Pleasure of the Sierra Madre

Times Staff Writer

Here, surely, were all the makings of a rotten trip.

First, my prearranged taxi stood me up. Then, as dusk deepened over the Sierra Madre and the desert stretched darkly in every direction, the only cabbie at the Ciudad Obregón airport looked me in the eyes and demanded $150 to take me the 60 miles I needed to go. No deal.

And so as night fell on the Mexican state of Sonora one recent Monday, I fidgeted at an airport rental car counter 400 miles south of the Arizona border, agreeing to pay too much for a few days in the company of a Plymouth Neon.

It was no great comfort to know that I stood on the threshold of the jumping-bean capital of the world. Nor was it much help to recall that all this was traceable to two not particularly urgent questions:

Where exactly did the founders of Los Angeles come from 220 years ago? And could it be true, all these years later, that an American colony had taken root in this place, a town with no coastline, virtually no night life and no public airport of its own?

I now have the answers. Further, I have a new favorite little town in Mexico.

Alamos is the sort of backwater that many Mexicophiles daydream about: affordable, historic, underpopulated, architecturally rich, bougainvillea-draped and protected from mass tourism by its awkward inland location. If you buy the idea that stepping into a strange destination is like cracking open a new book, tiny, old Alamos was a page turner, each revelation a new chapter.

Chapter 1: New love

At the airport that first night, none of that happy ending was in sight.

I signed the rental car agreement, trying to forget how many times I've urged travelers never to drive alone in an unknown vehicle through the Mexican hinterlands at night. Then I started steering my $80-a-day Neon across the desert.

This is the same Sonoran desert, bristling with cactus, stubbled with boulders, atwitter with bird species each winter, that stretches north into Arizona and west into California's Joshua Tree National Park. To guide me, I had the light of a full moon over a four-lane divided Highway 15, which was smooth and empty, perhaps because it's a toll road.

At the unlovely neon-and-dust city of Navojoa (hometown of former Dodger star Fernando Valenzuela), I turned onto a two-lane road and followed it for 30 miles, first into the foothills of the Sierra Madre, then into Alamos' tidy colonial grid.

It never hurts to make a new acquaintance under moonlight amid desert silence, but even so, downtown Alamos probably would have seduced me. It's a colonial zone, dating to the Spanish settlement in the 17th century. Its architecture is protected from Day-Glo paint jobs and other modern indignities by the same preservation laws that protect such prominent colonial locales as San Miguel de Allende.

Alamos has about 8,000 residents or more, depending on how many surrounding communities are included. But because Alamos' oldest neighborhood is dominated by private residences instead of businesses, the center of town is often eerily quiet.

And tidy. La Parroquia de la Purísima Concepción, an 18th century church and bell tower, looks down on the Plaza de Armas, which is full of palm trees, benches of whitewashed wrought iron and a freshly painted bandstand. On one bench, a boy picked at a guitar; on another, a young couple whispered.

Two blocks off the plaza, the clerk at the Casa de los Tesoros led me past a lap pool and an orange wall of flowering trumpet vines. Like the hotel's 13 other rooms, mine had a fireplace (burning in anticipation of my arrival), but no telephone or television. A century or so ago, this was a convent.

Chapter 2: The city core

A thorough walk around Alamos might take a couple of hours.

You see the church, the crumbling old jailhouse on Guadalupe Hill, behind the handsome masonry city hall on Calle Juárez. There's the old cemetery on the edge of town. Inside the Museo Costumbrista de Sonora (closed for repairs during my stay but now reopened in time for the city's annual music festival this month), there are old photos and artifacts from centuries gone by. The secondary school was a mint in the 19th century. The old governor's palace, burned during the revolutionary days of 1915, remains in ruins, just a few blocks from the main square.

Historians trace Alamos' arches, colonnades, walled gardens and wrought iron to the Spanish region of Andalusia. Spain's King Charles III is said to have designated his own surveyor general to lay out the walled city streets after a plague killed thousands here in the late 18th century. The idea was to discourage squatters who might bring in disease.

More than two centuries later, peeking into other people's mansions and courtyards is a key element in the town's social order and economy. For years, the American colony has operated a home and garden tour on Saturday mornings in the cooler months. It begins at 10 in front of the museum on the Plaza de Armas, typically lasting two hours, visiting four homes and costing $8, which is passed on to local schools.

