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 Reserva Chara Pinta

An easy day trip, as it’s 90 minutes from Mazatlán, I highly recommend that you spend a couple of nights in the very comfortable yet simple cabins/cabañas at the Tufted Jay Preserve on the other side of Concordia. There you can hike, listen to bird song, breathe fresh mountain air, and just generally relax. It’s a great place to go when it’s hot here in Mazatlán, as it’s high in the Sierras.

Most people go to Chara Pinta for the birdwatching. I love birds, but I sure don’t know their names, nor do I have the lens to capture them in the wild. Some day! If nay of you have an 800 mm Nikon lens sitting around that you’d like to sell me cheap, let me know 😉 Below are a few of the warblers and beauties I was able to catch with my 200 mm lens. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We saw some tufted jays or charas pintas, the birds for which the reserve is famous, but I’m afraid I was unable to capture them with my camera to share with you. Sorry! They are gorgeous!

We hiked pretty much all day on Saturday when we arrived, and then all Sunday morning as well. I honestly saw the most birds, however, when we stood still. On Sunday I sat in a chair and took most of the photos you see above. Three women talking and giggling (I went with two local friends) while they walk seems not to be the most conducive way to birdwatch!

The views up at the Tufted Jay Preserve are spectacular! There are mountains and valleys, cliffs, a rock outcropping called “The Pyramid,” a clear view to Presa Picachos/Picachos Dam, and views of Mazatlán by day and by night.

Needless to say, sunset and sunrise are gorgeous times of day and not to be missed, nor are the stars! Whoever thinks that stars are white has to rethink things if you visit la Reserva Chara Pinta. The blue, red and white stars blanketed the entire sky; it was amazing! Oh my how we enjoyed our visit! Be sure to enlarge these by clicking on them if you love starry skies!

I have been wanting to go to the Chara Pinta Reserve for a couple of years. My girlfriend Jeanett very much wanted to go, so off we went. We were told we were the first all-female group the ejido has hosted!

We hired Don Santos Vasquez as our guide; he is the President of the Reserve and a member of the local ejido that stewards the land. He took us on hikes up to the mirador/lookout, down in the canyons, and up to the Pyramid. He is a gentle and wise man who really knows this area, its flora and fauna. Santos does not speak English; he charges 100 pesos/hour for his guide services.

The cabins have solar panels so there is light and hot water for showers. There is gas for the stoves, so you can cook. You’ll need to take your own food and a cooler; if you are a group of ten or more you can request a cook who will serve you and your guests in the dining hall. Cabins are of wood, they are gorgeous, beds are comfortable, bathrooms are tiled, and there are barbecue and fire pits outside. The Reserve is a recipe for a wonderful couple of days reconnecting with nature. The caretaker of the property is Javier, another kind and gentle soul, who you can see in some of the photos below. He generously and ably made and tended our fire for us.

There are cabins for two people and cabins for ten people, as well as several sizes in between; all are well constructed and comfortable. Some have fireplaces. Some cabins are grouped together, others are off to themselves for added privacy. The place felt extremely safe, and our hosts were most hospitable.

The hiking trails are fairly easy and vary between jeep and foot trails; some are pretty steep. The vegetation we saw was incredible; such a variety, and all so very robust. We ate blackberries, we found wild cotton, we marveled at peeling bark and every type of fern, we saw dozens of types of pine trees, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves breathing the fresh mountain air.

I’ll post more pictures of the wonderful stuff we saw below, but for those of you interested in going, let me give you the information.

HOW TO RESERVE AND GET THERE, WHAT TO BRING

To reserve a cabin, call 044 66 9134 0166. You can also have book Don Santos’ guide services via that number. Reserva Chara Pinta is just this side of the small town of El Palmito. Take the toll road towards Durango, and exit at pretty much the only exit there is—towards El Salto. You’ll go about 15-20 minutes on the old highway, and then just before you reach El Palmito, you’ll see a sign for the Reserve on your left. The final 10 minutes are on a dirt road up a steep climb. I recommend a 4WD or at least an SUV. If you prefer, there are also cabañas in town; they are definitely not as picturesque, but they do have easier access.

We were told that the best time to go is in June, when the guacamayas/macaws can be viewed, and in July, when the tufted jays are nesting. All year round is good, however, as we were told it doesn’t snow at Chara Pinta, nor does it get that cold (we used light jackets).

Bring a towel, soap and toiletries, water, and any food you want to cook or eat as well as a cooler. Bring a flashlight if you want to walk outside at night, and charcoal if you want to barbecue; they have plenty of wood for a fire. We also brought extra blankets, but you don’t need them; the reserve supplies sheets, pillows, blankets and toilet paper. Also don’t forget the sunscreen.

Okay, so on to the rest of the flora. I used to live in Colorado, so I know and love bromeliads, otherwise called air plants. Chara Pinta is absolutely filled with them!

And where there are air plants, there is usually moss. In Chara Pinta there is loads of it:

We marveled at the gorgeous flowers as well. Wild mountain flowers are always so colorful and often so very dainty:

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the flora in the Sierras are the textures: bark, dried plants, leaves, pine cones of all varieties, peeled bark, curly ferns, pine needles three feet deep and joyously comfortable to lay on…

Finally, I really enjoyed the leaves of all colors and types. There were fresh green leaves, leaves with the trail remnants of some insect, leaves in silver and gold, and leaves in red and brown.

We absolutely loved our trip and will be going back in June or July. I highly recommend you make the trip if you haven’t already!