Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mazatlán Part 2: Centro Historico's Plazuela Machado & Teatro Angela Peralta

Plazuela Machado is the centerpiece of Mazatlán's Centro Historico. Above, a young girl reads on a quiet bench in front of the kiosco, a bandstand structure that may be found in almost every old Mexican plaza. Plazuelo Machado is located only a few blocks east of Playa Olas Altas, the beautiful crescent beach where our hotel looked out over the ocean. In Part 2 of my Mazatlán series, we will look at the Plazuela Machado and the area immediately around it, including the 19th Century Teatro Angela Peralta, named after a famous opera singer who died tragically in Mazatlán.

19th Century map of Old Mazatlán. Indigenous people had inhabited the area for thousands of years before the Spanish, under Nuño de Guzman, arrived in 1531 to set up a port to handle exports of gold and silver found in mines in the area. It is not clear what the local people called the area, but the Nahuatl-speaking people who accompanied the Spanish on so many of their conquests named it Mazatlán, meaning "the place of the deer."  The top of this map faces west and the bottom faces east. At the top of the map, Olas Altas beach is bracketed by Cerro de las Neverias (Icebox Hill) on the right, and Cerro del Vigia (Lookout Hill) on the left. Plazuela Machado is 3 blocks east of Playa Olas Altas.  For a modern map of this area showing various interesting sites, click here.

Centro Historico, looking southeast from Cerro de las Neverias. Modern-day Mazatlán has a population of more than 350,000, but only a fraction of them live within the narrow confines of the peninsula that contains Centro Historico. The rest are found to the north and east. In the photo above, you can see the steeples of the Catedral on the left, and the massive, floating, "city-within-a-city" that is the cruise ship in the channel bordering the east side of the peninsula. Three such ships were in port when we visited Mazatlán, disgorging thousands of visitors onto Centro Historico's streets. They were generally easy to spot, since they moved in clumps, often with a guide. To the distress of the local tourist industry, several cruise lines recently cancelled stops at Mazatlán, citing violence from Mexico's drug war. We saw no direct evidence of violence while there, and apparently most of the incidents cited by the cruise lines occurred in small towns outside of the Mazatlán area. As always, we exercised normal caution and good sense during our visit, and had no problems.

Restaurant Row in Plazuela Machado. Three of the four sides of the plaza are occupied by side-walk restaurants and cafes, arranged one after the other. We tried several of them along Calle Constitución, seen above, and the food was generally good, with prices ranging generally from $5-$10 (USD) for lunch and $10-$20 (USD) for dinner. Plazuela Machado is quite old--for Mazatlán. Built in 1837 by a wealthy Filipino silver and pearl merchant named Don Juan Nepomuceno Machado, it is one of the oldest plazas in the city. French and Spanish architectural styles dominate the buildings around the perimeter of the plaza. Between the Spanish arrival in 1531, and the mid-19th Century, Mazatlán was little more than a group of huts belonging to local indigenous fishermen. In 1836, Sr. Machado established the town as a port-of-call for ships from Peru, Chile, the US, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific area.  By the mid-1830s, the city had a population of about 5000.

Young Mexican students work in their homework over coffee at Plazuela MachadoThe staff of Mexican restaurants are almost invariably polite and attentive and would find it unthinkable to encourage a dawdling diner to finish up and move on. Consequently, it is a wonderful place to relax under the shade of an umbrella, sip one's coffee, and observe the passing panoply of tourists, locals, vendors, street musicians, and general oddities that are the fare of a Mexican plaza. The port of Mazatlán had become important enough by the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 that the US Navy seized it. The Mexican Army abandoned it to the Americans to avoid destructive shelling. The US pulled out after the end of hostilities.

The Juarez Building is one of the nicer restorations. The Juarez building is located at Calle Constitución and Calle Carnaval, the northeast corner of the plaza. A restaurant called Pedro y Lola occupies the ground floor, named after the famous singer/movie star Pedro Infante. The Juarez was constructed in the second half of the 19th Century by a Spaniard named Federico Imaña who is responsible for several of the buildings surrounding the plaza. A number of different businesses have been housed in the Juarez building over the last 150 years, including medical offices, a hardware store, a pharmacy, and a publishing agency. In December 1897, the Juarez hosted the first motion pictures shown in Mazatlán.

Canobbio's Arcade occupies the west side of the Plazuela along Calle Heriberto Frias. The Arcade, which fills the whole length of the block, was named after the Canobbio family, who maintained a drug store here in the late 19th Century. Above the Arcade is the Museo Machado (opened in 1999), that recreates the lifestyle of prosperous 19th Century Mazatlecos, as the locals like to be called. Originally the building had only one floor and was called Portal de la Lonja. In 1864, the second story was added by architect Juan Modini and the building took on the look you see today.

