Travel: Mazatlan outside the Zona Dorada 

Built by European traders, the city offers culture and adventure beyond the beaches


"Second biggest rooster farm in Mexico - 4,000 birds," said my guide Julio, on our approach through the town of El Quelite, 40 kilometres north of Mazatlan.

And while the farm sells roosters for breeding, it also trains and markets birds for cockfighting - still legal in Mexico and popular in these Sierra Madre Mountains.

Our van stopped beside a dirt pen or cockpit. Two men took two birds from their cages, and then wriggled "guante" (gloves) onto the claws to prevent serious injury as the birds' strutted their stuff.

"It's illegal for them to have a blade (attached to their legs)," continued Julio, while remaining vague as to whether blades or some other kind of metal spurs are used in actual cockfights. This would be a demonstration only.

The handlers, each holding a bird, placed them head to head, stoking what is apparently a natural aggression of male cocks, and then placed them down on the ground. The birds whirled and attacked - with a vengeance and non-stop. Feathers flew.

"A good rooster will cost you 1,500 (pesos) and up," said Julio when it was over and the birds were returned to their cages. "People come here to buy roosters because they know they're going to fight to the death."

That afternoon we dined in this red-tile-roofed town at El Meson Los Laureanos, an authentic country restaurant named for "the band of bandits" that roamed the region during its gold and silver-mining heyday of the 1700s.

For me it was all evidence that there's more to the region of Mazatlan - a Pacific coastal city of about 400,000 - than sun, sand and Senor Frog's.

On another day we drove to the region of La Noria, known for its leather workers, where I signed on for the Huana Coa Canopy Adventure. Every bit as safety conscious, entertaining (hip staffers with dry jokes) and pricey ($75) as any zipline, this one took us by all-terrain vehicle into a pristine forest, then through a series of nine traverses of varying length, ending with a vertical descent from a towering Huanacaxtle tree.

I worked hard at arriving at each platform without braking excessively (by pulling down on the line with my leather-mitted hand), or falling short of the landing, in which case you had to hoist yourself in. Afterwards, at a roadside café, I ordered "molcajete" - a bowl shaped from volcanic lava filled with steaming shrimp - and a cold beer.

Mazatlecos, as the locals are called, are quick to point out that theirs is not a colonial city - meaning it didn't grow directly out of the 15 th century Spanish Conquest. Rather, it was largely built by subsequent European traders, like the German pioneers who founded the major Pacifico Brewery here around 1800.


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