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Gem of the Sierra Madre

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Not to be confused with the legendary Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, the town of Alamos –
which means “cottonwoods” in Spanish – greets visitors with a visual journey back to the
Mexico of colonial times. Located less than 500 miles south of Tucson, Arizona, this
unassuming town is the home of the Mexican Jumping Bean and the former silver mining
capital of the world. Built as an early Spanish stronghold, by the late 1600s Alamos
serviced the burgeoning silver mining industry of northwestern Mexico. The population
swelled to almost 30,000 by 1780; by the 1860s, the town even boasted its own mint. Wealthy
colonials built spectacular mansions, which were eventually left to deteriorate due to the
depletion of the ore and the chaos of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. After World War II,
American and Canadian artists and retirees, seeking a quiet, affordable lifestyle,
discovered the forgotten village, whose population had by then shrunk to just a few
thousand. These “gringos” began to restore many of the mansions, returning the original
structures to productive use without altering the colonial ambiance. Today, the permanent
expatriate population numbers approximately 260 families. To preserve the architectural
integrity of the sites, the Mexican government has declared the combined historic buildings
in the town of Alamos as a Mexican historical monument. Alamos is centered around the
traditional Mexican plaza, or town square, surrounded by the main church, the government
center, a museum, restaurants and markets. Completed in 1804, the Iglesia de la Inmaculada
Concepcion (Church of the Immaculate Conception) took 18 years to build. On the other hand,
the Palacio Municipal (City Hall), which dates back to 1895, is one of the newer buildings
in a town where many of the structures are more than 300 years old. El Museo Costumbrista
de Sonora is housed in a 19th-century colonial home. Along with displays of period
furniture, clothing and tools, it contains a typical kitchen and a collection of coins from
the Alamos mint. Eating out is a popular pastime for locals as well as those from north of
the border. On or near the plaza, you can take your chances with the ever-present street
vendors – or choose among several restaurants offering Mexican specialties prepared with
visitors in mind. The local markets are definitely worth a stroll; they offer serious
souvenir shopping as well as a window into the everyday lives of the people of Alamos. The
Alamos tourist office promotes walking tours of the historic area, including a number of
restored colonial mansions. Tours wind along clean cobblestone streets bordered by walled
and gated gardens overflowing with bougainvillea, fragrant hibiscus and other tropical
vegetation. One highlight is the former home of Maria Felix, considered to be the most
revered actress in Mexico. A Canadian fan has rebuilt the villa to emulate its early
20th-century appearance and turned it into a small bed-and-breakfast inn. Groups can
arrange for a special dinner in the flower-draped courtyard, complete with strolling
mariachi band. To orient yourself to the layout of the town and surrounding area, drive to
the top of the Mirador, a lookout that provides a panoramic vista of the Rio Cuchujaqui
valley and the Sierra de Alamos. After taking in the view, stay for a meal at the hilltop
restaurant; it’s not much to look at, inside or out, but the food is good (and
inexpensive!). A few miles west of town, a narrow dirt road leads to the tiny village of La
Aduana. Here, tourists shop for craft items and try their hands at forming and cooking
tortillas under the tutelage of a veteran baker. The village church is said to be the site
of a miracle – a seven-foot cactus grows precariously out of one wall near its roofline. On
the way back to Alamos, stop off and watch a local artist fashion pottery and visit a
firing operation that creates bricks using traditional open-furnace methods. In addition to
its historic and cultural appeal, the Alamos region also offers a wealth of natural
attractions. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, only 60 miles east of
Sea of Cortez resorts, Alamos is spared the harsh climate of the Sonoran desert by its
1,400-foot altitude. Sierra de Alamos peak forms the heart of a 200,000-acre reserve
consisting mainly of tropical deciduous forest; more than 400 species of birds have been
recorded in the reserve and miles of hiking trails are easily accessible by foot from town.
Although Alamos can be pleasant year-round, the dry, temperate months are generally October
through June. During the rest of the year, frequent afternoon rains nourish the lush
vegetation that distinguishes Alamos from the surrounding desert. Alamos has a number of RV
parks to choose from, with more than 150 full-hookup sites conveniently located for touring
the town and nearby attractions. Reservations are recommended, especially during the peak
season (November to February), as Alamos is a regular stop for RV caravan tours that travel
the west coast of mainland Mexico.

When You Go Travelers venturing beyond Mexico’s border towns must carry
valid passports, vehicle insurance and a host of other items; go to alamosmexico.com for information on
legal requirements. Reaching Alamos from the U.S. border at Nogales is relatively easy; the
drive down four-lane limited-access Mexico Route 15 is almost on par with U.S. Interstate
highways. There are six toll booths and a couple of military (“federales”) checkpoints
along the way. The last 30 miles after exiting at the city of Navajoa, however, is a rough,
pothole-laden two-lane road. Allowing an hour for immigration, passenger cars can make the
475-mile trip in one day. However, RVers may wish to spend a night at one of the coastal
resorts to break up the trip. The charming village of San Carlos is approximately halfway
and offers several RV parks overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Consult the Trailer Life Directory for other
campgrounds in the area.

Go in a Group Especially for your first experience driving into Mexico,
consider traveling with an RV caravan company. They provide up-to-date information on
everything you’ll need to know before leaving, along with log books detailing each day’s
drive. Throughout the trip, the wagonmasters’ job is to ensure that you enjoy traveling in
your RV in Mexico.

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