Nearly Secret Gem of an Overnight Trip

DSC_5157The December party season is exhausting. After the holiday, wouldn’t it feel wonderful to chill out for a couple of days in the middle of a spectacularly biodiverse rain forest, in a large, clean cabin with killer views, incredible stargazing, a full kitchen and all the modern amenities?

Every year tourists from over 25 countries are drawn to this very spot, home to a world-renowned breeding program for green macaws, aiming to rescue them from extinction. This gorgeous nature preserve has a semi-Olympic pool, tennis court, dozens of kilometers of hiking trails, waterfalls, petroglyphs, a museum, aviary and several climactic zones. You’ll witness breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and amazing stargazing both with your naked eyes as well as through an astronomical observatory telescope.

How far do you have to travel to get to this magical place? Costa Rica? Malaysia? Chiapas? No, the Reserva Ecológica de Nuestra Señora Mundo Natural is right here in Sinaloa, just three hours by car or bus from Mazatlán—twelve kilometers east of Cosalá. It’s home to the most important macaw rescue program in northwestern Mexico, a two kilometer long zip line that is the second highest in the country (500 meters), and an astronomic observatory that partners with observatories in Russia, Chile and New Mexico to monitor near-Earth asteroids and space junk.

Not only is the nature preserve nearby, it’s affordable—because it’s part of our state university, UAS: Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa. A three-bedroom cabin (for eight people) with loads of natural light, air conditioning and a full kitchen costs 3000 pesos/night; they also have hotel and hostel rooms for 800 pesos/night. You’ll want to be sure and spend the night: the reserve closes to the public at 5 pm and opens at 10 am, so sunrise, sunset, moon and star gazing are not available to day visitors but only to those smart enough to spend some time here. The wild macaws are also best seen at dawn and dusk, yet another reason to spend the night here.

The 60,000 annual visitors to the reserve come for the incredible biodiversity of the area. You may also meet some of the domestic and international scholars conducting research here from Guadalajara, UNAM in Mexico City, Brazil, Chile, Spain and the UK. Fauna you’ll probably see include the green macaws that the area is famous for, plus white-tailed deer, coati, ocelots, lilac-crowned parrots, iguanas, gray hawks, owls, and a few things you may want to avoid: rattlesnakes and tarantulas. Flora-wise there are loads of braziles, amapas, mautos, moras, higueras, apomos, flor de Santiago, sabinos, rosarillas y papelillos and mangos. Should you wish to hold a workshop, large meeting or party here, there is even a conference center with closed circuit TV, a restaurant and space for up to 200 people!

During my visit there were several groups of students visiting from UAS. They conducted research in nature during the day and enjoyed pizza parties at the pool in the afternoon. There was a large family reunion, with family members coming from different states to meet up here, just outside Cosalá. Quite a few area businesses conduct employee-training programs here, and the reserve plays host to religious retreats, as well.

The General Manager of the reserve, José Alfredo Leal Orduño, was kind enough to spend a few hours touring me around the property and facilities. He spends the work week in Culiacán, but is at the reserve on the weekends. Leal told me that when UAS was founded in 1968, Governor Sánchez Celis gave the fully functioning reserve property—including hot water, electricity, a huge freezer and about 85 cabins—the equivalent of 260 hotel rooms—to the university as a source of income. It seems the property owner, a mining company, was delinquent on taxes; their loss was the university’s gain. The university, however, proceeded to nearly completely neglect the facility for the next forty years. By the time Leal took over, looting had destroyed 75 of the original cabins. What remained were the two haciendas on the property, which had been used by the mine superintendents, and the service buildings. The original structures were remodeled to become the cabins, hotel and hostel we see today. The rooms are a pleasant mixture of historic, rustic beauty on the outside and modern convenience and aesthetics on the inside.

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José Alfredo Leal Orduño, General Manager of the Reserva

All cabins have hot and cold running water, air conditioning, private bath, and a full kitchen with refrigerator/freezer, stove, microwave and coffee maker. While you have a kitchen and can cook when you wish, if you let staff know ahead of time they will arrange for a local woman to come in and cook meals for your party. There are large decks as well as lookouts and rest areas where you can read a book or watch the nature around you. The cabins are accessible by car, making this an enjoyable respite for the mobility impaired, and the reserve’s 18 employees stand ready to help.

If you are physically fit you can take an early morning hike with a biologist from the lower Habitas River Valley, with its mines, petroglyphs and waterfalls, all the way up to the top of the Sierras, through several climactic zones. The reserve is on the border between Sinaloa and the state of Durango.

When is the best time to visit? Leal says it’s winter, November to May, the dry season. Anytime between June and October is when the rain forest is in full regalia, the river is at its highest and the waterfalls their most powerful. He showed me videos of a thunderstorm taken from within a cabin and it was absolutely beautiful—the sound of fresh, wet summer air! Macaw courting season is in February and March, which should be quite the experience, though Semana Santa is always sold out months ahead of time.

60% of the reserve’s visitors are from Culiacán, with a very small percentage from Mazatlán. That is strange to me, since the two cities are equidistant from the nature preserve. What a loss that mazatlecos don’t take better advantage of this terrific public resource! I trust you’ll help me change that reality by visiting soon.

The Reserve is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm, though I urge you to spend the night. To make your reservations call (696) 9650306 between 9 am and 1 pm or 4 – 7 pm (English spoken).

