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When I think of celebrating Carnaval and Mardi Gras I think of a good friend of mine who lives in New Orleans. My mind regrettably drifts to images of bare-breasted co-eds on Bourbon Street. Then of course, there is the Mardi Gras celebration in Brazil, another orgy of sight and sound, where you'll most likely find your pocket picked. Needless to say, when I traveled to join the Carnaval celebrations in Mazatlán, Mexico, I was more interested in the prospect of visiting the semi-tropical beach in February than in welcoming Lent. So I did no research, tossed my Frommer's Mexico in my backpack, brought along my preconceptions of Carnaval and Mexican beach resorts and blew a kiss farewell to the freezing New York wind.

Mazatlán is loosely made up of three parts: Viejo Mazatlán (Old Mazatlán), the Zona Dorada (Gold Zone), and the new development of Marina Mazatlán. The majority of hotels are in the Zona Dorada, which is a short taxi ride (or a long walk) from downtown; many mega-resorts are located a few miles north, in Marina Mazatlán. I started off my trip with a tour of Viejo Mazatlán, which revealed a local history dating back to the days before the Maya. Some historians and anthropologists believe that the Mayans were actually descendents of migratory tribes that originated from this area. In more recent history, Mazatlán has long been the shrimp capital of Mexico, making it a stable and sizable port for centuries. The city engaged in naval battle with the French in the 1800s, was home to a substantial German enclave in the mid-20th century and currently has somewhere around 300,000 permanent residents.

Like much of Mexico, Mazatlán suffered through an economic downturn in the 1970s and '80s. After a hurricane destroyed downtown in the mid-70s, little money or effort was put into rebuilding. A purposeless stroll through Viejo Mazatlán will take you past old European-style buildings, with wrought-iron balconies or second level verandas. You'll see many of these buildings have no roof thanks to the hurricane's winds; years of neglect have allowed trees and plants to grow out of the walls and through the windows, making the buildings seem almost wild. Compare this with the newly rehabilitated Plazuela Machado, the center of current Mazalteco life, and you'll fully appreciate the immense dedication and time put into restoring the area. The rebuilding was funded entirely by local investments and manpower: Everything downtown is home-grown. The central plaza is lined with over-arching trees, with a historic home and museum at one end and a grand opera house at the other. The plaza is surrounded by a dozen or so restaurants serving up local fresh fish and gigantic shrimp, along with your typical Mexican fare. Take your pick. I tried Pedro y Lola (Avenida Constitución at Carnaval St.; tel. 669/982-2589; www.restaurantpedroylola.com), known for its innovative fish and shrimp dishes.

One would have to try very hard not to enjoy an evening on the Plaza, but be sure you get a seat outside. Your meal will be complimented by roving mariachi bands, the hum of the Spanish conversation of Mazalteco families and couples out for an evening stroll, a pleasant breeze and dramatically lit architecture. Come for a drink and dinner, stay for dessert, an after-dinner drink, an espresso and another drink. Spending upwards of four hours at dinner outside is the best way to experience a semi-tropical Mexican night. The plaza will still be packed by the time you leave.

The Angela Peralta Opera House, on the northern end of Plazuela Machado, offers more insight into the unprecedented restoration effort. This lovely little opera house, with its very unique open-air lobby, stands as a monument in Mazalteco eyes to the dedication and care taken by local businessmen and volunteers to give the city back its cultural center. For years, a huge tree grew right in the center of the building; now, the opera house is home to a modern dance troupe and is connected to a grand old hotel that has been converted into a visual arts center and school.

Carnaval Season

Mazatlán is host to the third oldest Carnaval celebration (in 2007 it's held February 15-20) in the world, after Rio and New Orleans, of course. Families and vacationers come from all over the nation to join in the fun, while food vendors from as far away as the Yucatán set up makeshift shops to feed the hungry midnight masses. The entire seaside avenue, or malecón, that stretches from the oldest section of town to the newest, is closed off in the Carnaval evenings for one very long and very crowded party. Half a dozen stages are set up along the ocean with just as many bands performing from a gamut of Mexican popular music -- from mariachi, to ballads, to rock, to banda -- the local music of German origin. As someone who wedges herself onto the sardine cans of the New York City subway every morning, I must say, this was the largest and most densely packed crowd I have ever been in. If you're not comfortable with close physical contact with total strangers, you might not want to venture into this sea of people. That being said, this was also the most jovial, most relaxed and least intimidating crowd I've ever experienced. Usually "crowd of drunken revelers" is equal to "spontaneous drunken brawls," but in fact this crowd was so convivial it was almost uncanny. Don't be surprised if you find a toddler or two dancing in the arms of their parents in the throng. You absolutely must toss yourself into this mass for the communal dancing, the conga traffic lines and the smiles, smiles, smiles.

However, Mazatlán offers more for Carnaval revelers than simply a gigantic party. I was lucky enough to attend the two elaborate crowning ceremonies for the two Carnaval queens: the Queen of the Arts and the Queen of Carnaval. Tickets are available up to the night of the concert which is held in the baseball stadium. Being in the middle of that baseball field as the entire audience sang "La Corrida Mazatlán" (think "New York, New York" at a Yankees game or "I Love L.A." for the Lakers) provided more than a glimpse into the traditions of Mazatlán's Carnaval. While concert performers vary from year to year, you can expect a first-rate classical music and opera concert for the first crowning, and a popular music performance at the second. Queens from 25, 50 and 75 years ago join the festivities and greet their perpetually adoring public. The Carnaval Queen carries great relevance in Mazatlán and being crowned Queen is considered a very high honor. This isn't your typical beauty pageant: These girls run print campaigns. You might see an old promotional poster or two pasted on the walls of Viejo Mazatlán, and conversation with any number of the city's women could easily turn nostalgic in reference to her reign as Queen.