Canobbio Arcade now houses a restaurant and a coffee house. Mazatlán had a tumultuous history, even after the Mexican-American War. Twenty years later, during the French attempt to establish an empire in Mexico under Maximilian, a French man-of-war shelled the city. There was little damage, and the French partially made up for it with some of the fine architecture they left behind after their occupation. In 1868, the British captain of the HMS Chanticleer threatened to shell the city because his payroll was seized by Mazatlán's customs office. During the Revolution in the early 20th Century, Mazatlán became the second city in the world (after Tripoli, Libya) to undergo aerial bombardment. General Venustiano Carranza ordered a bi-plane to drop a crude bomb on Cerro de la Neverias. It went astray, and two civilians were killed in the area of Plazuelo Machado. There were several other battles here during the Revolution. From one of them, the local museum shows pictures of sombreroed soldiers in Mazatlán identified as Zapatistas--men belonging to the army of Emiliano Zapata. I have never found any other reference that Zapata's forces penetrated this far north and west from his normal area of operations in southern Mexico.

The kiosco and jardin occupy the center of the Plazuela Machado. While the rest of the jardin (garden) was immaculate, the kiosco looked a bit shabby and in need of a coat of paint. However, it appeared to be otherwise sound and had beautiful, graceful lines. The tall palm trees throughout the Plazuela area provide plenty of welcoming shade for weary strollers seeking to rest on one of the many benches. While we were there, workmen were busily painting some of the benches, so perhaps the kiosco is on their list.

A quiet street tree-lined street near Plazuela Machado. Although paved instead of cobblestoned, the narrow streets have maintained their 19th Century feel. Most buildings do not rise above two stories, providing a human-scale feel absent in the newer areas to the north with their tall hotels and endless strip malls. This street is typical of those found in the Centro Historico area. After the turmoil of the Revolution, and the Cristero War which followed it in the 1920s, Mazatlán was discovered by Hollywood movie people of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Famous figures like  John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and John Huston liked the old port and its wonderful sport fishing. They stayed in Playa Olas Altas hotels such as La Siesta, where we stayed, just west of Plazuela Machado.

Home identified only as "the Artist's House." This private home has a remarkable facade, as well as additional statues on the yard to the right. After Mazatlán's heyday in the mid-20th Century, the Centro Historico area began to decline. Newer resorts were opened along the northern beachs of Maztlán in the 1970s and 80s. In addition, other Pacific Coast tourist areas like Puerto Vallarta and Ixtapa were developed around the idyllic fishing villages found there.

Detail from the facade of the Artist's House. Not until the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries did the Centro Historico area begin to revive. In 2001, the Mexican Federal Government declared Mazatlán's Centro Historico an historic monument and National Heritage site. The area is currently under review by UNESCO for possible World Heritage Site designation. During the 2000s, Mazatlán poured resources into the Centro Historico area, refurbishing buildings and plazas, and expanding the seafront and malecon.

Much work remains, however. This old 19th Century house stands on its corner, gutted and awaiting a new owner to begin restoration. In addition to the work the city has done, many individuals have bought and restored inexpensive old properties. There appear to be many properties left that could use a facelift.

A peek through the window. An open window reveals a vine-grown adobe wall inside the gutted building in the previous picture, testifying to its elderly origins. As a real estate agent would say, "only a little TLC and it will be in fine shape..." This property probably needs a bit more than "tender loving care," but you get the idea.

The Redo House, a recent restoration. The Redo House has a history, as many of Mazatlán's old structures do. From 1864-66, during the French Intervention, the French Army used the property for a military barracks. Later, during the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, the Redo family owned it. They were influential merchants and politicans of the Porfiriate. In the 1960s, the prestigious Club Deportivo Muralla (Muralla Sports Club) acquired the building and still owns it.

Teatro Angela Peralta

Angela Peralta, the Mexican Nightingale. One of the anchors of the Plazuela Machado is the Teatro Angela Peralta, which occupies the east end of the plaza. Born in 1845, Angela Peralta was baptized María de los Ángeles Manuela Tranquilina Cirila Efrena Peralta Castera, which gives you an idea of why she shortened her name. She was a celebrated operatic soprano, dubbed the "Mexican Nightingale" by adoring European audiences. As well as a singer, Angela Peralta was an accomplished composer, pianist, and harpist. Despite her ten-dollar name, she had relatively humble origins. As a child prodigy, she began wowing audiences at age 8, and made her debut in opera at 15. After studying at the National Music Conservatory in Mexico City, Peralta traveled to Europe where by age 20 she had performed in most of the major opera houses. She eventually returned to Mexico to form her own touring company. A major scandal broke over Peralta's affair with Julián Montiel y Duarte, a Mexican lawyer. She was trying to stage a comeback with a tour of Northern Mexico when she visited Mazatlán in 1883. Mazatlecos cared little about her scandal, and were so beside themselves with joy at her arrival that they unhitched the horses to her carriage and drew the vehicle themselves over to her hotel. To return the compliment, she gave a short preview of her performance from her balcony. Unfortunately, it was her last performance. Angela Peralta and 76 out of the 80 of her in troupe died of yellow fever in a great epidemic that swept the city shortly after her arrival. Just before she died in August, 1883, she married her lover. Peralta was buried in Mazatlán but later her body was moved to the Rotunda de Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious People) in Mexico City. The people of Mazatlán were devastated by her death.

