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Riu Mazatlán Emerald Bay: An Honest Review and 2023 Visitor’s Guide

The iconic Riu Mazatlán, officially known as Riu Emerald Bay, is part of the global Riu hotel chain and is the largest, most well-known hotel in Mazatlán. Featuring over 700 rooms and a massive, striking tower that stands 22 stories tall and looms over everything around it, the Riu Mazatlán is impossible to miss.

Pool and palm trees at sunset at the Riu Mazatlan

Just to be clear, we paid for our entire stay and never received anything from Riu Mazatlán in exchange for this review. We just thought it would be a useful post to write for people looking to visit Mazatlán. In fact, the hotel did not even know we are travel bloggers (and actually denied our request to look at some of the other rooms).

Now, to be fair, this notorious all-inclusive resort at the far northern end of Mazatlán would not have been our first choice for a quiet Mexican getaway, just the two of us. But, see, that is only how things turned out, not the way we planned them.

With Laynni’s parents in the midst of a 3-month stint in the Quintas del Mar condos, we flew down January 1st and stayed in an AirBnB in the nearby Almar Residencial apartments for 5 nights to visit them (and escape the stereotypically brutal Sask winter that was in full force over Christmas).

Man walking between palm trees on a sunny day

Then the idea was to move a little bit up the road to the Riu Emerald Bay all inclusive, where we would be joined by 21 family members and friends for a week of fun but exhausting drinking, eating, games and random debauchery, not necessarily in that order.

However, an unfortunate combination of the Mexican army making a long-awaited move on Ovidio Guzman, son of “El Chapo” and bigshot in the Sinaloa drug cartel, and our group having unfortunately booked through Sunwing, easily the worst Canadian charter company of all-time, dashed those hopes at the last minute.

Sunset with pelicans flying past

Hence, we suddenly found ourselves eating and drinking for 23. Not very successfully, I’ll admit, which is probably for the best since even without drinking as heavily I’m a bit concerned about the overall nutritional value of my standard lunch of two tacos, two kinds of potato, two kinds of cake. Multiply that by 10, add in quite a bit of beer and after a week I am starting to look a bit like Danny DeVito with a base tan.

Woman in bathing suit carrying tray of drinks by the pool

Nonetheless, without anyone joining us we suddenly found ourselves with considerably more openings in our schedule (spending far less time than expected sniffing our reusable to-go cups to see if they had another big beer day in them before needing a wash) and thus had time to thoroughly explore the rather enormous Riu Mazatlán from top to bottom. Here’s what we learned:

A relatively new resort, the Riu Emerald Bay in Mazatlán was only built in 2009 and the new section, where we stayed, was only added in 2019. In fact, when you zoom in on the map on the hotel app it still only shows our entire hotel wing as an empty dirt field. A tidy dirt field, sure, but no longer particularly accurate.

Couple drinking beer in front of the Riu Mazatlan

While the main tower reaches 22 floors up into the blue Mazatlán sky and boasts fabulous ocean views, it is also plagued by slow, crowded elevators and, to some tastes, a dated décor. We didn’t care about the latter but the elevator thing was an important tip from Tamara Graae, our travel agent friend back home, and a big reason why we chose the new area.

The new section is just 4 stories, with more modern rooms and a quieter location away from the busiest pools and restaurants. We didn’t have an ocean view but still had a nice balcony overlooking the grassy, palm-tree-filled courtyard area and we didn’t have to even use an elevator, let alone wait for one. The new area also includes a fun waterpark with waterslides and a kids’ pool.

New section of the Riu Emerald Bay in Mazatlan Mexico
New section

I’ll get into more detail on every aspect of the Riu Mazatlán soon but our very general overview of the place would be this:

Gorgeous beach, slightly inconvenient location, terrific staff, food selection is phenomenal, food quality is solidly “good”, there is a festive atmosphere and excellent wifi. In fact, I think that sentence will be perfect for our Expedia review. The guests were a mix of Canadians and Mexicans, with maybe a lower percentage of foreigners than we saw in similar resorts in Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco.

