This article is from the August 1999 – September 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
The Ex-Pats of Alamos, Bring Plenty of Dinero
by David Simmonds
The northwestern corner of Mexico is not rich with the traditional Spanish colonial architecture commonly seen in San Miguel de Allende, Zacatecas and the many other towns and cities built three and fovr centuries ago. Alamos is an exception. Alamos sits in a buffer zone between the Sonoran desert and the verdant tropical jungles of Sinaba. Many of the vegetables consumed in North America are grown in this region from Ciudad Obregon to Culiacan and most of the vehicles on the road are pickup trucks. Driving toward Ciudad Obregon you can see a skyline of three or four large buildings. . only to discover they are grain silos. The big difference between this region along Mexico 15 and the breadbasket of the United States is the addition of one significant crop. This strip is the defacto clearinghouse for all of the marijuana grown back in the hills and mountains. Many of the drug lords have had a long association with the towns of Los Mochis and Culiacan and this has resulted in some violent confrontations over the years although it seems to have subsided more recently as more officials have been added to the payrolls. Nonetheless, there is a Wild West aura here as compared to, let’s say, Lake Chapala.
The town of Alamos is located 30 miles east of Navajoa and the main highway (Mexico 15). It sits in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidente at about 1300 feet in elevation. As you enter this town of 9,000 inhabitants you could easily think you took a wrong turn back at the highway and somehow ended up in the Pyrenees mountains of northern Spain. You look over your shoulder to make sure the bulls aren’t running, a pair of horns headed for your back side. Where are the guys with the white clothes and red scarves? But soon this Cuervo flashback subsides and reality returns.. .and you remember: this is Alamos and it is a beautiflil place.
ITS SILVER PAST
Alamos isn’t really on the way to anywhere and certainly isn’t a major tourist destination. It is a town of 17th century mansions that was declared a national monument by the governinent in the 1950’s.
Gold and silver were discovered in the late 1600’s, although silver was its fame and motherlode. Alamos became one of the richest towns in Mexico with a population exceeding 30,000. It was the capital of what was then the state of Occidente (presently Sinaba and Sonora). Don Jose Maria Almada, a wealthy mine owner, was the governor.
Prior to the silver discovery, this region had been very difficult for the Spaniards to settle. The two predominant indigenous Indian groups, the Yaqui and the Mayo, were fiercely independent and provided many hard fought battles for Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his troops.
By the end of the 18th century many of the wealthy families started to leave for safer cities, some heading for Guadalajara, others for Guaymas and even Tucson and Phoenix. It seems as if political unrest and thievery were the rn~~jor causes of the exodus, not a diminishing silver supply. I heard riiimor of some Canadians possibly reopening one of the mining operations, convinced that there is still wealth in the hills.
By the end of the Mexican Revolution, Alamos was practically a ghost town and the once opulent residences of the gentry had fallen into serious disrepair. Then in 1948 along came William Alcom direct from raising dairy cows in Pennsylvania. Mr. Alcom bought the mansion of the aforementioned ex-govemor, Sr. Almada, on the Plaza de Armas for less than three thousand dollars and started a restoration project that culminated with the opening of the Hotel los Portales. He then did what any good American dairy farmer would do – he sold real estate to other Americans and made a sizable fortune. Then, as today, most of the expatriates in town were from Arizona and California. Many of these first families still own their property and spend the better part of the year at their palatial homes. They stay from October through April, the perfect weather months. May and June are fairly hot and dry, while July, August and September are hot and sporadically wet. I was in town in mid-May and I was one of only four visitors I encountered. If there were more, I would have seen them. I went to each of the hotels and all were virtually empty. This is kind of crazy because it wasn’t that hot. I found the weather delightful.. maybe ninety degrees maximum. So if you don’t want a lot ofpeople in town when you visit, come in the off-season. There were very few cars as well and the experience was very, very peaceful.
THE Ex-PAT COMMUNUTY
I would say that this was as genuinely friendly a group of retirees as I have met in any town in Mexico. And I had the distinct feeling that after being in town for one day they all knew where I was staying and which car I was driving. In many places you run into people who look at you suspiciously, as if you are spying on them or are there to issue a subpoena. Maybe they’re afraid that their little piece of heaven will be discovered and the unpleasantness of the locations they left behind will soon descend upon this special place. Or maybe it’s just the paranoia that the haze of too much booze can create. Whatever, I know I’ve seen it time and again. But not in Alamos. This group of people didn’t come to town to see how far their Social Security checks would take them, worried that too many visitors will bring higher prices. Not that there is anything wrong with that it just doesn’t seem to be prevalent here.
