Coney Island Charm, With Boston Traffic. Our gourmand reporter liked Mazatl'an's street food, though. TRAVEL: MEXICO
`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.''
``Mexican motif'' translated to wall-to-wall orange shag carpeting, fiber board furniture, and a live-in cockroach that had taken up residence in the bathroom. However, my room on the 19th floor was indeed quite comfortable and spacious, with a balcony and fine view. The hotel has a huge free-form pool, 11 restaurants, and ``color TV from US via satellite.''
Mazatl'an - at least the hotel district - has about as much genuine Mexican flavor as a bratwurst. The area referred to as the ``Golden Zone'' has been created exclusively as a resort.
Hotels and time-share condos border the beach side of the main drag. Shops, car rentals, restaurants, and pizza joints line the other. In fact, the most Mexican thing I encountered was a Mexican-style pizza at La Fabula pizza parlor. Topped with re-fried beans, sausage, hot peppers, and bacon. At least it sounded better than the Hawaiian style: pizza with ham, pineapple, cherries, and bananas.
On every block are kiosks with salesmen who will do anything legal to get you to your time-share property.
When you get bored with the beach, head downtown to the market and the cathedral for some local color. The most fun way to get there is by pulmonia. These are wonderful little open vehicles that look something like a dune buggy. Just stand on any street corner, and one is bound to come along. Negotiate the price before you hop in (6,000 pesos is about $3). Hold on tight, and you're there in less than 10 minutes.
The market is a large, white building a block square. It's the place to shop if you don't mind a little chaos and the sight of great slabs of raw meat. Beneath the corrugated steel roof you can find bargains in everything from beef liver to Barbie dolls to Campbell's ``Crema de Langosta'' soup.
Around the outside are small food stands. Although I had been warned not to eat ``street food,'' I couldn't say ``no'' to an appetizer of freshly shucked oysters with lime and salsa served in an old-fashioned, tall, glass sundae cup. This followed some thin, succulent, slices of suckling-pig tucked in a taco. Other stands sold fresh gooseberries and nuts for dessert.
A large cathedral with painted blue and yellow spires occupies an adjacent block. In a pleasant green park the locals gather to talk politics and have their shoes shined in quaint portable shoe-shine stands. Vendors stroll the paths selling parrots and canaries in high-rise cages, Mexican dolls, hats, cheap huaraches, and trinkets.