While it is considered a bit of a party hotel, I’d call it more “family-style party” than truly debauched Spring Break type party. Think less thumping bass and vomiting coeds, more a steady din of frolicking children and their parents gradually raising their voices to be heard over the yelling and, you know, because of the alcohol.

At peak check-in and checkout times the lobby felt a bit like a refugee camp but the staff was always very efficient and polite, eventually working their way through everyone. You can make reservations directly through the Riu hotels site or can sometimes find good deals on other booking sites. We got a decent discount (and free cancellation) by booking through Expedia.

Is Mazatlán Safe?

Woman walking on a long beach

Yes, despite its relatively close proximity to Culiacán, main base of the Sinaloa cartel, Mazatlán has a long history of tourism without any problems beyond the typical minor infractions common to any large city.

For a moment during our visit it seemed like that was about to change as the arrest of Ovidio Guzman resulted in an outbreak of cartel vs army violence in Culiacán and a precautionary city-wide lockdown in Mazatlán. However, just 24 hours later the Mazatlán airport was re-opened and the city was back to business as usual.

The Riu Mazatlán itself feels very safe with security tightly monitoring every vehicle or person arriving (as Laynni found out firsthand when trying to give her parents a tour of the place one day).

For those with their own vehicle, there is free valet parking in a secure lot off the main street.

Where is the Riu Mazatlán?

The Riu Mazatlán is located on Playa Brujas (Witch’s Beach) at the far northern end of the city past the marina. Also known as Playa Cerritos (Little Hills Beach), the beach runs for miles along the Pacific Coast, perfect for long wanders on the sand.

Riu Mazatlan reflected in the lagoon

While the somewhat remote location means the huge beach is generally not crowded and there is very little traffic, it isn’t necessarily the most convenient place to be if you want to check out a bunch of other restaurants and bars (although most people are happy to stick with the all-inclusive food and drink anyway). There are frequent buses to the Golden Zone (Zona Dorada) and the Centro area, though, as well as reasonably priced taxis, pickup trucks and pulmonias (open-air 4-passenger taxi/tuk tuks).

There are also a handful of good restaurant/bars about 10 minutes walk north – Mr. Lionso on the beach and Roy’s, The Last Drop (shows Canadian sports), Looney Bean Coffee and a few basic seafood places.

Mr Lionso beach bar in Mazatlan
Mr Lionso

How far is Riu Mazatlán from the airport?

It is 37 kilometres (23 miles) from Mazatlán International Airport to Riu Mazatlán and takes roughly 40 minutes to drive.

Mazatlán International Airport is located well out of the city to the southeast while the Hotel Riu Emerald Bay is a fair way north of the city. However, because the main traffic of the city can be bypassed, the trip doesn’t feel too long.

Mazatlán Map

Click the star to save this map to your Google Maps – then find it under Saved/Maps (mobile) or Your Places/Maps (desktop)

Riu Mazatlán Rooms / Amenities

The rooms in the Riu Mazatlán are big, modern and comfortable. The ones in the old tower look a bit dated but still function equally well. All the rooms use electronic key cards and have balconies, air conditioning, flat-screen TVs, hair dryers, fully stocked mini-fridges and even wall-mounted liquor racks (4 40oz bottles of hard stuff in case you wake up in the middle of the night with a desire to make your inevitable hangover even worse).

Alcohol dispenser on the wall

There is daily maid service and rooms have smoke alarms, sprinklers and electronic safes for valuables (large enough to fit a 15-inch laptop). There is also an iron and ironing board, in case ironing your bathing suits is a top priority, and a telephone for, I guess, calling reception or simply reminding yourself of what life was like when you were a kid.

We were pleasantly surprised by the wifi – each room gets access for 4 devices and it was reasonably fast (15-20mb/s) with a strong signal everywhere in the hotel. I wouldn’t be surprised if it bogs down a bit during the busiest times of year but overall, very good.

Mini-bar full of drinks and beer

The situation with drinking water in Mexico is always a tricky one (to drink or not to drink?) and access to drinking water at the Riu wasn’t as straightforward as you might hope. We were given a 1.5L bottle to start and our fridge came with a few small bottles but they were only restocked once all week until we called and asked for more.

