Source: The New York Times
By BETH GREENFIELD
Published: December 25, 2005

WHY GO NOW — Álamos is always sleepy. That’s one of its biggest charms. But winter in Álamos, a small Mexican town, brings a hint of excitement in the air. It’s when snowbirds from the United States join the locals in occupying the cobblestone streets, the casual restaurants and the restored 18th-century colonial haciendas. It’s also when sunny days bring temperatures that hover between 70 and 80, then dip into the 40’s at night, perfect for snuggling up in front of the fireplace at an inn. Late January has the added buzz of the Alfonso Ortiz Tirado Festival, a 10-day affair that begins Jan. 20 and brings live orchestral, piano, choir and dance performances to town in honor of the late tenor and Álamos native, Dr. Alfonso Ortiz Tirado.

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Álamos, an architectural treasure, had 188 of its structures declared National Historic Monuments in 2000. In July it was named one of Mexico’s handful of Pueblos Mágicos, placing it in good company with 13 others, including Taxco and San Miguel de Allende. Founded by Spaniards in 1681, Álamos has a long history of playing host to missionaries, explorers and miners, and was once the world’s leading producer of silver. Today it has a population of 12,000 (including more than 350 foreigners), and draws visitors with its mellow vibe, majestic architecture, plazas shaded by cottonwood trees and sprawling haciendas shrouded in red bougainvillea blossoms. Nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Madre, the town is near several great hiking and birding destinations. But mainly, you should prepare to relax upon arrival, as the big activity here is, blessedly, dar la vuelta (to go for a stroll). ”In Álamos,” said Emiliano Grajeda, a local tour guide and historian, ”you do as little as you can.”

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WHERE TO STAY — The most luxurious accommodations in town are at the Hacienda de los Santos, Calle Molina 8, (52-647) 428-0222, www.haciendadelossantos.com. It is a breathtaking collection of three colonial mansions connected by stone pathways, brick tunnels and Moroccan-style arches. The 25 rooms, all individually designed, have antiques, fireplaces, original artwork and tile floors topped with thick carpets, and they all front courtyards lush with fountains, small swimming pools and leafy guanacaste trees. A spa on the premises offers treatments from massages to body wraps, and its restaurant serves tasty Mexican classics in a romantic, candlelit ambience. A Sonoran spiced breast of chicken is $16, while a cheese-stuffed poblano chile is $14; four-course specials, which recently featured filet mignon with ancho-chile sauce, are $28. While service at the hacienda is a bit unpolished, the luxurious surroundings more than make up for it. Rooms start at $225, plus 17 percent tax, and include an excellent seated breakfast with options ranging from eggs Benedict and huevos rancheros to granola with yogurt. Like many businesses in Álamos, the hacienda accepts payment in United States dollars.

The town’s newest option is the Hotel Colonial, Calle Obregón 8, (52-647) 428-1371, www.alamoshotelcolonial.com, which was opened in late October by an expatriate couple from Louisiana. Housed in a grand mansion just a block from the main plaza, the five (soon to be eight) rooms feature sleigh beds, brightly tiled bathrooms and, in some, flat-screen televisions. The early American décor, unfortunately, does not incorporate much local colonial flavor. But rooms, which range from $125 to $150 a night, including tax, are large and immaculate.

A more stylish and affordable option is La Puerta Roja Inn, Calle Galeana 46, (52-647) 428-0142, www.lapuertarojainn.com, where the red front door leads to a verdant courtyard, outdoor dining area and a collection of five cheerful and eclectic guest rooms that feature festive tiling, antique furniture and high wood-beam ceilings. Rooms are $107.50 nightly and include breakfast and tax.

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While most of the more budget-minded hotels could use face-lifts, one decent option is Hotel La Mansión, Calle Obregón 2, (52-647) 428-0221, with slightly dark basic rooms that encircle a cheerful, sunny courtyard. Nightly rates start at $68, at 10 pesos to the dollar, including tax and breakfast for two.

WHERE TO EAT — Whether you’re sleeping there or not, make a beeline to La Puerta Roja Inn, where the owner and chef, Teri Arnold, turns local produce, fish and game — much of the latter procured by her husband, Pat Shannon, a hunter — into decadent multicourse feasts that attract a clutch of spirited expatriates. Dinner (a tasting menu for 225 to 230 pesos) is only offered on Wednesdays (reservations required), but on any day of the week you can graze on wholesome lunches, like grilled artichokes (50 pesos) or a salad topped with white beans and fresh tuna (85 pesos).

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Delicious tacos can be found at stands lining the edge of Plaza Alameda; they range from 10 to 20 pesos. Or you can pull up a chair on the shady front patio of Restaurant Reyna, Calle Obregón 8, which has no telephone, is a casual spot where classic Mexican fare — including tostadas, gorditas and juicy steaks. Average cost: 39 pesos a plate.

