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Yours to enjoy: Three flashbacks to the charm of old-world Mexico

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Vacationers who like spots off the beaten track – especially places loaded with historical gems – will love these three towns in Mexico. They have four things in common: they're safe, clean, modestly priced and take you back in time to Mexico's colonial days.

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One is Alamos. There's a saying among the 400 or so foreigners who’ve settled down in this old Spanish mining village in western Mexico's Sonoran desert: “Things long lost somehow still live on in Alamos.”

A stroll along the town's cobbled lanes, porticoed walkways and Andalusian courtyards takes you 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 dons and donas may be 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.

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.

The copper deals are the legacy of a Spanish bishop who in the 1530s cooked up a Utopian scheme – straight out of a best-seller by Thomas More – to create a network of craft outlets around these parts. Among other nearby shopping meccas from that era are Uruapan (known for its lacquerware), Tzintzuntzan (pottery), Cuanajo (furniture), Paracho (guitars) and Patzcuaro (the region's main marketplace).

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

Silver miners hit paydirt here in 1562. Soon, the village was brimming with the mansions of silver barons, gold-sheathed carriages, fine silk laces and all the other splendors of colonial Spain. Better than 2,000 historic sites are still standing around the town, many 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.”

Alamos and Santa Clara del Cobre along with Cosala are among the 83 Mexican towns now sharing the designation of “magic cities.”

Staying there: You'll find tourist-class hotels in or near all three towns. Visit the websites of Sonora for Alamos, Michoacan for Santa Clara del Cobre, and Mazatlan for Cosala.

More info: Visit the Mexico Tourism Board.

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