Carnival in Mazatlan
This month, I have an email from my friend, Thomas Tetting and it presents one of my favorites,
He has an amazing story to tell you about his adventures in Mexico. It’s a wonderful narrative of intrigue, excitement and adventure, so let’s get started! This is where his tale begins:
How many buses does it take to get to Mazatlan from Puerto Vallarta? Well, in our case, four. That’s not the norm, nor the point of this story.
Before even leaving Puerto Vallarta, we had to exit the first bus we had boarded at 8:15 a.m. for a second one. Then the second bus broke down and nearly incinerated us in the mountains at 10:30 a.m. A third bus came along within 20 minutes and finally delivered us to Tepic. We arrived barely in time to catch the final bus to Mazatlan after a madcap dash through the terminal at noon. That doesn’t mean we were jinxed does it? It’s all in a day’s adventure, no?
We missed the Carnaval Masked Ball on Friday night, not because of bus delays but because we simply didn’t know about it. In fact, not a whole lot is printed about the Carnaval in Mazatlan, especially by or for gringos, and that is the point of the story
Imagine us, a middle-aged gringo couple embarking on an adventure with a minimum of knowledge, traveling by bus from Puerto Vallarta for a five-night excursion into the heart and soul of the Mexican Carnaval. At first we were disappointed to discover online that most resorts and hotels were full by January. We tried to book the main five nights of the long weekend at our favorite Bed and Breakfast, but no luck
Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, while celebrated around the world, is known simply as Carnaval.
Carnaval (also spelled Carnival)
in Mazatlan and elsewhere, and the selected date, is tied to the Christian calendar and varies each year. Carnaval came early this year on February 5th just 40 days before Easter.
While not on the scale of Carnaval celebrations in Rio de Janiero, or New Orleans, or even Venice, Mazatlan has has a reputation of enthusiastic attendance, growing over the years. Luckily only a few weeks before the event, our B&B called back and said they had a cancelation exactly for the time we wanted, so at the last minute we took it. We love the location, a block from Olas Altas beach and directly in the heart of Historic Mazatlan.
The B&B is a lovingly restored, two story, 19th century mansion built around a sunny courtyard. It has a beautiful pink marble staircase, a fantastic updated kitchen, a generous serve-yourself-bar, and internet access. The owners, couldn’t be more attentive, gracious or enthusiastic. They shared the party spirit of the moment with us like old friends. We love the place!
When we arrived Friday evening, we were greeted with glasses of wine as the busy, weekly Art Walk, which they help sponsor, was happening. Then they handed us ‘the earplugs’. “So we’ll need these?” we asked naively. Their reply was that we were a ‘bit close’ to one of the bandstands. An understatement indeed!
Although so perfectly situated for walking through the Historic District and accessing the beachfront Malecon, the B&B’s location is directly in-line with the musical pathway of one of at least 10 band stages along the end of the parade route through Olas Altas. In fact, sitting on the roof of the house you look directly at the stage, but also at the sunset and the ocean beyond.
There are two big Carnaval parades, one on the Avenida del Mar about a mile away on Sunday and one on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) evening right in front of the B&B. There are also two fireworks celebrations; known as the Combate Naval (the first of which was the best display I have ever seen!); one on Saturday (commemorating Mazatlan’s victory over the French Navy in 1864) and another Carnaval display on Monday evening, along Ave. del Mar.
But getting back to the ear plugs…music is at the heart of the Carnaval celebration and is called Sinaloa Banda music.
Banda is not Mariachi music but something akin to a blend of many styles; Salsa, Mariachi, Cumbia, Merengue, and maybe you can even toss in some Jewish Klezmer music. Hate it or love it, there are 30 plus bands, over five nights, playing up and down the beachfront on bandstands from about 7 in the evening to at least 2 in the morning, and sometimes til 4!
During the Carnaval parades or in between acts on stage there are the small bands that didn’t make it into the line up and rather than allow any silence, they play on the street corners when no one else is upstaging them. This is infectious, danceable music and did I give you the impression yet…LOUD!? (And to boot, just jog four or five blocks away from Olas Altas to the Plazuela Machado where there are four more stages – we’ll deal with that location later.)
After a couple of nights, we practically got used to it almost constant music and even caught a few hours of sleep. Banda music has a distinct place in Mexico’s musical heart and creates part of the soul of Carnaval, much as Jazz does for New Orleans or Samba and Bossa Nova do in Rio.
