El Fuerte Sinaloa is a charming pueblo magico in the northern part of the state of Sinaloa. It is one of the most notable scenic stops on the El Chepe railroad route, and a worthy day trip destination from the nearby city of Los Mochis.
Local legends tell the story of El Fuerte Sinaloa being the birthplace of the fictional Zorro. And indeed, statues of the infamous movie character can be found scattered around various sites in the town.
The town has been designated a “pueblo magico” by the Mexican tourism board. Pueblo magicos (“magic towns”) are settlements in the country that have been recognized for their contribution to Mexican culture. They often possess a unique gastronomy, a fascinating history, and breathtaking natural beauty.
There are currently 132 pueblos magicos in Mexico, with new settlements being considered or added to the designation all the time. In Sinaloa, there are four, of which El Fuerte is one.
Think of this as the Mexican tourism board’s version of UNESCO recognition if you like! When you see that a town has been identified as a “pueblo magico”, you can take that as a sign that it’s a worthwhile place to visit.
That definitely rings true of El Fuerte. A day here is an ample amount of time to explore.
But if your schedule permits, there are enough things to do in El Fuerte and its surroundings to spend a couple of days here while exploring Northern Mexico.
Things to do in El Fuerte Sinaloa
El Fuerte was founded in 1564 by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Ibarra when he was exploring the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. It has a colorful, distinctly Spanish style of architecture that is reminiscent of what you see in Campeche, Merida, and other colonial settlements in Mexico.
In the beginning, the city was known as “San Juan Bautista de Carapoa”. However, in 1610, it was renamed “El Fuerte”.
“El Fuerte” literally translates to mean “the fortress”. The town takes its name from the sunbleached remnants of an old fortress that sits atop a hill in the center of the city and was once an important defensive structure.
The wider region is also known as the “El Fuerte” municipality. The Plazuela Municipal is the center of town and from here, you can explore most of the city’s main attractions on foot.
Admire the Parroquia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus
One gorgeous structure that stands out in the Plazuela Municipal is the stunning Parroquia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church. (Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).
Even if you do not consider yourself religious, you can admire the beauty of some of the historic Catholic churches that you will stumble across in Mexico. This church was first built in 1804, with a wooden roof and terrace.
Construction was finally completed in 1889 when the vaulted ceiling and completed tower were added. Today, the Parroquia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus is still a very active church in the local community.
The bells are rung every hour, there is a service for locals to attend on Sundays, and many baptisms, weddings, and first communions are hosted here. The interior of the church, with its colorful statues and vibrant icons, is just as beautiful as the exterior.
Provided that you are respectful, it is fine to enter the church, or even to sit and watch a service.
Enjoy the panoramas and cultural exhibitions at the El Fuerte museum
A short ascent along the cobbled streets that veer off from the center of El Fuerte brings you to the fortress that gives the city its name. Today, it has been converted into a museum that tells the story of the history of the region, and that of the indigenous groups that call this part of Mexico home.
The various rooms and annexes contain some interesting exhibits. Some contain ritual masks and ceremonial items that are used by the indigenous Yoreme Mayo people during celebrations such as the deer dance, and Semana Santa.
Others contain all manner of artifacts recovered from the region that were used by Spanish conquistadors. There is everything from old muskets and weaponry, to typewriters used to draw up important legislation, jewelry, costumes, and funeral carts used by noble families.
The highlight of visiting this fortress, however, is the panoramic views that you can enjoy from the ramparts. You can look across to the higgledy-piggledy tiendas, hotels, and houses of El Fuerte on one side.
On the other, you have unparalleled views of the bright blue Rio Fuerte, rolling green hills that extend as far as the eye can see, and the state border with Sonora.
Hike up to the petroglyphs at Cerro de la Mascara
The Cerro de la Mascara (hill of the masks) is an archeological and ceremonial site that is located just a few kilometers away from the center of El Fuerte, on the northeastern banks of the river. Here, you will find more than 300 petroglyphs (ancient carvings) scattered across a surface area of around 17 hectares.
It is believed that this area was occupied for several centuries from 600AD to 1450AD. The running theory is that this was once a ceremonial center where shamans and curanderos would come to work their magic.
