Mazatlán vs. Cartagena


Cartagena de las Indias, Bolívar, Colombia


Mazatlán, Sinaloa, México

You know that Mazatlán bills itself as a “colonial city on the beach.” It was never a colonial city in the historical meaning of that term—major European settlement came with the gold rush in the 1800s—but it does have gorgeous architecture and an interesting history, so we’ll give Tourism some leeway.

The other major Latin American “colonial city on the beach” that I know of is Cartagena. I’ve long wondered how it compares to my beloved Mazatlán. A few years ago, when I first traveled to Bogotá for work, I’d hoped to make it to the Caribbean city. Well, it’s taken me till now, but Greg and I made it. So, here’s the down-low on the comparison.

There are so many similarities between these two cities it’s eerie. The people are warm and friendly. Hot water with a steady flow is very difficult to find. There is a malecón/oceanside promenade, lots of great seafood, fishing boats, strolling vendors of every sort, panzones/big bellies, beautiful women, litter, beautiful historic architecture and beaches in both places. Whether in the Pacific coast port or the Caribbean port, you’d better watch where you walk: sidewalks, when they exist, are broken, have sink holes, pot holes and uncovered man holes. Both cities have skyscrapers that house condominiums owned by wealthy foreigners who only live in them some weeks of the year. Both are open-air cities: restaurants, bars, cafes. Both have nearby islands, mangoes, pineapple, coconut.

Una palenquera, María, a fruit seller from Palenque, Colombia

Una palenquera, María, a fruit seller from Palenque, Colombia

What are the differences? Cartagena has a decidedly more European (narrow winding streets, the al fresco dining in the plazas, architecture) and Caribbean (Afro-Colombians, colorful dress, music, plantains) feel. The WIND that we’ve experienced here is absolutely unbelievable, and makes dining or drinking seaside an irritating endeavor, in our opinion. Supposedly the wind will stop once the rains come, but we’re told it’s been windy like this since January—that’s four months! Mazatlán has more beggars and vagrants in the tourist zone. Cartagena generally includes a 10% tip on all food and beverage served; by law, consumers can add or reduce on that base. The food is generally not spicy in Cartagena, and we didn’t find any hangouts that were primarily for foreigners; the city seems more integrated. In Cartagena we were told that “gringo” means any foreigner. Mazatlán is noisier, thanks to the pulmonías, ahorigas and wandering street musicians.

And, drum roll please… Mazatlán is overall cleaner than Cartagena! Hard to believe? We are so eager to educate Mazatlecos and visitors to our port about putting litter in its place, about getting people to use permanent water bottles rather than plastic, and to never again serve something on styrofoam. Our son spent five years of his life repeatedly cleaning out Estero del Infiernillo, getting so discouraged at how one week later the locals again had it filled with their garbage. But, honestly, Greg and I have seen more litter here in Cartagena in the past four days than I thought was humanly possible. Having said that, the walled city itself is cleaner and tidier than our Centro Histórico.

We’ve worked up a table to show you our ratings. Obviously this is completely subjective, and it’s not fair, either. We’ve lived in Mazatlán for eight years and have traveled there for 35; we’ve just spent four days in Cartagena. So, we welcome input from those more experienced with the Colombian city.


Mazatlán vs Cartagena table_Page_1Mazatlán vs Cartagena table_Page_2Mazatlán vs Cartagena table_Page_3.jpg

Mazatlán vs Cartagena table_Page_4Mazatlán vs Cartagena table_Page_5Mazatlán vs Cartagena table_Page_6

Colombianos, you have a gorgeous city in Cartagena, it’s true. And, I urge you to come visit us in Mazatlán! I think you will be surprised! And, municipal governments of Mazatlán and Cartagena, I would urge you to initiate a special task force, so that you can learn from one another! Your situations are incredibly similar, and your strengths and weaknesses are complimentary—lots to learn from one another!


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?

11 thoughts on “Mazatlán vs. Cartagena

  1. Just wonderful, Dianne! Thanks for compiling this. I’ve only spent a few hours in Cartagena (on a cruise) but liked it enough that I’d like to go back. The walled city is worth a couple days, anyway!

  2. Great findings Dianne. The true facts about the history of Mazatlán remain unknown for it is a bit complicated. Mazatlán, like Chametla, was a region made by many small settlements by a river originally known as Mazatlán. Spanish navigators after finding a multitude of islands named the port “The Islands of Mazatlan”. Later on, the river was renamed Río Presidio. The region of Mazatlan extended from north of Concordia down to the river delta which sediment turned Stone Island into a peninsula; the estuaries made the fastest way of transportation from Mazatlan all the way to San Blas in Nayarit. El Faro, the tallest lighthouse in the continent was also an island known as El Crestón. The ocean used to cross from the Fisherman’s monument all the way to Ángela Peralta cemetery, the whole city was divided into islands during the rainy season. There is ample evidence of small pre-columbian settlements. In real terms Mazatlán IS a colonial city. The original Mazatlan was Villa de Unión, named so by the Masons. The original custom house, the royal treasury and the first government office were all in Villa Union, previously known as Mazatlan de los Mulatos. Some of the original settlers of San Diego, California, came from here.
    A group of people is sponsoring three of us to give a conference about the History of Villa Union/Mazatlan at the Museo de Arte next month. If some of the foreign residents are interested, we can work out a special lecture in English.

    • Thank you for your input, Joaquin. I appreciate it. I know about the indigenous settlements, Villa Unión, the islands, etc. Though I’m guessing many of our readers don’t, so am grateful you share that. I know the conquistadores came through here, but did they settle in the area? Is the fort etc. that old as to be colonial? That would be the part that I’ve misunderstood. Thanks for adding a bit more to enlighten me 😉

  3. Ive veen to both and Im Mexican. Honestly Cartagena is way more attractive than Mazatlan. Cartagena is a world heritage site ! world class kind of place. Mazatlan is ok but nothing compared.

    • Thank you for your comment and for joining us here, Luis. We all have our opinions and perspectives. I will agree that the walled city is wonderful indeed. My disappointments were the beach and the malecón. I most definitely would never say Mazatlán was “nothing” compared. Happy New Year!

      • Thats ok Dianne. We all have our opinions and perspectives like you said. Mazatlan is a national and international destination as well. Beautiful pacific beach and beautiful sunsets. People are friendly and food is amazing. I agree and Im proud of that but Cartagena is another level. Cartagena has a great sunset but like u said the beach is not great. U have to drive 40 min to get to a beautiful beach (Playa Blanca) which is better than most Mexican pacific beaches. I dont think Cartagena adapted the malecon culture and you might fall in love with that when you visit places like Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta. Ive taken people from Mexico to Cartagena and they fall in love with the architecture the culture the history the environment the music the vibe and the rumba. Cartagena is a world heritage site. Its more attractive to the international traveler. Mazatlan doesnt have such a rich culture, history or architecture like Cartagena but indeed Mazatlan is still very beautiful.

    • Both cities have their strengths and their weaknesses, Luis. That’s why we presented the information the way we did rather than saying one is “better” than the other. They are different, though similar in so many ways. Have a good one.

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