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Coney Island Charm, With Boston Traffic. Our gourmand reporter liked Mazatl'an's street food, though. TRAVEL: MEXICO

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`PSSSST. Hey, amigo. You wanna Mexican vacation cheap? Four-hundred ninety-nine dollars for eight days? Come here, I explain you.'' No explanation necessary. It's certainly no secret that Mexico is the foreign destination bargain for American turistas. Collaboration between hotels and airlines has made the Northeast US-Mexico connection an added attraction.

It's called the ``Golden Six'' plan, and it works like this: For as little as $499 to as much as $1,299, you get eight days and seven nights in Mexico - including round-trip air fare from the East Coast, with hotel accommodations, tips, taxes, and a few extras thrown in.

You have a choice of two Pacific Ocean, seaside resorts, Mazatl'an or Puerto Vallarta. Prices vary, depending on when you go and in how grand a style you choose to live. Upon arrival you are given a ``Golden Six VIP'' card. ``Just show this card at any or all of the other hotels,'' the brochure states, ``and suddenly the magic begins!''

``Magic,'' in practical terms, means you get a clean beach towel and chaise longue by the pool at any hotel participating in the program. Plus an invitation to various hotel manager's parties.

I recently visited both Mazatl'an and Puerto Vallarta during the same week. Here's how Mazatl'an stacked up:

In this city, the only modern buildings you pass on the half-hour drive from the airport to the hotel district are the cinderblock-shaped gray prison and the colorful, round bull ring. The scenery improves noticeably after that with scattered haciendas and a few small farms.

It was shrimp that first put Mazatl'an on the map - it still is the main revenue - with tourism the second largest catch. Mazatl'an means ``Land of the Deer,'' not shrimp. But you have a better chance of spotting a flamingo in Central Park than running across a deer here.

Four hotels in Mazatl'an participate in the ``Golden Six'' program; Camino Real Westin, El Cid Resort Hotel and Country Club, Holiday Inn, and Hotel Granada/El Cid.

The El Cid Resort Hotel was to be my south-of-the-border home for three days before flying off to test the waters in Puerto Vallarta. The resort and grounds occupy 200 sprawling acres engulfing no less than 17 tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, a high-rise hotel, and ``spacious, air-conditioned rooms designed with Mexican motif.''

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