Fun and Discovery Just Outside the City!

Map annotated.pngVisitors and residents alike love all that Mazatlán has to offer: beaches, architecture, music, dancing, art, incredible ocean views and sunsets par none. Looking away from the Pacific to the east, however, we are also blessed with the Sierra Madres. And in the Sierras are a whole lot of historic mining towns that offer a tranquil feast for the eyes and heart. Plus, we have gorgeous coastal towns near us to the south and north, as well. If you tire of city life or are just looking for something different to do for a day trip or the weekend, you are in luck!

The Sierras have historic mining towns offering a tranquil feast for the eyes and the heart. We also have gorgeous coastal towns near us to the south and north.

I have put together a map of some of the most scenic and interesting nearby towns. However, on the way to and in between each of the places I’ve marked on the map are loads of other pueblos and farming communities that would welcome your visit. Sinaloans are famously friendly and welcoming; once you’ve reached your destination, be sure to speak with the locals and they’ll show you things you never would have learned about otherwise.

Most every small town has a central plaza, on which you’ll find the church and the municipal building. It’s worth visiting the local bakery and tortillería as well as the cemetery. Most pueblos have cobblestone streets, so wear your walking shoes. The towns I list lie in gorgeous natural surroundings, be it rivers, estuaries, mountains, hills or forests. The drive there (or you can take a bus or charter a tour van) will be scenic, as Sinaloa is the “breadbasket” of Mexico, with loads of farms (vegetables, fruit, seafood). Most of the mining towns in the Sierras were at one time very wealthy, so you will see outstanding architecture and the juxtaposition of former opulence with decay and lack of maintenance, along with tiled roofs and adobe dwellings.

mazatlan-villa-union1204The closest town to us and the one most everyone knows because it’s just past the exit to the airport is Villa Unión. This was actually the first location of Mazatlán when it was established by royal decree in 1596 and called El Presidio de San Juan Bautista. It wasn’t until 1831 that our current name and location were established. A quick 30-minute drive or longer bus ride will get you to Villa Unión, where you can enjoy the historic textile factory, wander around scenic streets where they sell homemade tamales, tortillas and other savories, or visit the famous Cuchupeta’s seafood restaurant.

_DSC7646©Driving up into the hills from Villa Unión you will find Mesillas and Concordia, two woodworking villages popular with locals and tourists. Mesillas is about a 45-minute drive and Concordia is just beyond it. Concordia was founded in 1565 and its San Sebastian church was built in 1785. yYu can eat the renowned raspados or shaved ice, sit in the giant chair in the plaza for a photo op, eat at any of several restaurants, climb to the top of the federal palace, visit several handicrafts galleries, the hot springs, or visit the nearby Mayo (indigenous) town of Jacobo. Take highway 15 south to Villa Unión and switch to the highway 40 free road.

Sinaloans are famously friendly; be sure to speak with locals and they’ll show you things you would never have learned about otherwise.

copalaPast Concordia and about an hour and a half from Mazatlán is Copala, one of my personal favorites. Also founded in 1565 and lying at 2000 feet above sea level, there is not a lot to do here: since the new highway to Durango was built not many tourists stop by, but the combination of old mining riches and modern-day decay are incredibly charming, and the town is really peaceful! I love the church, built in 1748, which is very ornate. The people of the town have gotten together to restore it and the surrounding cobblestone streets. Copala is the home of this region’s famous banana cream pie, which I figure is a Midwestern USA tradition learned by Daniel, the restaurant owner’s, first wife. He is no longer with us, but you can find the pie, or knockoffs, most places. There is a mining museum, the town’s children carve wood to sell to the tourists, there is a restaurant and a couple of places to spend the night, including Casa de Piedra.

Picachos_DSC7441©North of Concordia and north of Mazatlan on a dirt road is the infamous place where so many people were displaced by the flooding from the new dam: Presa (Dam) Picachos. The 25,000-acre lake is at 550 feet above sea level and has quickly become an international bass and fishing haven. But even if you don’t fish it’s well worth the drive, as the water glistens clear blue and with the mountains hovering over the lake the views are gorgeous. It’s about an 80-minute drive from Mazatlán. There are two ways to get there. If you are coming from Concordia, take highway 5-17 which is a little on the rustic side. A more comfortable drive is to take 510 or 512 out of Villa Union. This route has the advantage of bringing you through the lovely farming town of Siqueros with its terrific riverside play area, and the famous El Recodo, for which our internationally famous hometown band is named.