There are apparently around 150 American families who have immigrated, most of them having purchased houses that needed refurbishing. If a house has already been restored, it’s going to cost some money. I was shown two beautiful homes with values estimated at $350,000. Hollywood has even arrived in the personage of Archie Bunker (Car”oll O’Connor).
By and large the gringo residents keep a low profile and seem to be well liked by the locals. They take a great interest in the town and donate large sums of money to a library, English lessons and even scholarships for some of the brighter high school grads. And it is very much a Mexican town. I don’t recall seeing one t-shirt shop and I didn’t find an English language newspaper during my entire stay. On Saturday night all the local teenagers were at the Plaza Alameda, circling and flirting. There was a local dance nearby and I paid five pesos for entry. I stayed long enough to see that I was the only gringo and to hear the band play a few ranchero tunes. Everyone was friendly and I never saw a hint oftrouble. I couldn’t have felt safer anywhere.
That same night at my hotel, Casa de los Tesoros, there was a Ballet Folklorico production from the Instituto Tecnologico de Sonora in Navajoa. It was a benefit put on by the ex-pats, although I never was clear on what the benefit was for. There were probably one hundred or so people gathered around the courtyard imbibing drinks and food in what turned out to be a great party and performance by the costumed dancers. It was here, later in the night, that I made the acquaintance of Pember Nuzum and his son, Chris.
Pember and his wife Elizabeth have lived in Alamos for 29 years and have a beautifully restored home across from the church and the plaza. He appeared to be the “patriarch” of the community, although I am sure there are others who would make that claim. He is a very nice man, now 79 years old, and he and Chris were kind enough to offer me a tour of his home the next day. We also visited some additional property they have on the edge of town that Chris is turning into an ecological preserve of sorts. Their home is of Architectural Digest quality and when I asked Chris how many rooms there were, he replied, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” He did infer there were silver bars hidden in the walls from the times of turmoil, but I think he may have been b.s.-ing a little on that one. No, I take that back.. .1 want to believe it’s true. Pember can usually be found most evenings holding court at the Casa de los Tesoros sipping his favorite adult beverage.
Fortunately, you can see many other homes of Alamos during the tourist months on Home and Garden tours organized by Friends of the Library. Unfortunately, I was too late in the season to participate in these events, but I heard they are excellent.
There are also a few sanctioned tour guides for the town, one of whom I met the moment I rolled in. Joseph miraculously appeared at my car window and offered his services for all of my needs. We chatted for a while and 1 actually considered hiring him, which would have been O.K., but for my persistence in always doing things the hard way. He ~ems to know everything about the town and he never stops for a breath while imparting the information. Where do you find Joseph? Don’t worry, Joseph will find you. If he doesn’t, look for the brown-skinned man with a pronounced limp wearing a white shirt and talking incessantly. He will probably be sitting in front of the Hotel Los Portales on the west side of the Plaza de Armas.
You really need to see inside the buildings that line the streets to appreciate the Spanish colonial architecture where the facades hide the beauty of the inner courtyards overgrown with bougainvilleas and beamed ceiling portales.
There are not a lot of tourist things to do in Alamos. The big attractions are the restored homes and hotels and the genial ambience provided by its citizens. I did enjoy the town’s little museum. The Museo Costumbrista de Sonora, adjacent to the Plaza de Arrnas, has many artifacts from the silver glory years and an interesting historical compilation of the region. It takes about fifteen minutes to tour the whole thing and the cost is two pesos.
You can arrange through one of the guides to see some of the old mine areas, or to fish, hunt, or birdwatch. There are some swimming holes in the area, but two years into a pretty severe drought have dried up much of the recreation.
Alamos isn’t a particularly inexpensive place to visit. The finer hotels have spent a great deal of money in restoration costs, furnishings, and providing first-class standards for their guests. There are just a few choices in this category along with a few campgrounds, one of which has a motel with cheaper rooms. House rentals are also available for longer stays. I talked with one woman who was renting a very nice two-bedroorn house near the town center for $300.00 US per month. She inferred this was a great deal, so I would guess prices can be a bit higher than this.
All in all, I would encourage anyone to consider a trip to Alamos if you’re on the west coast and it can even be considered a potential retirement possibility.