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A Trio of Flashbacks to Old-World Mexico

Jan 13, 2014 | Updated Mar 15, 2014

Vacationers who like spots off the beaten track -- especially places loaded with historical gems -- will love these three 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.

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Alamos is a little city in Sonora nestled near the Sierra Madres.

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.

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 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.

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Church steeple in Cosala.

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

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. Visitors to the town wander around high-arched colonial walkways lined by hundreds of shops selling everything from copper jewelry, vases, candlesticks, sinks, pots and frying pans to huge copper bathtubs - all at stunningly low prices.

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Tourist checks out a copper vase in Santa Clara del Cobre.

The city's copper business was the brainchild of Vasco de Quiroga, a Spanish priest who came to Michoacan in the 1530s with dreams of setting up an earthly paradise along the lines of Thomas More's Utopia, the 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.

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.