As you drive into Alamos, Sonora, on cobblestone boulevards lined with restored colonial mansions, fuchsia, magenta, and white bougainvillea, and tropical kapok trees, Ceiba acuminata, you sense why, in 2005, the Mexican government designated this city of 13,000 one of Mexico’s pueblos magicos—magical towns.
Long before that honor, Alamos had been a favored destination of tourists from all over the world; it is not only a place where desert coastal cuisines blend with more tropical Mesoamerican ones, but also where the Sonoran Desert most dramatically blends with the astonishing diversity of tropical forests to the south. At the time of the Spanish entradas, these forests covered more than 550,000 square kilometers along the Pacific Coast from Sonora’s zona serrana southward all the way to Panama. Today, less than 500 endangered square kilometers remain, much of it surrounding Alamos, which now headquarters a biosphere reserve for the Sierra de Álamos above the city.
We wanted to see how much Alamos has recovered since the decline it suffered around 2006 when Mexico’s drug wars briefly escalated. What is it that is now drawing so many people to this colonial city at the very southern reaches of the Sonoran Desert, a six-hour drive from the border at Nogales? We found many reasons that Alamos is again attracting international attention, and one of them is food and drink, from fresh vegetables and sea salts to mescal and goat cheeses.
But to get a clearer picture of what is luring the adventurous back to Alamos, let’s briefly touch upon its colorful history.
Not long after its establishment as a colonial capital in 1716, discoveries of large deposits of silver within the surrounding towns of La Aduana, Minas Nuevas, and San Bernardo made it one of the richest places on the planet. The town’s founders and residents constructed large colonial mansions with lush courtyard gardens and orchards, making it the northern-most outpost in a Mexican silver boom that also generated the likes of San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato to the south. There was so much silver produced that Alamos had its own mint.
As it happens, the silver began to give out, and by the early 20th century, the Alamos economy went bust and most of its colonial buildings fell into disrepair. With the exception of a small population of Guarijio and Mayo Indians who fled the hinterlands for the security of Alamos, the town was nearly abandoned.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, a few adventurous American and Canadian explorers found something in Alamos to write home about. Howard Scott Gentry, the world expert on tequila and mescals, hunted, foraged, and botanized in the Rio Mayo in the 1930s, and published both popular and scholarly accounts of his explorations in the sierras above Alamos. George Hilton’s Sonora Sketchbook includes both drawings and written accounts of the unparalleled plants, animals, and cultures of the area. And a cattle buyer who still lives near the border, J.P.S. Brown, wrote Forests of the Night, a novel about hunters, ranchers, and farmers pursuing a legendary predator through the sierras behind Alamos.
Somewhere around the late 1940s or early 50s, an American named Charles Pratt realized he could use the mystique of the Sierra Madre to sell deteriorated mansions and ranch properties to other North Americans. Artists, writers, and naturalists continued to flock to Alamos for the remainder of the 20th century, hooked on its natural beauty, architectural history, and culinary as well as other cultural traditions. A great many of those original mansions have been beautifully restored.
For the remainder of the 20th century, Mexican and Anglo populations lived in distinctly different worlds, rarely, if ever, mixing socially. However, with time those barriers have dissolved and once again, Alamos has become a crossroads, a meeting place between the norteño cultures of the Sonoran Desert and the Mesoamerican cultures of the Sierra Madre. Alamos now attracts chefs, artists, ecologists, conservationists, and historic preservation architects from Mexico and abroad dedicated to celebrating the sense of place and taste found where desert cuisine meets tropical influences.
We chose to focus on what was happening in the world of food, farming, foraging, and ranching. Our mission was to explore everything from local goat meat birria in roadside stands to native food crops, community health projects, and gardening traditions. We also were curious about how the Alamos community was grappling with the health issues and diseases that plague the entire region—namely, obesity and diabetes. Mexico has recently surpassed every other major country in the world in the prevalence of diabetes and childhood obesity.
As our base for our several-day stay in Alamos, we chose El Pedregal Nature Lodge and Retreat Center. Run by Jennifer and David MacKay, the center is situated on a 20-acre oasis on the outskirts of town. They offer great food, mountain biking, hiking, yoga classes, massage, and a variety of tours through the region. In addition to running birding tours all over Mexico, David also grows many of the greens, vegetables, and fruits visitors to the lodge eat.
The MacKay’s investment in a healthy future for their community goes well beyond using locally produced foods for their guests’ breakfasts. Jennifer is the director of the Alamos office of Nature and Culture International, which works to support scientific research, environmental education and sustainable community development. They’ve also helped purchase 14,500 acres, known as the Reserva Monte Mojino, to protect the upper region of the Río Cuchujaqui watershed, a pristine river system with striking landscapes and extensive forest—and also the subject of international scientific study and the southern migration destination of hundreds of different species of birds.
Going local in the Alamos region does not look like it does in Tucson, but that’s the whole point. The place dictates. Alamos offers a diverse palette of eating options scattered throughout town. When entering Alamos, you’ll come across the Alameda, a tree-lined plaza that is the commercial hub of the town, where numerous street vendors line both sides of the plaza, selling everything from tacos to dogos (or Sonoran hot dogs, as we know them), mariscos fresh from the sea, elotes (sweet corn and salsas), pickled green chiltepins, goat cheeses, cactus fruit, and much more. On the far end of the Alameda, you can find a modest selection of local foods at the central market.
