The sun is relentless, stalking me along the narrow, cobbled lanes of Alamos, Mexico, as I return to my hotel. I unlock the heavy double doors and walk into the lush, untamed courtyard, where weather-pocked stone cherubs guard a center fountain and rocking chairs sit motionless beneath electric ceiling fans. It’s quiet inside. Quieter, in fact, than any hotel I’ve ever patronized, because I’m the only guest.
Which is not to say that I’m alone.
According to locals, my hotel is haunted by the woman it originally belonged to: Señorita Marcor, a beautiful spinster piano teacher who traversed Alamos only by underground tunnel because the streets back then weren’t cobbled, and she refused to muddy her boots and long skirts.
This doesn’t alarm me. For one thing, I like the sound of Señorita Marcor. For another, I’m traveling with my own ghost.
“I want to disappear,” I told my mother a few weeks ago, giving her a research project. My father had just died so I thought she could benefit from an assignment that would keep her busy, give her a purpose. As for me, I was desperate to escape San Francisco-the endless hustle, the cold summer weather, the impassive faces, and worse, the sympathetic ones. I wanted to retreat with my memories of my father to a place where no one knew us.
“Maybe Mexico,” I said. “Somewhere pretty but not touristy-a quiet village with a couple of small hotels and coffee shops. And bougainvillea. Lots of bougainvillea.”
It took her two days to return a verdict: Alamos, a seventeenth-century colonial town in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, one of Mexico’s oldest treasures and a national monument. A tourist destination in the winter, it would be disgustingly hot and accordingly devoid of visitors in June. I could take a first-class, air-conditioned bus from Tucson-where she lived-leaving at 6:00 p.m. and arriving at 6:00 a.m., for $80 round-trip.
“Alamos,” I said, rolling it on my tongue like a Mexican candy. “I’ve never heard of it. Sounds perfect.”When I step off the bus at 6:00 a.m., however, I’m less convinced. It’s quiet here, all right. The sun is just beginning its rise, exposing thin, dusty streets surrounding the station. Lifeless and bleak, they don’t promise much-no bougainvillea, no inviting B&Bs, and not a single coffee shop brightens the pale, nondescript rows of single-story dwellings. Of the few local characters lurking about, none speaks English, and I’m struggling with Spanish. I have only a few key words in my arsenal, and I’m hoping that if I can put them in the right order, they’ll lead me to caffeine.
“Restaurante?” I inquire of the driver. He’s leaning against the bus, pinching a cigarette tightly between his thumb and forefinger. No, he assures me, shaking his head once, definitively. No restaurantes. All closed at this hour.
So I camp out at the station and wait for the town to open its doors to me, miserably watching the ticket agent sip coffee from a thermos. Wishing I knew enough Spanish to engineer a transaction that would result in my getting a cup. Wishing I had pesos to offer. Wishing I knew the whereabouts of my formerly travel-savvy, super badass self.
Finally around 7:30, I decide to strike out, following twisty cobbled roads into the center of town. For some reason, the sidewalks in Alamos are elevated a good three feet from the ground-almost shoulder height for me. Unsure of what to make of this, I decide instead to walk in the road, which means that each time a little pickup blows through I’m forced to press against the wall of the sidewalk to make room for both of us.
Within minutes my enthusiasm returns as I find myself surrounded by bright white Spanish colonial architecture, completely intact, and endless rows of tall, arched portals. I’m relieved by the absence of fast-food restaurants and scant suggestions of Western influence. No one is hawking blankets or tacky mother-of-pearl jewelry, or sipping Starbucks lattes while barking into cell phones. I see only a handful of locals beating dust from rugs, opening windows, calmly sweeping sidewalks. They cast shy looks my way, and something about them restores my confidence.
Soon I find myself at Casa de los Tesoros, a sixteenth-century convent turned tourist hotel. I spend the morning there, drinking Nescafe and nibbling on thick Mexican pastries delivered by clean-shaven servers in suits and ties. The manicured courtyard has café tables with umbrellas, a gift shop, a swimming pool, and an Internet station set up beneath massive, ancient-looking paintings of monks and saints.
Within an hour I’ve committed the very act I swore I wouldn’t-I’ve made a friend: Jean-Philippe, a Parisian toy designer who came here to purchase a million jumping beans to sell in the pages of French magazines. Alamos, he informs me, is the jumping-bean capital of the world.
“Only, for the first time since 1982,” he says, his face darkening, “they aren’t jumping. The rain came too early this year, ruining the chances for a crop.”