However, staff was always happy to fill our personal bottles if we asked and there is a public water/pop station in the main hallway just between Las Tres Islas and Las Gaviotas restaurants. We also ended up buying a 5L jug from the nearby OXXO (35 pesos / $C2.50) just so we didn’t always have to be planning our water refills.

Hotel suite in the Riu Mazatlan hotel
Suite in the old tower

The hallways and staircases are wide and colorfully decorated but, as I mentioned earlier, if you are in the tower expect some long waits for the elevator. Depending on which floor you are staying on, when you are leaving your room some people recommend actually catching the elevator as it is heading up because if you wait until it is coming back down it is often already be full.

Riu Mazatlán Beach

Playa Brujas in Mazatlan Mexico

Riu Mazatlán has easy access to three beaches, although where one ends and the next begins is anyone’s guess. Starting to the south is Playa Sábalo, moving north to Playa Cerritos and Playa Brujas. The distinction between them isn’t really as important, though, as the fact that these huge, wide beaches are clean, spacious and run all the way up and down the coast.

The Riu Emerald Bay is located right on the beach and there is a roped off area full of loungers, umbrellas and palm trees where staff will serve you drinks and food.

Rocks and a long beach in Mazatlan

More importantly, the large group of sellers and mariachi bands that congregate nearby are not allowed inside the ropes so if you start suffering from “tout fatigue” you only have to duck back inside the rope to get a break.

On the other hand, some will enjoy the fact that these sellers set up a small, portable market where you can pick up souvenirs, trinkets, beach toys, inflatables or boogie boards. And if you are in the mood to be serenaded very closely and directly by a mariachi band, well, you usually have several duelling ones to choose from.

Sellers on the beach in Mazatlan
The Beach Shop

While the waves are classic and impressive, they are also pretty rough and occasionally treacherous. When the tide is going out the riptides and undertow can be dangerous enough to keep people out of the water.

Most of the time it is safe for swimming, though, if not that comfortable (that’s what the pools are for, anyway). It is great for boogie boarding and even surfing (in spots). Also, at least the slope is very gradual so it is easy to wade in up to your knees without chancing the waves too directly.

Person surfing in Mazatlan Mexico
Surfer in action

Riu Mazatlán Pools

Pool and palm trees

Depending on how you define or combine them, there are roughly 5 pools at the Riu Mazatlán.

2 large, popular pools, one with a swim-up bar and water volleyball net, the other mainly for families. Then two smaller pools at either end, both of which are much quieter, one of which also has a swim-up bar and is called “adults-only”, although I don’t think they really enforce that unless absolutely necessary (as in, a group of kids being even more annoying than kids tend to be by default).

Swim-up bar in Mazatlan

Then there is Riuland kids with its own pool in behind the water park with waterslides for smaller kids.

Waterslides at Riu Mazatlan

There are hundreds (thousands?) of loungers two rows deep around every pool, almost all of which sit under retractable covers so you can choose sun or shade. Pool rules state “no reserving chairs” in hopes of avoiding the early morning games of towel draping that take place at other resorts. Not sure how successful they’ve been as it wasn’t nearly full during our visit so finding spots was never a problem.

Woman on a lounger under palm trees on the beach

Riu Mazatlán Restaurants/Bars

As we mentioned, the Riu Mazatlán is an all-inclusive resort so guests are given a wristband to wear and after that, everything is free! Ignoring the fairly substantial price you paid to be there, of course. That includes both food and drinks, and premium drinks, too, not just the crap stuff.

Poolside bar at the Riu Emerald Bay

Unlike some resorts, the reusable beer cups are reasonably large so taking your own to-go cup isn’t as important as at the resorts that insist on using tiny little shot cups.

There is a massive amount of variety in the buffets so everyone should be able to find something that suits their fancy. From tacos, meat dishes and pasta to soups, salads and rice, with pretty much everything in between. There are also a lot of kid-friendly options such as chicken nuggets, hot dogs, fries, etc.

