular favourites like Senor Frogs or authentic mom-and-pop restaurants serving traditional Mexican cuisine. A few new restaurants this year add to the city's growing reputation for international cuisine. Carnivores will want to try the specialty at the Brazilian restaurant La Caipirinha (lacaipirinha.com) for churrasqueria, beef that is slowly cooked using a clay oven and charcoal. Or they can head to the oceanfront El Bife Grill for Argentine fare (elbifegrill.com).
Families gravitate to the affordable allinclusives. Singles and the LGBT crowd enjoy the city's gregarious attitude and energetic night scene. Meanwhile, adventure seekers can go parasailing or explore the area on a zipline or ATV. Vallartadiscovery.comand Vallarta Adventures (vallarta-adventures.com)are popular choices.
A day trip by boat to the remote oceanfront enclave of Yelapa is a treat. The catamaran that gets you there makes snorkelling stops near the iconic arches just off the shores of Mismaloya where director John Huston filmed Night of the Iguana. At Yelapa, you can chill on the beach and enjoy a freshly caught red snapper under a palapa. If you're feeling energetic, you can head into town to check out the shops or hike into the jungle for a dip in the Cola de Caballo waterfalls.
LOS CABOS - Los Cabos, which has the dreamy alias of Land's End, sits on the tip of the Baja Peninsula beside the deep blue Sea of Cortez and its sister cities of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. They are connected by a 30-kilometre resort corridor featuring hotels, time-shares, condominiums, championship golf courses and shopping.
This is one the youngest of the Pacific resort areas, and is known as party central for the spring break crowd. Nightclubs around the marina bear names like Billygan's Island, El Squid Roe, The Giggling Marlin, The Nowhere Bar and Cabo Wabo Cantina, owned by rocker Sammy Hagar.
Its proximity to Hollywood makes it a prime spot for the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Jay-Z, Jennifer Aniston, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, who stay at such swanky resorts as the One & Only Palmilla or Las Ventanas al Paraiso. Though Cabo is not known for its all-inclusives, there are several, such as the Riu Palace, Melia and Dreams resorts, and they are offering deals.
Cabo's quieter cousin, San Jose Del Cabo, tends to attract visitors looking for a low-key holiday in a colonial Mexican setting. The beaches are less busy and afternoons are best whiled away gallery hopping. San Jose's sunny central square serves as the anchor to many shops selling artsy wares and a nice selection of restaurants. The intimate Casianos restaurant features locally sourced foods. Other options are the casual Baja Brewing Co. or the arty Mi Cocina, located in the luxury boutique hotel, Casa Natalia.
MAZATLAN - Mazatlan is known as the 'Pearl of the Pacific,' a moniker it acquired from visitors in the 1940s and '50s. Centuries before that, it was a gold-mining hub for the Spanish conquistadors in the 1700s and 1800s. This city of 600,000 is now recognized as the "only colonial city on the Pacific coast," an especially significant designation as Mexico celebrates its bicentennial.
"Mazatlan is for travellers, not tourists," says Julio Biurreta, of the city's hotel association. Aside from its 20 kilo-metres of beach within the city, there is a rich mosaic of history and culture and fine cuisine. Nearly 500 historic buildings from the 1800s are being restored in Old Mazatlan. The area is a pleasant mix of neoclassical architecture with museums, residences and restaurants. It has become a cultural and entertainment hub, and includes such landmarks as the majestic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the 135-year-old Angela Peralta Theatre, a place to see opera, ballet and contemporary dance. Plaza Machada is at the heart the 180-block area, featuring boutiques, sidewalk cafes, jazz clubs, and galleries.
Mazatlan's reputation for a rich local cuisine is reinforced by such specialties as aguachile (similar to ceviche) with locally caught shrimp, and chilorio, a breakfast staple served up with scrambled eggs and spiced up with the locally made salsa brava.
Eat: Treat yourself to freshly caught red snapper at a beachside hut in Yelapa, the tiny fishing village only accessible by boat. Pair it with an ice-cold Pacifico and creamy guacamole. Ole!
Play: Beach hop: Three beaches in three days: Los Muertos, steps from the Old Town; Mismaloya, about 15 minutes south of PV on a city bus; and Las Caletas and Yelapa, both accessible only by boat. Reserve a day trip for these last two with vallarta-adventures.com.
Indulge: Like tequila? Well, you'll love Mama Lucia's organic handmade libations in Mismaloya. Here, the Leyva family nurtures the golden nectar from plant to bottle. The various tequilas and liqueurs (almond, coffee and mandarin) are not available anywhere else, unless you order them online ( tequilamamalucia.com).Tours daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Eat: Pepe's and Rosy's offer the best tacos for the best price.
Play: Hop aboard one of two America's Cup sailboats (Australia or New Zealand) for an unforgettable experience of learning how to race these graceful craft. Guests on both enjoy a ctory party complete with bubbly.
Indulge: You might not be able to afford to stay there, but you could spring for part of a day at the super luxurious Espa at the One & Only Palmilla in San Jose del Cabo. Highly recommended is the Palmilla Chocolate Synergy massage, inspired by Mayan culture.
Eat: Head to one of the thatched hut seaside restaurants at Isla de la Piedra.
Play: Try to time your visit for Mazatlan's International Carnival 2011 (March 3 to 8) for fireworks, parades and parties.
Indulge: Isla Venados (Deer Island) is one of the three islands off Mazatlan's shores and has a nature preserve filled with birds, flora and fauna. Outfitter Sendero Mexico provides guided kayaking trips that include snorkelling.