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!

Banda is not Spanish for Band!

I have heard Banda and Norteño music described as “an acquired taste,” “a God-awful racket,” and “the best music on the planet.” Realistically speaking, I agree with all three.
 
First off, what is Banda? Banda is a style of music popular in Mazatlán and the rest of Sinaloa, the state in Mexico from which it hales. It is growing in popularity elsewhere, but especially in the United States.
 
Banda style music dates back to the late 1800’s. It was imported from Germany when the Germans came over to invent Pacifico beer. You won’t find this fact validated by any reference checking, but I can assure you that the German’s greatest contributions were Banda and Pacifico. In fact, I’m drinking one now.
A Banda band is a band ranging size from around 8 to around 24 – give or take a few. A band consists of mainly brass or wind instruments like clarinets, trumpets, trombones and tubas. There are always drums – many of them. One drummer will usually play a snare drum and some cymbals (or cowbell, etc.), another will play tom-toms and still a third might play a bass drum with a cymbal on top. Because of these drum types, you will often see drummers standing when playing. String instruments are rare; as are keyboards. Normally there won’t be an accordion. Most often a Banda-like band with an accordion is actually a Norteño band. While some Norteño does come from Sinaloa, most comes from the more northern states of Mexico. Norteño can also thank the Germans (and the Czechs) for its beginnings. It is more of a rural sound, and I really like it too. You will hear Norteño music on Banda radio stations and see the videos on Banda video channels.
 
When it comes to the Banda “sound,” there are many. The most common are cumbias, rancheras and corridos. At the end of this post I will put links to a variety of videos so you can hear for yourself. If you think this is confusing, it is. These three types of music are not limited to Banda, but also played by Norteño bands. Why is this a problem? Well, people will say, what kind of music do you like? Do you like Banda? What kind? Norteño? How about Mariachi? Are you wondering why Pacifico is needed to get this all straightened out?
For purposes of clarity (and ease for the author), I will use Banda from this point on to mean Banda and Norteño.
 
Often Bandas will have more than one singer, making it difficult to hear a song on the radio or in a restaurant and know who you’re listening to. So, apparently to solve this problem, Bandas are known for singing out the name of their band (and home city or state) sometime during the song (usually at the beginning). I find this system very efficient and would highly recommend it to bands elsewhere in this world. Not only are there concurrent multiple singers, but as bands age, singers are replaced. Some Bandas have been around for many years. The most famous and best example is Banda El Recodo. The full name of the band is Banda Sinaloense el Recodo de Don Cruz Lizárraga. The band has been under the control and guidance of the Lizárraga family for over 70 years. Their current lead singer sounds very different than the last singer, but he is great and is very young and hopefully will be the primary voice of Banda El Recodo for years to come. Note the full name tells you who founded the band and where it is from, very efficient. You will often see Banda names with a founders name included or a city or state of origin. This helps designate a band if someone else in the country has a similar name and shows hometown pride. I like it!
 
Banda is not exclusively a male-dominated genre. There are some female Banda bands, but they have not had the successes associated with today’s well-known Banda bands.
 
Sometimes Banda sounds over-amplified and distorted. This is usually due to the tuba being played and used in a way that is uncommon to most music listeners. Other times it is due to the fact that the band will amplify one or more of the singers and put the tuba too near the microphone at which point it is over-amplified and distorted.
 
The more popular or more successful a Banda becomes, the better they become. They get better instruments, better musicians and uniforms. A good-looking Banda is quite a sight. Think about 18 guys in matching cowboy hats, brightly colored jackets, western shirts, matching pants and boots, all swaying to the beat of a song. Along with this, musicians swirl or pump their instruments in between stanzas. It is quite a sight to behold. You’ll get the picture in the videos.
 
Speaking of videos, Banda videos are fun! Often they tell a story, either about the song, or just about life in Sinaloa. Many are filmed in my wonderful city of Mazatlán. If you are ever in Mexico and have the opportunity to watch TV, check out a channel called BandaMax (Mazatlán cable, channel 11).
 
