In Mexico, Treasures of an Old Mining Town
By RICHARD COULSON
FLAT on my stomach under the brilliant August sun of the Mexican highlands,
surrounded by the blossoms and thorns of the ubiquitous nopal, I edged
forward to peer down the mine shaft. Over my left shoulder loomed the abandoned hoist house of the Santa Brigida mine; over my right hung the rusty brackets
that once guided cables lowering miners and bringing ore to the surface. Below me, the square-cut shaft soon vanished into darkness before reaching the bottom, 500 feet down according to my guide. With no railings, not even a warning sign, the unguarded hole added a touch of danger to the haunting beauty of the ruins.
I was visiting a remarkable Mexican community named Mineral de Pozos;
a rough translation might be Mineral Wells. Close to the geographic center
of the country at an altitude of 7,500 feet, Pozos, founded in 1576, was
blessed with deep seams of gold and silver and became one of the richest
of the colonial mining towns,
reaching its peak about 1890.
As 20th-century revolution closed the mines and water flooded their workings, the town fell into poverty. From a population of more than 70,000, when it enjoyed all the glamour and sin of a boom town, it shrank to less than 4,000 10 years ago, barely alive amid scattered farms and ranches.
Now, Pozos is gradually reawakening. Early in December, Mexico's president,
Vicente Fox, with a delegation of government officials and business leaders,
descended on Pozos, publicizing its culture and history. A native of the state of Guanajuato and its former governor, Mr. Fox used his visit to encourage investment in tourism projects.
Pozos' renewal is driven by adventurous Mexicans, Americans and Europeans
who are restoring handsome structures derelict since the middle of the
building in the surrounding countryside, creating art galleries, riding horses on the open range and exploring the mysteries of the mines. And all this activity takes place in pure mountain air.
Yet Pozos lies an easy 45-minute drive from San Miguel de Allende, the
most thoroughly "discovered" of Mexican hill towns. Since World War II
San Miguel has
attracted serious and would-be artists and well-off retirees to its colonial architecture and dry, warm climate. But now its narrow streets are jammed with traffic, its
best land is taken or dauntingly expensive, and its well-preserved center is surrounded by rural slums. Pozos is enjoying the overflow.
On my first visit to Pozos, last January, I entered by its most dramatic
gateway, a gravel road from the west that leads straight toward a forbidding
mountain ridge. A
cleft in the ridge opens, and there are the mining ruins. The road winds up through a silent maze of shattered walls, towers, arches, galleries, massive roofless buildings, aqueducts and fallen masonry, all strung out across the bare slopes like some vast scene of medieval destruction. On the left, I later learned, lay the remains of the once thriving mine known as Cinco Señores, while the more elegant structures of Hacienda Baldomero stretched to the right up to the dominating peak of Cerro Pelón.
Leaving this desolate zone, the road adopts its urban name, Leandro
Valle, and descends sharply to the compact grid of streets marking central
Pozos. One soon
learns the landmarks: the graceful tiled dome of San Pedro church visible from every quarter; the tree-shaded central plaza, flanked by bougainvillea and the
whitewashed walls of the two gracious hotels; the intersection where Leandro Valle crosses Hidalgo, the town's principal avenue for the limited shopping choices. The bustling market town of San Luis de la Paz is only five miles distant.
The sources of all local information, as well as the hub of Pozos' social
and artistic life, are two hoteliers and their lively establishments. Casa
Mexicana was opened in 1995 by Teresa Martínez, a cosmopolitan Mexican
who for 15 years was an art dealer in Manhattan. Returning to Mexico, she
combined several crumbling
structures into Pozos' first lodging, which now features five rooms, dining in the Café des Artistes patio and a small art gallery.
Immediately adjacent stands Casa Montana, the creation of Susan Montana,
an energetic American who bought an empty lot and four years ago and built
white cut-stone structure with five rooms, a dramatic two-level garden for drinks and dining and an art gallery that displayed contemporary photographs during my
visit. Offering similar services side by side, these hoteliers are naturally in competition, and both are appealing choices.
I was soon directed to Jesús Ugalde, loquacious proprietor of
a tiny general store facing the plaza, who doubles as a guide to Pozos'
mining history. He drove me
several miles east through fields of mesquite and cactus to the oldest mine, Santa Brigida, where an abandoned hacienda dominates the entrance; stark white with
dark red cornices and moldings, it evokes an eccentric European style adapted to Mexico.
Initially mined in primitive fashion by the Indian tribes, the mine
was brought to active life, according to Jesús, in about 1660 by
the first Spanish proprietor, Don
Diego de Tapia, and operated commercially into the 19th century. Behind the hacienda and the ominous mine shaft, we clambered through the defunct complex: huge structures where
Mr. Ugalde explained how gold and silver-bearing ore was ground, heated
and leached into purity, in a process extravagant of human and equine labor,
wood for firing the ovens. Throughout, I saw no mark of reconstruction, no brochures, no sign-posted pathways. I depended solely on Mr. Ugalde's oral history,
enlivened by the tale that his grandmother had once lived in the hacienda but had been driven out by ghosts.