To the front of the main cathedral is the other plaza of Alamos, the Plaza de Armas, which could be described as the people’s plaza, notably on Sunday nights. Punctuated with towering Washingtonia palms and a century-old, wrought-iron bandstand, the plaza is the place where fiesta celebrations and other social gatherings happen. Head over to the aging Hotel Los Portales for a beer at La Posta Bar, the ideal spot to enjoy a cold drink while watching the plaza’s goings on.
We ate dinner and breakfast at Teresitas Panaderia y Bistro; owner Teri Arnold describes the restaurant as “my little brainchild that got out of control. We evolved from selling a few baguettes a day, a few days a week, to serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” The varied menu includes fine wines, incredible desserts, and bread made from White Sonora wheat.
Zapata’s Cantina, the bar at Alamos’s elite hotel, Hacienda de los Santos, has a great reputation among locals. Visit their Agave Café for lunch during the cool season; dinner is served-year round.
On the outskirts of Alamos, new notions of how to do food businesses are emerging. Bernardo Acuña, a young man with a roadside stand at the Alamos turnoff to La Aduana had come back to the safety of home from years in Phoenix, opening a business featuring birria made from his own goats fed on the local forages. Behind his tiny highway stand, he pit-roasts his own delicious version of this sweet and savory broth and meat stew.
On our first day in Alamos, it seemed like every interesting man that friends told us we should talk to was named Gaby—until we found out that they were one and the same. Gaby Figueroa turned out to be a superb field naturalist, farmer, bartender, and all-around good guy.
The Figueroa family property is lush compared to neighboring lands, with tropical shade trees and desert cacti, cultivated fruit trees and vines, and extensive gardens and chicken runs. It is not hard to imagine how working with some of the world’s greatest biodiversity experts has influenced how Gaby farms. If his part-time work at Reserva Monte Mojino is about the structure and composition of wild tropical biodiversity, then his work at home is about nurturing as much cultivated biodiversity as he can pack into a few hectares. As we walked around Gaby’s orchard-garden complex, we tallied up at least 42 crop species and several chicken breeds that he offers to markets and restaurants in Alamos. Here is a chavo (guy) who gets how to make a living off marketing and monitoring biodiversity!
When we walked a few blocks down from the cathedral to the Clinica Almas we saw a new episode of Alamos food history—that is, the use of native ingredients and nutritious foods to heal the many residents who are now plagued with obesity and diabetes. Elizabeth Pettit opened the Clinica Almas in 2015 after learning disturbing news: Mexico’s adult obesity rate of 32.8 percent had surpassed that of the United States (31.8 percent), making it the most overweight country in the Americas, if not the fattest in the world.
We visited Alamos the very week that Pettit opened a green grocery of healing foods and medicines that featured a variety of fresh-picked greens, fruits, and vegetables, some of them from the market-garden of Martin Gabriel Figueroa, red corn tortillas handmade using the traditional, nutrient-enhancing process of “liming,” or nixtamalization, virgin olive oil from Mission olives grown in the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, and moringa, from Ciudad Obregon. Pettit is also hoping to work with the president of the Alamos Municipality—a county-like government including 319 small villages and rancherias—to develop an outreach program to the 22 communities without any local health care access.
Pettit intends to advance a comprehensive, community-based wellness plan that would deal with not just obesity, but also the associated challenges of diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular problems, and immune deficiencies. She will focus much of her work on obesity rates for Mexican youth, which is the highest in the world. “Like hunger, obesity is a symptom of malnutrition. Right now, their diets are dominated by Maseca (a kind of industrially processed corn flour), and of course, by Coca-Cola,” she said.
Pettit says, “I’ve been listening to the elders in the rural communities surrounding Alamos using their own stories to offer testimony to how the diet has changed over their lifetimes,” she said. “When I see patients of the third generation—the grandmothers and grandfathers who have eaten these foods and medicines nearly their entire lives—it is startling how much healthier they are than their own grandchildren.”
On the road home, we reflected on our Alamos journey. Not only has Alamos recovered much of its lost tourism, it has also developed into a more diverse and interesting community than either one of us had remembered. There are many reasons to visit Alamos—the geography, the architecture, the winding streets, the food, the people. Take your pick.
The dry season runs mid-October to the end of June, which is the town’s high tourist season. Population and prices will increase accordingly. The rainy seasons runs from the end of June to the end of September. If you enjoy summer rains and low prices—and if you don’t mind intense humidity—this is an excellent time to visit Alamos. There are many places to stay, although budget accommodations are scarce. Most hotels are in restored colonial buildings. Prices start at about $75 a night and go up to more than $300 a night.
Airline flights from U.S. gateways can take you most of the way. You’ll fly into Sonora’s main international terminal at Hermosillo, then connect to a commuter flight to Ciudad Obregon, the closest commercial airport. From there, it’s a little over an hour’s drive to Alamos. You can also drive down from the United States and do some sightseeing along the 450-mile route. Visit AlamosMexico.com or ElPedgregalMexico.com for more information. ✜
El Pedregal Nature Lodge. Calle privada (sin nombre), El Chalaton. ElPedregalMexico.com. 52.647.428.1509.
Hacienda de los Santos. Calle Molina 8, Centro. HaciendaLosSantos.com. 52.647.428.0222.
Luz del Sol. Álvaro Obregón 3. LuzDelSol.com. 52.647.428.0466.
Bill Steen and his wife, Athena, are founders of The Canelo Project, a nonprofit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to “connecting people, culture, and nature.” Gary Paul Nabhan is senior contributing editor at Edible Baja Arizona.