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The cruise industry —often the first to fold and move out of designated ports-of-call when security issues threaten — sees blue sky ahead. After dropping Mazatlan from their Mexico itineraries in 2011, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Lines are returning, with scheduled visits to the new cruise terminal starting next month, and continuing through the 2014 season. Holland America’s Veendam will be the first to arrive, on Nov. 12.
“We’ll be ready for them,” said Cordova. “I’ve got a tourism budget of 400 million pesos [$32.5 million U.S.], half for the new cruise port and the rest for restoration and improvements in the historic city center.”
The cruise port and passenger terminal, a contemporary stunner designed for comfort — and for passenger security — has docking room for eight large passenger ships at once. Adjacent tour bus parking will allow passengers taking shore tours to board the buses without much walking. Travelers who’d rather stay on the ship or at the port will have shops, a restaurant, a tourist information center and gift stores to explore.
Shore tours in Third World ports, often the bête noir of cruise passengers, haven’t been forgotten.
“Funds are set aside to train tour guides to make sure every tour is unforgettable,” said Cordova. Cognizant that first impressions matter, the adjoining neighborhood has also gotten a facelift. Seedy shacks are gone, cracked stucco is patched and vacant lots have become gardens. “The town has spent $3 million alone restoring the colonial buildings on the corridor between the port and the historic district,” confirmed Berdegue.
Markets, beaches and bullfights
Shore tours will visit several nearby 16th- and 17th-century villages, and the ancient pictographs on the shoreline. But visitors who opt for a stroll through the historic center’s narrow streets and shaded plazas won’t be sorry. It was these plazas where the first colonists gathered and where much of the era’s social and civic life played out. Still popular gathering places, this is where people meet to walk, talk, eat and watch the world pass by. Wander around and you’ll find the Plaza Machado, the Cathedral, the elegantly restored Angel Peralta Opera House and the art museum.
The Central Market, humming from early morning to late afternoon, is where housewives shop for food, teenagers hunt for cheap purses and jewelry and travelers take photos. Covering a city block, the two-story iron structure (think late Victorian), houses hundreds of stalls selling fruits of every color and shape, vegetables, nuts, bread, tortillas, cheeses, woven hats, souvenirs, fish, shrimp, chickens (whole and butchered), pigs (everything but the squeal), cakes, pies, cookies, puddings and candy, not to mention soap, brooms and buckets.
If the past is prologue, the end game is written. Some cruise passengers will join ashore tours or catch the sightseeing boat to Deer Island, across the bay. Others will grab lunch at Pancho’s and spend the time in port on Pacific Mexico’s nicest beach. Encouraged to return, the second time around will include a candlelight dinner at Pedro & Lola’s on the Plaza, and a round of golf. Eventually they’ll check out a bullfight. And after that, who knows?
Anne Z. Cook and Steve Haggerty travel widely from their home in Venice, Calif.