Mexico’s Splendid Sonora

a sleepy colonial town hidden in a vast Mexican desert, conjures magic and beauty for SHARON SPENCE LIEB.

By Australian Times on 17 April, 2012


Mexico’s second largest state, takes her time in revealing her treasures. Arriving in Hermasillo, ‘The City of the Sun’, we spend an inspiring afternoon at the world class MUSAS, Museo de Arte de Sonora, happily wandering among stunning art by Picasso, Magritte, and Botero. Next day, we explore a bit of the vast ochreSonoranDesert, gazing at stately saguaro cactus, colourful Taco/Tecate snack stands and an endless horizon. A few hours later we arrive at Alamos, one of Mexico’s charming colonial “Pueblo Magicos”.

“Welcome to Alamos,” announces author/historian Juan Vidal Castillo, who joins our group on the bus. “Founded in 1691, Alamos is one of Mexico’s best preserved colonial towns. By 1790, we were one of the world’s most successful silver and copper producers. Today, Alamos is known for lively music and art festivals, bird watching, and restored haciendas with beautiful gardens. In 2001, we became a National Historic Landmark, and in 2005, Alamos was designated as one of Mexico’s 22 ‘Pueblo Magicos’.”


Our bus navigates the narrow cobblestone streets past Spanish colonial homes painted in eye popping magenta, lime, ivory, lavender and cobalt. We arrive at Hacienda de Los Santos, House of the Saints, where American owners Jim and Nancy Swickard usher us into a world of intoxicating beauty. Soft guitar jazz wafts across courtyards ablaze with tangerine and lipstick pink bouganvillea.
Fountains bubble next to inviting swimming pools. Centuries old guanacaste trees offer cool shade over inviting hand carved chairs sporting pink and turquoise pillows. A horse grazes quietly below a terracotta balcony. Who knew the Sonoran desert was home to such magnificent serenity?

“Please join us for lunch at our Agave Café,” the Swickards offer. Over fresh guacamole, hearty taco soup. spicy fish tacos, and piquant margaritas, we admire Nancy’s elegant decor: bright lavender walls are adorned with historic photos and colorful paintings. Whimsical piñatas hang over our tables-flirtatious angels, silly chickens, beaming suns, even Frieda Kahlo.

“Americans began moving to Alamos in 1946,” Jim tells us. “Folks wanted to restore the many Spanish colonial mansions here. We started work on Hacienda de Los Santos in 1989 and in 1998, opened as a boutique luxury hotel.”

We later learn that in 2005, Governor Napolitano of Arizona, and Sonora’s Governor Bours, honored the Swickards for their humanitarian work in Alamos with the ‘Alvaro Obregon Award’ (an award in honour of the famous revolutionary Mexican
president). Now lucky travelers from around the world come to Hacienda de Los Santos to enjoy the luxurious antique filled guestrooms, swimming pools, gardens, fabulous cuisine, and exquisite Spanish Colonial Architecture. Take a cooking or silver smithing class, relax at La Dulce Vida Spa, or just listen to the birds singing in the trees.


Throughout the year, Alamos hosts lively music and art festivals. Every January, the town bursts into song and dance with the ‘Festival Cultural Dr. Alfonso Ortiz Tirado’, presenting world-class opera, orchestral, jazz, and Latin music.

Strolling into the warm starry evening, we meet a merry band of street performers. Called “the Estudiantina”, the musicians wear dramatic black capes and purple scarves in the style of 11th century Spanish students. Strumming guitars and cellos, they croon romantic ballads. We follow along, singing and sipping wine from a basket atop a saddle worn by a sweet grey donkey, a “burrito” trudging happily along. I tussle his mane and he nods at me, as if to say, “join in Senora, and enjoy the magic…”

Alamos is romantic and majestic at night, adorned in a tiara of sparkling lights. We veer down an alley to a huge stage near the Cathedral, which glows like a spaceship just landed from a distant galaxy. Families salsa in the street. In this “Pueblo Magico” called Alamos, magic is indeed around every corner.

Sweet Sonora Surprises

By Laura van Hoff

In San Carlos the dramatic setting of volcanic peaks crashing into clear blue sea drew me in to explore by boat and what I discovered was simply stunning. Once again, I was surprised and delighted. And who would have guessed that in the modest town of Hermosillo would be an art museum so wonderful I’d want to go back just to see what its passionate director has up his sleeve next? Again, wow, wow, wow.

