On my recent Mexican Riviera cruise, I took the Charming Villages of the Sierra Madre shore excursion offered by Carnival Cruise Line. Here’s what I thought of this unique day trip from Mazatlán to visit Malpica, Concordia, and Copala.
Mr. SBC and I were so excited for the original shore excursion I had planned for us in Mazatlán, Mexico when we cruised on Carnival Panorama. We were going to visit a sea turtle sanctuary and release baby sea turtles into the Pacific—I was sure it would be the highlight of our cruise.
But sadly, a few days into our sailing we received a letter in our stateroom notifying us that our turtle excursion was canceled. No one seemed to know why (and as of the date I’m writing this that excursion is no longer listed on Carnival’s Mazatlán shore excursions page.)
I had to scramble to find an alternate shore excursion, and the most promising one that wasn’t sold out already was Charming Villages of Sierra Madre & Mexican Lunch. Was it as epic as meeting baby sea turtles? Absolutely not.
But it was still a fun tour, with some highlights—and some disappointments. If you’re considering this Mazatlán shore excursion on your next cruise, you’ll want to read my full honest review before you book.
What the Charming Villages Tour promised
According to Carnival’s website, the seven-hour tour would include:
- Sightseeing through the Sierra Madre mountain range by coach
- A stop at a traditional adobe brickyard
- A visit to a village family home bakery to try Mexican sweet bread
- A stop at a furniture and/or pottery workshop in Concordia
- A stop at the “ghost town” of Copala to see ornate colonial houses, a jail, and a church
- Lunch including a Mexican platter of beef or chicken fajitas, rice and beans, chips and salsa, and tortillas. (Beer, hibiscus water, soda, or bottled water also included)
- A visit to Mazatlán’s Golden Zone for souvenir shopping
What we actually did on the Charming Villages Tour
Although our shore excursion generally followed the itinerary, there were some differences between the description of the tour and what we actually experienced. Here’s a stop-by-stop rundown of what we did on the tour.
Boarding the coach and meeting our tour guide
When we arrived at the tour bus parking area to meet our coach, I had a bit of confusion that now makes me laugh.
Walking over to our tour bus, I noticed there was a sign in the window that said “Tour: Charming Villages, Guide: German”.
I grabbed Mr. SBC’s arm just before we hopped on and exclaimed, “Wait! That’s the right tour, but this one’s in German! This is the wrong bus!”
Since my German is extremely limited (I can say hello, thank you, do you speak English, and where is the toilet), I had a scary vision of accidentally boarding a coach for an all-day shore excursion where neither of us understands the language.
Thankfully our tour guide overheard my panic and explained that the tour is in English but his first name is literally German—pronounced like Herman with a Spanish accent. Phew.
A visit to Mazatlán’s Golden Zone for souvenir shopping
Although it was listed as the last stop on our tour, we visited the Golden Zone first before heading out to the Sierra Madre area.
I visited Mazatlán many times when I was a flight attendant back in the ’90s, and I remembered its famous Zona Dorada or Golden Zone as a fun part of the city with beaches, shopping, golf courses, hotels, bars, and nightclubs.
But our short Golden Zone stop was nothing like I remembered it! Although we drove by some of the scenic parts of the Zona Dorada (including the popular oceanfront Mazatlán sign that wasn’t there the last time I visited), we pulled down a dingy side street that was heavily under construction to visit a tacky souvenir shop.
Experienced cruisers know that tour groups often stop at specific souvenir shops where the tour company gets a kickback from any purchases the tour groups make.
Our tour guide told us we could only go into the one shop because it was too dangerous to walk to any neighboring shops in the construction zone. Not that we’d want to—the few other shops that were actually open didn’t look very promising, either.
Although our Golden Zone shopping stop wasn’t at all what we expected, we were able to select a complimentary soft drink and bag of chips, and the shop had restrooms to use before we headed off on our adventure.
A stop at a traditional adobe brickyard
I thought that stopping at a traditional adobe brickyard would be really interesting! Adobe, which is made from earth, water, and an organic material like straw or dung, has been used to construct homes and buildings for thousands of years.
