A trio of flashbacks to old-world Mexico

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

Colonial mansions line the cobbled lanes of Alamos.Vacationers who like spots off the beaten track – especially places loaded with historical gems – will love these three little towns in Mexico. Two will take you back in time to the world of the colonial silver barons, and the third to a Spanish priest's copper-coated dream of a Utopian paradise.

First is Alamos. Townsfolk claim the German writer who used the name B. Traven wrote his famous novel Treasure of the Sierra Madre in this village out in western Mexico's Sonoran desert. It's easy to see how this old Spanish mining town might have inspired a book about the lure of riches waiting to be ripped from the hills.

A stroll along the town's cobbled lanes, porticoed walkways and Andalusian courtyards is like a jump back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Alamos was one of the richest spots on Earth. You half expect to see silver barons in silk shirts, velvet breeches and knee-high leather boots strutting off to count the day’s take. You can imagine grand ladies in hooped skirts and white petticoats heading to afternoon teas. Golden carriages, it’s said, once lined Alamos’ narrow lanes like Rolls-Royces along Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive.

Church steeple in Cosala.The nearby mines gave up so much silver that the town had its own mint (the building is now a schoolhouse). From there, the shiny stuff was loaded on mules, which went plodding off to Mexico City on a segment of the Royal Highway specially built to carry shipments from Alamos. The city also had its own silk factory – even silver barons had to dress for success – the worms having been cultivated in white mulberry trees imported from Japan along with gardeners and silk weavers.

Alamos' dons and donas may be long gone, but their legacies can be seen in 188 buildings around the city – everything from mansions and mills to the town jail – tagged as national historic monuments.

This storybook town of Cosala in the mountains of Sinaloa invites you to drop by for a day or two the next time you're vacationing in that state's beach resort at Mazatlan. It's just a few hours away, officials point out, but it's like riding back to the days when Cosala was the booming capital of Mexico's State of the West (a combination of the modern-day states of Sinaloa and Sonora and part of Arizona) and one of the wealthiest cities in the country.

Silver miners hit paydirt here in 1562. Soon, the village was brimming with  luxurious mansions, church walls shining with gold and silver leaf and all the other trappings of colonial Spain. Better than 2,000 historic sites – from bars to barbershops – are still standing around the town.

Local youngsters put on a show for visitors to Cosala.Cosala hit another kind of paydirt in 2005 when it was added to the Mexican government's prestigious list of “magic cities,” so-named for their “charming architecture, exquisite gastronomy and traditional festivities.”

Third, if you like things made of copper, you'll go absolutely bonkers in Santa Clara del Cobre, one of a dozen or so craft villages dotting the boonies of Michoacan in Mexico's heartland. Visitors to the town wander around high-arched colonial walkways lined by hundreds of shops selling copper jewelry, vases, candlesticks, sinks, pots and frying pans. Even huge copper bathtubs. You name it, you'll likely find it made of copper here. And at stunningly low prices.

The town's copper business was the brainchild of Vasco de Quiroga, a Spanish priest who came to Michoacan with dreams of setting up an earthly paradise along the lines of Thomas More's Utopia, a best-seller of the day. In de Quiroga's version, paradise was to come through a network of craft villages in which everyone would pitch in to make a town specialty – and enjoy the rewards of peace, love, harmony and lots of pesos.

Hundreds of shops sell copperware in Santa Clara del Cobre.Fast-forward to today, and besides the copper village you'll find other nearby examples of de Quiroga's legacy at Uruapan (known for its lacquerware), Tzintzuntzan (pottery), Cuanajo (furniture), Paracho (guitars) and Patzcuaro (the region's main marketplace).

Like Cosala, the towns of Santa Clara delo Cobre and Alamos are among Mexico's 83 “magic cities.”

Staying there: You'll find tourist-class hotels in or near all three towns.

More info: Visit the Mexico Tourism Board (www.visitmexico.com) and the

websites of Sonora (www.gotosonora.com) for Alamos, Michoacan

(www.visitmichoacan.com) for Santa Clara del Cobre, and Cosala's home site   (cosalasinaloa.webs.com/homeenglish.htm). Visit the Mazatlan Hotel Association at www.gomazatlan.com.

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