But he’s solved the problem, he announces, turning cheerful again as he reaches for one of my pastries. He’s invented a cardboard chicken that lays real, edible square eggs. This is exactly the sort of bizarre conversation I usually relish when traveling, but today it feels misplaced. I’m not in Mexico to make friends or conversation or be served poolside by well-coifed waiters. I’m not here to have a good time. I’m here for one reason: to lean into grief till I fall over and have no choice but to pull myself back up again.
My immediate problem is solved when I meet Suzanne, the owner of Casa de los Tesoros. After a brief conversation in which I explain that I’m a writer in search of simpler, quieter lodging (no need to tell anyone about my father), I find myself being led to her other hotel down the road where, if I stay, I’ll be the sole occupant.
From the outside, Hotel la Mansion appears stark and pedestrian, and I brace myself to meet the dumpy little sister of Casa de los Tesoros. But Suzanne casually unlocks the heavy double doors, and I step past her into a wild, tropical, secret garden-like courtyard. A central stone fountain bubbles, surrounded by palm and mango trees, white pillars and statues. Slanted beams of sunlight illuminate thick curls of pink bougainvillea hanging from white arches, and birds circle the tops of trees. Hummingbirds buzz and pale yellow butterflies flutter, and it feels like the doors have been sealed for a century. Suzanne offers me my choice of ten rooms, and then she closes the gate behind her.
My father would have been thrilled that I’ve come to Mexico to mourn him; he loved Latin American and Spanish culture. He collected Day of the Dead statues, Tarahumara pottery, and Mexican postcards of 1930s film stars; he devoured everything he could find to read about pre-Colombian history, the Mayans, the mummies of Guanajuato. But mostly he loved the music. A concert classical and flamenco guitarist, he studied in Mexico with Manuel Lopez Ramos and in Spain with Paco de Lucia, and he once performed at the palace of Alfonso the XIII for the Prince of Spain. And when he was diagnosed with terminal emphysema and advised that he could buy himself six more months by moving to a lower elevation, my father immediately chose Tucson- he wanted to go to the Mariachi Festival.
I spend my first Alamos afternoon in one of the old Mother Hubbard rocking chairs outside my room, reading and writing in my journal. Finally around dusk I venture out to find food. In the town square I buy a book called “See it and Say it in Spanish” from a woman named Marta at Terracotta Tiendas, a co-op in the plaza, and study it over a bowl of tortilla soup and a Corona at Las Palmeras, a quiet, low-key restaurant across from the plaza.
Directly across from me stands the centerpiece of town, a gloomy, shadowy church called Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción or La Parroquia de la Purisima Concepción or El Templo Parroquial de la Immaculada Concepción, depending on whom you ask. And right in front of the church, as if to cheer it up, is the Plaza de las Armas, with a delicate open-sided gazebo surrounded by flowers, a smattering of gangly skyscraper palm trees, and a wrought iron and white picket fence.
Like its church, Alamos has multiple names-the City of Arches, the Flower of the North, the Pearl of the Mountains, the Garden of the Gods, the City of Silver, and the Soul of the Sierra Madre-but Francisco de Vasquez Coronado first named it Alamos (or Real de Los Frailes de Alamos) in 1540. The northernmost of Mexican colonial cities, it became one of the wealthiest towns in the country after silver was discovered in the hills in 1683. By the late 1700s, the town had more than 30,000 residents, some of whom traveled north to found San Francisco and Los Angeles.
By 1790 Alamos was one of the world’s biggest silver producers and by the mid-nineteenth century, the capital of Occidente. But with riches came trouble; for two centuries, the people of Alamos suffered floods, droughts, plagues, and famine along with political unrest and continual Apache, Yaqui, Mayo and Tarahumara uprisings. Colonists, Federalists, Liberals, and bandits overran the town at one time or another. In the 1860s, under Napoleon’s reign, Emperor Maximilian’s troops occupied Alamos and drove away all the silver barons. Mexican rebels took it back the following year, and the Revolution drove away most colonial landowners. By the early 1900s the mines were closed, along with the railroad and the mint. The money was gone, and only a few hundred people remained.
But it still held some magic, because the story goes that when Pancho Villa’s troops arrived in Alamos in 1915, intending to pillage the town, he gave orders not to burn it, vowing to someday make it his home. Villa was killed shortly after, so he never returned. Instead, after World War II, Americans began immigrating and restoring the old adobe mansions. Now Alamos is a national monument, with 188 buildings on the national registry, and home to some 15,000 people, of whom about 400 are expats (Paul Newman, Carroll O’Connor, Rip Torn, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers all lived here). Still, it doesn’t feel like an expat town.