We pulled over on the highway to look down the hill through thick vegetation at a brickyard (it was about a football field away) and our guide explained a little about adobe brickmaking, what the bricks are used for, and how little money the brickmaker earns after a week of making bricks in the hot sun.
We all peered through the coach window to catch a glimpse of the faraway brickmaker as he went about his work, but he was only about ant-sized from our vantage point. Then we drove away—that was it!
This was a very disappointing stop on our tour, since we didn’t actually visit the brickworks or see how the bricks are made.
We also didn’t have the chance to support this local artisan. Not that any of us would want to purchase an adobe brick to haul back in our luggage—but if a small part of our tour price went toward an up-close demonstration I would have felt better about this stop.
Sightseeing through the Sierra Madre mountain range by coach
Our drive to the Sierra Madres took about 45 minutes, passing through miles of lush farm fields before we headed up into the mountains.
On the way, we learned about the history of the area from our guide, German. German, as promised, spoke excellent English—he had spent several years of his youth living in California—and his narration made the journey fly by.
The tiny village of Malpica
The first “charming village” we visited was Malpica, a tiny town of 600 people. No one was out on the streets, but we did see some goats, a wandering rooster, and a tiny stray Chihuahua with an injured leg who followed me around (I really wanted to take him home with me!)
Malpica was where our tour literature promised us a visit to a village family home bakery to try Mexican sweet bread.
I pictured a visit to a home. With a bakery. Or at least a visit inside a bakery that’s adjacent to a home. Maybe a bit of explanation about the baked goods, and a demonstration of how they’re made?
Nope, none of the above.
Instead, we had the opportunity to stand in line outside to purchase sweet bread through a window. The bread was actually pretty yummy, though!
Next we were off to the highlight of our stop at Malpica—a visit to the workshop of a local tile maker, a man who learned his craft from his father. We looked on as Jorge demonstrated how he creates decorative tiles one by one on an antique hand-operated press.
After the demonstration we had the chance to purchase small or large tiles from a selection on the wall. I picked out some of the larger tiles for $6 each to give as gifts—they work well as kitchen trivets!
Was the village of Malpica charming? Absolutely. But I must admit I felt like an annoying tourist as we pulled up in our giant bus to land in this sleepy little village and gawk at its rustic main street. It’s no wonder all the locals chose to stay indoors!
A stop at a local pottery shop
Just a short ride from Malpica, we stopped at a roadside pottery shop and studio where we watched some of the craftspeople handcraft garden planters from an enormous pile of clay just outside.
Although they seemed to specialize in these larger pieces of pottery, the studio also had a wide selection of smaller decorative pieces for sale, including brightly-painted wall art.
Our second charming village: Concordia
Our next stop was Concordia, a small city of just over 8000 people. Originally called Villa de San Sebastián when it was founded in 1585, Concordia is the oldest colonial city in the south of Sinaloa. It’s most known as a center for artisanal wooden furniture as well as for its baroque church.
The church of San Sebastián, built in 1785, was the first place I wanted to see in Concordia. The pink-hued stone church looks huge from the outside but is actually rather small. Its towering facade (as you can see from the photo above) is actually a false front with a much smaller building behind it!
But despite its small size, the inside of this historic church is lovely with its elaborate altar, gilded carvings, and pretty rib-vaulted ceiling.
Exiting the church we stopped at Raspados Concordia, located in a small stand on the sidewalk. German had mentioned that we should try their famous raspados, a shaved ice drink with your choice of flavorings.
I also highly recommend stopping to try this treat when you’re in Concordia—I tried the leche quemada flavor (kind of like dulce de leche) and it was delicious and so refreshing on a hot day!
Across from the church in the center of Concordia’s main plaza is a leafy park that’s the perfect place to sit and enjoy your raspado in the shade.
The park is also a fun spot to take some touristy pics with the Instagram-friendly Concordia sign, as well as at the giant rocking chair or miner’s cart, symbols of the city’s heritage of furniture-making and silver mining.
The “ghost town” of Copala, Sinaloa
Our last charming village was Copala, formerly known as San José de Copala, a 400-year-old silver mining town that’s now nearly abandoned. As German explained, when the mines shut down most of the men of the village left to pursue work outside of the town and never returned.