LaNoria DSC_0104©When you’re done at Presa Picachos, take a quick drive to La Noria, founded in 1565 and another of my favorite towns. Here you’ll find leather workshops (great to buy belts and sandals) and fresh cheese makers, the guy who makes the barrels for the tequila distillery, a machete maker and pottery. Nearby is Los Osuna distillery, the Huana Coa zip line, El Habal Ranch, and a fun country-style restaurant with a petting zoo and outdoor play area for kids and adults called La Vaca Lupe. They hold occasional rodeos and the adobe homes are really picturesque. La Noria is about 45 minutes northeast of Mazatlán. To get there directly from Mazatlan, take highway 15 north to El Habal and turn right, following the signs.chara pintaIf you head up to the Concordia area, you might want to visit the Tufted Jay Preserve (Reserva Chara Pinta). It’s about 90 minutes from Mazatlán, and is absolutely gorgeous for bird watching, hiking and star gazing. The reserve has cabins you can rent, though you need to plan for your own meals (groups of ten or more can reserve the cook). Take highway 40 (free road) and exit before El Palmito—best to map this ahead of time.

El Quelite DSC_0557©A bit farther to the north of Mazatlan is everyone’s go-to town, El Quelite, full of colorful, picturesque homes and buildings. Here you’ll see tiled roofs with cacti growing out of them and loads of gorgeous gardens. The Doc’s Mesón de los Laureanos is a favorite restaurant and there are a couple of other good ones as well, plus a cock-fighting farm, a bakery, a famed local ice cream shop, a couple of crafts galleries, a boutique and homemade candies. Once in a while they play the ancient indigenous game of ulama here. El Quelite is about a 40-minute drive; head northwest on highway 15 (free road) and watch for the turnoff.

Rancho Palomas DSC_0095©Just before the turnoff to El Quelite you will pass by the inland part of Meseta de Cacaxtla, a 125,000-acre nature preserve and home to our state’s best ecotourism. Just off highway 15, you can make reservations to visit Rancho Las Palomas. Here they have several blinds for observing wildlife, and the really great thing is they have automatic cameras installed, so the animals are accustomed to flash at night. If you want to take night photos of the animals it’s best to spend the night. Accommodations are rustic but comfortable (bring a sleeping bag; they have cots and running water).

DSC_0107Labradas©Heading out to the coast north of Mazatlán is Las Labradas, the National Cultural Heritage site with over 640 pre-Colombian oceanside petroglyphs on 1200 feet of shoreline, dating back 4500 years! You’ll find a wonderful museum there plus an archeologist from INAH (National Institute of Archeology and History) to answer questions, and the nearby town of Chicayota has some basic services. Las Labradas is about an hour’s drive, and the road out to it is now, thankfully, paved. Take highway 15 (toll road) to highway 20 north, and you’ll see the exit just before Dimas.

Piaxtla DSC_0055©Near Las Labradas on another, unpaved road to the coast is Barras de Piaxtla, a quaint fishing village where you can dine on lobster till your heart’s content, stay at Gail’s gorgeous La Rosa de las Barras cabins, enjoy spectacular views, pristine beaches, cliffs and a natural stone arch.

San IgnacioFinishing out north of Mazatlán, we have the very interesting small town of San Ignacio. It takes about an hour and 10 minutes to get there, was founded in 1633, and has a mission founded in 1748. San Ignacio is famous for its gigantic statue of Jesus. It has two churches, my personal favorite—hot springs, a river for picnicking and playing, and several restaurants including the delightfully rustic Cuata’s on the left as you enter town. There is also the Hotel Anjolin. Head north on highway 15 (free road) and turn off at Coyotitán.