Surprising places are just so darn much fun when you had no idea they would hold so many treasures to discover. I don’t want to ruin the surprises for you, but, really…you must know, Sonora offers some very enticing treats and is eager to welcome you with warm Sonoran “abrazos” (hugs).






The Warmth of Alamos and the People

Often described as a smaller and quieter version of San Miguel de Allende before it got crowded, Alamos is a Colonial gem of a Mexican pueblo. Snuggled into the southernmost corner of the state of Sonora in the foothills of the Western Sierra Madre, Alamos exudes a certain grace that can only come from a history of wealth and culture somewhere down the line. Silver and copper mines were big business in Alamos back in the day which left their mark in terms of money flowing through its history. The village was designed by conquering Spaniards to resemble Andalusia and has the classic feel of a storybook Mexico village. The pueblo itself is a Mexican Historical Monument and is up for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Coming into town via narrow streets of cobblestones sets the stage for what lies ahead. The town square has a small park at its center with a classic cathedral beside it. The small and very walkable village holds exactly what you would hope…iron gates stuck improbably into adobe walled compounds to peer through which reveal private gardens and worlds of seductive charm within, street vendors selling yummy treats, happy kids bopping around, super friendly people at every turn, a few special restaurants to linger in and a hotel you never want to leave and feel lucky to have found.

Alamos seems to be blessed with happy people. Warm welcomes everywhere you go, happy kids of all ages running around, a certain joie de vivre that is simply unmistakable.

Hacienda de los Santos

Hacienda de Los Santos offers a stunning retreat to tuck into. Behind its authentic adobe walls you’ll find flowing fountains, mosaic tiled pools with statues gazing peacefully at their reflections in the water, colorful and lush exploding gardens, a sumptuous spa, putting greens and more. Outdoor fireplaces with cozy seating areas are scattered around the upscale enclave offering a private spot to snuggle, read or simply absorb the tranquility.

Several living rooms with fireplaces are thoughtfully stocked with games and books, making it feel like a good friend’s house. One could spend days discovering the impressive collection of art and historical artifacts which are absolutely everywhere throughout the property. An angel flying over the fireplace here, a horseback soldier supervising your shower there. Surprising delights abound throughout the property.

American owners Jim and Nancy Swickard have created an oasis in the heart of friendly, laid back (and very safe) Alamos. For 24 years they’ve offered their warm welcome to locals, dignitaries from around the world, pilots (they have a private hangar and cool club for pilots) and travelers from the US and farther flung parts. It’s one of those places you instantly fall helplessly, madly in love with and want to return again and again.

Each of the 9 Hacienda guest rooms and 14 suites are decorated personally by Nancy with her eagle eye for special pieces. Every room has at least one fireplace and the suites have two or three fireplaces. All in all there are 60 fireplaces on the property, many of which are set into cozy alcoves for anyone to enjoy or in the shared living rooms. There are traditional vibrant Mexican colors popping here and there in all the right places, amidst uber comfortable furniture in rich, earthy tones. All have adobe walls and charming architectural details such as wood beams, stone floors, tiled bathrooms, massive wooden doors and more.

They’ve used local artists and craftsmen to restore and create every inch of this truly magnificent property. At every turn as you make your way around something delightful surprises you. Two arched tunnels connect different parts of the property making it feel like an adventure just to get to your inviting room. The brick tunnel is lined with accolades and articles about the property to remind you that the love affair you’ve just developed with the place is shared by some pretty impressive folks similarly struck by the love bug.

The warm ochre toned tunnel is lit by inset cubes of light and is such fun to be in it’s almost a bonus when you realize you’ve forgotten something in your room and get to slink through it a few more times. It feels a bit like a clandestine version of Alice and Wonderland…a wildly surprising delight to pop out the other side in either direction. A graceful bridge draped in eye-candy magenta bougainvillea connects the main part of the property to the restaurants, cantina and theater.

The cozy spa has a full menu of traditional spa treatments in an adobe walled tranquil space tucked at the back of the property. Prices are reasonable and the treatment rooms are really sweet.

Most evenings there is live solo romantic guitar music for the guests. For special events and groups they can arrange a performance by Ballet Folklorico (a 40 person group from the University of Sonora), La Estudiantina (a 15 person group of young men who are dressed in 18th century Spanish costumes and sing and dance) or a guitar trio who sing Spanish songs.