A Banda concert may at first glance look like controlled chaos, but it is very enjoyable and festive. But, there are a few things you should know. First, gentlemen need to wear their best jeans with stitching, a “western shirt” with glitzy design on back and/or front, your best cowboy hat and boots made from a dead animal. Ladies, anything tight that highlights cleavage will do great and really high heels. Banda concerts start late and go later. It is not uncommon to be going home at 3 or 4 in the morning. Beer is usually no more than 100 feet away at any given time. The event is very loud. I have been to a lot of rock concerts in the states, a Banda concert is louder.
 
Outside of a concert, how do you get to see a Banda? Acts just starting out will walk the beach or between restaurants looking for work on busy days. There are some restaurants and cantinas in town that are known for having Banda music. Some have a house band and others have different bands playing. Often, two will show up and it becomes a “Battle of the Bandas”. Bandas play little dance halls and cantinas. If they have a name or following, there will be signs advertising the Banda. For larger touring acts, concert venues are used. If you want to hire a Banda for a party, you can ask for cards of any Banda you see, or just go down to the area of town where they “hang out” and find one. If you’re in Mazatlán, just go east at the Fisherman’s Monument to the corner of Gutierrez Najera and Juan Carasco. You will find Banda bands looking for work hanging out there.
 
If you read this far, I’m impressed. What’s the bottom line on Banda? What you think of it when you first hear it will depend on how you hear it. If you hear a professionally recorded song by a mainstream Banda band, it will probably sound like Latin pop with horns. If, however, you are sitting in a cantina with your compadres and drinking a bucket of Pacificos, then you will think it is too loud, unorganized chaos. Remember in elementary school when Miss Carlson, the music teacher, arrived? She would open a big box of musical instruments, some shinier than others, but all capable of pleasing a child’s senses and wonderment and making a noise that, to a child under ten, passes for music. Remember Susie and Vicki would always fight over who got to play the triangle and whip it like mom’s mashed potatoes. Remember how Bobby always got the tambourine and ran around shaking it like a Hari Krishna? And remember how we would all just bang and tap and strum and hit and run to our own little personal beat? Remember that sound and how good it felt? Well, to many people, that’s what Banda sounds like the first time. The real problem with Banda is it needs room to breathe. Like good wine, the more it breathes, the better it gets. Keep listening and after a while, you will start to recognize the songs. They actually have a beat (and yes Dick Clark, you can dance to it) and the band is organized. In fact, the better the band, the better the organization.
If you decide you like a Banda song or a group and you want to buy the music, good luck. A mainstream act like Banda El Recodo can be found on line (iTunes, etc.) as well as some music by Julion Alvarez, Banda El Limon, and others who have had some success outside of Mexico. Beyond that, you are stuck. If a band gets lucky enough to get a record deal, they may have very limited, if not regional, distribution. I have spent weeks trying to find some CD’s and went so far as emailing the bands through their websites, Facebook pages and My Space pages. I still don’t have anything. I got some vague instructions on how one store might have something (not), I got a guy at a music store who was going to order them and call me (not). So, I have learned how to extract the audio from a YouTube video into MP3 format–problem solved–sort of. If you want to catch a Banda when they come to town, just check their websites and pages for a concert schedule, or watch for signs around town and their tour busses. How to get a ticket? I’ll save that for another time.
 
I created a playlist in my YouTube account with a whole bunch of videos. If you have about 45 minutes, you will see some of my favorite videos, many filmed in or about Mazatlán. You will:
·Learn a lot about typical Mexican life
·Enjoy a Banda remake of a 1970’s US pop classic.
·See Banda El Recodo live at a concert I attended
·See Grammy and Latin Grammy award winners
·Experience life on a Mazatlán beach during carnaval
·Learn about pigs, cheese, peanuts, cars, girls, beer…
·See that I snuck in one Mariachi song because it’s all about Mazatlán!

Our 1st Carnaval Event

Greg and I were two of over 20,000 lucky people who showed up to the vacant lot in front of the aquarium to watch Verónica Castro crown my favorite banda, El Recodo, the “Kings of Joy” for Carnaval 2009. It was DEFINITELY a night to remember!

