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Michaela Von Schatzberg and Thomas Whittingslow.
They say that every old house in Alamos has a ghost. Some are restless, keeping the owners awake, because they were sealed inside the thick adobe walls. Others vainly promenade around the square till dawn, unwilling to move on to the next life because life here was so sweet.
If you arrive late, on a moonlit night, when most of the town is asleep, you can still hear the rustle of taffeta, and the faint cries of senoritas who have bruised their delicate feet on the cobblestones street around the square. So indulgent was this tiny treasure of the Sierra Madre, that one Silver Baron paved the alleyway to his home in "planchas de plata" plates of silver, so that his daughter would not snag her thin satin slippers on the way home.
The Republic of Mexico has declared the entire city a national historic monument. While prominent haciendas have been faithfully restored, several ruins still sprinkle the small city, where everything is in walking distance.
The Spirits of Los Santos
|While much of the city slumbers in bygone glories, it offers a glimpse of a rarified life that has long vanished. Like San Miguel Allende, tiny Alamos has also become a trendy retreat for Mexican national, seeking their spiritual and cultural roots. Located about thirty miles east of Navajoa, this tiny pueblo also beckons foreign visitors who are seeking privacy in its sun -splashed courtyards and solace behind its 300-year old Andalusian walls. There isn't much to do unless you consider stepping back into time an activity: bring lots of books and film. It's an architectural treasure.
The social center is a 236 year-old restored convent called Hotel Los Tesoros and it serves as an unofficial gathering spot for locals and visitors. All guest rooms have working fireplaces (welcome in winter) and rates currently range about $75 ++. The bar is lined with historic photos of famous Alamosans and it still has the original frescoes, painted by artisan decades ago. Despite its semi-formal atmosphere, you can sit for hours over an espresso or cocktail and probably meet everyone in town. Part of its charm is that the interior is visible from the street, so you can decide if you want to bother going inside or not. The portico surrounding the courtyard serves as an al fresco gallery with large paintings of Spanish Bishops and members of the royal court in full, yet preposterous, regalia. The restaurant is almost always open, although on a slow day you may have to track down the waiter or cook in the bar. Throughout the year Los Tesoros offers a variety of special concerts and ritual Indian dances.
On my last visit, Los Tesoros was full and I was taken to a suite that was larger than many people's house at Casa Pacifico, which was entirely empty. It was Sunday and there was no room service. Aware of the ghost stories, I went around turning on lights in both my bathrooms and along the long, empty exterior halls. Unable to sleep, I headed back to Los Tesoros for a nightcap. Aside from a few barking dogs, the pueblo was silent. It was dark, no noise, no pedestrians on the narrow cobblestone street. Behind an elegant set of iron-grilled windows, I could see gringos having a candlelight dinner.
Then I heard it�wafting through the wind in the Jacarandas�a female voice, so pure, so haunting. I strained to hear the angelic sound, sure that I was hallucinating. The words were in English�"and my heart will go on" but the cadence was definitely Spanish. It was the theme from the Titanic. I followed the sound up the street, certain it was the spirit of Celine Dion. I scanned the empty courtyard of Los Tesoros, looking for its source, a few candles were flickering beneath a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The song gained in crescendo. Then, in a dark corner just outside the bar, two tired waiters were staring at the speakers of a boom box with a glazed look. The acoustics were awesome in the stone patio. When the song finished, they pointed to a poster on the wall: "El Poder de Amor" (the power of love). The music came from George Matin and Angelica Amaya, a touring duo from Leon, scheduled to perform live at Los Tesoros the following night. Martin, a former opera star of German descent and his young Mexican wife have the extraordinary ability to mimic Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Englebert Humperdick ,and even old Blue Eyes. Martin trained his wife's extraordinary voice, and finally admitted that she didn't understand a word of the world famous song.
