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Álamos, Pueblo Mágico

Colonial-Archway Entrance to Álamos (Jackie Gilde, photographer)

The Way to Álamos:

The trip to Álamos, Mexico, was not originally a planned stop.  In fact when I first saw the town on a map, it seemed too far out-of-the-way to make the trip worthwhile.  I was more inclined to stay on the pacific coast route.  Why take a chance on a Mexico secondary road winding its way through the Sierra Madres, especially if there’s no Google “street-view” available?  Isn’t that a sign right there to steer clear?  Nonsense.

Jackie had other ideas anyway.  She had done her research.  Jackie knew that Álamos had been classified as a Pueblo Mágico and that it was one those Mexican colonial towns that had prospered during the era of silver mining.  The idea that a small, Mexican town has some sort of “magical” connection was enough to convince me.  It has always seemed to me that Mexico has always had a sense of magical realism.

Briefly, about Pueblos Mágicos:

The Mexican Ministry of Tourism has classified about 111 official towns in Mexico as Pueblos Mágicos (see interesting discussion at Mexico Mike), and in 2005, Álamos received that distinction.  Classifying towns as Pueblos Mágicos is intended to promote an exclusive number of towns in Mexico as particularly notable for their rich culture, history, natural beauty, 18th– century architectural treasures (in 2000, 188 of its structures were declared National Historic Monuments), and, I believe, for the pueblo’s inherent “magical” properties.

Apart from the above qualities of a Pueblo Mágico, Álamos’ “magical feel” for us comes from los ciudadanos de Álamos, the citizens of Álamos.  Truthfully, most all of the Mexicans we’ve met are friendly and warm, but in Álamos the people are exceptionally so.  Everywhere we go in town, we are greeted with warm smiles and enthusiasm.  It’s automatic.  People in Álamos seem to go out of their way to please, to make you feel welcome.  They’re not bothered or annoyed if you don’t speak their language; in fact (and you hear this all the time from experienced travelers), they are flattered when you make the attempt.

The “Magic” Begins:

From the moment we enter Álamos we can sense this town has a different feel.

Our destination was Rancho Acosta B&B, RV Park and Guest Ranch, about a half mile just outside of town, adjacent to the Panteón de Álamos, the village’s municipal cemetery (how about that for a harbinger of magical properties?).  Though our route to Álamos was straight forward from Navajoa to Álamos with smooth and well-maintained two-lane roads, once we drove under the imposing, colonial-style entrance to the town, the street immediately begins to narrow, so narrow it is impossible to imagine how any type of RV vehicle could manage to squeeze its way through the maze of one-way streets up ahead of us.  Clearly, Pueblos Mágicos do not easily admit visitors without first undertaking a series of challenges to ensure the worthiness of her guests.  Álamos is no different.

First challenge:  Wayfinding:

It’s no surprise that a large portion of our youth population have grown up without having the physical experience of manipulating a non-digital map.  Thanks to GPS and the use of “smart phones,” the physical act of sensing one’s environment using a map then “navigating spatially” has all but been lost. All cultures practice wayfinding — sensing one’s environment for barriers to travel, then navigating spatially to a remote destination.

We were following the directions to the park from both the Church’s book Mexican Camping and the Google mapping app. But the “google-map world” looks much different on the ground, no matter how closely you study their maps.  How did we ever find our way in a pre-Google, pre-GPS world?  We used gas station paper maps, of course, or the big spiral-bound Rand McNally Road Atlas, and first-person descriptions.  In any event, I took a wrong turn in spite of (or because of) Google “directions” into a one-way street.  Had to back up the truck camper blind, surrounded by mid-afternoon traffic, nerves on a razor’s edge.  I noticed a man in a car right next to me signaling me that he would guide me while I backed up.

I was able to successfully back up in the heavy traffic and turn myself around.  This time I was pointed the right way but down an unknown street that continued to get narrower and narrower.  I had to pull over to try to get my bearings.  Not successful.

Some buildings jut awkwardly into the street, making vehicle passage even more narrow.

The challenging part of negotiating your way through a small town like Álamos is identifying street names.  Sometimes there are street names posted on the corner; sometimes they are posted on the sides of buildings; sometimes they are nonexistent.

 

One of the many ubiquitous three-wheeled, motorized food carts.

Lost, with no sense of how to regain my sense of direction, I noticed a man on a motorized three-wheeled food cart waving at me from behind.  He pulled along side of me on his trike and asked in English, “Señor, where you going?”  After telling him, he sped ahead and waved for me to follow him all the way to Rancho Acosta.

The Flood Waters of Álamos:

Not only are the streets narrow, but the concrete and cobblestone curbs are extraordinarily high—and for good reason.  Rainy season is during the July/August summer months and because the town is nestled at the foot of the Sierra Madres, occasional monsoon-like rains tend to cause flash flooding.  The mountain runoff is carried through the streets and into the arroyos.  The curbs are about four feet high, keeping the businesses and pedestrians high and dry—for the most part, I imagine.