It is a little tricky to reach the Cerro de la Mascara. Despite the fact that this is widely regarded as being one of the most important historic sites in Northern Mexico, it is not signposted and nobody knows the complete history or purpose of the site.
It is believed that several different indigenous groups interacted in this sacred spot and carved the petroglyphs. Namely, the Mayos, the Yoremes, and the Tehuecos.
You cannot get more off-the-beaten-path than this! To visit the hill, you need to first make your way to La Galera – a woodland park area on the banks of Rio Fuerte.
You will see the Cerro de la Mascara marked on the map, although the route to get there is not clear. Follow the footbridge across to the Venadario del Fuerte where there is a small petting zoo.
From there, you need to cross one more footbridge and follow the woodland path to the petroglyphs.
Enjoy a picnic by the banks of Rio Fuerte
If you are passing through La Galera park to visit the Cerro de las Mascara anyway, you can spend a couple of hours of your day relaxing here by the river. This is a popular spot for families and groups of young locals to come and hang out.
Many people set up their own barbeques by the river banks and cook carne asada – sumptuous marinated meats wrapped in warm, homemade flour tortillas and drenched in fresh tomato salsa. There are several small kiosks and street vendors here where you can purchase small street food snacks and agua frescas.
Look out for the crazy coconut stalls. This is an “only in Sinaloa” delicacy that you must try.
An entire coconut is chopped and served fresh, then loaded with chamoy (pickled fruit salsa), hot sauce, candies, nuts, and other goodies. Another local specialty worth looking out for is the agua de horchata y coco.
This mouthwateringly creamy beverage is a unique Mexican drink found only in the northern part of the country. To make it, coconut water and fresh horchata are mixed with cinnamon, condensed milk, evaporated milk, and pieces of fresh coconut.
The result is a delightfully tasty, creamy drink that you could easily guzzle two liters of in one sitting!
Check out the Municipal Palace
The Municipal Palace is a grand neoclassical building that is free to enter and a great place to stop and snap some photographs. The palace was constructed towards the end of the 19th century.
It has a solid exposed brick façade. When you pass through its main archways, you are greeted with a grand courtyard with porticoed walkways on all sides.
A delicate fountain marks the center of the square and if you walk up the staircase opposite the entrance and up to the second level of the building, you will be met with a mural depicting the history of the town. (The various rooms within the palace are used for local administrative purposes and you cannot enter them, but it is ok to check out the courtyard).
Stop by La Michoacana for an “Eskimo” ice cream
If you have spent any amount of time traveling in Mexico, you may be familiar with the “La Michoacana” ice cream stores. You will find these homemade ice cream shops in virtually every town, village, and city across the country.
They are all independently owned and no two are the same. They are distinguishable by the cute brand logo of a little girl eating an ice lolly, and it all started with a man selling ice lollies from a pushcart in Culiacan Sinaloa in the 1950s.
These ice lollies are a great way to cool down on a hot, humid day. They are made with high-quality, fresh ingredients like locally sourced cream and real fruit pieces.
In El Fuerte, you can find “Eskimo” ice lollies that are only really found in this part of the country. These sweet treats feature either vanilla or chocolate ice cream, topped with a layer of crunchy milk chocolate, and then sprinkled with coconut pieces.
Yum! One paleta (ice lolly) should cost no more than around 25 pesos or just over $1.
Stop at San Miguel Zapotitlan
Driving in Sinaloa is not for the faint of heart due to the chaotic driving that people tend to demonstrate here and the various police checkpoints on the road between Los Mochis and El Fuerte. Still, if you do decide to rent a car or you are exploring the area with local Mexican friends, it is worth stopping at the village of San Miguel Zapotitlan en route to El Fuerte.
This charming residential village with its dusty roads, fruterias, tortillerias, and quaint tiendas (stores) gives an insight into what life in rural Sinaloa is like. It was founded by Father Vicente del Águila in 1603 and has a population of just over 6,000 inhabitants.
During Semana Santa (Easter), various indigenous celebrations, masked dances, and parades take place here. If your travel dates coincide with this, it is a wonderful spectacle to behold.
The main event is the Quema de mascaras which sees locals place their masks in a pile and then set them alight with fire. In 2023, Semana Santa falls between the 2nd and the 8th of April.
