YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

COPALA : COPALA: It used to be a bustling town for mining silver and gold, but now the stars shine quietly on this 400-Year-Old City Mexican hamlet in which the only hotel charges $8.

August 23, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

COPALA, Mexico — A rooster crows and a donkey brays as dawn breaks in the ancient village of Copala.

In the pale light of morning a handful of peasants shuffle through the tiny plaza that faces the church of Copala and the little five-room Hotel Posada San Jose whose proprietors, Jesus and Chalvina Morales, listen as the donkey at their door brays once more.

Visitors to Copala gather at Daniel's, a restaurant at the entrance of town with a musician named Don Juan. Or else in the cantina of the Morales' hotel. After 400 years little has changed in Copala. Caught in the cleavage of the Sierra Madre range near Mazatlan, the once-flourishing mining town remains isolated and at peace.

In Copala no one hurries. There is nowhere to go. Donkeys and pigs and chickens move lethargically through narrow cobbled streets. Still, Copala is considered a prize by visitors who stumble upon it--what with no telephones and no TV to remind them of the outside world.

In the cantina at Hotel Posada San Jose, the late Wallace Beery is pictured as Pancho Villa. The same wall is hung with photos of other early film stars, including Clark Gable.

In Copala if one is thirsty, this is the only cantina near the plaza. Just as Posada San Jose is the only hotel in town. The fact of the matter is, there is little action in Copala, with the exception, of course, of Daniel's and the musician named Don Juan, who we will get to later.

So how does one earn a living in an old mining town that's full of chickens and pigs and little else? To begin with, by mining pesos from the pockets of tourists, which is precisely what Morales is doing in this village that once produced millions of pesos worth of silver and gold. This was before the mass exodus of miners who left behind a population of barely 400 souls.

While Morales and this other fellow, Daniel, are doing well, in the beginning neither man had barely a peso. It took time and patience.

Arriving from Mazatlan, strangers stop off in Copala to recharge the batteries by setting up housekeeping in Morales' hotel, which is nearly as old as the town itself. They dine in the patio with its potted plants and a menu that lists eggs ranchero and tamales and a Mexican plate piled high with homemade tortillas, tacos and enchiladas. At Morales' the beer is cold and the service is without fault. Still, weekdays the hotel is mostly empty, as is the entire town.

Generally, those who arrive by bus or taxi return before dark to Mazatlan, which is a pity since Copala provides the harmony that eludes that glitzy resort with its high-rise hotels and discos and noisy cantinas.

One comes to Copala for communion. Not communion in a church, but out of doors. When was the last time you saw the Milky Way or listened to the silence?

In Copala the stars are brighter than any place else in Mexico. They shine on a village where the wind whispers like the mournful voice of a ghost, of which Copala has many. They are the ghosts of departed miners who came here by the thousands in search of riches. Fortunes in precious metals were surrendered by the soil, and the church bells tolled while the faithful gathered in a square that is mostly deserted.

When I awoke this morning a pig was waddling down the cobbled street just outside my window. Like the chickens, the pigs run loose so that the motorists who visit Copala must drive cautiously. For like the chickens and the burros, the pigs have the right of way.

Without question the village is a retreat for the weary. In Copala the Sybarite would go mad. Even the cantina in Morales' hotel closes early, shut tight by 5 o'clock. Scrawled in chalk on a blackboard over the bar are the words, "Please don't get drunk--we care for you."

It is tempting, though, considering that tequila sells for 40 cents and Margaritas cost only half a buck. Upstairs, guests relax in spotless rooms with pitched ceilings, firm mattresses and tiled baths. All this for $8 a night, tax and service included, which makes Morales' small inn one of the most reasonable shelters in all of Mexico. Besides this, Morales will knock off 10% for the guest who remains a week. Or 20% if somebody stays on for 30 days, which figures out to barely $200 for an entire month. All this in a town with no stereos, no stress, no police. And not a single stoplight.

Well, that's not entirely true. There is one policeman. Only he's a retired American, Gene George, who used to work traffic in Los Angeles. He bought his hacienda for $1,000, gutted it, added rooms, fireplaces, baths, waterfalls and Copala's only swimming pool. It's a dream. The waterfalls spill everywhere--in the baths as well as the swimming pool. Just hit the switch, amigo. The flood gates open.

Members of a small American colony occupy other casas near the plaza. George's neighbor, artist Paul Modlin of Pine Town, Ariz., has spent 18 winters painting in Copala.

Los Angeles Times Articles