Hacienda de los Santos has received a long list of well deserved awards, including feature stories in Architectural Digest and AOPA Pilot (350,000 pilot readership for it’s private plane access and pilot club), Trip Advisor Awards 2012 Top 25 Traveler Award Hotels of Mexico (#12) and Top 25 Traveler Relaxation/Spa Hotels of Mexico (#4) and is a stand-out member of the prestigious Mexico Boutique Hotels collection.

The property is clearly a labor of love for the Swickards who purchased the 300 year old hacienda in 1989 and then combined additional parcels to create the sprawling compound which exists today. They are so passionate about Alamos they both received awards from the then Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and Sonora’s Governor Eduardo Bours for their humanitarian work in Sonora. They received the annual Alvaro Obregon Award which was the first time it had been presented to foreigners in Mexico. You can feel it on the property that these vibrant owners have invested heart and soul into the community and the property.

For group events there is an off-property facility at the airport which can accommodate up to 100 guests in an indoor-outdoor space. Entertainment can be arranged and up to 20 people can travel the short distance by horseback. A fun and funky bus accommodates guests who would prefer to skip the horseback fun.

Private dinners can be arranged around the property on your private patio, in a Colonial dining room, in a covered, cozy outdoor area by the cantina, in a fireside alcove or in the warmer seasons at the Treetop Grill, a private rooftop dining space with bar.

The super attentive staff will make the fires for you and restock wood when needed. In my case I asked stellar staff member, the charming Mario, to light the fires in my suite just before I planned to arrive back in the room from dinner so I arrived to a beautifully lit heavenly abode truly fit for a president. The staff accommodates requests with a gracious warmth so typical of the people in Sonora.

Prices at Hacienda de Los Santos range from $155-$950 depending on time of year with breakfast included. A meal plan can be added on for $45 per person per day in their wonderful restaurants with an open menu choice included. All of the rooms are charming and lovely so you really can’t go wrong here in any price category. I stayed in The Presidential Suite which was my favorite of all the special rooms, with four fireplaces (bedroom, living room, bathroom and outside living space), two lovely bathrooms, wood beams, stone floors and a massive, romantic King bed.

Alamos Restaurants

Hacienda de Los Santos

There are three wonderful dining options. The casual Agave Cafe is a lot of fun with colorful art and Mexican doodads hanging everywhere. The more upscale and romantic Santiago’s Restaurant offers several fireplaces, some with tables for two facing them, small rooms with open arches facing onto the courtyard, gilt framed museum quality art and hushed, soothing tones. The outside courtyard has tables under wood-beamed eaves or a sunny open space amongst colorful blooms and the peaceful sound of a sunlit fountain.

The green chili soup is a beauty to behold and is as delicious as it is gorgeous. The sangria comes layered in a tall glass which also tastes as good as it looks. The charming cantina houses Jim’s wildly interesting and coveted tequila collection of more than 500 specimens. How about a $300 shot of tequila for something only found here? Don’t worry, there are also stunners for $3 a shot. He’ll arrange a tequila tasting and a 90 minute class on the origin, creation and tasting of tequila if you’re interested in exploring his collection and learning more.

True to the Swickards’ commitment to using local talent, all of the cooks and chefs at Hacienda de los Santos are from Alamos and schooled under professional chefs from Santa Fe, Tucson and Mexico City. A cheerful green tiled kitchen on the property holds cooking classes by prior arrangement.

Things To Do in Alamos

World class music festival, silver expo, birding and more

Alamos has an annual music festival which draws folks from all over the world because it’s that special. The Festival Cultural Alfonso Ortiz Tirado is held in January and offers everything from Opera to Salsa. The party extends out from the beautiful cathedral theater into the cobblestone streets. Musicians play on excellent stages around town and on street corners.

One of the ridiculously fun things to do is following a donkey with baskets of wine around town, in a big chain of party goers, catching up now and then to get your cup of wine refilled. It’s a remarkably tame and friendly crowd given the donkey-wine traveling fiesta that happens. The best of Mexico’s musicians converge on Alamos for the festival and the entire town comes out for the fun. Arts and crafts stalls line the streets, street food vendors come out in full force to tempt passerby with treats and everyone has a great time. Book a hotel room early if you come for the festival, it’s very popular.

There is also a highly regarded silversmith exposition held every February at Hacienda de los Santos. Accomplished silversmiths from around the world gather to display and sell their work.

