"Last dance, last chance for love," he half-shouts, half-croons off-key with Donna Summer. "Yes, it's my last cha-a-ance, for romance, to-ni-ight."
He beeps at a passing pulmonia and our cart lurches into a two-wheeled turn around a corner. There has been some talk of stricter laws, seat belts, maybe, or a crackdown on passenger limits or the distraction of noise pollution, but as with most things legal in Mazatlán's state of Sinaloa, it is just idle musing.
"You like the disco?" the driver asks. I nod, clutching the sides of the cart. He switches to "Disco Duck."
I arrive intact at my hotel, and after an exchange of a few coveted dollars, much preferred over pesos, I stand still for a few seconds before bursting into loud laughter. "Can I do it again?"
I flag down another pulmonia, and off I go.
Like a goofy ride in a tricked-out golf cart, a trip to Mazatlán is one of those things you can do over and over, precisely because it has that appealing combination of the familiar and the fun. It offers the sparkling water and beaches, fishing and water sports, history and culture, dining and night life of the other destination cities of Mexico — but here there's enough of a real city beneath the tourist traps to warrant repeat visits to the place that has been dubbed the "Pearl of Paradise."
"The pulmonia is such a Mazatlán thing to do," said Marianne Biassoti de Fontes the next day in the Zona Dorada, or Golden Zone, over lattes at Rico's, one of three coffee bars she owns with her husband, Rogilio Fontes.
The pulmonia is so beloved it has been honored with a life-size bronze statue on the malecón, which is lined with several such shrines to Mazatlán 's lifestyle. There also is a monument to beer, one to fishing and one celebrating a typical Sinaloan family, along with fountains that make the paved walkway an inviting destination for a warm-weather stroll.
Street-food vendors set up on the narrow beach below, accessible by steps. And at one end of the malecón, near the T-intersection that leads toward Centro Historico, or Old Town, fishermen still spend each morning hauling out the day's catches that makes dining locally such a seafood-lover's dream. It's what they have done here seemingly forever, and officially since this city — still Mexico's largest commercial port — was founded in the 1820s. Just above the fishermen, a statue of a naked man and woman, a lighthouse, a marlin and a fishing net, keep watch.
Mazatlán is big on monuments.
"There's pretty much a statue for everything," said Biassoti de Fontes. "We like to commemorate things with a monument, and then we have a big party to celebrate putting up the monument, and then every year we have to celebrate it again."
Marianne Biassoti met Rogilio Fontes in San Luis Obispo in the mid-90s. He was a Tijuana native studying civil engineering at California Polytechnic State University; she was there looking to become a journalist. But in 1996, some friends convinced them that Mazatlán was ripe for an American beer company to give Pacifico, which had been brewed in the city since 1900, a run for its money.
"It didn't work out," Biassoti de Fontes said. "But we just fell so in love with Mazatlán, and we wanted to stay. So we started looking around at what was missing around here, what we might be able to do. And we came up with a coffee cafe."
They started with one Rico's, offering free Wi-Fi with their shade-grown organic beans and elaborate espresso drinks, and they now have three shops.
Business has been booming, in part because there haven't been that many options for Internet service, especially for tourists, but mostly because there aren't many other options for good coffee — especially not the barista-crafted, European-style coffee Rico's makes.
At least there weren't until recently. Locals are lamenting the fact that Starbucks has moved in, which means the face of one of Mexico's most interesting cities — less glitzy than Acapulco, a little grittier and less cheesy than the Riviera Maya, with fewer cruise ships than Cozumel and way fewer wet T-shirt contests than Cancún — may be about to change.
At El Cid Marina Hotel early one morning, about two dozen youngsters pretended to be cliff divers and hid in the caves at one of the resort hotel's elaborate pools. At a moment's notice, a one-minute ferry ride could take me to the private beach on the other side of the marina — most of the beaches at this end of Mazatlán are linked to a hotel, which blessedly means no vendors inquiring about jewelry sales, hair-braiding or watercraft rentals.
"We bought because no one here bothers us," said Cindy Armstrong, a Houston native who with her husband bought a timeshare two years ago in the El Cid system. They and their four children, ages 8 to 16, were in Mazatlán for their annual two-week vacation. "We feel safe. We love the food. We plop our stuff down, and I sit here by the pool all day and catch up on my trashy novels. The kids go do their thing, and it's heaven every time."
Armstrong said the family had visited other destinations in Mexico, but had chosen Mazatlán because it had a good mix of vacation and regular options. "It's like a real place," she said. "After I'm done with the beach, sometimes I want to go do stuff that's not totally touristy."
And that's one of the unusual things about Mazatlán — people sometimes recommend the oddest, non-tourist things to check out, such as going to the movies. It costs less than half the price of seeing one in the United States, the films are almost always shown in English with Spanish subtitles, and popcorn and a soda cost two bucks. And some of the theaters are kind of snazzy.
Mazatlán also prides itself on its strong cultural offerings, such as the circa-1860s Teatro Angela Peralta, named for the Mexican opera singer who died of yellow fever in this city. The building offers beautiful black-and-white photos of years gone by, and the adjacent dance school features regular performances.
And like any other self-respecting city, Mazatlán has its "best-of’s," with its El Faro lighthouse being a top contender. At 515 feet, the still-operating attraction is the second-highest lighthouse in the world (the tallest is Gibraltar's), but the highest natural one, and you can see the hill it calls home, El Cerro de la Creston, from most points along the city's coastline.
Tourists hike to the beacon — which shines 48 nautical miles, mostly to catch drug-runners and other ne'er-do-wells — on a dirt trail that takes about an hour round-trip and rewards the hot and thirsty with spectacular views of the city and coastline.
Cliff divers get another view, from their perches high above the Olas Altas, or "high waves." They ask for tips from tourists to perform their bare-chested stunts. Half the time it looks as though they are going to smash into the rocks, but since 1961, when the tradition started as a bet between two men, there has been only one serious injury.
A way to get your own view from even higher up is via a zip line at the new EduVentura facility at the Hotel Playa Mazatlán. It's a sort of zip line lite, a setup that doesn't hurtle you through the jungle but instead runs through the resort, still well over the tops of palm trees and buildings and affording panoramic shots of the ocean, but with less of a sense of isolation and no giant, slimy bugs.
First, though, I climb the rock wall and rappel a bit, to warm up — and warm up to the idea of being so high. Then it's time to buckle up and clip onto the zip line.
I pull on the heavy-duty workman's gloves, grab the line and look down. Not such a good idea. I look up and leap. Someone is screaming — it turns out to be me. But it's a good scream, the kind that starts out shaky, and then when it's still coming from a person who apparently is alive enough to keep screaming, becomes all excited and giggly.
"Can I do it again?"
What the heck. It had to be safer than a pulmonia. Click to watch video: Mazatlán