Teatro Angela Peralta, a neo-classical gem. The Teatro is one of the few 19th Century theaters still in operation in northwest Mexico. It was originally called the Teatro Rubio after a local businessman, and held its grand opening in February of 1874. Ten years later, Angela Peralta was scheduled to perform here when she died at the age of 38. In the 1940s, the Teatro was renamed for her. In later years, the Teatro declined, serving as a movie theater, vaudeville stage, boxing ring and a parking garage. The 1975 hurricane that destroyed much of Mazatlán also ruined the inside of the Teatro.

Detail of the entrance area. The Teatro stood in ruins for 12 years before restoration began in 1987. Five years later, the Teatro Angela Peralta reopened, restored to its former glory. The restoration work is beautiful. I was impressed by the wonderful woodwork on the ceiling, including the wood grille around the border.

Entrance to the main theater area. Beyond the outside doors lies a courtyard and this impressive entrance to the main theater. The detail work was astonishing. I couldn't imagine a modern building crafted with such beautiful, loving care.

Main theater hall, looking from the stage. The seating in the center is surrounded by several u-shaped tiers of box seats. The whole area is dominated by a huge circular ceiling. One can imagine hundreds of 19th Century caballeros with their damas filling the seats and boxes, the men dressed in their finest opera "white-tie" suits and the woman in their voluminous gowns and jewels.

The main hall, before the restoration. The level of destruction from the 1975 hurricane can clearly be seen, along the neglect of the following years. I found the transformation astonishing. The above photo was one of a collection displayed in one of the side rooms of the Teatro.

The restored main theater entrance today. Notice the finely detailed work around the balcony opening. Such work is found everywhere within the Teatro.

Same balcony, before restoration. Grime, filth, chipped and faded paint and many other issues faced the workers who accomplished the transformation of the Teatro into its current splendid condition. You can tour the Teatro for a modest fee, and there are regular performances of a variety of arts. With a visit to the Teatro Angela Peralta, you truly step into another era.

Melville Suites, another restored building of the Centro Historico. The Melville Suites is located about half way between Plazuela Machado and the beach at Olas Altas. Notice the fine old wrought-iron balcony along the whole front of the building.

A word from Herman Melville himself. What really caught my attention as I passed the Melville Suites was this plaque next to the door, noting Melville's visit in 1844. Herman Melville (1819-1891) was the author born in the United States who famously wrote "Moby Dick", as well as "Billy Budd" and "Typee", all novels of high seas adventure. Unfortunately, Moby Dick was never recognized as a literary masterpiece until the early 20th Century, well after Melville's death. What most attracted me to this sign was the quote. I feel the same deep pull toward remote and exotic places, some of which I visited as a young man. It is my intent to visit "forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts" during the rest of my active life. Stay tuned.

This concludes Part 2 of my Mazatlán series. In Part 3, I will take you for a visit to the soaring Mazatlán Catedral, and the nearby Suarez Mercado. I always appreciate feedback and if you would like to comment, please either use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Wonderful series! I'm really enjoying it. Mazatlan has leapt onto my list of possible retirement cities.

  2. Hey Jim, remember me, we met hiking a couple years ago. Mazatlan is my mother's hometown and is one of my favorite places. You probably walked right by my mother's family home just around the corner from El Muralla. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I'm here in Zacatecas and my Carol and I have been most of the morning at the Museo Rafael Coronel--what a find your blog has been but regrettably it's 4:30am here (2/19/2011 Sat) and I have to get to sleep. I've bookmarked your blog and SHALL return often--it's only our 2nd year exploring Mexico (San Miguel, Guanajuato, Quretaro, Puebla, jilapa, mexico City--last week in Chapala/Ajijic! Wish we could have met!
    Tlaquepaque is our base of operations this year for exploration of Guadalajara and surrounding sights. this the 3rd week of our so far annual stay in Mexico and the recent advent of our retirement from international teaching.

    Congratulations on a major piece of blogging work-- beats anything I've seen on Mexico. Look forward to checking in--doing a piece on Alejandro Colunga for fun and your blog popped up!

    Come visit us in Portland?

    John&Carol Chadwick



If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim