Carnaval is a BIG deal here. Some say Mazatlan hosts the world’s 3rd largest Carnaval, after Rio and New Orleans. Held the week before Lent for the past 118 years, it’s also the oldest Carnaval in Mexico. This city of ½ a million doubles in size with visitors before and after the week-long fiesta. Don’t bother trying to get a hotel room last minute; El Cid was booked solid well in advance (rumor is at a pricey $300 a night…expensive, even for Mexico). Luckily, slip renters are not charged this Carnaval “premium”.
Puerto Viejo Restaurant Viewing Area
One major Carnaval event is a massive…and I mean MASSIVE… fireworks display, symbolizing the 1864 battle during which French forces tried to overtake the city. We had reservations at Puerto Viejo, a small, open-air restaurant across from the ocean at Olas Altas Beach near the Freeman Hotel. Our vantage point was spectacular. To give spatial context: the restaurant faces the main drag, directly across from us on the opposite side of the street is a musical stage set up on the boardwalk which we can see from our table. Right in back of that is the beach lined with a cadre of fireworks guys. Before the crowd shows up, we walk a bit and see the fireworks staged in the sand not 200 yards away from our restaurant and mere FEET away from beach-sitting spectators. SO not OSHA-approved. Oooh, this is going to be interesting!
Advance Payment…in Person
We arrive at 5pm to ensure a decent parking spot and that our reservation wasn’t “accidentally” usurped. (Stop by a week or two in advance to pay for reservations and choose a table.) For 350 pesos pp ($20), we are allowed to sit at Puerto Viejo all night along. We drank Pacificos and munched on everything shrimp: shrimp tacos, shrimp quesadillas and shrimp nachos while waiting for the crowd to gather in the street and the festivities to begin. Over 5 hours!
Chairs and Bathrooms Make Happy Campers
We learned real quick that the KEY to this reservation arrangement is the chairs and the use of a clean bathroom. Standing for 5 hours was not high on our to-do list; squeezing our butts into a 1-foot area on a hard, cement seawall and not moving the entire time lest someone steal our spot was another alternative. Quality of life people: sometimes it PAYS to PAY for chairs and relatively clean restrooms… with toilet paper and working faucets…instead of braving a leaking portapotty. Heading back to the car: “Hey guys, what’s all this watery, smelly runoff flooding the back streets… it hasn’t rained.” “Don’t ask…and don’t step in it, either.”
Packed Like Sardines
Nothing happens in Mexico ‘til after dark. Luckily we had a live band, good people-watching, good company and good conversation as distractions, so our wait was highly enjoyable. Gradually the crowd gathered on the street in front of our restaurant. By 9pm people were swarming, buzzing about choosing their final spot, standing cheek to cheek waiting for the show. Not a great place if claustrophobia is an issue. We were previously warned to wear toed shoes, wallets in front pockets, no loose purses or backpacks for obvious reasons. With thousands upon thousands of people packed tightly into the street, butt to boob, feet are bound to get a little mashed; protruding pockets invite potential for picking.
Sitting at the restaurant at 10pm, we joked that all the gringos are looking at our watches thinking: “When is this going to start? Don’t ALL fireworks shows start at 9:15pm? It’s past my bedtime!” But at 10pm the locals are just getting started! Eating dinner at 10pm and staying up ‘til 4am for a fiesta is normal. So as we were leaving at midnight heading out of the area, we noted all the young’uns headed IN, dressed to the nines and ready for a night on the town. Whew! Past my bedtime!
The Battle Begins
Around 10:30pm, the Mock Naval Battle finally commences. Mazatlan wins both then and now as a more spectacular pyro-technic display we have not seen, not even at Disneyworld. Barges anchored just off shore act as the French invader man-o-war “Le Cordeliere” setting off cannons from the water; the beach “defensive positions” return fire from multiple locations along the Malecon; bright white spotlights point out to sea while colored laser lights wildly splay over the crowd; the entire ½ hour spectacle is timed to a soundtrack.
