Nov. 30, 2015 – Jan. 6, 2016
With the Christmas holidays approaching and our desire to stop, rest and decompress for a while, we booked a casita (little house) in Alamos Mexico for the entire month of December. We also wanted to experience the Christmas season unfolding in a culturally rich Mexican village. Alamos is a gorgeous Spanish Colonial town that is both a national historical monument and one of Mexico’s pueblos magicos (magical towns).
The town’s lush surroundings include tropical deciduous forest and mountains covered in pine and oak.
The 929-sq-km Sierra de Alamos-Rio Cuchujaqui Flora & Fauna Protection Area that enriches Alamos has great birding and wonderful walks. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The following is a brief history of Alamos:
Alamos was a flourishing center of wealth and culture beginning in the late 17th century. The surrounding foothills of the Sierra Madre were a major source of silver exported to ruling Spain. Wealthy mine owners built lavish mansions designed and furnished in the finest European tradition.
The ensuing years brought great wealth but it didn’t last. Plundered by enslaved mine workers and ravished by revolutionary tumult, most of the silver kings had fled by the dawn of the 20th century and the city fell into ruins.
Though known to a few early visitors by the late-30s, restoration of homes began in earnest by the 1950s. More and more visitors were seduced by the city’s charm and friendly people and began to buy and restore abandoned homes. Today, Alamos has regained much of its original beauty and grandeur and has been chosen by the Mexican government as a “Pueblo Magico.”
ONE WAY STREET
We arrived in Alamos, Sonora mid-afternoon on November 30, 2015. We often use what we refer to the braille method when we arrive in an unknown destination. Which way do we turn? OOPS, not that way, the police officer pointed out. We were going the wrong way on a narrow one way cobblestone street in a fairly congested entrance to the business area at the statue of Benito Juarez near the bus station. The scale of our Chevy Suburban is not ideal for this seventeenth century Spanish Colonial town and even though it is a 1998, similar in age with other village vehicles it’s obvious we’re new in town with our rooftop boxes and bicycle rack.
The cell phone was dropping our calls to the property manager who would guide us to our rental casita. We found a parking spot on what looked to be the main square. Jay tried to phone Ernesto again and this time the call went through. We attempted to explain to him where we were located but he laughed and said “I know where you are.” He was standing directly above us under the portal of the Hotel Los Portales waving to us. Once again we found where we were going without knowing where we were going! I suppose we must trust that this will occur or we probably wouldn’t be traveling to all of these unfamiliar places. We have been fortunate (usually) that things fall into place if we just let them.
A STONES THROW
When we arrived in Alamos we immediately became smitten by the views in every direction. Our casita is terraced with multi-tiered patios that are filled with gorgeous fruit trees, cacti and various flowering plant life.
The fountains attract a variety of birdlife and the doves visit us regularly between 3:30 and 4:00pm. We are located above the main square in town on Guadalupe Hill within a quick, if steep walk to the town’s center. Our truck remains in a state of rest while in Alamos. She needs it and we simply don’t need to drive here because just about everything we need is within walking distance. Once or twice daily we walk down and back up a winding cobblestone road about 12 feet wide. The road passes through a vibrant Mexican neighborhood. The kids play football and other games on the street, dodging each other and the random dogs joining in the fun. The gang of fenced in Chihuahuas rise from resting to let us know who is boss on the block. And there is often music in the streets. The local restaurant owner waves to us from her perch inviting us to dine with her again while the local students complete their homework at an adjacent table. Good flat walking shoes are a must to navigate the downward trek and a healthy set of lungs and legs is required for the uphill climb. Who needs stair master?
My favorite part of the walk is the loyal company of the neighborhood ambassador and guide in the body of a medium sized Mexican dog. Without fail she greets us with a wag and a smile and accompanies us in both directions any time of day or night. She learned her boundaries when a member of another neighborhood pack gave her a run for her territory when she overstepped her line in the cobblestones.
THE BLESSED VIRGIN ARRIVES
On our first evening in Alamos we went for a walk around the Plaza de Armas the setting for Parroquia de la Purisima Concepcion, a cathedral built between 1786 and 1804. Much of its original interior was adorned in silver. This is the center of activity today as it has been for centuries in Alamos and other similar plazas in Spanish Colonial towns all over the Americas. It is where residents and visitors alike go to see what’s going on, to see neighbors, and to be seen.