CosaláA bit farther north and up into those Sierras (1200 feet) you’ll find Cosalá, which was Sinaloa state’s first Pueblo Mágico or Magic Town, so designated in 2005. It was also our state capital in the early 1800s and home to the state’s first newspaper. Another mining town, this one founded in 1550 (as Real de las Minas de Nuestra Señora de las Once Mil Virgenes de Cosalá), here you’ll find winding streets, hotels, two churches and two convents, restaurants including the very good El Pueblito, and several nature sanctuaries: a macaw (guacamaya) preserve—Nuestra Señora Mundo Natural—with cabañas and zip line; Vado Hondo park with three waterfalls and natural pools; San José de las Bocas with hot springs; plus caves and fishing in the reservoir. Cosalá has lots of ghost stories, especially about the Casa Hernández Arragón. Nearby in El Rodeo lives a gentleman famous for making papaya jam (conserva). My favorite time to visit Cosalá is during the Fiesta de la Velas or the Candle Festival on Virgin of Guadalupe Day in early December. Cosalá is where Luis Perez Meza was born. It is a bit over a two-hour drive from Mazatlán; there is a hotel and the cabins at the macaw preserve, so making a weekend of it can also be a lot of fun. To get there take highway 15 (free road) north to Cruz de Elota and turn inland following the signs. Along the way, you will pass the famous El Salto Lodge, home to incredible bass fishing on another lake of the same name. I don’t fish, but I understand this is the place to go.

caimaneroHeading south from Villa Unión along the coast you will go through the darling town of Walamo and then hit the gorgeous beaches of Caimanero. There isn’t much to see or do here unless it’s shrimping/frasca season; then you will eat till you burst and be delighted watching the shrimpers with their handheld tarraya nets. We love a day trip to Caimanero, however, because the drive is so beautiful and the pescado zarandeado / barbecued fish that you eat in one of the restaurants on the beach there is to die for. When you walk in, choose the fish you want and the chef will cook it right up. There are also two huge inland lagunas in Caimanero that are home to over 20,000 shore birds! Caimanero is just over an hour from Mazatlán. The beaches are not good for swimming as the surf is so rough, but you will be glad you went! The restaurants serve every type of seafood.

retablo-rosario-tripticoInland from Caimanero is the well-known town of El Rosario, birthplace of ranchera singer Lola Beltrán and home of both the gold-leaf altar (dating to 1750 it is beautifully maintained) and Sinaloa’s favorite soda, Tonicol. El Rosario is one of the easiest day trips from Mazatlán. Both Lola’s house and the church are worth a visit; the town is charming. El Rosario was founded in 1655 and was the most important mining town in Sinaloa for centuries. There is a family here that makes gourd art, and you might want to ask to see the famous “Tigresa,” a Xoloitzcuintle (famous Mexican dog breed) that has achieved near sacred status as she accompanies the dead to be buried. El Rosario is just under an hour from Mazatlán on highway 15 south past Villa Unión.

chametla

This whole area is one of my favorites, because the mangrove swamps and estuaries have not yet been ruined and they are gorgeous! Nearby Rosario is Chametla, beside the river and among the hills. You can hike up the 365 steps to Devil’s Cave and see a spectacular view, and make an educational visit to the archeology museum there. Chametla is actually the most important archeological site in northwestern Mexico; here the Totorames were living when Hernan Cortés arrived. There are at least 22 pre-Hispanic towns near Chametla and the town itself has two pyramids: one on the site of the church, another at the cemetery. Their town festival is in late January.

Most every small town has a central plaza, on which you’ll find the church and the municipal building. It’s worth visiting the local bakery and tortillería as well as the cemetery. Most pueblos have cobblestone streets, so wear your walking shoes.

escuinapa

Just south of Chametla lies Escuinapa, another wonderful day or weekend trip. Here you will find those wonderful barcinas, the straw balls to hold and preserve shrimp that are a typical handicraft of our area. Escuinapa has incredible mango plantations that you can arrange to tour, it’s home to a university and a couple of hotels, and it’s close to the Tepehuan (indigenous) town of El Trébol. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Mazatlán.

teacapan©Another few minutes south is Teacapán, home to the Mexican Pacific’s largest coastal mangrove forest, the Marismas Nacionales. The estuary here continues for over 30 miles and is a pristine habitat for herons, spoonbills, storks and cormorants! The views are gorgeous: you look out to a peninsula beyond the estuary before the ocean. You can take a boat ride through the mangroves and see the historic shell mounds, eat at the botanero, go bird watching or kayaking, or visit the migrant worker village. The beaches are outstanding and dolphins are known to come up the river. It is also the gateway to Jacques Cousteau’s famous Isla Isabel National Park and bird preserve. There are several hotels and restaurants, so it’s another great place for a weekend stay.

