As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

by Bob Brooke

What do Bill Clinton and banana cream pie have in common? They both can be found in the village of Copala, Mexico, about 40 miles from the beach resort of Mazatlan. Actually, I ate a piece of the best banana cream pie I ever tasted, and Bill Clinton turned out to be a donkey I met. I figured his name to be in honor of the symbol of the Democratic Party and not something derogatory against Clinton.

I came to Copala to get away from the hustle and bustle of Mazatlan–to get some peace and quiet in the real Mexico, far from the hoards of tourists and honking horns. The only sounds I hoped to hear were the crowing of roosters, the braying of donkeys, and the soft conversations of residents. In Copola, I found all of that and more. Without question the village is a retreat for the weary, with not a single stoplight in a town where wandering donkeys are as numerous as pedestrians.

In Copala the stars are brighter than any place else in Mexico. They shine on a village set amid the soft green hills of the Sierra Madre where the wind whispers like the mournful voices of the ghosts of departed miners who came here by the thousands in search of fortunes in gold and silver. Then, the bells of the Iglesia San Jose rang out while the faithful gathered in the square that today is mostly deserted.

At the time Francisco Ibarra, considered the primero minero of the State of Sinaloa for his discovery of gold and silver deposits there, crossed the Sierra Madre heading west early in 1564, Copala was an indigenous village. But as the Spaniards found gold and silver, they forced the native population to become the miners, so Copala became the home of the Spanish overseers.

During the last part of the 19th century, Copala was the center of the region’s silver mining district. Eventually, the mines closed, and the town became nearly deserted. Today, it's a National Historic Landmark with 650 full-time residents and a part-time community of retired Americans and Canadians devoted to the village’s picturesque solitude.

After 400 years little has changed here. Caught in the cleavage of the Sierra Madre Occidental near Mazatlan, it looks like any old Mexican village. A worn cobblestone road leads to it and is rough on tires. But no one cares. It discourages traffic.

In Copala no one hurries, for there’s nowhere to go. Donkeys, pigs and chickens wander its narrow cobbled streets. It’s said that there’s a pig for every person in Copala, which means the motorist must drive carefully. For like the chickens and the burros, the pigs have the right of way.

Besides the peacefulness, Copala is possibly the cleanest village in the Sierra Madres. Built over cliffs, ravines and steep lower slopes, bougainvillea cascades down the whitewashed walls of houses and spills off red tile roofs to the narrow, cobblestoned streets, making it look vaguely like a town in Tuscany.

The village didn’t have electricity until the early 1980s when ex-President Lopez Portillo ordered electricity delivered to it as a memorial to his grandfather who’s buried in the village cemetery. The residents of Copala responded by painting their homes white to honor Portillo, who attended the dedication.

Yet, Copala appears like a village caught in a time warp. Wrought-iron lamps line the square–the flatest spot in town. This is the centerpiece of Copala and a source of civic pride, complete with an ornate wrought iron bandstand. Shade trees soften the heat and the brilliance of the sun. Municipal offices and shops border one side while more shops line the other. A restaurant and inn occupy the third side.

The small but massive stone, baroque Iglesia de San Jose, begun in 1748 and completed in 1775, standing at the far end, dominates the square as the town’s tallest building and is said to be one of the most beautiful village churches in Mexico. The traditional white, sage green and gold painted, vaulted interior adorned with simply polychromed statues, reflects the rural lifestyle of its parishioners. The dry town fountain, adorned with a large white goose, occupies a small island in the street in front of it.

From the square I wandered up one of the side streets, admiring the brilliant bougainvillea blossoms, the ruins of old haciendas, and the neat white houses. The town's burros, roosters, and dogs provided a cacophony of background noise while few cars cluttered the streets. I guess my mind and my auditory sense was somewhat overwhelmed, for I literally walked right into Bill Clinton. Though I greatly admired him as U.S. President, this was his alter ego residing in the body of a gray, braying donkey, topped by a young rider named Jose, which seemed only natural in a town named San Jose de Copala.

The town revs up around Noon, when tour buses arrive at Daniel’s, a restaurant on the edge of town founded by Daniel Garrison, an ex-oil field roustabout from Huntington Beach, California. Soon, visitors stroll the streets surrounded by small boys selling geodes extracted from the local hills. Before a road was built to Copala in the 1920s, it took several weeks to make the journey. Now it’s an easy and scenic drive from Mazatlan through the nearby village of Concordia. By 3 P.M., most of the outsiders depart and the village settles back into peacefulness.

As the sun began its slide downward, my stomach told me it was time for my midday comida (lunch), as the aroma of fresh tortillas and cilantro filled the air.

Back down at the square, I stepped into the Copala Butter Company, which has nothing to do with the dairy spread. Instead, it’s a small restaurant and bar, with five rooms to rent–locally known as the Posada San Jose–that now occupies a 400-year-old structure which is said to have previously housed the offices of the Butter Mining Company.

For a time, early in the 20th century, the largest mine operator in the region was Charles Butter, who also owned properties in Colombia, Nicaragua, South Africa and Australia. His Copala operation included 11,000 acres of lumber and grazing land, 2,000 acres with mineral deposits, 4 tube mills, a 1,000-horsepower steam boiler, a foundry and machine shop. Among the most productive on Mexico's West coast, the Butter mines processed 3,000 tons of gold and silver ore monthly. The Mexican Revolution took its toll here as elsewhere, though, and the town also suffered a cholera epidemic and a devastating cyclone. What had been a city of almost 10,000 shrank to less than a tenth of that in decades to follow.

I entered the Copala Butter Company through a covered porch, screened from the outside by brilliant blooming red bougainvillea. I sat at one of the tables and ordered a cold Mexican beer and their Mexican plato typico, which comes piled high with homemade tortillas, tacos and enchiladas, which some say are the best in Mexico. Old photographs and framed newspaper stories about the Butter Mining Company decorated one wall of the modest dining area. I noticed a tiny "museum" containing bits and pieces of old mining paraphernalia through a nearby doorway. Soon, the waitress brought my meal. After devouring the enchiladas, I had to agree about them being the best.

Since I decided to stay the night, I inquired about a room from the man behind the bar. He called to a young boy who magically appeared with a key and led me up a steep flight of stone steps and onto a long porch, off of which were doors to the five rooms. He showed me the first room, which seemed neat and cozy with a pitched ceiling, tiled bath and four-poster bed. Out front was a hammock swaying in the breeze. The price was $17 for the night, service and tax included. How could I go wrong?

After settling in, I continued my exploration of the town, little that there was. A couple of blocks from the Posada de San Jose is Chalva's Pie Shop. The smell of freshly baked pies acted as my own non-tech GPS, leading me right to the door. Copala has become famous for its banana cream pies, a tradition which seems to have started at Daniel’s, which serves a coconut variation. Chalva and her daughter work in a small but spotlessly clean kitchen where they bake their delicious creations in a small gas stove. I ordered a piece of banana cream pie, their specialty. A lover of all things sweet, I felt as if I had died and gone to Heaven.

I went back to my room and relaxed in my hammock and soon dozed off to sounds of crickets and the aromatic smell of wood fires burning. I sank into a deep sleep and was awakened by roosters crowing loudly as the sun’s first rays reached above the horizon.

Later on in the morning, tour buses from Mazatlan would begin to gather at Daniel’s and once again Copala would come to life, as I head back to civilization.


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