Step beyond any hotel threshold in Mazatlan’s Zona Dorada (“The Golden Zone”) and you’ll be besieged by Americanized food, billowing exhaust, tour-guide hustlers and long-expired Top 40 jams.

But a long walk away from the sunburned throngs reveals the buried treasures of this port city: exotic creatures and characters, charming artistry and the remains of fluctuating empires.

Escaping resort-town generica aside, a stroll into Mazatlan’s past is also a statement against the government’s occasional tendency to hyper-develop traditional, established towns whose charm has been distilled over centuries—not on the blueprints of a foreign-owned architecture firm.

Unsure of where to start? Fear not, intrepid traveller—this walking guide to Historic Mazatlan will help you discover this area’s richness and depth.

Hop in a Pulmonia

Fast-backward past all this into Mazatlan’s storied identity, propelled by an appropriately old-fashioned vessel. (Unfortunately it’s not a DeLorean, but it is made of fibreglass.) Pulmonias are essentially golf carts souped up with VW Beetle parts.

Barely glance at them and their drivers will beeline for you, offering a ride. Negotiate a fare to Olas Altas (70 – 80 pesos, or about $6, from Zona Dorada’s heart), hop in and head back in time.

The pulmonia (literally “pneumonia”—the inventor supposedly died of it; it could also be a snide moniker cooked up by competitors) was invented here nearly 50 years ago by local entrepreneur Miguel Ramirez Urquijo. Back then, Mazatlan was just blossoming as a popular vacation spot.

Urquijo wanted to compete with the wooden horse-drawn carriages that taxied travellers from the airport, located back then where the city’s pro baseball team plays today. (You can see the stadium off the malecón, the seven-kilometre crescent-shaped seaside road.)

Stymied by local bankers, Urquijo went all the way to the Cushman golf cart factory in Nebraska to get 16 pulmonias up and running in 1965. There are about 400 today, and Mazatlan is a magnet for Beetle scrap.

 Climb to Casa del Marino

Cruising the malecón on your way to the old part of town, you’ll pass palapa-roofed restaurants on the beach, a cluster of fishing boats crowded by grungy pelicans, then a deserted building labelled Casa del Marino (“House of the Sailor”) (at Paseo Claussen and Las Palmas).

Tucked behind it are the remains of a fort built in the mid-1850s, including a rust-mottled English cannon. Compellingly, you have to scale an eight-foot graffiti-laden wall for a good look.

Next, you’ll pass a communication tower-laden hump of land called Icebox Hill, where the seaport that spawned Mazatlan was established around 1700.

Its name comes from the caves, used by residents in the 19th century to store ice imported from San Francisco. During the Mexican Revolution (beginning in 1910), guns and ammo were stored here.

As you round the southwest-facing cliffs and pass a red-gated tunnel called Devil’s Cave (the source of much whispered folklore), the original beachfront strip appears.

Olas Altas (“high waves”) became a party spot in the 1870s, when it hosted northern Mexico’s wildest Cinco de Mayo fairs (commemorating an unlikely drubbing of the invading French army on May 5, 1862). Annual celebrations stretched 15 days, the beach consumed by feasting, drinking, gambling, music and fireworks.

After the Revolution—when on one occasion 500 federal soldiers were killed here by the rebel general Juan Carrasco—the festivities faded into obscurity.

Explore Hotel Belmar

One of the first hotels still stands, although it looks its age. Hotel Belmar was built in the 1920s by a Californian named Louis Bradbury, who made his fortune from nearby gold and silver mines. As Mazatlan grew, so did his headquarters.

The Belmar became legendary for its banquets and Carnaval bashes, perhaps most famously when the state governor was murdered at one in 1944. Larger-than-life patrons also stayed here, from movie stars like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable, to a trio of lurking boa constrictors brought in to patrol for mice and rats.

Cocktails at Posada Freeman Hotel

But the Belmar’s original hand-painted tiles, ebony reception desk and ornamental wood pale in comparison to something a few doors down—and 12 floors up. Posada Freeman Hotel was the city’s first skyscraper, finished at the end of the 1940s, and recently refurbished as an upscale Best Western.