Opera House - practicing for a dance
That was as close as I came to a personal experience with the ghosts of Alamos but stories continued to haunt my visit. A long time resident told the chilling story of a wealthy gringa decorator's frustrating attempt to restore one of the imposing haciendas. But every time one of the workers tried to tackle one of the thick 4-ft adobe walls with sledgehammer, the handle broke or the worker just disappeared leaving the tools on the floor. For two years, she left the wall standing. Finally she decided to install a recessed art nook in the wall, and took up the sledgehammer herself. The facia broke easily, exposing a large, gaping hole. Inside was the preserved skeleton of a young woman, her hair and pieces of her dress were still intact. The pelvic area indicated she was carrying a 6-month old fetus. Someone from a distant order of nuns told the story of a father, so shamed by his unwed daughters pregnancy, that she was sealed in the walls.
An Alamos street scene
Called Hacienda de Los Santos, each of its authentically restored rooms and suites is named for a saint. Some are as large as a small villa, with bathroom fireplaces, massive antiques and religious art spanning four centuries. At $175 per night (during off-season) Los Santos is a self-contained sanctuary with a small health spa, private theatre and chapel. The wondrous landscaping reflects Alamo's unusual climate that changes from high Sonoran desert to lush tropics following the first summer rain. Driven by the ghosts of their 17th century predecessors, the Swickart vision for the hacienda is always expanding. A separate bar and dining complex was added, separated from the hacienda by a formal Agave garden. While the bar and restaurant are for guests only, during quiet afternoons their young majordomo leads small tours of Los Santos (cameras permitted). If accommodations are available, visitors are permitted to make dinner reservations with specific seating times. As the variety of groceries in Alamos is limited, Los Santos kitchen only serves fresh seafood from the nearby port of Guaymas and fruit and vegetables from the hacienda's own garden. The service is impeccable and ,if you're lucky, Jim and an a Capella choir may serenade you.
Hotel Los Santos main pool
| When I first saw Alamos in the 1960's it was a haunting ruin, overgrown with bougainvillea and coral vines that had refused to die through decades of drought. Since then it has becomes a magnet for those who want to live their fantasies. Among these are Nancy and Jim Swickart of Ranch Santa Fe, California. They arrived late in the evening to drop off a friend from the airport. The highway approach to Alamos is totally unrevealing but when Jim drove down the narrow, cobblestone street toward the center of town, Nancy said, "We're home." Today their home has become one of the most elegant hotels in Mexico and has just been accepted into The Small Luxury Hotels of the World.|
To preserve its historic status only 45 to 50 rooms are available in Alamos. For a first visit Los Tesoros is perfect. Reservations can be made on line at www.tesoros-hotel.com/. However, for total emersion into Spanish Colonial charm, Los Santos has no equal. You can visit their website or make reservations at www.haciendadelossantos.com In addition to two hotels there are several smaller B & B's and very attractive guestrooms with kitchenettes at Obregon Dieciocho, located at Ave. Obregon, No18.
In addition to the home and garden tour (proceeds going to the Alamos education fund) other attractions include the small museum off the main square that documents the village's rich mining heritage and contains mementos of famous Alamos citizens who have gone on to become governors, musicians and movie stars. Tours are offered regularly to the 300 year old silver mines, along with excursions to the Rio Mayo (not to be confused with the pyramid building Mayans) where the small indigenous Mayo tribe lives today, as it did in centuries past.
Admittedly Alamos is not for everyone. There is no beach, disco, even shopping and nightlife are limited. But as a cultural retreat from the stresses of modern life, it has few comparables. It's an easy afternoon drive from San Carlos and about 8-hours by car south of Nogales on a four-lane toll road. The nearest commercial airport serving the areas is at Cuidad Obregon, approximately 55-minute drive. Arrangements can be made in advance with Los Santos or Los Tesoros for airport transportation. Alamos also had an excellent paved private airstrip.
The last luminaries to visit Alamos were Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. They were there briefly for the filming of "The Mexican" due to be released by DreamWorks in Spring 2001. Watch carefully. You may get a glimpse of Los Tesoros or Hacienda de Los Santos -maybe even the senoritas with the satin slippers.
Editor's Note: Tom Whittingslow is a freelance writer and public relations consultant. His recent two-part series on Havana, Cuba won Florida Magazine Association's "Charlie Award" for the best investigative feature in 1999. He writes for America West, San Francisco Focus and Florida International. You can e-mail Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.