Mazatlan, Mexico, is a great spot for an affordable family vacation, as long as you don’t mind being constantly asked, “Are you Steve?”

It didn’t take us long to figure out that no one was really attempting to find someone named Steve. It was a ruse to start talking about buying a time share.

Like every other touristy beach town that promotes itself as a family vacation destination, it’s impossible to dodge the omnipresent smiling salesmen who glom onto tourists like sand on wet feet. On our trip to Mexico, it got to the point that whenever someone with a collared shirt approached us, we’d say “We don’t want a time share!” before they had a chance to speak.

It’s only a mild annoyance in the otherwise soul-strengthening and winter blues-busting sun and atmosphere of Mazatlán.

As the time share guys say, let me just give it to you straight, and not waste your time:

Where is Mazatlán?: Midway down Mexico’s west coast.

Why does it sound so familiar?: The 1970s TV show, “The Love Boat” used to stop there.

The three best things about Mazatlán:
1) El cheapo! Dinner for five adults, featuring steak, seafood and cocktails for all, came to $100, including tip. And that was at an overpriced touristy restaurant.

2) Ocean waves gently crashing on every beach.

3) You don’t feel like you’re in an American resort that happens to be in Mexico, you feel like you’re in a Mexican city. You need to use pesos and can practice your Spanish.

The two worst things about Mazatlán:

1) The inability to drink the water or to feel 100 percent comfortable that your restaurant food won’t make you sick.

2) “Lady! Neck-a-less? Cheep!”

Number of times we were asked to buy a time share: 14 times in 6 days.

Best activity for kids: The aquarium, which features an alligator and turtle park, tanks filled with cool things such as octopuses, and sea lion and bird shows (in Spanish only, but still fun).

Favorite thing we did with the kids: Climb to the top of a big hill where the world’s second tallest lighthouse is perched. It was a hot, hour-long hike and required several water and shade breaks for the kids, but my 3- and 5-year-olds made it. We were so proud! The views were stunning. Cost? Free.

You can skip: The touristy day-trips to the little islands off the coast. They’re geared to the cruise ship crowd and don’t offer much beyond the shopping and water sports you can do anywhere.

A day trip worth doing:  The little mountain towns are a nice break from the city, and you can see (and, of course, buy) their homemade tiles, mahogany furniture and fresh-from-the-oven treats from a mom-and-pop bakery.

We hired a private tour guide to take us in an air-conditioned van through these areas. It was pricey ($330 for four adults and two kids), but it was great to say, “Nah, no more souvenir shopping. Keep driving to the next stop.”

What the kids loved the most: The cliff divers! I gave a guy $10 US and he dove – not jumped, but dove – off a huge (50 foot, maybe?) cliff and landed in a rock-strewn area of the sea. My 3-year-old son was in such awe, he came home and played “cliff diver” on the furniture for weeks.

What we loved the most: Walking up and down the beach, feeling the warm sun on our skin as the kids frolicked around us.

Two things you’ll see a lot of: An unbelievable amount of graffiti on the city’s buildings, and Señor Frog restaurant/retail stores. There are 22 of them in Mazatlán alone.

Whenever I asked someone something in Spanish: They responded in English. Guess I didn’t blend in as well as I thought I did.

Don’t forget to: Walk along the beach and pick up interesting shells and rocks. Put them in a glass cylinder when you get home, and voila! A free, super-stylish souvenir.

If you rent a car: Beware. Few streets are marked. Getting lost is easy. And you must stay on high alert for other cars that fearlessly turn into traffic.

Where to stay: It depends. We liked our junior villa with a kitchen at Los Cerritos. Not all of their villas were in good shape, but ours was. And while it was off the beaten path and surrounded by condominium construction projects (time shares, naturally), we had the two pools and beach to ourselves most days, and could cook most of the meals in our villa (thus, avoiding chicken-fingers-with-fries overload).

My sister and her family, who prefer a more high-end, gated, full-service, very American resort, loved Pueblo Bonito’s Emerald Bay. They loved the spa, and got a deeply discounted room rate because they listened to the hour-long time share offer.

Wished I would have: Lost 20 pounds before I went. Seeing those bathing suit pictures … ugh.

Check out these other Mexico destinations: La Paz, Club Med in Xtapa, and Delphinus Dreams Cancun