In addition to these two top-notch concerts, there is also a spectacular fireworks display. In the U.S. there are dozens of rules and regulations for fireworks shows that prevent the audience from being too near, from the fireworks being set-off too close to buildings, etc. Not so in Mexico. Come to this fireworks show and you might just find yourself brushing ash from your hair. The entire city and every visitor pack onto the malecón for the Combate Navale (Naval Combat), which commemorates the failed French invasion of Mazatlán in 1864. A Mexican naval frigate floats off shore and "battles" the city in a duel of fireworks and lasers. From the shore, the fireworks are set off on the beach directly below the malecón, which makes for a pleasingly heart-stopping show.

Of course, there is also the Carnaval parade. While not nearly as big as the parades in Rio or New Orleans, this is another great way to mingle with locals, Mexican tourists and foreigners alike. You'll be wedged in the malecón with families and children who cheer on their friends and relatives that are marching and dancing in the parade. Then there are more fireworks. For the full calendar of Carnaval events, visit: www.carnavalmazatlan.com.mx.

It follows that with all the commotion of Carnaval that every foreign tourist in town would be right along side the Mazaltecos and Mexican vacationers, but oddly enough this isn't true. While this is one of the busiest tourist seasons, I encountered foreign tourists who had no idea that it was Carnaval let alone the fact that a huge party was happening just two or three miles from their resort. Here you can choose to spend your vacation on the plush grounds of one of the dozens of stunning local resorts, just a few miles north in Marina Mazatlán, or you can spend some time in Mazatlán proper, for a more cultural vacation. Such is this city's diverse nature.

Aside from the intense rehabilitation of downtown, Mazatlán is also investing in the construction of a huge new marina to the north of the city and main tourist district of the Zona Dorada. Marina Mazatlán will ultimately connect the isolated resorts of the north with the main roads leading to downtown, which right now are rather desolate. While still a few years from completion, Marina Mazatlán will be the largest port in between Los Angeles and Panama and will feature an expansive golf course, condominiums, boutique hotels and a sprawling commercial district (Wal-Mart included). While on the one hand Mazatlán has existed with and without the tourism industry for centuries and the new downtown is as much for the local population as it is for tourists, current trends are pointing the city in a far more foreign, high-end tourism oriented direction, bound to change the very face and nature of Mazatlán.

However, the tradition of Carnaval feels like an anchor in the middle of the development. The party is still primarily for Mexicans and Mazaltecos. The crowning ceremonies and Combate Navale are two prime examples of how Carnaval is a celebration of Mazatlán and is both the source and fuel of local pride. The celebration brings many tourists downtown to learn a little bit more about their favorite vacation town and draws Mexican families and vacationers to participate in an international (and still religious) tradition.

Where to Stay

I stayed at Los Sabalos (Ave. Playa Gaviotas 100; tel. 800/528-8760; www.lossabalos.com), one of the oldest hotels in the Zona Dorada. Los Sabalos, like other hotels in the area, has been around since the '60s and maintains a bit of retro-charm with its open-air lobby and hallways. In fact, you're only ever inside when you're in your room and even then you're likely to have your balcony door or windows open. This hotel is one among many on a stretch of beach called Playa Norte, the most popular among Mazatlán's tourists. The beach features a joyful Spring-break style oyster bar (emphasis on the bar), dozens of hotels, strolling mariachi bands and ocean-craft rentals -- all steps away from a major shopping district. Three small islands lie directly off shore, making the sunsets particularly dramatic. Perhaps you'll recognize the islands from the logo of Pacifico Beer, which is brewed in Mazatlán.

Day and Side Trips

Besides miles of lovely beaches, there's also the possibility of visiting nearby towns such as El Quelite, a tiny town with a cock-fighting farm and one restaurant that's an absolute must-taste, or Copala and Concordia, two historic silver mining towns just a short bus ride away. One day I opted for a quick jump over to El Quelite for lunch and the next day took a tour of an artisan tequila factory (at 10am, no less). Los Osunas opened only a few years ago but is already producing high quality blue agave alcohol -- don't call it tequila since it's not actually from the town of Tequila, in Jalisco state. As soon as you step out of your car you'll be hit with that familiar (haunting?) and sweet, sweet smell of agave. Splurge on a bottle of this powerful stuff and your friends and family will thank you back home. All these tours can be arranged through your hotel's concierge. The two silver mining towns are also easily accessible by bus and easily explored on your own. Check your Frommer's Mexico for specifics on getting to and from Copala and Concordia.

If that isn't enough, birders will be thrilled to know that the state of Sinaloa, where Mazatlán is located, has 400 species of endemic birds. A new wildlife refuge just off the highway past Copala now hosts bird-watching tours, making the quest for the tufted-jay, a Sinaloa-specific species, just a little bit easier. Contact Sendero Mexico (www.senderomexico.com) for details.

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