El Recodo played for over an hour, as did 11 other bands including Pedro Fernández, Banda El Limón, Huichol Musical, Banda Estrellas de Mazatlán, and the comedian Carlos Bardelli. The lighting on the stages was truly amazing, very high-tech and exciting, and the fireworks were remarkable.
The band is celebrating their 70th anniversary this year. The leader’s mother, Chuyita, who is the widow of the band’s founder (Cruz), and Cruz’s brother German, were both present at the ceremony.
One of the incredible things about this event is that it took place in what, up to that morning, had been a vacant dirt-covered lot. The city came in and plowed out a hill on the lot during the prior week, took out a small old amphitheatre, and the day before the event they installed a HUGE stage and one smaller one, along with 3-story high light mounts.
The lot was fenced off and you had to go through a long line of Federal Police, most people being frisked (we weren’t) before you could enter the party zone (huge lot, now transformed). The party zone was lined with snack booths of all sorts, from tacos to flan to carne asada. Strolling vendors sold hats, masks, noisemakers and toys. There were of course several Pacífico booths.
One of the interesting “side shows” was electric shock treatment. A man walks around with two hand-held diodes and a small generator. He gets a group of people together and asks you to hold hands. He gives a couple of people a diode, and he backs away. You get shocked, it hurts quite a bit, and the first person to let go pays 100 pesos for the privilege. Hmm… Greg lost 😦

Another interesting sideshow was the “eyelashes and beard” man, as you can see below.

Everyone talked to everyone as instant friends and shared the beer. It was an ideal start to our first Carnaval in Mazatlán.


Pre-Carnaval

This year is the 135th anniversary of the Carnaval here in Mazatlán. With our history as a port city (read pirates, drug runners and all sorts of shady operators), since the early 1800s my beloved home has been the site for a pre-Lenten Mardi Gras. They say we are the third largest in the world, after Rio and New Orleans. But who’s to say?

The main events run from the 19-24 of February this year, but for over a month now the fervor has been building. We’ve had parades, campaigns and parties for all the candidates for Queen and King. We’ve had the unveiling of the decorations, and the light display is fantastic. Strings of multi-colored lights are hung along the malecón from the Pedro Enfante statue to the Golden Zone (5 miles maybe?). It is a sight to behold! They include 90 different designs of very large, lighted masks on either end of each block. The lights are strung all through the winding streets of the Centro Histórico, too, and there are ticket booths, temporary restrooms, chain link fencing, and loads of background scenery everywhere.

A few nights ago we had the final vote counting to choose the Queens (Queen of the Carnaval, Queen of the Juegos Florales, and La Reina Infantil) and King of the Alegría (my favorite local Banda El Recodo–see photo below of me honoring them with my presence 🙂  ). They gave Greg a CD of their current hit, “Te Presumo.

Rigoberto Lewis has made the carrozas, those incredibly gorgeous, ornate, over-the-top Carnaval floats, since 1960. He seems to live the whole year for Carnaval, eating, sleeping, dreaming and breathing the floats.

So what actually happens during Carnaval? Well, this will be our first, so I look forward to letting you know. Some of what I know will happen is this:
  • The Mazatlán Prize for Literature is announced.
  • The Antonio Lopez Saenz Prize for Painting is announced.
  • The reenactment of Angela Peralta’s arrival to Mazatlán in 1883.
  • The coronation of the King of Joy (my favorite banda).
  • The coronation of the Queens of the Flower Games. That evening includes the Clemencia Isaura Prize for Poetry.
  • Coronation of the Queen of Carnaval, in the baseball stadium right behind our house.
  • The Burning of Bad Humor. If you have some you want me to burn for you, get it to me before the 21st!
  • The Combate Naval, a huge fireworks battle in the bay.
  • The first Carnaval parade, which will go right past our house on Avenida del Mar.
  • Coronation of the Child Queen, and a big kid party to go with it. Mazatlán’s Carnaval is for the whole family. Schools city-wide even give kids two days off school to join in the celebrations.
  • International Queen of the Pacific contest and dance.
  • Festival of Lights and Fireworks, the second big fireworks display, again in front of our house.
  • The second Carnaval Parade, this one heading south instead of north.
  • And, for the duration of Carnaval, there is a HUGE street party with over a dozen stagesfor live bands, dancing, and countless shops.
This year’s theme is Fantasía Universal, so we are expecting to travel the world from our own local celebration. We can’t wait, and we hope to see you here for Carnaval soon! Don’t plan on sleeping though.