The Mexican Pacific Coast is where my husband really wants to live; Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa, in particular. That’s where he’d collected great memories with his late wife and children on vacation from his then-hectic corporate life. When we met, he readily hosted my family in his timeshare. They loved it and said it was the best vacation they’d ever had.
The city’s charm comes from the fact that it isn’t just a resort town. It is a bonafide Mexican city, with age-old traditions like the third-largest Carnaval in the world in February, places like its beautiful historic downtown (complete with a venerable theater, a beautiful cathedral, and a great mercado), and landmarks like the longest malecón in Latin America with significant monuments and gorgeous beaches. The Shrimp Capital of the World is now our second home.
We stay in Mazatlán’s El Cid Resorts every winter, although we can also stay at their Cancun and Cozumel properties. From our house in Mesa, it is a little more than 900 miles away, or 16 hours of driving time. We are currently here on our fourth winter break, missing 2020 because of COVID. To get here, we have used three different routes and have gotten to know six different stops.
Editor’s Note: If you haven’t taken a road trip through Mexico, Carol has your back. Here are her top things to know before you do.
Our Early Route: Hermosillo And Los Mochis
Hermosillo is the largest city (population 830,000), capital, and main economic center for the state of Sonora, which borders Arizona. It has grown so much, especially since the 1980s, because of strong industrialization and the automotive industry. Such is the economic stimulus of being on the U.S. border.
It’s 6 hours (without time at the border) from our home in Mesa and, as such, is very much like an American city. It boasts of an interesting and rocky landform called the Cerro de la Campana, considered the symbol of the city. On a hilltop at an elevation of over 1,000 feet, it provides tourists an excellent view of the city.
Hermosillo To Los Mochis
The federal highway Mexico 15 is the freeway that connects Arizona to Mazatlán. There are two parts: 15D is the cuota (“toll”) road while 15 is the libre (“free”) road. We were amazed at the improvement of the Sonora section of 15D between our first and second trips (an interval of 8 years). Running straight south, we registered great speeds throughout. On our fourth trip, toll fee collection plazas were no longer operating, but they resumed on our latest fifth trip. All the while, there were a lot of those vibradores that force motorists to reduce speed.
Los Mochis, Sinaloa
Los Mochis is a coastal city in the northern part of the state of Sinaloa. With a population of over 360,000, it is the end of the Chihuahua-Pacific Railway, which passes through scenic Copper Canyon, a major tourist attraction in Mexico. This railway links the cattle markets in Kansas City with the nearest port on the Pacific Ocean. Topolobampo, found just outside of Los Mochis, is the second-largest deepwater port in the world.
The city is also the center of the state’s agricultural area, producing sugar cane, cotton, rice, flowers, mangoes, and other vegetables. Corporations have taken over many small farms, introducing innovative farm implements and practices — but we also saw many men lined up at truck stops and farm entrances, waiting for farm managers to pick them up for work in the fields. These scenes were kind of depressing because many do not find work and remain idle. Perhaps this is partly why the drug trade has flourished in the state.
Los Mochis To Mazatlán
From Los Mochis to Mazatlán, Mexico 15D is almost the same as we saw it on our first trip: full of potholes. Ironically, there was a cuota stop every half hour. There were eight of them on the 5-hour drive, even more than Sonora. The saving grace is that, on the last hour of the trip, the big, blue, and calm Pacific Ocean stayed with us to the right of the highway, reminding us that the paradise we seek is almost around the corner.
A New Route And New Stops: Navojoa And Magdalena Del Kino
On our third winter vacation, we met a couple who had been driving to Mazatlán for years. They advised us to change our route to one that not only divides the trip more evenly but also deliberately confines stops to Sonora. Sonora has a Level 3 travel advisory (“go with caution”) instead of Sinaloa with a Level 4 (“do not go”). And the stops are even more charming!
The first stop of our return trip was Navojoa, Sonora, the fifth-largest city in the state (population 150,000). The Mexican revolutionary Álvaro Obregón was born in a small town near the city. After the 1910 revolt, he became president of Mexico, introducing modern agricultural techniques, making the surrounding valley one of the most prosperous agricultural regions in Mexico.
Today, foreign and local investors have gone into many other industries, like shrimp farming, swine production, and even a Tecate (beer) brewery. Prosperity is evident. A lovely main plaza fronts the Palacio Municipal, surrounded by four monuments and a striking clock tower. The lovely spires of the nearby cathedral are visible. At the rotunda, a colorful Navojoa sign welcomes visitors.
Magdalena De Kino
The next town, just six hours from Navojoa, is a little more than 60 miles south of the U.S. border. The movie Fast & Furious was filmed here (and in the nearby town of Santa Ana) in June and July 2008. Magdalena de Kino (population 25,000) is a Pueblo Mágico, one of 100+ towns selected by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism for scenic, cultural, or historical qualities.
We loved our stay at the 5-star Hotel Industria, one of six hotels in the city. It is just a half block away from the beautiful main plaza, around which we had a lovely horse-drawn carriage ride in the evening. At the center are a chapel containing the lying effigy of Father Francisco Eusebio Kino. There is also a monument with a crypt housing his remains, which were discovered there in 1966, 255 years after his death. He is a pioneer Roman Catholic missionary who founded 15 missions in the area as well as in southern Arizona. The city is also named after Santa Maria Magdalena, for whom a pretty church was also built in the plaza.
Our Most Recent Route: Nogales And Ciudad Obregón
Last Christmas, we celebrated with my husband’s daughter in Denver, Colorado. Since we were not coming from home, we ended up in Nogales, Arizona, after a stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
There are great stops on this route. We chose them based on two factors: the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory Levels due to crime, and the driving time from our starting point (home or elsewhere). When we go home in April, we will stop at Navojoa and Nogales.
Nogales is an Arizona city of about 20,000. It is Arizona’s largest international border community, and part of the larger Tucson-Nogales combined statistical area. It has a counterpart city of Nogales in the state of Sonora on the Mexican side. I-19 continues south from Phoenix into Mexico 15D. These two highways, together with their Canadian counterpart, comprise the CANAMEX Corridor that connects the three countries.
Nogales channels about $30 billion worth of fresh produce and manufactured goods from Mexico into the U.S. This trade helps support thousands of jobs and local economies throughout Arizona and Sonora. Pretty interesting, but it’s not a tourist town. However, it makes a great base from which to continue a drive into Mexico or to relax in after going through the procedures at the US border.
Ciudad Obregón, the state’s second-largest city (population 329,404), is a 6-hour drive from Nogales. Mazatlán is 7 hours away. Since Navojoa is an hour farther from Ciudad Obregón, we chose this new stop to allow for time at KM 21, where the tourist and vehicle permits to stay in Mexico are processed after border crossing. This usually takes about an hour.
As you approach the city from the north, the statue of an Indigenous Yaqui greets you. He represents the tribe that won several battles against the Spanish but in 1610 was persuaded to submit to the Spanish Crown. Even then, conflicts continued into the next two centuries. In 1887, the Porfirio Diaz army shot and killed the Yaqui Chief Cajeme. In the 1900s, the area saw commercial and agricultural progress due to the aforementioned work of Álvaro Obregón. In 1927, however, he was assassinated, and the city was named after him.
The Laguna de Nainari, a man-made lake with a diameter of about two kilometers, is the green spot in the city. It is a meeting place for various groups and where people can sample many different local snacks. People also gather at the Ostimuri Children’s Park and Zoo, which also features a planetarium.