Even if you cannot visit San Miguel Zapotitlan during easter week, it is worth the short detour to get to. There are a few interesting delicacies that you can buy from street vendors here that are worth adding to your radar.
The panaderias and bakeries sell warm, freshly made empanadas de piloncillo and empanadas de calabaza. These are pastries made with cane sugar or pumpkin, and perfect to enjoy with a hot coffee.
You can also order an agua de cebada from one of the ladies here manning the drinks carts. This Mexican barley drink is made using condensed and evaporated milk and is likely unlikely anything you have tried before.
Check out the Casa de la Cultura
The Casa de la Cultura in El Fuerte is a small, porticoed pastel yellow building that sits beside the Plaza de Armas in the city center. It was built by Manuel Vega in 1860 and became a municipal jail until 1980 when it was transformed into a house of culture.
Today, it operates as a library and many historical archives from El Fuerte and its surroundings are stored here. Various cultural events, musical performances, literary readings, etc are hosted here throughout the year.
People watch in the Plaza de Armes
The central square in Mexican cities is always known as “the Zocalo”. In El Fuerte, this is also often referred to as “Plaza Municipal” or “Plaza de Armes”. Here, you will find “El Fuerte” written in bold, colorful letters, as you will find in most places of tourist interest in Mexico.
There are also a few small statues in honor of notable figures in Mexican history – Benito Juarez, Francisco de Ibarra, the city’s founder, etc. The Yoreme people actually called this square “tastie” and they carried out ritual ceremonies and performances here centuries ago.
At the center of the square is a bandstand, where mariachi and other live musicians often host performances on special occasions and national holidays. The towering tropical palm trees that stand in the square today were planted here by Don Aurelio Ibarra and Don Francisco de Orrantia back in 1871.
Today, the square is a popular rendezvous point among elderly locals who come here to catch up on the latest gossip and stories from their neighbors and friends. There are a couple of restaurants, coffee shops, and ice cream stores that encompass the square if you decide that you want a light snack.
From here, you can also board the little train that runs a short tour around the city known as El Chepito (in honor of El Chepe).
Take the time to get lost down El Fuerte’s colorful cobbled streets
Part of the joy of visiting El Fuerte Sinaloa is found simply in taking the time to get lost down the city’s narrow cobbled streets, shop for Mexican souvenirs in artisanal stores, and take photographs. Start your exploration from the Zocalo (Plazuela Municipal).
The streets that surround the main plaza sell all manner of handicrafts such as Mayo Yoreme masks, dolls, and musical instruments, as well as clothing and accessories. The Mercado Municipal, located at the intersection of Calle Benito Juarez and Calle Alvero Obregon is where locals come to do their fruit and vegetable shopping.
Indulge in local Sinaloan cuisine
El Fuerte is home to several excellent restaurants that serve traditional Sinaloan and North Mexican cuisine. Some of the upscale eateries around the Plaza de Armes err on the side of fine dining and cater more to international tourists.
While more laidback local places offering lower-cost eats can be found just a short walk away from the main square. El Meson Del General (Benito Juárez 202), Diligences Restaurant ( 5 de Mayo, Historic Center), and Mansion Orrantia restaurant (Antonio Rosales 103) are some of the best-rated spots in town.
Where to Stay in El Fuerte Sinaloa
There are a plethora of El Fuerte hotels to suit every budget and travel style. Since this is a popular stopping point for tourists traveling along the copper canyon train journey, it makes sense that there would be some luxurious, boutique properties here.
Hotel Posada del Hidalgo (Luxury choice)
Where: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla 101, Centro Histórico
The Hotel Posada del Hidalgo is one of the more upscale hotels in El Fuerte. According to local legend, this is where Zorro (Don Diego de la Vega) was born.
In the courtyard of the hotel, there is a little statue of Zorro with his lasso that you can take photos in front of, even if you are not a guest at the hotel. Every night at 8 pm, the hotel puts on a show that tells you the story of Zorro.
The rooms here are elegant and stylish with plush modern furnishings and rustic touches such as exposed brick walls and wood beam ceilings. There is also an excellent restaurant, a pool, and a spa on site.
Rooms at the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo generally start from around $126 USD a night. Click here for the latest room rates and availability.
