The Smells of Mazatlán

Mazatlán is gorgeous, there is no doubt about it. The clear blue sky, ocean to the horizon, daily killer sunsets, long sandy beaches, mountains surrounding, estuaries filled with grasses and birds. Seeing Mazatlán is probably the most popular way to experience the place.

Mazatlán is rich, diverse, and complex, however; definitely a multi-sensory experience. Our sense of smell also plays a major in our experience of this paradise. When we came here as tourists, I must admit we didn’t notice the olfactory input so much as we do now that we live here. Back then we were no doubt overwhelmed by the visual beauty and thought the smells were intermittent, a side dish. Once you live here, smells play a much more important role.
I’ll keep adding to this list, but I do want to record some of the important smells of life in Mazatlán, for better and for worse:
  • TUNA. There are mornings we wake up to a permeating, cooked-fishy sort of smell. Greg, Danny and I all look at each other and grimace. It’s the tuna smell. Mazatlán has a huge tuna business. The Mazatún factory is just outside of town. We don’t know if it’s the way the wind blows, the days they happen to cook or can, or what, but there are certain days when you can’t escape it: it’s tuna time!
  • Zarandeado. The smell of barbecue emanating from the palapas along the beach. You walk the beach, or the malecon. You’re not hungry when you start. But boy, smell that fish on the barbie, and you will be!
  • Sewer gas. One of the greatest joys of life in Mazatlán is the malecon, the oceanside promenade. Walking down it towards the Fisherman’s Monument is gorgeous: the world’s biggest gymnasium, we like to call it. But oftentimes near that very monument, where most parades in town gather before starting, the sewer smells are overwhelming; you actually have to cover your nose and mouth. The city recently did drainage work down there, and the smell appears to have abated somewhat. We can only hope. But there are areas throughout town where you’d swear you were in a bathroom. In the historic downtown, for example. Gorgeous architecture, millions of pesos invested into updating and converting these homes into glory, but once you step outside…..
  • Chile and lime. This favorite seasoning combination teases the nostrils at nearly every fiesta, and there are daily fiestas. Put chile and lime and potato chips or corn chips. Put it on kernels of corn in a cup, or corn on the cob. Put the taste combo on the fruit cup you buy from the vendor on the beach. On your ceviche or fish. Nearly anywhere you wander in Mazatlán, you’ll get a whiff of this winning combination.
  • Salt. As in the fresh salt air, the ocean breeze, the sticky thick liquid that gets stuck on the screens of the sliding doors to the terrace, or in the corners of the tile floor and requires much scrubbing to remove. Salt also as in added taste for beer and margaritas, in combination with lime, of course. Salt is definitely a key smell of those with “las patas saladas.”
  • Tortillas. This is true for many places in Latin America, but/and including Mazatlán. There is no smell so wonderful as fresh tortillas being baked. Who can pass by the tortillería without grabbing a few? Especially when the government subsidizes their cost and you can get a kilo of fresh corn tortillas for less than a dollar.
  • Garbage burning. Don’t ask me why. We recycle. There are families that live at the dump and scavenge all the recyclable items to sell them and make a living. There is regular garbage collection city-wide. But burning of garbage is a fact of daily life here. There appear to be no regulations against it, or at least none that seem to be observed. So, when coming to Mazatlán, be prepared to see plumes of dark smoke from various locations around town, and the charming smell of garbage being incinerated.
  • The honey wagon. Yes, one of my favorite euphemisms for the truck that pumps the waste out of the port-a-potties on the beach. Mazatlán has beautiful, permanent concrete bathrooms built along the malecón. But use them? Agh, why use such a resource? Better to have citizens and tourists alike use the port-a-potties that the palapa restaurants have installed, and have those palapa restaurants pay to have the honey wagon pump them clean every day or two or three. The hoses are a hazard as you walk the malecón in the morning, but worse is the smell the put off. Definitely carry a wash cloth or be prepared to put your shirt over your nose as you pass by.
  • Coffee. Cafe Marino, our local brew, is some of the best-tasting coffee you’ll find. Reasonably priced, locally grown and roasted, it is a frequent component of the gift packages we send overseas. And, again, depending on the air currents and whether the roasteries is roasting or not, the wonderful smell of coffee fills the air of our port city.
  • Diesel. Ok, of course if you’re near the international highway you smell the diesel of the semi trucks, but even in the heart of Mazatlán city proper, the smell of diesel can overwhelm you at times. Those city buses, in addition to being driven by kamikazes, emit thick black smoke that will choke you if you’re not careful. Definitely not the best air to breathe while you are jogging or biking, but a fact of life in Mazatlán. Thank God for the ocean breeze.
  • Fish. Yes, one of the biggest advantages of living in Mazatlán is the fresh fish and the visits to the fishermen and their boats. But, in addition to the terrific taste of the fish and the pleasant sight of the weathered, friendly fishermen and their colorful pangas, we must admit that the smells of fresh, as well as rotting, fish and its entrails definitely fills playa norte.
  • The Market. El mercado is sensory overload and está lleno de holores: raw meat, fresh fruits and vegies, leather…

About Dianne Hofner Saphiere

There are loads of talented people in this gorgeous world of ours. We all have a unique contribution to make, and if we collaborate, I am confident we have all the pieces we need to solve any problem we face. I have been an intercultural organizational effectiveness consultant since 1979, working primarily with for-profit multinational corporations. I lived and worked in Japan in the late 70s through the 80s, and currently live in and work from México, where with a wonderful partner we've raised a bicultural, global-minded son. I have worked with organizations and people from over 100 nations in my career. What's your story?

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