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Visit Mazatlán: Shrimp Capital of the World

Jan 27, 2023

Like most countries with strong culinary traditions, the secret to falling in love with Mexico is getting to know its regional cuisines. From the cattle ranches of northern Mexico to the famed cheese of Oaxaca, there are treats that evoke a feeling of place in every corner of the country. In Mazatlán, a mid-sized Pacific Coast city in the state of Sinaloa, that local delicacy is most definitely shrimp. Walking through the street markets in Mazatlan’s city centre, the abundance of shrimp becomes immediately obvious. Vendors known informally as the ‘Mazatlán Shrimp Ladies’ sit in front of barrels of fresh shrimp that range in size from an inch or two to half a foot in length, all available for just a few pesos, and it all comes straight off the boat. But how did it come to pass that shrimp became Mazatlán’s gold?

Back in the 1800s, Mazatlán was a bustling cosmopolitan mining and trading city with connections to the US, Europe, and South America. Fish wasn’t an important trade item, but this changed drastically after the Mexican Revolution in the second decade of the 1900s. Scared away by the insecurity, many foreign traders sold their businesses and left the country. This left the Mexican economy in ruins with little hope for recovery. That is, until local commerce got a lucky break in the 1930s a Japanese delegation suggested that Mexico consider fishing for shrimp. Until then, shrimp was seen only as a by-product. And so it happened, that the city of Mazatlán was became a shrimping capital, and fisheries—primarily shrimp and tuna—became the engine fueling the local economy during the 20th century. 

It might not be obvious the shrimp you’ll eat at the restaurant comes from different sources. Even though it’s all local shrimp, the way it’s caught can vary. The first type is shrimp caught by small fishing boats, or pangas in Spanish, with round nets that are thrown out into the sea. In this instance, coastal fishermen can only catch shrimp close to shore or in the estuary areas. Shrimp caught by the coastal fishermen are referred to as ‘camaron de estero’. To prevent over-fishing, the Mexican government has imposed seasonal bans. Look for ‘camaron de estero’ between late September and March; it’s perfect for a shrimp ceviche or spicy Aguachile.

The second type is shrimp caught by shrimp trawlers, or ‘barcos camaroneros’. Trawlers, a certain type of ship, sail for three weeks and catch their shrimp at sea. The shrimp is processed on the ship and flash-frozen in batches. A common allotment of shrimp in this form is called a ‘marqueta,’ which is composed of four pounds of frozen shrimp selected by their size. The letter ‘U’ with a number indicates how many shrimp fit in a pound.  So, the lower the number, the larger the shrimp. For example, there are 12 shrimp size U-12 in a pound, or 48 in a marqueta. If you have to feed many people, this is a more economical option to buy shrimp. Also subject to seasonal fishing bans, you can find high-sea shrimp between October and April. These larger shrimp are perfect to prepare as beer-battered, coconut or bacon-wrapped shrimp.

The third variety is shrimp from the shrimp farms that you may see as large pools of water or ponds when landing at the Mazatlán airport. It’s the fastest growing shrimp industry because it’s not subject to fishing bans. Its yearly production almost triples that of coastal and high-sea shrimping production combined. You can find farmed shrimp, or camaron de granja all year round and it’s mostly consumed as ceviche because it doesn’t have a strong fish flavor. Farmed shrimp is usually less expensive than high-sea or estuary shrimp.

All three are delicious, and all three are available for you to try when you visit Mazatlán. Feeling hungry? That means it’s time to find the nearest seafood restaurant and devour every scrumptious shrimp option on the menu. But before we take a seat in a restaurant, let’s talk about what you’ll find in the street along your way.

The mere idea of street food and market vendors intimidates the average tourists, especially those who don’t speak Spanish. This is why we recommend a local guide, of which there are many. Street food guides run aplenty in Mazatlán, and our concierge can help you book a good one. Almost every guide will start at the carts surrounding the Plaza Republica near the Mazatlán Cathedral, stopping for deep-fried tacos filled with crispy dried shrimp with the local custom being to pour tomato consommé over the hard taco shell so that it softens and can be eaten with a spoon. Then it’s on to food carts which are typically parked next to drink carts selling agua fresca. Try tuba if it’s for sale,  a concoction involving fermented coconut sap, or agua de cebada, made from barley. Hydration is, after all, essential when spending the day in the hot Mexican sun. Most groups carry on from there to Mercado Pino Suarez, a maze of vendors selling fresh vegetables, meat, candy, and seafood. The indoor market is also a hotbed of ready-to-eat meals, many featuring Mazatlán shrimp. Snack on fresh ceviche on small tostadas with a drizzle of the regional Salsa Brava, which earns its name from its intense heat. Other stalls will temp you succulent shrimp tamales, fried plantains, and smoked mackerel.

If that’s all too much, we won’t blame you for wanting to settle into a comfortable sit-down meal at any one of Mazatlán’s fabulous restaurants, especially our own. 

As a major tourist destination, Mazatlán is home to many an all-inclusive resort, often located right in the middle of the city’s Golden Zone, but guests from all over still come to Casa 46, the new face of refined cuisine in Mazatlán. Inspired by its home in the heart of Mazatlán’s historic downtown, Casa 46’s menu offers a fresh take on traditional Mexican flavors, and shrimp are at its heart. Located in the heart of Mazatlán’s Historical Center, you’ll enjoy a front row seat to the bustling Machado Square, an area brimming with activity and artisanal boutiques tucked into cobblestone streets.

Are you convinced yet, that Mazatlán’s culinary history and savory present are good enough to eat? We think so; succulent shrimp are a treat to learn about and eat. Come and taste for yourself!