If you’d like to explore the beautiful walled compounds ex-pats and residents call home, check out the home and garden tours offered on weekends. The office is on the main road into town to make arrangements.

The area is hugely popular for birders with a staggering variety of winged subjects. Arrange bird watching expeditions with El Pedregal.

Alamos for Pilots

Hacienda de Los Santos is a Pilots Heaven

Hacienda de Los Santos is very popular with pilots for good reason. They’ve got their own hangar at the Alamos airport which can house up to 12-14 aircraft. The ramp capacity is about 50 aircraft. The military has a security post literally outside the door of the hangar so it’s a very safe spot to ditch your ride.

It’s an excellent small modern airport with a 5,000′ paved runway legal for jets up to the Falcon 20 and Lear 45 in size. The operating tower uses unicom frequency for visiting aircraft. Home to “Club Pilotos” ( organized by Jim Swickard, the hotel hosts a gathering of pilots from all over the world three times a year. It’s a very popular event with the same friends coming back again and again.

Fun Night At The Hacienda!

Film Festival Fantastico



Life is a Trip

Life Is a Trip

    The transformative magic of travel.
    by Judith Fein

Fear of Going to Mexico

      Is it safe to travel to Mexico?
Published on February 29, 2012 by Judith Fein in Life Is a Trip

“You’re going to Mexico?” my friends asked. “Don’t you know how violent it is, and how they are killing people in the streets?”

Full disclosure: I am certainly not deficient in the fear department. I do not fancy the idea of my head swinging from a lamppost with my body detached from it. My idea of fun is not being found by local kids in a black plastic trash bag, folded up into a non-breathing, fetal position.

So why would I choose to go to Mexico? Read on, my friends.

In the Spring of 2011, I went to Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. Problems? Yes. I couldn’t decide which flavor of margarita to order. In October of last year, I went to Chiapas and Tabasco. Was I in danger? Yes, of wanting to be a no-show on my return flight home. And, shiver, shiver, I just came back from Sonora, Mexico. You can drive there from Tucson, Arizona. You have to cross the dreaded “B” word-border.

This time, because I got so many emails bidding me adieu forever, I decided to do a little fact-finding. I went to talk to the police in Alamos, a charming, Andalusian-style colonial town. Actually, three policemen were standing in the middle of the street during one of the largest music festivals in the world, named after Dr. Ortiz Tirado.


When guests exited an opera performance that was held in an indoor venue, they followed costumed local musicians in a street parade called a callejoneada, where wine was carried on the back of a donkey and distributed freely to enhance the party mood. Then everyone headed to another area of the city, where locals were boogeying to a Puerto Rican band.

“Dangerous job?” I asked the law enforcers.

They looked at me as though I had just landed from the planet Gronzo.

“Yeah. It’s dangerous to be bored,” one of them replied with an indulgent smile. “There’s nothing for us to do. Wish we could dance.”

I emailed my amigos back home that they could fill up their calendars, as they didn’t have to wait to see what day my funeral would be.

The next morning, I snaked past paraders in stilts and masks to talk to Joaquin Navarro, the mayor of Alamos, who is also a doctor.

“Is it dangerous to be here?” I asked him.

He laughed. A well-known local politico, he had no security guard, and he was unarmed. He offered to take me to visit a genuine haunted house-his idea of danger.

At the gorgeous Hacienda de los Santos, where I stayed, I was in danger of gaping too intensely at the Mexican art collection, ogling the fine silver jewelry in the gift shop, and eating too much as I dined outdoors, overlooking the lush gardens. Next to me, a wealthy businessman was waxing ecstatic over his five-course filet mignon dinner, which only set him back $27.

So there you have it. My head is still attached to my body. I came home with some great folk art. And although there are a few areas in Mexico I would not willingly visit right now, I would visit the rest of Mexico again in a heartbeat. Or half a heartbeat.

As I write this, wrapped in a red fleece sweater, I am in danger of ripping it off and heading back to warm, welcoming Sonora.

All photos by Paul Ross.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications. She is the author of the acclaimed book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Sometimes she takes people on trips with her. Her website is

Mike Heraty’s take on Alamos

Alamos, Sonora, Mexico and Pagosa Springs

Posted on by

This blog entry will not have much to do with real estate. If you want or need specific real estate data or assistance, drop me an email at, or call me at 970 264-7000.


