ALAMOS, Mexico—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.