While the curbs are four feet high, the pedestrian sidewalks are very narrow like the streets themselves, passable one person at a time.

Not always in the best of repair, tourists have to be on constant alert for fear of catching a toe on a crack or stray piece of concrete and taking a dangerous tumble. I prefer taking my chances walking in the streets—all part of the magical charm of Álamos.

Pedestrians in the narrow streets and sidewalks of Álamos.  The Sierra Madres in the background.

The flooding can be fairly dramatic as the following photographs demonstrate.  The Arroyo la Aduana cuts through the center of Álamos and becomes a bone dry and dusty street for truck traffic, dirt bikes, and even the occasional horseback rider:

Pic I took of the pedestrian bridge crossing the dry arroyo.

Here is a pic of the same area flooded after torrential rains:

Young man pondering the efficacy of crossing the arroyo with his bike. From Alamos-Sonora-Mexico

Here’s a video of the arroyo flooding:

Shows the opposite end of the pedestrian bridge over the flooded arroyo. Click on this link to access video on Vimeo: Summer Flooded Arroyos

I was told by the local taxista that we regularly use that once the rain stops, the flood waters magically (dare I say Biblically?) begin to recede.  For the ciadaduanos de Álamos the flooding has become a welcomed part of the delicate balance of life here, not something to be feared or dreaded.

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It’s hard not to fall in love with Mexico’s food.  But where does this love affair begin?  Where does any love affair begin?

In a restaurant, of course.

Mama Mia in San Miguel de Allende

But not the only place enamorase.  Traveling through Mexico for any length of time at all quickly reveals that the norte-americano concept of el restaurante is a loosely  held one in Mexico.  Typical walk-in restaurants are, naturally, everywhere, but there are also a huge variety of other types of food venues: the ubiquitous food carts, street-side food vendors, and even backyard or patio restaurants run out of family houses are everywhere.

Pedro’s Cenaduría is the back patio of his modest house on the outskirts of Bahia de Kino. His food is always muy sabroso! Note sign for menudo: no thanks.

Camping in Mexico presents itself with its own kind of food related challenges.  Sometimes there are just no traditional-style restaurants close by, and even if there were, when travelling with Louie, it’s always problematic whether or not a restaurant will let us bring Louie in with us.  Case in point:

  • ¿Podemos traer a nuestra mascota con nosotros? (I’ve used this Spanish phrase a lot)
  • No, señor. No admiten mascotas.

But when you least expect, good eats are just around the corner.  Our first overnight stop in Mexico, for exmple, was at Punta Vista RV Park in Santa Ana, Sonora.  Naturally, after a long, grit-your-teeth kind of day of driving, we were insanely tired and hungry.

By the time we arrived at Punta Vista, the park was already getting dark, so while I set up Rocinante for the night, Jackie offered to scout out (them Texas women are raised fearless!) possible restaurants down the busy street for something to eat for our very first, official meal in Mexico.  She returned a half-hour later laden with carnitas asadas she bought from a little family taqueria just down the street from the RV park.

The vieja abuela who ran the place was so taken with Jackie when she saw her (there’s something about Jackie that automatically attracts elderly grandmas, children, stray dogs and cats, and crazed hipsters to her) that la señora insisted on helping Jackie carry the carnitas back to our camper.  And when Jackie gave her a tip, la abuela was so grateful that she cried huge tears and hugged and kissed Jackie on the cheek.

Carnitas—simply prepared, traditional, and fabulously delicious!

Teníamos mucha hambre, we were so hungry, and they tasted delicious.  The carnitas were really nothing more than grilled meat, a few spare condiments, rolled in corn tortillas, and limón.  Simple, but remarkably delicious, Mexican food.

Staying at the Islandia RV Park in Bahia de Kino put us in walking distance of most of the local restaurants and gave us more opportunities to sample the local fare whose menus where, of course, dominated by mariscos.

On the spur of the moment one morning after a little Kino exploration, we walked into a very small seafood restaurant, Los Mariscos de Kino, for a late breakfast.  The owner was extremely welcoming and had no problem with bringing Louie into his restaurant.  We both ordered camarones.  What else would you order?  When staying in a small Mexican fishing village, what you primarily eat in the restaurants here is los mariscos.

Camarones Tocino. Served with rice and papas fritas and lime.

I ordered huevos camarones, eggs with grilled shrimp, and Jackie ordered camarón con tocino, shrimp wrapped in bacon, served with a small salad and rice on the plate with papas fritas and lime.

One of the interesting food idiosyncrasies we’ve found is that given the opportunity, Mexican cooks will wrap just about anything in bacon.  Again, the food was simply prepared and delicious.

 

On a Friday evening, the town full of tourists from Hermosillo seeking escape from city heat, we tried Restaurante Paula.

Restaurant de Paula located in the busiest section of Bahia de Kino. All open air (yes, to the flies as well).

Yes, we ate more shrimp:  Jackie went for the camarones asada tacos, and I ordered camarones asada.  The meal came with an very large bowl of frijoles, and Jackie ordered a side of guacamole.