Carnaval was “family friendly” fun, with clowns and balloons, day and night, in a way that discourages the “skin shows” and drunkenness of other cities around the world. There are loads of beer stands everywhere, setting prices from 10 to 20 pesos a can. ($1 to $2 USD) Pacifico Beer is produced in Mazatlan; so are the Pacifico Girls…you see everywhere. They still use huge 100 pound ice blocks, hauled by ‘men-with-tongs’ and chopped up to cool enormous stacks of beer. The streets ran slick with the melt-off strewn confetti. People dress up with masks but because the date was early in the year, many folks just plain dressed to stay warm in the cool evenings.
In addition to the numerous locations having street fair stuff, there is a whole wealth of entertainment and more of a purpose to Carnaval when the local residents crown various Queens of Carnaval, presented in stadiums and grand ballrooms. These gala events include much more ceremony, distinction, and are coronations of the most beautiful and talented individuals of the highest order. Past year’s queens are honored for their achievements in a ritual of events.
Food for most, including me, is a priority when I travel. Although street vendors can entice you with an economical plethora of local specialities, we found that real meals are highly important to not only provide stamina for dancing, walking, site seeing and a host of other daily events but also to avoid heartburn. We moved our focus to the Plazuela Machado in a more completely restored section of Historic Mazatlan only a few blocks from our B&B.
That reminds me, while we took the time to walk around Historic Mazatlan;we were enveloped in a wonderful ethereal sense of artistic decay and elegance somewhat akin to what Havana, Cuba is like. The antiquated charm of the abundant and strikingly different architectural styles, the restored buildings, brightly painted and filled with wrought iron works is contrasted with the ancient and deteriorated looking structures sometimes right next door to each other. It truly captured, amazed and thrilled both of us! The revival of the area began with the Angela Peralta Theater anchoring the neighborhood and gentrification has spread outward during the last decade.
The Plazuela is a focal point of Carnaval, bounded on its northern side by Calle Carnaval filled with locals selling festival goods.
Depending on our timing we either had lunch or dinner in the outdoor cafes surrounding the plaza’s shady strolling area. In the Plazuela you have the choice of sitting on the sunny side or the shady side and are surrounded by fantastic people-watching as you gaze across the central sitting area and fountains. Strolling minstrels and mimes added color, and impromptu songs and poetry by groups kept the place entertaining all day long. At night multiple stages erupted into big music productions the place was packed and rockin’ with the youth of Mazatlan. This became one crowded little plaza!
Additional sight-seeing in Mazatlan filled our daily needs. One morning we hiked to the tallest working lighthouse in the world. Looking out from the top across the ocean and all of Mazatlan we saw the cruise ship terminal and fishing fleet docks in the harbor from which the city has earned the nickname, ‘Shrimp Capital of the World”. We looked northward where the tourist, beach-mecca of high rise hotels and resorts is, known as the Golden Zone and saw the three islands just offshore.
Two different days we took a 15-minute hike to the Old Zocalo and Cathedral for more people watching. The huge, typical Mexican public market, “Mercado Pino Suarez” nearby is jam-packed full of tourist-ware, groceries, meat displays, clothing, and absolutely everything up for bargaining.
A couple of times we took an ‘indigenous’ open-air taxi ride in a golf cart-like contraption known as a pulmonía, commemorated in Mazatlan history by a monument on the Malecon.
Carnaval comes to a climax on Fat Tuesday night after the last parade, with revelry exceeding all previous evenings. The noise gets louder and the people crazier. But after throwing the last of our confetti-“In your face, baby!” we went home at midnight, showing our age, long ahead of everyone else.
Before leaving town in the morning we walked the Malecon one last time; watched the cleanup, melted ice and towers of beer still in evidence, the ocean surf pounded on the big rocks off shore, and we were entranced by one of the brave cliff divers from the pavilion near the dolphin sculptures.
After five nights, our bus ride back home was very anticlimactic. There were the same four young guys we rode the bus up with. However, now they were no longer singing, laughing in anticipation, playing loud music on their MP3’s, no more joking at the front of the bus, nor displaying the antics of youth; now they were in the back, behind us, practically soundless and like us probably sleeping much of the ride home, recovering from the exhausting and delightful party known as Carnaval!