We drove back through Pozos and up to the even vaster confusion of the
Cinco Señores ruin. As it is now claimed by the local ejido (a uniquely
Mexican system of
communal land ownership) and surrounded by a gated fence, we paid a tiny fee for unlimited access to the linked courtyards and arched passages, unrestored and
fascinating to archaeologists, painters and photographers. Mr. Ugalde explained that this mine, owned by five foreigners, reached its peak about 1900 under the
pro-capitalist policies of President Porfirio Díaz; when his regime collapsed 10 years later, so did Cinco Señores, and in the ensuing revolutionary upheavals, so did
Although an engaging raconteur, Mr. Ugalde is not a trained historian,
and in all of Pozos I encountered no documentation of these mining operations.
the devout Catholics of Pozos fell into open warfare with the anticlerical federal government. After the Cristeros, as they were called, massacred an army force sent to defeat them, Pozos was assigned to limbo: its priests and leaders were imprisoned, its municipal charter was revoked, and the resulting riot led to a fire that destroyed all records. The full story might be found only in archives buried in Mexico City or the state capital of Guanajuato.
Although the 1982 declaration of Pozos as a national historical monument
did not prompt its restoration, perhaps the recent presidential interest
will one day bring
about the reopening of the mines as memorials to a vanished way of life.
Meanwhile modern Pozos continues to evolve. An Australian sculptor,
John Osmond, worked in San Miguel for 17 years before decamping to Pozos,
where he has
an open-air studio. He creates monolithic Maya-inspired figures from native pink stone, and has attracted a wide following of regional collectors. Dan Rueffert, an
American painter of Mexican scenes in oils and pastels, now shows in a gallery on Hidalgo, where another group gallery was just opening during my August visit.
Nearby, a photographer named Geoff Winningham and his wife, a painter,
are periodically in residence to display and instruct. Several local craftsmen
delicate art of making reproductions of pre-Columbian musical instruments. The Sánchez family, at Leandro Valle No. 24, display their wares of wood, reeds, shells
and stretched hides and offer a beguiling concert of gentle whistles, birdlike calls and drumbeats, in their own evocation of what the Aztecs must have played. Late in
May, a different music resounds during the annual mariachi festival, when brass and string ensembles converge from all over Mexico.
Architecturally, Pozos offers much of what Rose Macaulay called "the
pleasure of ruins." An empty plaza that elsewhere might be a busy farmers'
silent. The clock in the town hall tower is stopped. Many of the colonial buildings, with their elegant proportions, are roofless.
But this too is changing. An enterprising couple from Texas have converted
a rubble-strewn lot facing Hidalgo into a modern Mexican residence with
courtyard. They are rebuilding a dilapidated town house into a bed-and-breakfast with colonnades around a central atrium, just across the street from a similar
improvement by a Mexico City owner.
One morning I mediated a friendly wrangle between the perfectionist American developer and the Mexican artisan making exquisite paneled doors. It is only a matter of time before a charming secluded square behind San Pedro feels the touch of architect, builder and decorator. In the open fields just south of town, a New York visitor has completed a spectacular country home and guesthouse mixing modern with Mexican styles and has bought a 1,000-acre ranch for gradual development, and a wealthy elderly woman has transferred her estate and stables from San Miguel to a neighboring spread.
Nonetheless, the town cannot be mistaken for a busy tourist site. Soon
after sunset, darkness and silence prevail, leaving a few oases of light
at the hotels and private
homes. For evening entertainment, jumping San Miguel is 45 minutes away, and just down National 57 the prosperous city of Querétaro offers a meticulously
maintained centro histórico of churches, convents, museums and state palaces, together with a ring-road lined with Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Costco, where
Mexicans and gringos alike stock up on bargain supplies.
No contrast in today's Mexico is sharper than passing the busy industrial
parks north of the city, home to gleaming offices of Nestlé, Pfizer
and Samsung, then
returning to the quiet, cobbled streets of Pozos with their long views of plains sweeping to distant mountains, green under the summer rains or dusty tan in winter.
Establishments dealing with foreigners accept U.S. dollars (and sometimes
credit cards; check first), but local merchants accept only Mexican pesos.
There are no
banks or cash machines in Pozos, but there are in nearby towns.
Mineral de Pozos' climate is typical of the high desert: sunny most days, except in rainy season, July to September; nights are cool in summer and cold in mid-winter.
From Mexico City, buses from the airport or the Central del Norte bus
station take three hours to Querétaro or three and a half hours
to San Miguel de Allende. Car
rentals are available in either place, each a 45-minute drive to Pozos. Pozos is a two-hour drive from the central Mexican city of León.
Casa Montana, (52-442) 293-0032, fax (52-442) 293-0034, www.casamontanahotel.com,
has five rooms with private bath, $80 to $103 (prices at 11.2 pesos to
Casa Mexicana, telephone (52-442) 293-0014, www.casamexicanahotel.com,
also has five rooms with private bath. Rooms are $67 to $80 including Continental
Both hotels serve good regional specialties designed for the non-Mexican
palate, and both are open for lunch and dinner. A lunch of gazpacho and
cheese-and-shrimp omelet at Casa Mexicana was less than $20, including a tequila.
For a change with a view, try Los Famosos de Pozos, Hidalgo No. 10B,
(52-442) 293-0112, above an art gallery on Hidalgo, run by the gallery
Lieberman. It features traditional Mexican food like tacos, enchiladas and chicken with mole, with dishes $5.80 to $8. A comida corrida, with soup, main dish and
dessert, is $8. Open for breakfast and lunch; closed Tuesday.
RICHARD COULSON visits Mexico frequently.