Riu Mazatlan restaurant buffet

There are 6 restaurants and not all of them are open every night. The earliest one opens for dinner at 18:30, which sometimes can feel a bit late for us, mostly because we are rapidly making our way toward age-related “early bird” territory, and partially because a full afternoon of sun and beer can result in quite an appetite.

The main restaurant is Las Tres Islas, a huge buffet that is open for breakfast and dinner.

Las Gaviotas is an all-day buffet just down the hall.

Tacos and mushrooms

There are 2 a la carte restaurants that need to be reserved in advance – Tabasco (Mexican) and Bamboo (Asian).

Pepe’s is a poolside snack bar that has burgers, fries and nachos. Perfect for a quick bite without leaving the pool.

El Malecón buffet is in the new section of the hotel and only serves breakfast.

Bacon, eggs, fruit and juice

There are 8 bars, ranging from basic swim-up bars to a night club with daily live music, entertainment and a sports bar that is open 24 hours.

Riu Mazatlán Facilities and Services

The Riu Mazatlán offers almost everything you could want in a beach holiday, starting with the Renova Spa, with private hot tubs, saunas, hydrotherapy, beauty services and beach massages.

The fitness center / gym has a few treadmills, stationary bikes and weight stations. There are also fitness classes every day under a large palapa near the beach.

Gym equipment

The Riuland kids water park features several waterslides and a big pool for kids.

There is secure valet parking for those with their own vehicle. They can also arrange car rentals, as well as motorbikes or ATVs.

Most of the staff speak both Spanish and English, and some speak a variety of other languages as well.

The hotel is wheelchair accessible, although there might be a few spots where it isn’t particularly easy to get around.

The front desk offers access to a larger safe if necessary, along with currency exchange and information about the area. You can also get your hair done, book laundry service and check out the gift shop.

For an extra cost you can book a variety of day trips – whale watching, fishing, Stone Island, horseback riding, Old Town tours, etc.

There is a daily schedule of events meant to keep people (mainly kids) busy, including volleyball, bean bag toss, horseshoes and dancing. If you want to do your own thing, you can ask at the activity centre for a volleyball, fútbol (soccer), ping pong (2 tables) and boogie boards (there are only a few that get snapped up quickly).

Ping pong table by a pool

If you have older kids who want a more hardcore boogie boarding experience, there is a surf shop up the beach next to Mr. Lionso where you can rent larger, better-quality boards for 150 pesos per hour (or 300/day long-term). Not surprisingly, you can also rent surfboards there for slightly more money. There are pretty good beginner waves, especially in the morning.

Riu Mazatlán Day Pass

If you or someone you know just wants to visit or check it out for a day, it is possible to buy a Riu Emerald Bay day pass that grants you access to all the facilities, plus unlimited food and drinks. However, it seems as though they don’t really want to promote this since the prices are a bit crazy.

1,200 pesos ($US60) per person and the pass is only valid from 10:00 to 17:00, which means you miss out on both breakfast and dinner. You’ll need to drink pretty hard all afternoon to get your money’s worth.

How to Get to Riu Mazatlán

Riu Mazatlán is 37 km (40-min drive) from the Mazatlán International Airport. It is also about 30 minutes by car, bus or pulmonia from the Old Town and about 20 minutes from the Golden Zone. There is a large secure, free parking lot in the resort.

On the bright side, even if you don’t have your own car there are loads of transportation options.

The green city buses that say “Sábalo Centro” run all the way from the top of Playa Cerritos down through the Golden Zone, then along the malecón for a few kilometres before turning inland a few minutes before reaching the Old Town.

Palm trees lining a street in Mexico
Golden Zone

These buses cost just 13 pesos per person, you pay the driver and they will give change. You don’t necessarily have to be at an official bus stop to get them to stop but you will have to flag them down.

Taxis are quite affordable and one or two can usually be found waiting outside the gate of the resort, or you can ask the front desk to call one for you.