Do remember to drive only during daylight hours, and if you have a local friend, ask them to join you! You’ll have a day of delight and discovery, I am sure!

La Frasca/Shrimping in the Estuary

We had a FANTASTIC afternoon and evening learning about shrimping with a cast net/atarraya in the estuaries of Agua Verde, which is between Caimanero and El Rosario. We returned home with heartfelt smiles, new friends, 5 kilos of huge fresh shrimp (for which we paid about 7 bucks), a bunch of fresh crab (which our new fishermen friends gave us for free), and a bucketload of end-of-season mangoes ($4 for a crate full). ¡¡Viva Sinaloa y los Sinaloenses!!!!!!

We set out late Saturday afternoon with our compadres, Jorge and Silvia, to attend the first annual “Festival de la Frasca.” While Jorge told me “frasca” is not a word, and that I surely must be trying to say “zafra” or “open season,” local people tell us it is a southern Sinaloan term meaning “to capture shrimp from the estuary.”

The Festival de la Frasca was supposed to be a food fest with live music. But as usual they were running late setting up, and before we could really get into the party we found much more exciting things calling us.

Just one month ago we had driven this very same road, but shrimp season is now open, and it was an even more wonderful place! I HIGHLY recommend you visit during shrimping season! While the season lasts 6 months, the first few weeks are supposedly the best, as the shrimp and the shrimpers are the most plentiful.

As we drove in we saw men with cast nets (atarrayas) everywhere.  Though mango season has finished, it is now the height of the shrimping season, and they have already planted tomatoes. After tomato season will come chile season, and so goes the year here.

Shrimp season is huge. We were told that opening day is like Carnaval—wall-to-wall people everywhere, with families fishing, picnicking and partying all night long. Family members come from all over the region back to Caimanero and Agua Verde to help with the shrimping, and to perform their obligations under the cooperativa(to work a minimum of so many hours and to capture a minimum of so many kilos). Women and children hang out with the fishermen, so it feels like life transfers from town to the estuary during this time.

Beside the road that just two weeks ago looked so very different we saw little houses or shelters, many of them housing the shrimpers. A standard shelter like the one shown here has one or two lights powered by a propane tank, a plastic shelter for rain, chairs, a way to cook (usually a fire pit), a radio and a cell phone. As you can see, they sit just off the road. Can you imagine spending the night there with cars, trucks, and motorcycles coming by a few feet away from you all night?

We greeted one of these guys, Rodolfo, at one of the stands, and he urged us to pull over and join him. So we did. The night crew, including Marco (who lives in Mazatlán but returns home for shrimp season), his 8 year old son and his 17 year old nephew, plus one other man, were just pulling up as we arrived.

Rodolfo proceeded to feed us a whole mess of fresh crab and shrimp, beside the road, in the fresh breeze, looking out over the estuary. La vida dura. While I well know, from living in Japan, how to crack open a fresh crab, scrape out the lungs, and eat the juicy brain and meat, this fisherman really enjoyed teaching us, and my comadre, Silvia, really enjoyed learning.

Here we also ate shrimp crudo with salt and lime (my all-time favorite—huge prawns, still wiggling; oh yum!), but he also cooked some for Silvia in a pot of broth.

We stayed here about an hour, chatting, feasting and just generally relaxing. We bought our first few kilos of shrimp, as well as receiving a huge bagful of cooked crab.

There were also many changueros, who we’ve heard about since arriving in Mazatlán, but this was the first time we met a few. They are estuary shrimpers who are not members of a cooperativa. They catch shrimp but legally are not supposed to be doing so. Many of the changueros used purina (shrimp chow) to get the shrimp up to the surface. None of the cooperativa fishermen we met used purina. They were very proud to explain to us that their shrimp were the purest.

Below is a video of one shrimper casting a net, and his wife helping him take out the shrimp and put them into a bucket.

After getting back in the car, we made the rounds of several cooperativas. At the first one the view was spectacular.

Rodrigo, a man we met there, sold us some more live shrimp. At left is his photo, and below a video of some of the shrimp wishing they could run away.