From the window of Las Palmeras, I watch people mill about the Plaza de las Armas, settling into benches around the church and gazebo. Two handsome old mustached men in matching cowboy hats lean cross-armed against the ornate white fence that frames the gazebo, and behind them, a teenage couple holds hands shyly in the shade of a jacaranda tree. A woman sets up a hamborgesa stand, and a man carries a guitar case across the plaza.
My father was teaching guitar right up until he died, still patiently explaining to his students how to do a tremolo or a rasgueado, jiggling their wrists to make them relax their hands, scolding them for hooking their thumbs over the necks of their guitars.
I studied seriously with him from when I was five until thirteen and again in my twenties and thirties, far less seriously. Now that he’s gone-and with him the opportunity to study-I’m already lost in regret for a lifetime of taking him for granted. It’s not a surprise. I knew I’d feel remorse; I just didn’t anticipate being so mad at myself.
My father left his guitar to me, but since he died, I’ve only removed it from its case a handful of times. I’ve held it in my arms, rested my cheek against the cool wood, played a few notes, and put it back. But suddenly I find myself wishing I’d brought it to Mexico. Perhaps here, in the haven of my hotel, I could make it through an entire piece of music.
The day he told me he was dying, I laughed at him.
“Dad, you’re not dying,” I said.
“Yes, I am. I have emphysema.”
“A doctor told you that?”
“Then how do you know?” I asked.
“I Googled it.”
I told him he was silly, but Google was right. His health declined over the next two years; he coughed and wheezed constantly, eventually barely able to breathe. Finally he was put on an oxygen machine, which he dragged around the house with him. He quit smoking, reluctantly, after forty-five years.
The last time I talked to him, I was in a rush to get off the phone. I had fifteen spare minutes before I needed to leave for work, but trying to carry on a conversation with him had turned painful; he was too often incoherent and rambled on.
“I’ve got to go, Daddy,” I said.
“Well,” he answered lightly, “when you gotta go, you gotta go.”
The words stay with me.
The Plaza de las Armas is quiet tonight, but not so on Sunday evenings, when the age-old ritual of paseo is still practiced, as it is in virtually every small town in Mexico: teenage boys and girls promenading, walking in circles around the gazebo in opposite directions, eyeing each other openly. It reminds me of high school weekends spent at the shopping mall, except the laps these teens make around each other are much shorter, and the prowling more overt.
But the true distinction is the parents, sitting on sideline benches taking in the entertainment of their daughters walking arm-in-arm with girlfriends, being ogled by pubescent boys. I think of what Suzanne said about my hotel’s ghost, Señorita Marcor-that she had dozens of suitors but never married because her parents didn’t approve of any of them.
Maybe little has changed since Señorita Marcor’s day, and parents still preside over their children’s love lives here. I consider the scene in front of me. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but for one thing: I see no pairing off, no conversation or flirtation between the sexes. What comes next for these teens loosely upholding the culture’s dating traditions? Will they date? Get married? And if their parents disapprove, will they run off and elope as my parents did?
My mother first met my father at her art school graduation party in Boston when she was 23 and he was 17.
“That’s the cutest boy I’ve ever seen,” she said to a friend when my father walked in with his guitar, crashing the party. “I’m going to marry him.”
“I’d better introduce you then,” the friend said, ushering her over to him.
“Wally, meet Dolly,” the introduction went. “You’re made for each other.”
Six weeks later they stole my aunt’s car and ran off together, making it all the way to California. When they finally ran out of money, they called my grandmother and told her they’d eloped (they hadn’t, but pretending to be married meant they could cohabitate). The following June they drove a borrowed TR3 sports car from Boston to North Carolina, where it was legal to marry at the age of 18 without parental consent. This time they actually did elope.
Before my father got sick, he was the star of the family, the vibrant, handsome, brilliant performer, and we orbited his life, for better or for worse, like the gazebo these kids circumnavigate in Plaza de las Armas.
If the gazebo weren’t here, would they still walk the paseo every night? What do we do with the traditions and patterns when our center is suddenly gone?
During the day not a soul visits my hotel, and I sit and listen to mangos drop from trees. I drink coffee, write, read, study Spanish, and nap. Sometimes I cry. Time spreads, expands.
But for a few hours each evening Ruben, a worker from Casa de los Tesoros, comes by in case I need anything. Twenty-two and bored, Ruben likes to bring things to my door. First, chips and salsa. Next, bottled water. Finally, a mango from the tree outside my door. I’m determined to be alone, but he doesn’t know that, and his earnestness makes it impossible to resent the interruptions. Gracias, I say, again and again. Gracias.