Camarones asada, arroz, ensalada, limón, y un tazón grande de frijoles. ¡Muy sabroso!

 

Camarones asada tacos, arroz, ensalada, salsa, y por supuesto Tecate.

The young waiter saw right away he would be serving norte americanos, so he took out his cell phone and readied his Google translate app, as did I.  Dueling Google translate apps.  During the meal, he stopped by to check on us.  I was curious about him, so I asked,  ¿Eres un estudiante? That was all the prompting he needed to talk about his studies.

He told us (en español) he was studying marine biology at the university in Hermosillo and was in his final year of studies. I was surprised by the fact that even with what little Spanish I knew, I was still able to understand a large part of what he was saying in Spanish.  Maybe the year I spent studying Rosetta Spanish is paying off.  Who knows.

Restaurant de Paula menu:

 

En las carreteras de Mexico

Mexico Federal Highway 15 looking south.

Driving in Mexico, like anywhere really, can be nerve-racking—but no more or less nerve-racking than driving in the states, especially in California; the drivers in California are murderous.

The majority of the Mexico highways is made up of carreteras, which are the undivided (literally no lane dividers) or divided two-lane highways, often without shoulders as I describe below.

The four or more lane “high-speed” freeways or expressways are known as autopistas and have either restricted (toll) or unrestricted access.  Non-toll roads are referred to as carreteras libres (free-roads).

Most of the expressways are expensive toll roads or autopistas de cuota. Mexico’s toll roads are some of the most expensive in the world.  One interesting fact about Mexico’s toll roads is that the toll usually includes a “travelers’ insurance” (seguro del viajero) which “covers” any accident on the cuota, which is why it is highly recommended to keep all toll receipts.

The carretera from Sonoyta just across the border from Lukeville, AZ, (SON 2) is a well-maintained divided two-lane highway with enough shoulder to stradle the line to let vehicles pass you.  There are even rest areas (Area de Descanso) where there is enough space on the shoulder to pull completely off the highway.

Driving through or around Mexico’s bigger cities is a different matter.  In order to get to Bahia de Kinos, we either had to drive through Hermosillo (never a good idea to drive through any major city in Mexico) or take a bypass around the inner city and avoid the extremely heavy traffic.

The traffic along the Hermosillo bypass, however, was chaotic at best,  with narrow divided roads and right-hand lanes that often are occupied by street vendors who have moved from the sidewalk into the street for better access to potential customers.  I never knew what to expect—at any moment, no matter how cautious of a driver I am, someone, some car, some dog, some window washer could lurch in front of me without warning.  Still it was better than driving through the city proper.

So when it was time to leave Kino Bay and head south to San Carlos, we were able to find an alternative route that bypassed Hermosillo altogether, and in doing so, shave off an hour from our drive time.

Mexico hwy 61 (all Mexico north-south carreteras are odd numbered) was well-maintained with no pot holes or cracks in the road.  The only drawback  is that this road was one of the carreteras with no shoulders beyond the white line, which makes sharing the road with Mexican monster semi-trucks a heart-stopping experience.  With the wide wheel-based truck camper, I could ride the edge only so far, but just far enough to safely squeak by the oncoming trucks.

Eventually, SON 61 meets the unrestricted autopista SON 15, Mexico’s major north-south freeway, about 30 miles from San Carlos.

There was some heavy road construction going on at the junction (in Mexico, there’s always some sort of heavy road construction going on) so we were forced into a truck stop and fueling station right along hwy 15.  Jackie spotted a taqueria between an OXXO and a rough-looking hotelito for Mexican truckers who are in need of a bed for the night.  While I took Louis for a brief walk, she dashed over to grab some tacos.

At the junction of SON 61 and 15.  OXXO on left, the taqueria center with seating, hotelito on right with tanker truck parked in front.

We rested before moving on by eating a couple of  tacos al carbon and drinking a couple of beers. They were delicious.  Thirty minutes later we made it to Totonaka RV Park in San Carlos:

The Totonaka RV Park sign on the side of a building that greats visitors.

Totonaka is primarily a stopping over point for Canadians, many, many Canadians, who are on their way to Mazatlan for the winter.  We have met some who stay here all winter long.  Met one interesting man from Alberta who arrives here in late October and won’t return to Canada until May.  Even then he says there’s a threat of snow.

The Canadians, at least those I have met thus far, are a friendly sort for the most part.  A bit aloof I’ve found, but so are Astorians.

A park full of Canadians: View of Tototanka with jagged mountains in the distance.

The landscape surrounding San Carlos—the expansive bay, the rugged mountains, and the endless beaches—is stunning.  The most notable landmark we see as we first enter the town is the twin-peaked mountain called Tetas de Cabra (Goat’s Teats) which looms magically over San Carlos Bay.

Tetas de Cabra

We stay here for at least a week before moving on to Álamos next week.  Next: some of the food we’ve experienced so far in Mexico.