There’s no better spot in Mazatlan for a sunset cocktail—or a view of the entire Centro Historico (Historic District)—than on its panoramic rooftop patio.

Take in Historic Architecture

Back on the ground, head inland along Mariano Escobedo. On your left are three restored two-story houses built by one of the early city’s most esteemed architects, Federic Ymaña. The ironwork detailing on the ground floor and balconies is original (dating to 1865), and exemplary of what to look for while exploring on foot.

Walk south on Venus road to a partially abandoned relic of the city’s unique European style, Casa Melchers. For 65 years (beginning in 1864) this was a German merchant house, and the nerve centre for a fleet of cargo ships, a textile plant, several mining companies and the original Pacifico brewery.

Another block east, on Constitución at the northwest corner of Niños Héroes, you’ll encounter bricks that herald one of the city’s oldest bakeries. Built in the 1830s, the building is actually believed to be the city’s oldest restored home, given away by its lack of ornamentation and individual second-floor balconies.

One block north is the Farmacia Union building, similar in simplicity to the bakery. It went up in the 1840s and housed a variety of trading companies, all of which curiously billed themselves ‘La Voz del Pueblo’ (“The Voice of the People”).

To give a sense of the port’s thriving significance in the 19th century: in 1895, the German importer in this space needed a 48-page catalogue to itemize all its European-made products.

Walk a block east and go north on Heriberto Frias to Haas House, at the northeast corner of Mariano Escobedo. During a period of religious persecution in the late 1920s when church services were suspended, secret Sunday mass was held on the second floor.

Until recently, it was occupied by descendants of the same family that built it in the early 1890s, but writer and cultural icon Antonio Haas donated it to the city when he died a few years ago. It’s now being considered for a Carnaval museum.

Reflect at Church

A few blocks north and two blocks west on Jose Maria Canizales is Mazatlan’s oldest house of worship, the San Jose Chapel.

It was built unadorned between 1837 and 1842 on what was already a congregation site for God-fearing locals, though with a cheeky twist: the tower’s church bell sat in the street beside it until the 1860s, because there was no way to hoist it until the French occupation.

From here you can easily overlook the heavily frequented Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Plaza de la Republica), which took more than 40 years to construct, beginning in 1855. Its gothic elegance is worth closer inspection, though ideally during a sermon—when the digital shutterbug sounds give way to a 120-year-old organ built in Paris.

Retrace your steps to 154-year-old Portales de Canobbio, which frames the west end of Plaza Machado, the heart of the Centro Historico’s renaissance. Mazatlan’s oldest public square has long been a gathering place for revelry, demonstration, victory marches and romantic evenings.

The north side is dominated by the Juarez building, with its second floor occupied by social clubs since the 1860s, beginning with the Germans. Amado Nervo, considered among Mexico’s greatest poets, hung out there before winning international fame overseas.

Stroll Angela Peralta

The final stop on your time travels is the prized jewel of the plaza—and the old town: Angela Peralta Theater. Opened in 1874, it welcomed discerning operas, dramas and orchestras, then masquerade balls, patriotic festivals and boxing matches. It declined as a movie house and was trashed by a hurricane after closing in the ’60s, only to be restored 20 years ago to its former glory.

Enter and stroll amongst the regal entrance columns, an open-air lobby occasionally filled with the sound of practising musicians, lush pink walls with floral motifs and three balcony tiers framed by wrought iron.

Strangely, it’s named for an enchanting singer who wreaked havoc in Mazatlan and never even sang here.

Embroiled in controversy stemming from her personal life, Peralta—illustriously known as the Mexican Nightingale—had embarked on a tour of port cities in 1883. A yellow fever epidemic struck her ship and company of 80 Italian musicians.

All but six were killed upon arrival, and then another 2,500 townspeople. Peralta died next door in what was then a luxurious hotel, marrying away a fortune to her manager from her deathbed.

So sit amidst the curious history while taking in the aesthetics. The sensory abundance is an apt conclusion to your search for the city’s elusive power