Monday, January 11, 2010


COPALA, Sinaloa, Mexico – There are places on the planet that permanently give you a small measure of comfort even though you may visit only once and you’ll never get to know them intimately.

The village of Copala in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains is such a place. Nearly five centuries old, it is home to 600 souls a winding 90-minute bus ride from Mazatlan. There’s an old silver mine nearby but not much else by way of obvious economic or physical infrastructure.

The streets are rocky cobblestone and the walls that keep the tidy homes from washing down the hillside during the rainy season are made of ancient rock and mortar. Here’s the most striking thing – in the big city below, trash and graffiti mar the setting of Mazatlan, home to 700,000 people. As you wind your way east up the Sierra Madre, however, the graffiti gradually disappears and the roadside trash diminishes.

By the time you’ve reached the 5,000-population town of Concordia, the people are no more affluent than those in the city, but there’s a noticeable change in how they care for their surroundings. Both Concordia and Copala are in the Sierra Madre foothills and share a history that goes back to the 1500s. Each has a landmark cathedral and central plaza surrounded by brick-and-stucco neighborhoods, where bougainvillia spills over the walls.

The region is known for its hand-made furniture, pottery and bricks, all created slowly and laboriously in small shops and sometimes right out in the open – no roof, no electricity, no modern technology whatsoever. The area also is blessed with a Garden of Eden’s equivalent of flora and fauna, from banana and mahogany trees to jaguars and white tail deer.

The ubiquitous bricks made and used in this part of Mexico are perhaps an inch-and-a-half tall, maybe five inches wide and perhaps a foot long. They are made of mud and various other ingredients, sometimes including manure, then finished in wood-fired kilns. Nearly all buildings are made of a combination of these bricks, mortar and stucco, usually without rebar.

Homeowners and shop-owners also show their pride in their front doors. Though often protected by a metal gate as a defense against petty theft, each door and its surrounding stucco is unique, making its own statement. In both Concordia and Copala, the streets are never straight or even, allowing the topography of the foothills to determine the layout of the towns.

But back to Capola, where the federal government is building a superhighway over the mountains to connect Mazatlan to the interior of central Mexico. The town boasts a small primary school and a handful of restaurants and bars. It’s home to a handful of American ex-pats, drawn by the warm weather, low cost of living and quiet lifestyle. We eat at Chapala's, which is one of several local eateries specializing in that Mexican specialty -- banana cream pie. It's good, but my mom's was better. Then we wander the winding streets, where nearly every home is clean and neat, the people friendly and polite.

Colima and Comala – two larger towns in a mountain valley east of Manzanillo that we visited two days later – suffered by comparison. They are perfectly fine communities, each with a beautiful town square and adjacent cathedral. The drive to Colima passes through mile after mile of coconut groves and citrus orchards before the road climbs through a pass and drops into the valley, which is dominated by two enormous volcanoes – the active Volcan de Fuego (13,087 feet) and the dormant Nevado de Colima (14,220 feet).

On our arrival to the valley, Volcan de Fuego is belching steam from its peak, but it settles down before we’re able to stop and take pictures. Colima is home to 180,000 people but feels like a smaller town, full of small shops on the ground floor with the owner’s apartment above. The twin volcanoes are blue silhouettes reaching more than two miles above the valley floor, visible from nearly anywhere in the city.

Six miles on, the much smaller Comala is more charming but still lacking the intimacy of Copala.

In between, we stop of the site of La Campana, a 2,000-year-old pre-Hispanic settlement rediscovered in the early 20th century. What it lacks in the magnificence of Mayan, Aztec and Incan sites elsewhere in Mexico and Central and South America it makes up for in shear age and imagination. Constructed of smooth rocks from nearby riverbeds, La Campana (The Lookout) remains an impressive feat of engineering and architecture.

On the way home, I ask the bus driver to stop so I can snap some pictures of a small agave plantation, which provides the base liquid for tequila distilled in nearby Jalisco state. The day has provided more than what we’d came for – temperatures in the low 80s (while much of the U.S. was suffering from an early-winter deep freeze) and a brief look into modern and ancient Mexican life.

But we remember Copala and wish to go back.

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