Friday, June 18, 2010

Blue Agave Distillery Tour: La Noria, MX

Technically, you can't call it Tequila because it is not in one of the three states licensed to officially sell Tequila. However, blue agave is blue agave. Distill it and you get something that looks, smells and tastes like Tequila.

The Los Osuna Blue Agave Distillery just outside of Mazatlan is a very happy place. Getting to the property is easy - follow the signs off highway 15 to La Noria. Just before you enter the town, you'll see the sign to the left. The road from here is dirt, but not too bad overall. You'll pass the canopy zip-line place and keep going to the Distillery.

We arrived before the big tour groups arrived and received a very detailed tour - I noticed the bigger groups didn't get to go through some of the tighter spots in the distillery (probably for safety reasons). The tour provides information on how tequila has been made historically, as well as showcasing the huge newer stainless steel distillers.

Free tequila shots at the end - all you can drink. Total cost? $2.50 a person. Not joking - best value we found in Mazatlan. We tipped our tour guide and the bartender generously. There are a few small shops by the bar and while I didn't buy a thing, everyone else in our party walked away with good prices on silver and titanium jewelry so the bargaining must have been good!

To get a feel for the place, check out the video:


** Interesting fun fact: the tequila is 65% alcohol after distillation. They water it down to 35% in order to make it more palatable. I asked our guide if you could sell it at 65% and she laughed at me and said "no". I'm guessing it must just be awful ... either that or gringos can't handle it!

Eatin' and Drinkin' in Mazatlan, Mexico

You know what they say: when in Rome…. So if you hate chips and salsa and margaritas, um, well – Mazatlan may not be for you.

Plaza Machado in Old Mazatlan has a cluster of restaurants.  We needed some refreshment and food and settled on Pacifico taco bar, which didn’t really have much in the way of tacos. The food wasn’t bad and the beer was good. It was charming to see Coca-Cola still served in the returnable glass bottles. Ahh… the good old days! Also around the square was  Pedro y Lola’s. P&L’s comes up on most of the guides as a great place to stop, but the menu didn’t impress me: lots of “American” dishes like hamburgers and such. The people watching in the plaza can be fun: we saw three different groups of school kids go by and all sorts of locals and U.S. retirees.
 Coca-Cola in a bottle: so retro and awesome

North of the Old town is Zona Dorado (Gold Zone) - which is also often called "Tourist Zone" on some maps. In the Zona, we had the worst timeshare hard-press sell of our entire trip in Mazatlan. Unfortunatly, we were at a restaurant when it happened and we were trapped. We had a very good dinner at Gus y Gus: the garlic shrimp was to die for and the salsa was spicy with good flavor. The corn tortillas were a bit bland, but the margaritas made up for that. We were one of about three tables with customers, so it was a quiet night. We'd enjoyed ourselves and were waiting for the bill when the manager on duty (or whatever he was) came by to see how things were ... and then it happened. A good 15 minutes of timeshare blah blah blah blah blah blah. I was livid. We were paying customers in the restaurant, we couldn't leave because our bill had not arrived and the guy ignored all of our "not interested" statements. So while the food was good, that soured the whole group on ever going back.

Also in the Zona, we stopped in for some guacamole and drinks at Arre Lulu. Not bad, the guac was a bit bland but the margaritas were good! We journeyed to the The Sheik one night at the south end of the Zona, only to find it padlocked. It was a Friday night, so I'm not sure what was going on - they may have been shut for low-season. If anyone stops by there and they are open again - let me know! The Sheik came up a highly recommended, most romantic, etc. so we were really looking forward to trying it. With The Sheik closed, we wandered until we found Las Lupitas. It looked nice, menu looked good so we tried it. Big fail. The service was friendly but they forgot about 50% of what we ordered or got things wrong. The food was over-priced for what it was and boring at best, bad at worst.
Outside of the Zona, we visited Seafarer, on the El Cid Marina. This is a sister restaurant to Pedro y Lola and has a nice atmosphere, built on the water and over the water. The wine menu was "meh" but the steaks were decent. Mine came with a white sauce that was actually a little bland, but the steak didn't really need it. Heading further north, the Palapa bar at the condo resort, Paraiso Costa Bonita, had an AMAZING fish and chips: the fish was a whole filet, lightly breaded and pan-friend. Very, very tasty.