As the sun receded the church glowed and palm trees added punctuation marks. I thought, we are here in this idyllic colonial center for a month, this will be great! Then we heard the melody and saw the procession of singing children walking down the street following a white pickup truck moving slowly towards the church. Low and behold, it appeared to be Mary, Mother of Jesus on the back of the white truck surrounded by an arbor of blue and white balloons. As she walked up the stairs into the church the singing children followed as they were blessed with holy water by the Padre.
The scene was so sweet and innocent. It almost seemed unreal, like props in a play unfolding before us. We felt like Alamos was drawing us closer on our first night. Little did we know she would continue to embrace us again and again during our month-long visit.
NOTHING TO DO BUT IT TAKES ALL DAY TO DO IT
We’ve found it extremely easy to meet people in Alamos. We’ve met foreigners (gringos) at the ATM, the restaurants, the market, the square, art openings, architectural tours, riding our bikes or at yoga. We’ve been welcomed with open arms and have received helpful hints about this and that from a variety of people. This is a very polite culture. When passing another pedestrian it is common to greet them appropriately depending on the time of day. The Mexican people are very warm and their pride in Alamos is apparent.
Jay and I are getting into the slower pace of life in Alamos. During our first week here I asked a local that we had met, how he spends his days. He said that many North Americans want to retire in a place where they will be entertained. Although that is understandable, Alamos is not that place he said. This is a place where people find ways to entertain themselves. Gradually, we’re getting it. We enjoy and appreciate small things and absorb more, I believe.
One of the women I’ve met here believes it takes a special person to turn off Highway 15 and drive into the history and mystery that is Alamos and if people have to ask what there is to do here, Alamos probably isn’t for them. Emily summarizes life here this way, “there’s nothing to do in Alamos but it takes all day to do it!”
We are trying to visualize what it would be like to own one of the extraordinary colonial homes here and make this our home. Could we adjust? Would this be a good fit? We’ve been touring as many homes as we can. We’ve seen several on the Saturday morning organized tours. We’ve been welcomed into the homes of new friends in Alamos and have happily accepted invitations to enjoy the company of fascinating and diverse people as well as look around their homes.
We’ve imagined ourselves living in a Spanish Colonial home of our own for over a decade now. One of our plans for this trip is to explore potential places we may wish to hang our hat someday. We’ve met many people and we run into some of them quite often. Some of our new found friends are interested and enthused about our indefinite travel plans, but they’re observing us become more and more taken with their home, Alamos. I hope you stay or I hope you come back they say. Alamos isn’t perfect but it’s a wonderful place to make a life, to live a life they say. Where else can you live in this kind of luxury for this little money? We would love to have you join us they say. We shall see, we say.
I Hear You Buy Snakes
Each Saturday morning in Alamos there are historic colonial home tours to benefit the education fund. While wandering through an owner’s labor of love which took several years to complete we noticed a very large art piece on the wall. It was a long twisted branch of a tree that had been painted in bright colors to look like a giant snake. It was quite striking and we noticed that Steven had other smaller scaled snake art pieces throughout the house.
When asked where he acquired such a piece he said that Alamos was an unusual place. He collects all sorts of snake art including paintings, carvings and welded pieces in the shape of snakes. He also collects old spurs and said once word gets out that you may be interested in buying anything there will be a steady stream of those items show up on your doorstep. One day a young man knocked on his door and said “I hear you buy snakes.” He was holding the painted snake about ten feet long. Steven said he didn’t remember the price the boy wanted for the snake, somewhere between 300-400 pesos ($18-$25). He didn’t even haggle but paid him his asking price and walked in with his new wall art. Most of his spur collection came in the same manner.
It started around December 12 which is the feast of our lady of Guadalupe (and also my dear mother’s birthday). The street on the square directly in front of the cathedral was blocked off and a large stage was erected with chairs to watch several performances there over the next two weeks. On the other side of the square there was a small carnival set up where parents tried to get their children to blow off some of that excess Yuletide energy.