An elderly security guard also comes at night. He sits on a chair just inside the main door, though to protect me from what, I have no idea. I can only imagine it’s the town ghosts, for I’ve come to learn that Señorita Marcos is not alone; legend has it Alamos is teeming with them. There’s the gray-robed monk who guards the treasures in the seven secret underground tunnels leading to the church, the ghosts of the silver mine workers, the politically incorrect “headless Chinaman,” the unfaithful bride, the violet perfume ghost.
I find being in a ghost town soothes me. There’s something about the way the people of Alamos so effortlessly preserve their past and coexist with their ghosts. I start leaving my hotel more frequently during the day, retreating to my air-conditioned room only when I get overheated. I strike up conversations with locals if only to ask them about ghosts. Everyone has a story. In this town, ghosts aren’t a concept one does or does not believe in; they simply exist, almost as lively a populace as the living.
Out wandering one day, I poke my head into Casa de Maria Felix, a hotel and museum. One of Alamos’s claims to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Maria Felix, an iconic film star sometimes referred to as the Mexican Marilyn Monroe. This is the property where she was born. It’s run by an expat named Lynda, who tells me she was unaware, when she bought it in 1999, that the film star was born there.
She was not, however, oblivious to Maria Felix’s existence. Coincidentally, she’d been collecting the Mexican film star’s photographs for thirty years. The casa now overflows with artifacts excavated during the construction of the hotel, and a room dedicated to images of Maria Felix runs the gamut from famous original portraits to what resemble middle-school art class sketches. Altogether, Lynda has about 400 images of Maria Felix.
Lynda’s ghost story is that she came upon the ruin one night while taking a walk, during her first visit to Alamos. The moon was shining through a window, and behind the wall she could see mesquites and palo verde trees. Intrigued, she wandered to the back of the property, and turning to look at the ruins in the moonlight, saw the spirits of a woman and child. She bought the property the next day.
Later in the afternoon, I take a private walking tour with a man named Trini, who goes by Candy Joe (local kids gave him the moniker, he tells me, because he always has candy for them). We visit the cemetery, a study in shades of white and sepia. Elaborately carved statues of praying angels and weeping cherubs share sky space with towering, austere crosses, while beautiful old headstones are stacked on the ground like dishes in a cupboard. On one end of the graveyard, a tall block of aboveground family crypts all bear holes the size of grapefruits, evidence of a time when looting was standard practice.
Candy Joe also takes me by a mansion where a woman named Beatrice, a silver baron’s daughter, once lived. The house was a wedding gift from Beatrice’s father, he says. On the day she married, her father had the streets of Alamos lined with silver bars for a few hours. Leaving the church after the ceremony, though, the groom’s horse was spooked and reared up; the groom was thrown and his back broken, and several months later he died. Beatrice subsequently lost her mind, and for the next six months could be spotted in the cemetery late at night, digging up his grave with a shovel and pick. Because her father was the most important man in town, the cemetery caretaker left her alone. She died not long after and was buried beside her husband, but people continued to see her ghost, in front of his grave, praying.
I find that the stories all intersect, weaving around each other, cross-pollinating. Is it the virgin bride, the woman in white, or the unfaithful wife who haunts the beautiful mansion they call Las Delicias? Or are these spirits one and the same? The legends are fused, details blurred. They have been repeated so many times.
The night before I leave Alamos, I have dinner with Suzanne, Jean-Philippe, and a few other travelers. As we swap stories, I realize that for the first time, I’m not eyeing the door, waiting for a break in conversation so I can escape. I’m content in the company of others. I even talk about my father.
For a place I hadn’t heard of a month ago, Alamos has given me precisely what I wanted-gentle quietude and privacy, solitude without isolation, uninterrupted time and space to heal, no one asking anything of me. A summer season so slow and lazy that even the jumping beans won’t jump, so hot and muggy it holds no appeal to any other tourists.
It’s also provided what I didn’t want but somehow needed. When I walk through town now, I know people. Jose Louis, the bartender at Casa de los Tesoros, is teaching me to conjugate verbs, Lynda from Casa Maria Felix has given me a driving tour, Candy Joe hollers “Buenos dias” from his little tourist office, and Marta from the co-op waves exuberantly whenever she sees me.
I came here to be alone in my grief, but it’s the people of Alamos who have helped me move beyond it. Without even trying, they’ve taught me to remember the dead in a way that keeps them alive-by continuing to tell their stories.
Lavinia Spalding is the author of “Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler,” and the editor of the new anthology “The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011.” Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal, Sunset, WorldHum, Post Road, and Inkwell.
Flickr images via eflos and eflon]