Hotel El Fuerte (Mid-range option)
Where: Montés Claros 37, Centro Histórico
Hotel El Fuerte is a wonderful luxury hotel in El Fuerte without the luxury price tag. The 18th-century hacienda-style property offers rustic rooms with cosy furnishings and a balcony.
There is a bar and a restaurant on site that serves up excellent Mexican breakfast dishes.
Rooms at Hotel El Fuerte generally start at around $37 USD a night. Click here for the latest room rates and availability.
Getting to El Fuerte Sinaloa
There are a couple of ways to get to El Fuerte Sinaloa. The most usual starting point is from the coastal city of Los Mochis, but you may also be visiting the city on the return leg of your El Chepe journey from Creel, Chihuahua.
Assuming you are coming from Los Mochis, you have three different transport options. You can drive, take a bus, or take the El Chepe train.
There is a distance of 84km between El Fuerte and Los Mochis and the journey is likely to take you about an hour and twenty minutes by road. The bus takes slightly longer, on account of the various stops made en route.
Riding the El Chepe train from Los Mochis to El Fuerte
The El Chepe train is the most common way to travel from Los Mochis to El Fuerte (and vice versa). This is one of only a handful of railway routes that exist in Mexico and it is widely known as being one of the best railways in the world!
Still, the process of buying a ticket to ride the train can be a little confusing. You can purchase it online via the El Chepe website (although it’s a little glitchy), or you can head to the ticket office in Los Mochis to buy it in person.
You are generally fine to buy your tickets a couple of days before you intend to travel, with the exception of traveling over the holidays, Christmas, etc. The El Chepe Express is the tourist train while the El Chepe Regional is the local commuter train.
You can buy tickets for various different classes on board the El Chepe Express. (First class, executive, and tourist). The seating and amenities are generally better on this train.
If the El Chepe Express sells out, you can of course buy a ticket on El Chepe Regional. It isn’t as “fancy” but it is definitely a more local experience and plenty comfortable enough.
A one-way first-class ticket from Los Mochis to El Fuerte costs 1,700 pesos while a return is 3,000 pesos. A one-way executive class ticket is 1,307 pesos and a return is 2,000.
Finally, the third class (tourist class) comes at a price of 1,063 pesos one way and 1,600 pesos return. Trains do not run every day and the schedule is subject to change.
So always check the El Chepe website online in advance of your trip.
Taking the bus from Los Mochis to El Fuerte
10 buses per day run from Los Mochis to El Fuerte and the journey takes about an hour. The service is operated by a local company known as “Northwest Blues”.
Tickets can be purchased with cash on board directly from the driver or from the bus station ticket office. A one-way ticket is 100 pesos. (Circa $5 USD).
The first bus departs at 05:55 am and the last bus of the day departs at 20:15pm. Schedules are subject to change.
FAQs about visiting El Fuerte Sinaloa
Do you have any further questions about visiting El Fuerte Sinaloa? The answers to some frequently asked questions about visiting this part of Northern Mexico are detailed below.
Hopefully, you will find the information you are looking for there. If not, please feel free to reach out!
Where is El Fuerte?
El Fuerte sits in the northwestern part of Sinaloa state on the banks of the Rio Fuerte river. It is 84km away from Los Mochis and close to the Sonora state border.
Is El Fuerte safe?
El Fuerte is a safe place to visit as a tourist. Safety is often a big concern for people considering traveling to Sinaloa in general.
But if your trip is limited to “safe” tourist destinations like Mazatlan, Los Mochis, Topolobampo, El Fuerte, and the El Chepe route to Creel, Chihuahua, you should be fine. Just use the same common sense as you would when traveling elsewhere.
You are fine to walk to the restaurants around Plaza de Armas in the evenings and if you decide to hike to the Cerro de la Mascaras, there are always plenty of people around during the day. Watch your personal belongings and don’t leave any items unattended.
Final thoughts on visiting El Fuerte Sinaloa
El Fuerte Sinaloa is a highlight of any trip to Sinaloa and any trip to Mexico in general. Its existence and the attractions it offers go to demonstrate that Sinaloa is a state brimming with history and culture, and not just a place that deserves its “dangerous” stereotype.
Have a wonderful time exploring Sinaloa and wider Mexico. Buen Viaje! Xo