Today Copala is inhabited by only a few hundred residents, primarily women.
Our lunch was at the (actually very charming) Restaurante Alejandro in Copala. The rustic tile-roofed restaurant featured tropical foliage, tiny caged songbirds, and a welcome breeze flowing through its open windows.
One soft drink or beer was included—I chose a “Manzanita Sol” fizzy apple drink and Mr. SBC had a Tecate.
Our server brought us complimentary chips and salsa to start, and we had the option to add on fresh guacamole for $5, which of course we did (I never turn down guacamole). We shared it with one of our cruise buddies who coincidentally had also re-booked on this tour, and there was more than enough for the three of us to enjoy.
As promised, we were each able to choose a lunch platter of beef or chicken fajitas with tortillas, served with a side of rice and beans. The food was good, but decidedly un-spicy—I have to assume that they serve a bland version of their cuisine for the tour bus special.
An added bonus was a slice of the restaurant’s signature banana cream pie, included with our meal. Yum!
Although this exact restaurant isn’t promised as your lunch stop on the tour, I’m pretty sure it’s one of only three restaurants in Copala (and the only one in the square)—so the odds are good that this is where you’ll stop.
After lunch we had the chance to wander through the little village of Copala, stopping first at a unique shop and studio in the main square. This is the studio of Alejandro Rodriguez, a world-famous mask maker known for his hand-tooled leather creations. We found out he also owns the restaurant where we had lunch!
Strolling through the village’s tiny main square, we passed through a small park full of tropical plantings, an ornate gazebo, and of course a couple of friendly dogs on the lookout for any leftovers we might have from lunch.
Just past the park stands the beautiful Iglesia Copala, built in the 1740s and one of the oldest churches in Sinaloa.
Although it’s been open to visitors until fairly recently, German let us know that it’s currently not safe to enter due to some needed repairs. But wandering around the building’s outside was still a treat, even just to admire its architecture, unique carvings, and the view to the lush valley below.
Was our shore excursion to the Charming Villages of the Sierra Madre from Mazatlán worth it?
For a seven-hour tour, just under $70 per person was a reasonable expense, especially as it included a tasty lunch.
However, I thought that some of the stops we were promised were misrepresented—especially the adobe brickyard visit, the home bakery stop, and the Golden Zone shopping that was just a visit to a construction area.
But if you’re looking for a really off-the-beaten-path shore excursion from Mazatlán, this might be the trip for you. Malpica, Concordia, and Copala are truly charming towns! Although we didn’t have time for a long stop at any of these spots, seeing these centuries-old villages was certainly a treat.
Tips for your visit to Malpica, Concordia, and Copala
- Wear sensible shoes, preferably with a rubber sole and closed toe. The uneven cobblestones can be tricky to walk on.
- Be prepared for stray animals (especially dogs) roaming the streets.
- Bring a small amount of Mexican pesos on your shore excursion. Some of the vendors you’ll visit will take US dollars, but others (like Raspados Concordia) only accept pesos.
- Pack some bottled water, sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen (I love the MyCHELLE Dermaceuticals brand)
How to book the Charming Villages of the Sierra Madre tour
This shore excursion is operated by Tropical Tours Mazatlán, but they don’t have a website or any obvious way to book directly with the company to save money.
If you’re cruising to Mazatlán on Carnival, the easiest way to book this exact tour is through your online planner in the Shore Excursions section (or through this link if you don’t see it there).
Other cruise lines might offer the same or a similar tour (please let me know if you’ve taken the same tour through another cruise line so I can add that to this post!)
If you’d prefer a different or slightly shorter version of the same tour, check out these links:
- Sierra Madre Villages Half-Day Cultural Tour – This is a five-hour version of the tour that doesn’t include lunch
- Malpica Concordia and Copala Foothills Tour Private Vehicle – A very similar (but private) tour that doesn’t include lunch (but includes alcoholic beverages)
- Mazatlan 5-Hour Guided Tour – a guided tour and ATV ride through the Sierra Madre villages (includes lunch, alcohol, and wine tasting)
Have you visited the charming villages of the Sierra Madre on a shore excursion from Mazatlán? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!
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