Alamos, Mexico: The Pueblo at the End of the Road
By Allen Cox
In summer, the people of Álamos, Mexico confine errands to the morning hours. I quickly learn why: The summer heat is relentless. I set out for the market early, which is already bustling.
Carne asada grills send tantalizing aromas into the air. Butchers are slapping cuts of pork and beef onto their tile counters. Produce stands are a painter’s palette of yellow, orange and green. Shoppers squeeze through the aisles, stopping to chat.
I purchase armloads of mangos and papayas for a pittance, and stroll home through the cobbled streets, hugging the shadows of silver-era mansions built with fast-earned fortunes.
I never tire of the pueblo’s small-scale colonial charm or the views over the rooftops to the surrounding Sierra Madre foothills, blanketed in emerald this time of year. Álamos has earned the title of Pueblo Mágico, a distinction bestowed by the Mexican government, in part for its colonial architecture and civic pride, and in part for its tourism potential.
Back home, I unlock the wrought iron gate and step into the central courtyard, grateful that my friends and I were lucky enough to rent one of the pueblo’s colonial homes for much of the summer.
A short time later, I hear a cheery “Hola, amigo!” at the front gate. Trini, our Spanish instructor, lets himself in. My friends and I are enrolled in a language program through Álamos Language and Learning – a school that employs local Spanish teachers at a fair, living wage. I pour some strong coffee. We settle in under the shade of the portal and get ready to drill Spanish verb tenses.
During our stay, Trini, an amiable, young Álamos native, assumes many roles: Spanish teacher, self-appointed guide, concierge, and cultural ambassador. To give us “a cultural experience in an authentic Mexican home,” as he puts it, he extends an invitation to his parents’ home for dinner.
On the appointed evening, Trini and about a dozen of his extended family members welcome us. Trini’s parents, speaking slowly in Spanish for our benefit, make a genuine effort to learn about our lives and tell us about theirs.
We feast on barbacoa, a rich beef and pork stew, prepared outdoors in the family’s wood-burning hornillo, or outdoor stove. Trini honors us by saying that the dish is served only on special occasions. We tap our glasses together and toast their hospitality.
The next day, my friends return to Tucson for some personal business — nearly a day’s drive and a world away — leaving me alone in the house for several days. One afternoon, there is a knock at the door. An elderly woman and an entourage of younger women and girls are gathered in front of the house.
The old woman introduces herself, and her daughters and granddaughters. She explains that she was raised in the house, and is curious to see it again. I let them in. The house is a colonial, eleven room quadrangle surrounding a courtyard.
The women peek from room to room, and I overhear the old woman pointing out the spots where she claims she used to see three ghosts. She says they appeared to her often, always at night, and always in the same places — at the well, in the bedroom that my friends occupy, and in the corner of the portal, right where I am standing.
“You must go to the church,” the old woman tells me. “Light a candle and pray for the souls of the fantasmas.” Then the women leave me alone. My sensibilities weaken and I find myself suddenly dreading nightfall.
I set out on the short walk to La Parroquia de la Purísima Concepción, Alamos’ church, but not to pray for ghosts.
I go to admire its 18th century edifice adorned with baroque ornamentation, and to reflect on its history of surviving the plundering of Mexico’s revolutions and serving as a fortress protecting the townspeople from indigenous uprisings.
I gaze out across the graceful Plaza de Armas with its frilly 19th century gazebo and towering palms. Trini is strolling across the plaza. I invite him to lunch. We take a table at Las Palmeras, a restaurant across the plaza from the church.
Trini asks whether I’ve seen the shrine in the back of the restaurant. I hadn’t, so I follow him out to the back portal. Lo and behold, across a vast tabletop and up the high wall, spreads a collection of religious paraphernalia worthy of mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Two centerpieces vie for prominence: an enormous picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe and an equally enormous portrait of the former Pope (not the new one). Pictures, statues, crucifixes, candles, plastic flowers, and twinkle lights fill every space.
Trini explains that the restaurant’s owner, Doña Celsa, is an extremely religious woman. At that moment, the shrine’s proud creator approaches. She beams that we are surveying her work. Her husband rocks quietly in a chair nearby, taking us in.
Doña Celsa sweeps her arm in front of the shrine, formally presenting it to me. “Eres católico?” she inquires, her gaze hopeful.
I shake my head, trying my best to look remorseful, and answer that I am not catholic.
Her expression darkens slightly. “Crees en Dios?” she demands in a low voice as if shielding the ears of the Virgin of Guadalupe from our exchange.
Do I believe in God? I pause, wondering if Doña Celsa has ever met an atheist. I want to be allowed back for her chile rellenos, so there’s no way I’m telling her the truth. I wobble my hand in a gesture of ambiguity. “Mas o menos,” I finally reply.
Doña Celsa’s mouth gapes, astonished at how anyone could “more or less” believe in God. Her husband continues to rock, but his grin gives him away. He is obviously amused. Trini simply shrugs.
Doña Celsa doesn’t hold my beliefs against me. Her door is still open for me to eat my way through her menu. Possibly, she thinks her shrine might yet work its magic on me, and in a way it has. It adds yet another dimension to my glimpse into this wonderful corner of Mexico with its affable people and captivating culture.
A comprehensive on-line guide to Álamos is the web site alamosmexico.com. It provides a thorough overview of the pueblo and its surroundings, plus all the basics such as where to stay and where to eat.
Another excellent resource is the guidebook “The Álamos Guide,” third edition, by B. K. Hamma and Donna McGee (bk.d productions, 2005).
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Allen Cox is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest. He travels regularly throughout Mexico, and currently is working on a novel set in that country.