Across the street from Reyna, you’ll find the new and charming Café del Sol, Calle Obregón 3, (52-647) 428-0466, which has great coffee, hearty breakfasts and creative lunch options, from chilaquile casserole with poblano cream sauce to curried chicken-salad crepes with sautéed apples. Meals range from 38 to 79 pesos.

For a memorably fine food experience, it’s worth the short drive out of town to a speck of a former mining village called Aduana, where Sam Beardsley, a Californian and a skilled chef, prepares creative Mexican feasts at Casa la Aduana, (52-647) 404-3473. His four-course meals, available for lunch or dinner, change depending on what’s in season; recent delicacies have included filet mignon in red-wine sauce, a vegetarian tart and chicken cordon verde with shrimp and poblano chiles. Full meals range from 170 to 280 pesos a person and reservations are recommended. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

WHAT TO DO DURING THE DAY — The best way to connect present-day Álamos with its fascinating past is to take a walking tour. For just $10 a person, Emiliano Grajeda, (52-647) 428-1368, offers a mix of historical fact and legend as you visit locations from the impressive 18th-century adobe church and a former silk factory to renovated mansions owned by notables including Mary Astor and Rip Torn. For a peek inside some of the most impressive haciendas, join Mr. Grajeda’s House and Garden Tour, which sets out on Saturdays at 10 a.m. Tours start in front of the Museo Costumbrista de Sonora, Plaza de Armas, (52-647) 428-0053; inside are impressive displays on the history of the state of Sonora (with descriptions in Spanish). Open Wednesday to Sunday, admission 10 pesos.

Galleries filled with a more obsessive historic perspective can be found at the Casa de María Felíx, Calle Galeana 41, (52-647) 428-0929, http://www.casademariafelix.com, a small inn and museum that was the birthplace of Mexico’s most famous actress. Ms. Felíx, a k a ”La Doña,” starred in 47 films during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, and here you can gaze at hundreds of her photos, plus artifacts including her shoes and jewelry. Open daily, admission 10 pesos.

Álamos is surrounded by a wondrously diverse countryside, with pine forests, two major rivers, granite cliffs, rocky mountain peaks and cactus-rich stretches of desert. Solipaso Tours, Calle Obregón 3, (52-647) 428-0466, run by David and Jennifer MacKay (the Californians who also own Café de Sol), are a great source for nature excursions, including daylong floats down the Mayo River and custom birding tours — during which you’ll have chances to glimpse russet-crowned motmots, black-throated magpie-jays and variousother birds of the region. Tours range from $100 to $275.

WHAT TO DO AT NIGHT — Heed the nightly clanging of church bells and join the crowd of locals who attend the 6 p.m. services at the historic cathedral, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. Gazing up at the high baroque ceilings and listening to the echo of recitations is a rewarding experience, no matter what your beliefs.

For less holy pursuits, join the crowd of regulars who gather around the fireplace at Chato’s Bar, Calle Obregón 10, (52-647) 428-0010. It’s in the Casa de Los Tesoros hotel, a former 18th-century convent. You can also sip fine tequila while enjoying romantic live guitar music at the Hacienda de los Santos, where the Los Hacendados group performs nightly in the elegant dining garden. If you’re not staying at the hacienda, reservations are required.

WHERE TO SHOP — Nestled behind the cathedral is the quirky El Nicho Juárez 15 (52-647) 428-0213, packed with items from kitschy saint pictures and vintage dresses to antique silver teapots and locally made pottery and tiles (many of the crafts are under $15). Terra Cotta Tiendas, Juárez 8, is a collection of small boutiques with a selection of books, maps and regional crafts, including silver jewelry, gauzy-cotton blouses ($30 and up) and fine pottery from the village of Mata Ortiz ($50 and up). And Sunday brings artisans from all over Mexico to the craft fair at Plaza de Armas, where you can browse among vendors offering tin work, weavings, embroidery, pottery and tooled leather.

YES, FREE — Take a stroll through the 1794 town cemetery on Las Delicias to contemplate the ancient jumble of above- ground tombs and elaborate gravesites. You’ll see statues of weeping angels, tall crosses in hues from baby blue to pink, and, most likely, a flock of crows that likes to perch in the palm trees high above the graveyard.

YOUR FIRST TIME OR YOUR 10TH — To get some perspective on how precious Álamos is, walk or drive to the top of El Mirador, the town’s lookout point, which affords sweeping vistas of the rambling white-roofed mansions and leafy plazas, as well as the surrounding craggy mountaintops. At sunset you can watch the town turn golden and then tuck into a plate of chiles rellenos ($5.50) or grilled beef ($7) at the open-sided El Mirador Restaurant.

HOW TO GET THERE — Continental and Aeroméxico fly via Houston and Mexico City to Ciudad Obregón, the closest commercial airport; round-trip winter fares hover at $900, while booking separate trips to Tucson and then to Ciudad Obregón comes to closer to $700. From the airport, taxis , make the 90-minute trip to Álamos for about 1,500 pesos, or rides arranged through your hotel. The town itself has a small airstrip for private jets.

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