This article is from the October 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Moments Back in Time in Copala

by Nancy V. Sont  

Nancy V. Sont is a travel writer that hails from the wooded hills of Eastern Ontario, Canada.

After a long winding drive through the rising Sierra Madre mountains, past spectacular views, past women selling bread on a slow moving corner, we arrived in Copala and parked at the far edge of town, across from Daniel’s Restaurant. We were very lucky not to meet the people from the two weekly cruise ships that visit the tiny town.  

A child on a burro arrived and asked my daughter Scarlett if she wanted a ride. She wanted to take his photo but the second set of batteries was now dead, as well as the first.  

She immediately made acquaintance with him. Because the place is a ghost town now that the silver mine is closed, many men have left to find work. The children do the rest of the income earning.  

Victor, our guide, assured Scarlett that she would have plenty of chance to talk to them. They would certainly follow us around the village.  

As we piled back into the van to go further into town, children on burros called their names aloud to her so she would know who to ask for, should she wish to pay for a ride or a photo.  

We parked near the center of the village alongside the Zocalo. Two more children met us, offering us some small bark carvings of the town. I was amazed and intrigued,  

“Haciste lo?” I asked eagerly in Spanish, to which one child nodded.  

“Como?” I prodded. He pulled a tiny slot screwdriver out of this pocket to show me just how he had made them, putting the screwdriver into the tiny rectangular window hole.  

“What a magical carving to sell,” I said, as the child leaned over the carving.  

A man with a weather worn face smiled broadly as we decided how much to pay. The price was ‘whatever you’d like.’ They each gave us a free one. Our driver said that was to ‘hook us in.’  

They would say, ‘No you take it for free!’ The recipient would inevitably want to give it back, but the child would stand firm. The recipient would then dig deep to compensate them. I asked again, “How much?” 

He looked up at his older brother with questioning faith, to which the brother replied, “Cinco (5) pesos.”  

The brother put the piece on his arm to show that the four-inch carving was part of a pricker from a tree, probably about 8” tall before it had been sawn off for the carving. 

“There’s a very big one in the church,” the man commented, spreading his arms wide. I marveled, looking around to see where the church was.

After selling us their wares, boys disappeared and I realized I had better start exploring. The stone road was only another block long as it climbed the steep hillside beside the tourist shop.  

The houses consisted of tiny forested farmyards. A pig oink’ed and wandered along the yard, then onto the road, followed by a few squealing piglets.  

A teenager and her boyfriend walked along, finally catching up with me. I surprised them by speaking Spanish. They were quite friendly and willing to talk. The girl was 18, he was 22. She had lived there all her life.  

They explained that since it was a ghost town, there were houses available to buy. A group of Americans lived there. A Cuban lived on the hill in a Caribbean style home on the top of the mountainside. They only came for a few months of the year. They treated the woman that worked for them as their daughter and paid her well.  

Over the rattling of the chickens came a TV voice. I noticed an electrical pole that stood beside me. There were no cars or driveways along the narrow road that led up into the hills.  

The dirt between the anciently placed stones had eroded, leaving the road a bumpy carpet. In the summer rainy season, it would be such a different place.  

Amazed at what I was seeing, how close to the land the people lived, and in such humble conditions, I went back for my friend, Jane, and Scarlett. Jane didn’t agree it would be nice to live in one of these ramshackle wooden houses.  

The pathway meandered up and down between the scattered dwellings, some with cement walkways and tile roofs, others with wooden slat walls and tin tops.  

Two children played alongside the road on a cliff.  

Noting the quiet, I asked, “Are there any birds here?” 

“Yes,” the 10-year old girl nodded.

“What color are they?” I prompted.  

“Red, green orange, yellow, blue, black, white...” the girl responded, referring to the big bird, the toucan, that lived in the tree around the bend.  

She slipped down the six foot high bank, landing on her feet, laughing loudly. The commotion brought the attention of her mother across the valley who waved in response to me. It felt so relaxing to be here. I felt very at home, accepted even though I was a tourist, even more so than in my own neighborhood thousands of miles away. 

Around another bend we found what looked like a huge beehive attached to the side of a tree. It must have been 18” wide and 30” long. It was huge.  

“A small green bird made it,” the woman who lived alongside it said as she came down the hill, laden with plastic shopping bags of groceries. It was amazing to see her wearing a business suit and carrying groceries, far from any city. Perhaps I hadn’t seen the whole town!

I didn’t find out until I was on a guided tour in another area that the ‘beehive’ was actually a termite nest. No one had told the people who lived there; they’d just seen the little bird using it.  

An elderly lady wearing a pink and blue housedress emerged from a narrow dirt pathway. She had grown up here, lived right there in that small square house that was nestled into the hillside.  

“How old is this road?” I asked.  

“Older than I can remember,” she answered, the same answer as to how long she’d lived in the pink house raising her two sons.  

We talked as we climbed the steep road back to the village. The church rose across the valley in front of us and we stopped for a few photos. Was that bird I heard caged or loose? I wondered, as we met the same teen I’d met earlier. No, this canary was caged.  

Daniel’s Restaurant was about to close when we arrived, but he didn’t mind staying open to serve us the best chicken dinner I’d ever eaten. He placed it on two burners which he brought to the table. The sun was setting beyond the open balcony as we sat and ate. The Sierras rose majestically around us, covered with dark greenery. A distant truck’s engine came in and out of earshot as it made its way along the curving roads on the mountainside.  

What a place, where the birds are toucans, the nests are feet wide, the children make carvings my children never dreamed of – this was certainly a heavenly place, I thought as I watched the sunset. Maybe I could share it with those who would also love it, those who wouldn’t be on a cruise ship to Mazatlan. I took out my notebook and pen and leaned back in my chair, listening to the sound of a burro across the valley. 

If You Go:

Copala is in the mountains about 40 miles from Mazatlan, Sinaloa. Head southeast on Highway 15 for 12 mi/20 km. At Villa Union, turn left on Highway 40 toward Durango. Pass Concordia and its giant wooden chair. After about 20 mi/35 km is Copala. 

For more information visit The website says visitors can see hand carved furniture being made, bricks made from the mud in an open field, handmade pottery and glazed floor tile, a commercial laundry in an open field using hot pools fed by natural hot springs, plus many other unique sights, common to this area.. I didn’t see any of that, since we arrived after 5:00 pm. Our guide wasn’t too interested in volunteering any information. Be sure to take along some spare change – hand drawn crayon pictures done by the children are $1US each!