Because so many Americans in Alamos are homeowners and so few stay in hotels (fewer than 200 rooms in town), most dining and socializing happens at private parties. The handful of restaurants includes Los Sabinos on one of the arroyos, El Mirador on the overlook above town, and Las Palmeras and Polo's near the main plaza.

The most memorable is Casa La Aduana. There, about seven miles outside town in this outpost restaurant surrounded by a rural village, guests settle into plastic chairs, and chef Samuel Beardsley and his wife, Donna, émigrés from Sonoma, serve gourmet lunches and dinners, $17-$22 per person, a new menu daily. My four-course dinner began with a small portion of lasagna polenta followed by a 3-inch-thick filet mignon. While I ate, the Beardsleys wandered out of the kitchen to chat, and the RVing Seattle couple at the table next to me raised the inevitable question about the place's remote location.

Donna Beardsley nodded sympathetically, then offered this nonexplanation: "It is the restaurant at the end of the universe."

Chapter 3: A new colony

Once silver was discovered in 1683, Alamos (which means cottonwood trees) grew to about 30,000 residents, and Spanish colonists began to use it as a launching point for a campaign to establish missions along the California coast, its silver wealth paying the way. On Feb. 2, 1781, about a dozen families set off on an assignment to settle an area in Alta California neighboring the Mission San Gabriel. There were fewer than 100 settlers in all, most of them listed in colonial documents as black, mulatto or Indian. It took them more than five months to get to their destination. They called the place Los Angeles and started building a city.

We know what happened in Los Angeles in the 19th and 20th centuries. Alamos, meanwhile, grew richer for a century or so but continued to struggle with Indian attacks and summer flooding. In July and August, temperatures often eclipse 100, and monsoons pelt the foothills, filling the two arroyos that bracket the town.

In the early 20th century, when Pancho Villa and other Mexican revolutionaries began looking for wealthy landowners to bring down, the mansions of Alamos stood out, and the place was trashed. Silver production had already dwindled. Alamos might have become a ghost town, but then came the expats.

Levant Alcorn, a former farmer from Pennsylvania, opened the Hotel Portales and began persuading other Americans to buy colonial mansions. Another couple, Alvin and Darley Gordon, opened Casa de los Tesoros, which has since passed to different ownership. Before long, about 200 American families were wintering in Alamos, a hardy handful staying year-round.

These days, Tesoros is less central to expat society, though it remains the first choice of the few tour groups that arrive by bus. At $90 a night, it's a bit pricier than some of its smaller, younger competitors.

The American community remains strong and neighborly. There are collections to pay for dentistry for local children; there are Spanish lessons at Los Amigos, an inn and cafe on Calle Obregón. There are snacks at the American-run Casa de Cafe in front of the Tesoros. If there's an evening event, someone is likely to hire the Estudiantina, a group of high schoolers wearing traditional garb who sing, dance and play guitars.

Belly up to the counter around lunchtime at La Puerta Roja, and you're likely to find an expat or two. Teri Arnold, the owner, runs a catering business, rents four rooms ($50 to $65 nightly, one with air-conditioning), handles a pair of rental houses and serves breakfast (I had a tasty poached pear) and lunch daily.

Arnold, who relocated from a cooking career in the Seattle area to become a full-time resident here in 1992, looks out from her kitchen on a dining area with brilliant red walls, the shelves crowded with folk art. While a dog lazes on the pavers in the courtyard, Arnold ticks off the town's tourism handicaps like a proud scout showing off merit badges.

"There's no beach," she said. "There's no golf course. There's no T-shirt shop. . . . "

A few hours later and several blocks away in Los Amigos, Jim Toevs finished her thought.

"People don't get here by accident," said Toevs, who relocated from New Mexico and opened his business in October. "They get here by intention."

Chapter 4: Birds 'n' beans

Check out this year's annual calendar and community guide published by the English-speakers of Alamos ("profits go to the museum roof fund") and you find about 200 mostly Anglo names, including those of actors Carroll O'Connor and Rip Torn.

Four of the faces in the calendar's annual expat group photo belong to David and Jennifer MacKay and their grade-school daughters. The MacKays arrived here from Marin County in 1994 to take over a complex of buildings dating to the 1680s. Now, besides the MacKays, it holds five guest rooms and a fledging eco-tour operation called Solipaso: Apart from renting the rooms, they rent mountain bikes, lead birding expeditions and conduct day trips to Mayo Indian villages and the Gulf of California. From November through March, they offer placid rafting trips (no white water) on the nearby Mayo River. When summer monsoon season comes, they close down and head north.

