Hurricane Willa swept onto Mexico's Pacific mainland with 195 km/h winds today, threatening a major resort area, fishing villages and farms after roaring over an offshore penal colony.

The US National Hurricane Centre said that the eye of the dangerous Category three storm was about to make landfall, and little variation in strength was expected beforehand.

It warned people not to venture outside during "the relative calm of the eye, since hazardous winds will suddenly increase" as it passes.

The storm's core was hitting a stretch of coast about 80km south of Mazatlan, a resort city that is home to high-rise hotels and about 500,000 people, including many US and Canadian expatriates.

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Alberto Hernandez, a hotel worker in Teacapan, close to where the storm was making landfall, expressed confidence that the building would hold up. He and his son, who also works at the hotel, were staying on the job, though the rest of his family had left the area.

"We've had rain all day. There is nobody in the streets. Everything is closed," Hernandez said. "But not everyone wanted to leave, even though authorities made it clear that he who stays does so at his own peril."

Torrential rains began in the afternoon, and emergency officials said they evacuated more than 4250 people in coastal towns and set up 58 shelters.

The storm also battered the Islas Marias, a group of Mexican islands about 100km off the mainland that include a nature preserve and a federal prison. Federal authorities declined to comment on precautions that were taken at the prison, citing security concerns.

As Willa closed in, the beach in Mazatlan almost disappeared, with waves slamming against the coastal boulevard under looming black clouds.

A few surfers took advantage of the high waves even as workers boarded up windows on hotels, shops and homes. Schools were closed and the streets nearly empty.

Two young men smoke and play their guitars as they wait for Hurricane Willa in Mazatlan.
Two young men smoke and play their guitars as they wait for Hurricane Willa in Mazatlan.
Workers board up windows in Mazatlan.
Workers board up windows in Mazatlan.

Some families went to a Mazatlan convention centre, which opened its doors as a shelter. They spread out blankets along the walls and waited for the storm.

"The house we're living in is not well built," said Sergio Ernesto Meri Franco, who rents a studio apartment.

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The federal Government issued a decree of "extraordinary emergency" for 19 municipalities in Nayarit and Sinaloa states.

Bob Swanson, who is from Saskatchewan, Canada, and spends two to six months of the year in his house in the Cerritos neighbourhood near the shore in Mazatlan, said he filled his washing machine with water, filled his home fuel tank and gassed up his car in case he needs to head into the mountains for safety.

"I'm kind of waiting with bated breath," he said over the phone, adding that he was sitting on his porch and smoking a cigarette.

Hurricane-force winds extended 55km from Willa's centre, and tropical storm-force winds were felt up to 185km out.

Forecasters said the hurricane could bring 15 to 30cm of rain — with up to 45 cm in some places — to parts of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa states, with flash flooding and landslides possible in mountainous areas.

-AP