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. 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. You 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.


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.


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!

Spring Equinox in Las Labradas


Many of you have asked for details about the spring equinox events this year in our World Heritage petroglyph site, Las Labradas. It is definitely growing and becoming more organized every year. Today the State Secretary of Tourism published this guide. You can search “Las Labradas” on this blog for driving instructions, details, photos and videos of past events. I am sooooo happy the local community is involved and beginning to benefit from this terrific event, and that it serves to preserve the heritage of this region.

For those of you who don’t read Spanish:

  • 9-10: Meditation and yoga
  • 9-2: Exposition and sale of organic products and regional handicrafts, guided tours, ulama (ancient ball game) demonstrations, natural medicine and individual cleansing (usually a curandero working with smoke and plants)
  • 11-11:30: Ribbon cutting/official opening
  • 11:30-12:30: Presentation of two books, “Las Labradas” and “The Tropic of Cancer” (History of southern Sinaloa)
  • 11-1: Mayan Dances—Yoreme ceremonial ritual
  • 1: Group cleansing
  • 1-5: Restaurant service in Chicayota pueblo with traditional meal including ballusa and maguey flower.

For those of you who would like transportation to and from, Sinaloa Adventures tour agency, tel 191-20-05 (Laura Purón) is offering two packages, priced at 225 pesos and 390 pesos respectively.

Deer Dances on March 21st This Year

Deer Dances in Las Labradas on the Spring EquinoxThe spring equinox deer dances at UNESCO World Heritage site Las Labradas will be held on Thursday 21 March, 2013. Normally dances start at noon.

You do not want to miss this exciting event! View photos, movie clips and a report about this event. The link-through also provides directions. Please contact Silvia Michel at SECTUR, 981-8883. She tells me that for 70 pesos the women in the village of Chicayota, at the entrance to Las Labradas, will serve you fresh tortillas hot off the comalfrijoles guisados en leña, goat cheese, ballusa, fish and other main dishes. Please support these terrific women who work so hard to support their local economy! Silvia tells me that this year there will not be a SECTUR bus, but that individual tour companies will have day trips to the event.

Deer Dances in Las Labradas on the Spring Equinox

The two gentlemen in the photo above very kindly explained
a bit about the dance to me, and walked me through the ceremony.
They live in a pueblo between Guasave and Los Mochis.

Last year we were privileged to welcome spring with the famous Deer Dance (danza del venado), conducted in the scenic oceanside setting of Las Labradas petroglyph park, a 30 minute drive north of Mazatlán. The dance was conducted by the Yeu Matchue, a traditional dance group of Mayo or Yoreme Indians.

The dance will be conducted again this coming Wednesday, March 21 in the same location, as part of Mazatlán’s International Friendship Week. Be sure not to miss this event!

The Mayo are considered to have the purest native blood in Mexico. While centuries ago they performed the Danza del Venado in full deerskin clothing with a bow and arrow (it’s the dance of the hunt, and I am Dianne, the goddess of the hunt, ha ha), to welcome the spring solstice at Las Labradas they wore white cotton manta (symbolizing purity), leather belts with deer hooves and bells, they wrapped their shins in leggings made of shells (representing snakes entangled in the deer’s legs), red bandanas (to honor the deer’s sacrifice of its blood), and sonajas or wrist and ankle bands made of nuts and shells. They carry red gourd maracas or shakers.

I grew up in northern Arizona, spending many weekends as a child in the 70s with my friends on the Hopi mesas. I was able to witness the Snake Dance, eat my fill of piki bread spread by hand over a hot rock, and play with the Mudheads. The deer dances soooo reminded me of the Kachina dances! Amazing similarities in dress, adornment, line dancing, movement, underlying beliefs of harmony with the environment, even the music and chanting. The noise makers (shells, gourds) were reminiscent of artisan rattles worldwide, whether from Africa, Asia, Oceania…

There were at least two dancers who wore taxidermic deer heads decorated with flowers, fastened to their heads with leather straps. They pranced, twitched, paused and sniffed, incredibly evoking the sense that we were watching a deer move through a clearing. It was eerie and beautiful to watch.
It was gratifying to see so many young people involved in the ceremony. It is obvious the young Mayo/Yoreme are eager to carry on the traditions of their elders and ancestors.