In mid-December, David MacKay recruited 20 other birders and came up with a single-day tally of 170 bird species. We didn't do quite as well when I joined him and a group of birders on a hillside hike--no russet-crowned mot mots this day, no rufous-bellied chachalacas--but the area's natural appeal did show through. We heard a trogon and saw dozens of shrieking parrots dash overhead, green breasts flashing.

Between birds, botanist Richard Felger of the Tucson-based Drylands Institute sliced open a wild fig and showed us squirming little wasps nestled inside. He also demystified the Mexican jumping bean.

It's really a shrub, Sapium biloculare, that yields the Mexican "jumping bean." The "beans" (brincadores in Spanish) are capsules from the shrub, which covers the hills around Alamos and seasonally plays host to a particularly rambunctious type of moth larva.

For a couple of months each year, the larvae rustle inside the capsules, and many of the children of Alamos scamper into the hills to collect the "beans" that local entrepreneurs export around the world.

Chapter 5: The next time

Alamos may be well preserved, but it's far from standing still.

Several landmark properties are in transition, beginning with the Hacienda de los Santos, a mansion that has been spectacularly refitted by Jim and Nancy Swickard, an Arizona couple who made a fortune from a chain of yogurt shops and other ventures, then came here to launch themselves as hoteliers. They opened the hacienda in 1999 as the town's ritziest hotel, with rates for its 13 rooms starting at $165 nightly. It features a spa, restaurant, cantina (300 kinds of tequila) and four swimming pools on seven acres. A wedding chapel, putting green and croquet lawn are in the works, and as I walked through, finishing touches were being put on a theater that will offer the town dinner and a movie one night a week.

A few blocks away, the former Alamos hospital is now the 10-room La Posada Hotel. A new owner, Elizabeth Litchy, part-time resident of Frenchglen, Ore., stepped in last year. Litchy pledges improvements but is aiming for a less wealthy crowd, offering weeklong packages, meals included, for about $85 per person per day.

Meanwhile, at least one Canadian mineral extraction company is out in the hills, testing for silver and gold. You never know when another strike might change everything. For that matter, in delicately balanced Alamos, a single golf course would be enough to transform the place.

It took me perhaps 24 hours to fall for Alamos. I did not come home bearing the deed to a new vacation house, which has happened now and then. (The biggest bargains are long gone. These days there's not much available under $80,000.) But I did bring home some plans for the next visit.

I'll probably stay at one of the bed-and-breakfasts, Solipaso or the Puerta Roja. I'll test that fancy kitchen at the Hacienda de los Santos. I'll sign up for a float on the river. I'll do without taxis.

And I'll be prepared this time for a steady flow of more chapters in the book that chronicles my relationship with Alamos. This town, I'm pretty sure, has more to tell.

GUIDEBOOK: Settling In in Alamos

Getting there: From LAX, connecting service to Ciudad Obregón is available on Aeromexico. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $304.

Where to stay: Rates here include 15% tax.

Casa de los Tesoros, Calle Obregón 10; telephone 011-52-642-80010, fax 011-52-642-80400, Internet Fourteen rooms, restaurant, bar, pool. Rates: $81-$110, breakfast included.

Hacienda de los Santos, Calle Molina 8; tel. 011-52-642-80222, fax 011-52-642-80367, Thirteen rooms. Rates: $218-$430, breakfast included. Closed in June.

La Puerta Roja Inn, Galeana 46; tel./fax 011-52-642-80142, Four rooms (one with air-conditioning). Rates: $50-$65 nightly, breakfast included.

Solipaso, Calle Cardenas 15; tel. and fax 011-52-642-80466, Four rooms. Breakfast included. Rates: $35-$85, tax included. Closed June through August.

La Posada Hotel, 5 de Abril, tel. and fax 011-52-642-80045, e-mail Ten rooms, four with kitchens. Rates: $73 nightly.

Where to eat: Casa la Aduana, no phone, is in the town of that name seven miles outside Alamos. Fixed-price dinners $17-$22.

La Puerta Roja (see listing above). Breakfast and lunch, up to $7.

Los Sabinos, Calle 2 de Abril, no telephone. Lunches and dinners daily, up to $8.

For more information: Mexican Government Tourism Office, Mexican Consulate, 2401 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, CA 90057; tel. (213) 351-2069,

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