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!

Congratulations to Friends and Launch of a Great New Resource

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Photo courtesy Líderes Mazatlán

When we move to a new place, it naturally takes us a while to settle into a routine, to discover what is going to stoke our passion, and to get comfortable with our “selves” in the new environment. I think sometimes it takes me longer than others, since I work such long hours and in the privacy of our home; it’s hard to get out and about meeting people as often as I’d like and still “bring home the tortillas,” so to speak. One thing I’ve discovered over the past five years is how much diversity there is here in southern Sinaloa, and how much I enjoy its rich traditions, bio-diversity, and friendly people. I absolutely loved attending the frasca, the harvest of fresh shrimp in Agua Verde. I thank goodness we have marine biologists here in town who can take us up close and personal to whales and dolphins while being respectful and mindful. I love meeting people who are good at what they do, and watching them glow as they tell me about it—whether it’s oyster diving, farming in Los Llanitos, open water swimming, giving food to the hungry, or selling meat.

Sandra and Hector, center and right, with their first issue

Sandra and Hector, center and right, with their first issue

Well, a few years ago I discovered kindred spirits online in Sandra Luz Moreno and Hector Lizárraga Vencis. While I didn’t know it at the beginning, they are the people behind Mazatlán Interactivo (MI), a portal that, over the years, I have grown to enjoy and depend on more and more. Through their articles I have learned so much about Mazatlán, the histories, celebrations and unique cultural offerings here and in our nearby towns, and they’ve enabled me to connect with some really interesting people. MI is an important part of my day. (It’s all in Spanish, btw.) While it has taken me a while to connect the dots—I first “met” Sandra via the SIFoto conference and later in groups on Facebook, and didn’t realize her connection to MI—she is kind and funny, and has made me feel welcome and valued in our adopted home. Yesterday she and Hector celebrated the 18th anniversary of their terrific Mazatlán Interactivo—18 years of unflaggingly promoting the diversity, authenticity, and sustainability of Sinaloa (particularly southern Sinaloa), with an anniversary party at the Convention Center. The party included the launch of an exciting new venture: Sinaloa Tour.

It was a wonderful event! We were greeted personally at the door by Sandra and Hector, as well as by beautiful, traditionally dressed folkloric dancers. After a welcome speech, there were introductions by several of the municipios in southern Sinaloa. P1040443We very much enjoyed the presentation by Marcos Osuna, of El Quelite/El Mesón de los Laureanos fame. You no doubt know him and have enjoyed the terrific experience his restaurant provides. We take most all our visitors up that way for an enjoyable day trip. I know Marcos because he helped Danny with his quest to get to World Scout Jamboree. For decades he has been an incredible leader and visionary for El Quelite, working tirelessly for education, for the welfare of the local people, and to promote tourism to the town. While he spoke a bit long for my taste, he is charming, very, very funny, and incredibly inspirational. He admonished everyone in the room (primarily tour providers, artists and crafters, restaurant and hotel owners, plus government leaders and media) to:

  • constantly up their skills and to behave as professionally as possible,
  • to learn cross-cultural communication in order to differentiate the needs and desires of a diverse (national and international) customer base, and, interestingly to me,
  • to dedicate themselves to providing new experiences for tourists: experiences they can’t get at home, and
  • not to compete on price, as people will pay even in down economic times if the experience is unique and memorable,
  • to be honest and AUTHENTIC, reaching into local traditions, customs, flora and fauna, being proud of it, and translating it in an accessible way to our visitors.

The representatives from El Rosario showed us two very terrific, creative ways to learn introduce a place. First, the group Sófocles, directed by Fernando Barraza, acted out with much dramatic flair two legends of the town. What a talented group, and what a terrific way to introduce and communicate the soul of a place! They followed that with the presentation of a gorgeous dress, designed by Sergio Antonio García Peinado, that showed representations of the various locations and claims to fame of the municipality. No boring talking heads today!

P1040464Cosalá was also very enjoyably represented by Gregorio Corrales , who, wearing a large sombrero and a beautiful leather zarape, sang a few traditional songs and corridos of the region for us, to the accompaniment of folkloric dancers. The music got the best of most everyone in the room, as people in the audience as well as on stage paired off to dance.

We were pleased to be able to meet Maestro Faustino Lopez Osuna, composer of our state anthem, and enjoyed the storytelling of Joaquín López Hernández, who recounted some legendary lies from the book, “El Güilo Mentiras”, written by Escuinapan author Dámaso Murúa.

P1040504Sinaloa Tour is something I’ve been looking forward to. Right now it’s only in Spanish with GoogleTranslate in a pull-down menu, but the great thing is that they have put together a bunch of information on the small towns in southern Sinaloa, to make it easier for all of us to explore and get to know them! In addition to the public-service aspect of the site (a partnership with the state), there is a commercial tour side. And again, to me it’s exciting, as they are planning tours that highlight the diversity and rich tradition that Sinaloa has to offer: religious, nature and environmental, cultural, sports, gastronomy, and adventure tourism.

At the time of this writing, the site seems to still have its glitches and typos, as with most any new launch, but I am hopeful that it will become a resource to help all of us enjoy both our gorgeous Mazatlán and the surrounding areas more fully, in the process learning more about what has been here for hundreds of years before we set foot.

Hector and Sandra, and staff, congratulations and thank you!