Above is a minute or so of video of the dance.
In addition to the boys with the headdresses, there were quite a few others dressed similarly but wearing masks. The masks were made of torote or poplar wood, both very sacred, and painted with smiling faces as well as Christian crosses, with long hair. Again, the long hair reminded me of the kachinas.

The musicians included a couple of fiddlers who sat in wooden chairs as they played, a large harp (played standing), gourds (sonatas de bule), jiruquias, and various drummers including a water drum.
The shaman had an altar or offering of fresh fruit, as well as a container of incense that he used for purification during the ceremony as well as to purify or bless the spectators afterwards. The purification ritual was very similar to what I’ve experienced at Teotihucán on the solstice, or in Mexico City nowadays on the street corners.
The dance was an interesting mix of indigenous and Christian ceremony, in the Mayo language and rhythms. When we arrived we saw several flags or banners with crosses on them on the beach. Beside these were placed the deer headdresses and rattles.

During the ceremony, the dancers made the Catholic sign of the cross and held their hands in prayer. It was evident that the Jesuits of the 16th century had much influence on these indigenous rituals.

As with almost any special event I’ve attended in Mexico, the Deer Dance ceremony also included fireworks.

An exhibition of the ancient ball game of ulama was also part of last year’s Spring Equinox events. It took place just outside the museum. A game is on the schedule for this year.

Las Labradas is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oceanside petroglyphs, mystical figures carved into the rocks, are dated by INAH at 1000-1500 years old and of Toltec origin. There is a small museum at the site.

Mazatlán is named after the deer, which in the Náhuatl language is Mazatl (Tlaloc in the Aztec).
If you’d like to attend this event next week you can drive north of Mazatlán on Highway 15, exiting at Km. 51 where you’ll see the large petroglyph marker on the west side of the maxipista. It is a dirt road after you leave the highway, through Chicayota to Las Labradas. Alternatively you can take one of the buses that the Sinaloa State Tourism Office has arranged, to depart from la Mujer Mazatleca monument in Olas Altas at 9:00 am. To reserve your spot contact, or telephone 191-2005. Be sure to wear white clothing.

Update May 26, 2012: Today the Noroeste ran an article about these dances, including some of the dancers photographed above. It’s in honor of Festival de la Juventud.

Meseta de Cacaxtla Tour with Conanp – La Chicayota

Today we had the very good fortune to meet some awesome people doing wonderful work to promote economic development, environmental sustainability, and ecotourism in La Meseta de Cacaxtla preserve.

We accompanied Gaby from CONANP (Federal Department of Natural Protected Areas) and Martha Armenta from CONREHABIT (Conservación y Rehabilitación de Fauna Silvestre) on a tour of several villages in this protected area: La Chicayota, Comunidad de Guillermo Prieto, and Los Llanitos. CONANP invested 1.5 million pesos last year (2011), with more requested for this year (2012). 100% of this money goes towards projects in the 50,000 hectare La Meseta de Cacaxtla preserve.

While the Meseta de Cacaxtla was named an ecologically and archeologically protected area in 2000—it is home to 26 species of amphibians, 59 species of reptiles, 79 species of mammals, and 340 kinds of birds, as well as to numerous pre-historic sites including Las Labradas—that status has had little meaning. No efforts were made to stop the hunting and poaching of protected animals, nor the looting of archeological sites, and the local communities continued, as they had for generations, to be generally poor and lacking in resources and infrastructure. Five years ago, however, CONANP began investing in the Meseta: ecotourism projects in Barras de Piaxtla, La Chicayota, and El Pozole, and productivity projects in Guillermo Prieto, Coyotitán, Los Llanitos, Toyua, and Mármol.

This first post will be about our first stop, La Chicayota. We have driven through this small town many times on our way to take visitors to Las Labradas, and once I know we stopped there hoping for some refreshment. CONANP federal funding is supporting quite a few plans for La Chicayota because it is the gateway to Las Labradas Petroglyphs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To reach it, you exit at Km. 51 on the maxipista just north of Mazatlán.