While we couldn’t see the bombs “attacking” the ship since the stage was in our way, we were right in the thick of the beach battle. I mean… IN it! Strict U.S. fire safety regulations would have totally prohibited the crowd’s proximity. Here, colorful stars are exploding right above our heads, fired upwards from the beach directly in front of us. Multiple streamers shoot out towards the water like massive blow torches symbolizing arching, fiery cannonballs. We are virtually surrounded in a 3D half-dome, enveloped by fireworks. The crowd doesn’t move… each one of us is a star-struck, wide-eyed, giggling little kid. Ooooh, ahhhh, whooaa…What an amazing experience!
For proper perspective, watch the 5 minute VIDEO I uploaded to YouTube. Best video so far, although the music is distorted since we were right next to the speakers. Plus, you get to see our nephew’s Flat Jack (Flat Stanley’s friend) watching the fireworks with us.
Exiting the jam-packed street was like playing Mexican train for real. Reminiscent of a busy beehive, parallel and opposing conga lines quickly form… everyone slowly shuffles along, holding onto the hoodie or collar or hair of the person in front of you, hoping not to lose sight of them in the masses. Do not trip - you risk getting trampled. Although this is a very controlled crowd so I have a feeling you’d get stepped on by only a few people before someone would halt the procession.
Actually, we were quite impressed by the placidness of the mob… other than a couple irritable people, no setting fire to cars, no gunshots, no drunken disorderliness, no pushy-crazies. This isn’t LA after a lost Lakers game. Maybe that all happens afterwards, I mean it’s still early. Turns out, I heard there was somewhere around 100 arrests/citations for the entire night… and half of them were for peeing in the street. Wait, so THAT’s what I’ve been stepping in? Another reason not to wear flip-flops tonight.
The Burning of Bad Humor
Every year on this same night, Mazatlan Carnaval burns in effigy a symbol of “bad humor” to dispel all evil so the rest of Carnaval can be “free of bad feelings”. A large piñata representing an evil individual (as voted on by locals) is strung up and paraded down the street. Stuffed with fireworks and set ablaze among the crowd, this is a much-anticipated event during the evening of the Naval Battle. We saw the effigy parade but didn’t want to wrestle through the crowd to watch the torching. For this year’s effigy…they chose the infamous Donald Trump.
Now, before you start snorting with laughter or grinning with glee (I know who you are:), thinking how terribly funny or cool that is…think about it. I’m not a Trump fan. Let’s get that straight. But even I felt a tad bit insulted. This is Mexico still, right? Corrupt Mexican political figures seem to dominate the effigy spotlight year after year; and I know there is NO shortage of evil/corrupt politicians to choose from here. So, you mean to tell me that in this ENTIRE gigantic country, there’s not a SINGLE person who represents MORE EVIL than Trump, a foreigner? Are you kidding me?
Let’s have some context and compare Trump to last year’s appropriately evil effigy: a mayor and his wife. This couple ordered their corrupt police force to arrest 43 protesting student teachers and to, essentially, “make them go away”. Those police promptly handed the students over to the local cartel - all 43 have since “disappeared”. Quite the vile act, right? Now THAT’s a good effigy. Movie-worthy, actually.
What about a certain recently-re-captured, most-wanted, drug lord responsible for murdering thousands? THAT guy wasn’t on the list? Seriously? Well, I suppose the effigy committee is worried about retribution… I mean, if El Chapo finds out they burned his likeness, he’s liable to get pretty ticked off and have them all “made to go away” from his jail cell. So no, let’s go with a foreign political nominee, we just can’t think of anyone else.
But what do I know. One year they burned a likeness of the losing local baseball team. As luck would have it, this very night in fact, the local Mazatlan Venados baseball team won the 2016 Caribbean World Series. So the Venados are fortunately safe from the torch… at least as long as Trump keeps talking...which looks like it could be awhile!