Pulmonias are a very unique, very Mazatlán way of getting around. These open-air taxi/tuk-tuks hold up to 4 adults, are often stylishly decorated and are a more fun mode of transportation. There are always some waiting by the Riu Mazatlán gate and you will need to discuss the price ahead of time – anywhere from 50-100p to the Zona Dorada to 100-200p to the Old Town.

Pickup trucks with covered bench seats in the back can be found about 100 metres north of the Riu Mazatlán gate and prices are generally similar to pulmonias, making them good choices for larger groups.

Keep in mind, prices can vary considerably depending on time of day, number of people, your Spanish skills, haggling ability, desperation level and how much you actually care about saving a couple dollars.

Mazatlán: When to Go and Weather

Palm trees and umbrellas reflected in a calm pool

In our opinion, Mazatlán has incredible weather. It doesn’t get much rain but what it does get occurs mainly between July and September. From November to May you’ll hardly see a drop.

What we like is that Mazatlán is much cooler than the Mexican resort areas further south. During the dry season, daily highs are usually around 28C with nightly lows as cool as 15-18C. Some people are surprised and a little bit offended when they find they need to wear a sweater at night (especially Canadians intent on trading northern winter for heat, lots and lots of heat) but we love the cool mornings and evenings.

High tourist season is from Christmas to the end of February, although you might see big groups at any time of year. In general, November, March and April are good times to visit for perfect weather and fewer other tourists.

Things to Do in Mazatlán

Here are just a few of the top highlights to check out during your visit to the Riu Mazatlán:

Old Town Centro – classic colonial architecture and some seriously impressive churches.

Old Town Mazatlan
Centro Historico

Golden Zone (Zona Dorada) – bars, restaurants and tourist shops.

Stone Island – not actually an island but it has one of the nicest beaches in Mexico.

Mazatlán Venados – Mazatlán has its own professional baseball team and checking out a Venados game is definitely a fun and memorable experience.

The Malecón – running for 7 kilometres south from the Golden Zone, the best parts are close to Olas Altas and the Old Town.

Woman walking on the malecon in Mazatlan

Riu Mazatlán: Nearby Hotels

If you decide that an all-inclusive hotel isn’t really your thing, there are a few nearby options where you can enjoy the same outstanding beach and have your own kitchen to boot.

The Brujas Tower Beach Resort apartments located in Playa Brujas Beach Club have fantastic views and guests share a pool, garden, fitness centre and lounge. It is also very close to Mr. Lionso and the other end of the road restaurants.

Playa Brujas Beach Club, Mazatlan
Playa Brujas Beach Club

Check prices and availability at Brujas Tower Beach Resort

The quiet Quintas del Mar Condominios are available with a variety of views surrounding a peaceful pool on a nice stretch of beach.

Palm trees and pool
Quintas del Mar

Check prices and availability at Quintas del Mar

On the other hand, if you like the idea of being a bit closer to the centre of town, the malecón and the main tourist areas, there are plenty of good choices further south.

Located on North Beach, just south of the majority of the Mazatlán tourist facilities in the Golden Zone, Varali Grand Hotel is a 5-star hotel with amazing views, great balconies and a nice pool.

Check prices and availability at Varali Grand Hotel

Very close to Playa Olas Altas (High Waves Beach), the malecón and the Old Town, Casa de Leyendas is a charming, traditional hotel with a lounge, terrace, restaurant and pool.

Traditional hotel in Mazatlan Old Town
Casa de Leyendas

Check prices and availability at Casa de Leyendas

Riu Mazatlán Verdict

Sun setting through hands in the shape of a heart

Riu Emerald Bay is one of the most comprehensive beach resorts we’ve ever seen. It is huge, can easily accommodate big groups and offers an impressive range of facilities, restaurants, services and activities.

No, it won’t feel like a quiet, beach hideaway, at least not in high season, but we had no trouble finding more peaceful corners, pools and restaurants whenever we felt the need to escape family-topia. With a fabulous beach, perfect weather and an absurd variety of food and drink, the Riu Mazatlán is an exceptional choice for your next all-inclusive beach holiday.

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