The first order of business should definitely be road improvements, as it’s long been our complaint that entrance to this gorgeous area is quite the bouncy, dusty, pot-holed endeavor! While we didn’t hear about any CONANP plans in this regard, we are still hoping federal or state tourism authorities or others are budgeting for this much-needed improvement.

The town is named after this tree, la chicayota. My dictionary tells me it is the same name in English, but I am not familiar with it.

The main street in town shows you how (un)developed La Chicayota is. The residents keep the area very well-tended, with many flowering trees and other plantings.

The community consists of 12-20 families. With CONANP funding they have built a community kitchen. It is a beautiful building using local materials, building techniques (sort of woven limbs) and builders.

Outside the community kitchen is a large earthen oven for cooking breads.

Inside the community kitchen is a wonderful wood-fired comal, great for cooking tortillas or almost anything else (cooking refried beans, below). You can tell from this cook’s smile how friendly people were and how welcome they made us feel. They are so eager to learn how to cook, give tours of their local area, and in other ways help national and international visitors to the area.

The indoor wood-fired comal smartly vents to the outdoors, and I was fascinated with how beautiful the smoke looked against the woven wood, the cactus, and the roof tiles.

Beside the indoor kitchen is a very large community meeting space or party place.

In addition to the community kitchen, there is a smaller “guest” kitchen, with another wood-fired stove and sets of dishes. Behind these two kitchens and the meeting space are public restrooms. Right now they flush by dumping a bucket of water into the basin, but there are plans to install a septic system or dry toilets.

The community center area also has a nice playground for the kids: teeter totter, swings…

For breakfast this morning the ladies kindly served us freshly made tortillas de maiz with queso fresco (de vaca), fresh-picked basil, freshly made salsa and refried beans. They ROCKED! There is nothing like a tortilla cooked on a wood-fired comal with fresh cheese!

One of the terrific women I met here is named Nereida. She told me that the quesos or cheeses are made in a nearby town. Some are made from goat’s milk, other’s from cow’s milk, and that they are made in several different styles. She gave me her cell phone number and invited me to call her anytime, as she’d be happy to take us on a queso-making tour. I can’t wait!

Almost just as wonderful as the fresh tortillas con queso were the panes de mujer, served fresh from the oven and dripping with brown sugar glaze.

I noticed that these wonderful breads arrived from the house next door, so of course I wandered over there. In a spotlessly clean outdoor kitchen I met Silvia, mixing up some more bread dough.

She didn’t measure anything–just eyeballed and dumped all the ingredients into a bowl, mixed with warm water, and set to baking more wood-fired-oven-baked panes de mujer. OMG they were good!

Above is a video of Silvia removing the breads from her wood-fired oven or hornillo. At the end of the clip you will also see José, one of the project’s leaders.

To be honest, what really brought me over to the neighbor’s house was noticing this: a temazcalor sweat lodge.  Silvia told me all about how to fire it up and make it work. She said her grandchildren and her get in it every other night, and that it’s terrific for fighting colds and maintaining good health. She said after sitting in the temazcal for a while, you feel that every impurity has been cleansed from your soul. Then, she also gave me a cell number, and said to call her anytime I wanted to take a sweat. You bet I will!

This is a fish-eye view of the inside of the temazcal. You can see that Silvia and her family made it with recycled materials. No Home Depot purchases for them!

Next to Silvia’s kitchen and temazcal, on her front porch, is La Chicayota’s video arcade. The kids seem to love it.

In Chicayota you can eat, take a boat tour, go fishing, mountain biking, or horseback riding. The best way to visit, at this point in time and if you are not very comfortable with Spanish or rural Mexican travel, could be to get on one of CONANP’s tours.

Let me close this post with a video of Gaby telling us a bit of history about the Chicayota project. Martha is translating. Behind them, against the wall you can see José (far left) and Nereida (far right with glasses). To see the second post in this series, about our stop at Comunidad Guillermo Prieto’s community orchards, click here.