Each day and evening the crowds got bigger and the energy level grew stronger. As a backdrop to the goings on, the Cathedral stood massive, tall and strong and its bells rang out with the passing of each hour as well as during the principal parts of the daily Mass. We watched performance after performance by large groups of young school children all rehearsed and polished for their big night on the plaza.
The scenes were so innocent they hearkened back to my childhood when children played in the street even after dark at times with no fear and in complete safety. Each night the festivities ratcheted up a notch. There was music played not just in the plaza but throughout the town. From our casita at night we could look out over the town and hear the partying below. Many tourists, mostly from other parts of Mexico, came to town as well and the hotels and restaurants swelled with their numbers. Everyone was groomed and dressed well and there was a great air of joy and celebration.
A couple of days before Christmas we were walking to pick up a few groceries when we saw a huge line of children that was several blocks long. After some inquiry we found out that Santa Claus was to arrive and pass out presents in the center of the plaza. Apparently the Mayor filled Santa’s pack with enough presents for all of the children including Barbies, board games, Pinatas and more. The energy was peaking as these kids raced around the plaza with their new toys.
Ann and I were quite lucky as well as we had been meeting several Gringos who have made their homes in Alamos over the last several decades. We were invited to several parties some of which were catered affairs including a New Year’s Day brunch. We purchased tickets for a Christmas Eve affair that included a multi-course dinner that was attended by several dozen locals, many of whom we had already met.
Four of our favorite people insisted that we eat with them instead of at the lone table that was set for just the two of us. They had the host rearrange a table to accommodate all six of us. The place for the dinner was at the Hacienda De Los Santos, a five star hotel that was developed around a 17th century sugar mill and three Haciendas (enormous Spanish Colonial Mansions) that have been impeccably restored and exquisitely decorated. Before the dinner started however there was a candle lit procession through the streets of Alamos where a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph walked with their donkey from door to door knocking to ask if there was any room left at the Inn. They were turned down until they arrived at the giant doors of the Hacienda De Los Santos where of course they were welcomed with open arms.
There was a small manger set up for Joseph, Mary and where the baby Jesus was laid surrounded by an angel, three wise men and the donkey. The dinner was fabulous!
THE WOMEN OF ALAMOS
No, I’m not talking about a Playboy expose’, although some might be up for that. I’ve been told that there are about 300 foreigners here either full or part time. At the risk of ignoring the men folk in this acknowledgement, there appears to be SO MANY awesome women. Fabulous women who have had fascinating and accomplished lives and histories even before life in Alamos, have initiated leadership roles as business owners, civic leaders, and philanthropists.
Kimberly presented an “opportunity,” to me to join a group of active women for High Tea to benefit Amigos de Educacion de Alamos. The Mission of Amigos is to provide scholarships to economically needy and academically qualified students. Apparently, students receive a free education for a portion of grammar school. College is paid for those who qualify, but it costs about $300 US annually for those years in between. That is a large sum for many families especially those with multiple children. So why not? It sounded like a good cause and a chance to meet more people and get a feel for the expat community.
It was a beautiful outdoor courtyard event with a lively group of about 40 women who seemed to have a comfort level and infectious affection for Alamos. Those who have been here 10 years are relative newcomers and the lady on my right has been wintering here for 29 years. I had to smile while observing leadership qualities in women who had a very convincing way of recruiting up and coming leaders to take on more responsibilities. That’s how it goes in volunteer organizations. It’s A LOT of work and somebody has to do it!
Las Comadres is another organization in Alamos giving back to the community. A “thank you coffee” was held at Margo’s magnificent colonial mansion where I learned more about the Christmas and Easter food baskets dispensed to over 400 pre-qualified Mexicans in the area who need them most. Mary Jo was selling raffle tickets. The winner of last year’s $5,000 raffle proceeds was her employee, an indigenous Tarahumara man. She purchased the ticket for him and other employees. As I understand it, he didn’t know what to do with the money since he had never had much let alone a bank account. She is managing the money for him as he builds his first home with the money!
What can I say, women here are cool. Some have written about history and architecture. There’s a book about some of their life stories and they are varied and interesting. A lovely new friend and long-time resident wrote a memoir about a week of ordinary life in Alamos with humanity and warmth. What is it about this “Pueblo Magico” which attracts them here?