We had arrived here just in time for sunset. The sky and the water glowed. People were all so friendly, open and hospitable that it was amazing. Everyone was eager to talk, to explain this long Sinaloan shrimping tradition, and to share their catch of the day with us. To me this frasca tradition is soooo important; it’s Sinaloa’s history, and the if not some of the best shrimp in the world. And tons of it are harvested BY HAND here each year and shipped worldwide. I know such shrimping used to happen right here in Mazatlán; even next to Hotel Playa was an estuary (no wonder Zona Dorada floods).

The fishermen brought out packets of salt, fresh limes and bottles of salsa, and urged us to eat from their catch to our hearts’ content. Alfresco dining overlooking the estuary with friendly, happy, relaxed, knowledgable people; it was a wonderful afternoon. Every boy we met knew how to cast a net. They seem to start as young as seven or eight.



“Girls just wanna have fun…”

We also sat here for quite a long time, again feasting on raw shrimp (no cooked ones this time), and watching the guys cast their nets in the scenic little harbor.

The video below shows a guy casting his net from a panga, so you can see that as well as the earth-bound approach shown above.

The pangas or small fishing boats go out with two guys normally, one remero or rower, and one atarrayero or net caster. Most of the estuary is only hip- or waist-deep, so the remero carries a long stick or remo and basically pushes the panga along, similar to the movement of the gondolas in Venice.

Below is a short clip of the gentleman at left rowing.

There are various cooperativas to which the shrimpers belong. This drive out to one of them was really something — estuary on either side of the road, with loads of lit pangas all around.

Below is a video, so you can get a better feel for this road-with-water-on-both-sides drive.

After visiting some very cool places and meeting lots of wonderful people, we ended up spending another couple of hours sitting with Marco and his family. It was so peaceful there, and so very pleasant. Excuse the poorer quality of the photos from here on. The batteries on our camera died, so the remaining photos are taken with our phone.

On the way out we stopped at one last cooperative, this one the largest we’d seen. Here they had a large building or warehouse, surrounded by dozens of pangasfishing. Families were sitting and standing everywhere, waiting for their husbands, fathers, boyfriends and brothers to come in with their catch.

A semi-truck full of ice was waiting nearby.

A group of men with a scale and ledgers was registering incoming shrimp.

After dipping the bins full of shrimp into ice water, they placed the bins in the refrigerated truck where they are covered with ice and then taken to Mazatlán for sorting, packing and export.

It was at this last cooperative that we also saw our youngest atarrayero, this boy of about eight, at left.

We kept telling our friends that this was an otro mundo, or other world, that most guests in Mazatlán don’t know anything about or understand. We learned a lot about how the cooperativas function and about the life of a shrimper. We all got to eat live shrimp and enjoy some great company. The festival probably happened, but we know we had a lot more fun hanging out with our friends and meeting new ones. We already have plans to go back. We will definitely go opening night next year for the carnaval de cameron, and will head out some month just before the full moon when the really large shrimp are said to be much more plentiful and easier to catch. To be able to find Rodolfo and Marco’s shelter, we put their spot into our GPS and got their cell phone number. Stay tuned.
UPDATE:

Caimanero & Walamo: Day Trip from Mazatlán

Though Danny’s been in school a week already, tomorrow is the “official” first day of school. He took off with a bunch of friends to Isla de la Piedra, so Greg and I figured we should head out for a day trip as well. Where to go? We’ve been wanting to get back to Cosalá, but since it was already late by the time we were ready to leave that seemed too far to go.

We hadn’t been to Caimanero in a while. How about some zarandeado? Yeah! Even in the heat of summer, the beach has a nice breeze, so as long as we’d be under a palapa at one of our favorite restaurants, fresh fish, a gorgeous drive and an incredible view sounded great!!!!The drive to Caimanero is super easy and very scenic. You basically only make one turn, through Walamo, to get to Caimanero from Mazatlán. The drive is very relaxing, with lots of rural vistas and small town scenes. Estuaries with waterfowl (cranes, storks…), beaches and palm trees, mountains, and aguaculture farms (both shrimp and fish).

We left at 11:30, we were home by 6:00, we stopped a dozen or more times, and we ate a very leisurely and delicious lunch that only cost us 250 pesos with tip for two people with beer. Get your day trip gear on and take a trip, people! Enjoy! Be sure to watch the slideshow below to see just how incredibly lucky we are to live in Mazatlán, with so much to offer in the city and nearby.