The best experience though, was in La Noria: the molcajete at El Sazon de la Abuela Tina. This was so good, I wrote a separate blog post about it (with video). It was, by far, the best meal I had in Mazatlan. 
Molcajete - the best!!

Overall, chips and salsa and margaritas were everywhere. Most of the salsa fresca was very mild, though occasionally we'd come across something with some kick, like the salsa we got at Gus y Gus. The margaritas varied: a couple of places seemed to use seltzer water or Sprint in the drink, most places used lime juice and only once or twice did we come across a place that used the nasty "sweet and sour" mix that is used in the U.S. The guacamole was usually just avocado and maybe some cilantro and a touch of lime. I like mine with jalapenos and tomatoes and onions, so we would often mix the salsa fresca with the guac and ended up with a winning combo.

Mazatlan bills itself as the "shrimp capital of the world" and it did live up to that - the shrimp was extremely good everywhere we went. Skip the burritos and enchiladas if you find them, go with the local seafood and dishes when you can and try to find the places outside the tourist zones!

-- Cheers!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Airport Report: Mazatlan (MZT)

Tiny little airport! It is so small, it is actually kinda cute. Overall, I have to say it was better than the Cabo San Lucas airport. When we landed, there was not a swarm of people trying to "help" us and then box us into a timeshare tour - in fact, we only had one guy chase after us for a couple of minutes. Also the air conditioning seemed to work much better in the Mazatlan airport. Yeah!

Arriving in Mazatlan:
Landing and getting through customs was pretty simple - we played the "push the button" game and won! Yeah! No customs inspection for us. Not familiar with this? As you go through customs you will be asked to push a button. If the light (which is suppose to be random) comes up green, you get to go - red, you get your luggage searched.

Once you clear customs, there is a bar just outside the arrival area near the ubiquitous Senor Frog's, along with an ATM and currency exchange counter. The car rental counters are also right here and the actual car lots are just up the way. On a good day or when the heat isn't too bad, you can probably walk over there in 10 minutes or less.

Leaving Mazatlan:
Coming back to the airport, plan some extra time. Traffic can be heavy getting through Highway 15 in Mazatlan but the route is clearly marked and very direct. Depending on the airline, you may be in for some long lines at check-in. Mexicana was showing their stellar service with humongous lines on the day we left. US Airways only had a few check-in counters but things went relatively smoothly. Alaska Air had the self-service kiosks and a few more counters and seemed to be going well.  All airlines will do the hand search of your checked luggage before you get to the ticket counter. This slows things down and if you had trouble getting your bag to zip close before you went to the airport...well, just be ready to sit on it again to get it to zip up.

Once you are checked in, there are a couple of places to grab food upstairs, but Medas was not impressive. Service was slow (not just for us, but those around us too) and the food and drinks were seriously sub-par. Do NOT buy water or soft drinks unless you plan on finishing them before you get on the plane - TSA will not allow you to bring these onto the plane even if you bought them after the security checkpoint. I cannot actually find this clearly documented, but the rule seems to be if you buy beverages or liquids past security in countries outside the US, you will not be able to board with them.

The security checkpoints do not require you to remove your shoes, but the prepartion area for the x-ray is small and the baskets are tiny compared to what you find in the US. There are no reminders to remove your 3-1-1 baggie of liquids and your laptop, but we took things out anyway and didn't get in trouble. ;-) Once through security, there are restrooms but I did not see any food, drink or newstands. There is free wi-fi advertised, but when I tried to connect it was pretty slow and it appeared that only the first 15 minutes were free.

If you have a "SSSS" on your boarding pass, you will get the extra - special - additional security search at the gate. Your whole party won't be searched and cannot stand with you while it is done. Your carry-ons will be searched, you'll get the wand and maybe a pat down, and might then be asked to sit down and remove your shoes.  How do I know this? What do you think? I won the random boarding pass printing of SSSS, looked suspicious, or both and was thoroughly searched.

Your plane may not have a jetway, so be prepared to lug your stuff up those lovely rickety stairs that are provided for you to get up to the door of the plane. On the day we flew out, Mexicana and US Airway had jetways, Continental did not.

Best advice: give yourself plenty of time so you aren't rushed and plan ahead. Be ready for the differences in security and things will go smoothly... um, assuming your plane takes off on time.

-- Safe Travels!