I recently returned from a trip to northern Mexico at the edge of the Sierra Madres to the town of Alamos within the State of Sonora. Interestingly, the town is about the same size as Pagosa Springs. It is a Spanish Colonial Mining Town founded in 1681 following the discovery of silver in the area. Because of the great wealth created from nearby silver mines, scores of large colonial Spanish mansions were built in the town. Many were destroyed in the early 1900’s before Americans began to rediscover the area in the 1940’s. A number of the families living in Alamos can trace their heritage back to first settlers that came to work the mines.  Presently there are a number of Americans that maintain homes there for the winter months, and a few that live there all year, though I have found the summer heat to be quite intense. Like Pagosa Springs, Alamos has struggled during the recession to continue to attract tourists that are willing to spend money locally. Unlike Pagosa Springs, they have also had to deal with all the negative press relating to the drug wars that continue to plague many parts of the country. Though there has not been any drug violence in Alamos (it is far enough off the cocaine highway) the number of visitors from the U.S. has declined sharply and the town has seen a significant reduction in tourist dollars flowing into its coffers. Still, they work hard to keep their city clean, safe and friendly. They do a good job of promoting Alamos with a series of events scheduled throughout the year. While I was there last month the 28th Annual Festival Alfonso Ortiz Tirado was underway. This is a music and art festival named after a famous opera singer and doctor that was born in Alamos in 1893.

This year performers came from Puerto Rico, Brazil, Cuba, Costa Rica and other Central and South American countries. The following link will take you to the Festival Program Guide- get ready to polish up on your Spanish:  Alamos Festival         The event was attended by loads of Mexican nationals, many from within the region, but many from as far away at Mexico City and Oaxaca. About a third of those attending the festival were foreigners, from Central America, Europe, South America and Gringos like myself from the U.S.  Everything was very well organized, events began and ended on schedule and provided everyone with a fabulous variety of musical performances. Thursday evening the group Puerto Rican Power played for the crowd and had everyone on their feet dancing the salsa:  Friday evening the group Opera Prima Rock performed a two hour tribute to the music of Queen. I was amazed how popular their music was and how many members of the audience knew all the lyrics. The group had everyone on their feet for the encore “We Are the Champions”.



Saturday evening the Italian Tenor Alessandro Safina performed. In 2007 he recorded a duet with British Soprano Sarah Brightman for her Symphony album and joined her on her Symphony World Tour for 2008 and 2009. His vocals and his orchestra were fabulous. Following his performance,  Callejoneada con la Estudiantina Dr. Alfonso Ortiz Tirado completed the music celebration with all of the musical artists dressed in 17th century Spanish costumes, parading through the streets and alleys of Alamos playing traditional songs and telling stories. This went on until the wee hours of the morning. In all, the experience was wonderful.

Anyway, what I found most interesting is how well attended the Festival was. You had to travel 30 miles west of Alamos to the city of Navajoa to find lodging if you had not made a reservation at least two months earlier. The Festival has been sponsored and coordinated by a group of stakeholders including the Town of Alamos and surrounding communities, the State of Sonora the National Institute of Fine Arts, with commercial financial support from Coca Cola, Corona, and Telmex. This is a festival I would highly recommend to any music and culture lover. The people are warm and friendly, lodging is great within Alamos if you plan ahead. My two favorite lodging facilities in Alamos happen to be owned by Americans: Hacienda de los Santos and Hotel Colonial.

Hacienda de los Santos, one of three pools.

Both of these hotels are exceptional. Within HDLS is the Poncho Villa Cantina, where Poncho Villa stood after entering the town. If you are a Tequilla drinker, you will find over 500 different bottles of the spirit within the bar. If you can’t find one you like, you’d better think about changing drinks!



Pancho Villa Tequilla Bar at Hacienda de los Santos

Hotel Colonial, Alamos. Janet Anderson, Proprietor.

The restaurants in Alamos are very good and very economical.  I love the food at Hacienda and Las Palmeras is a great spot for lunch or a casual dinner. Terisita’s Panaderia y Bistro is my favorite for a cappuccino and breakfast pastry, a great place to start the day and check email with their WiFi connection.

Outside Seating at Terisita’s Panaderia Y Bistro


You can reach the town of Alamos by driving a little over one hour south from Ciudad Obregon, where you can catch a flight from Phoenix on Aero Mexico with a connection in Hermosillo. Alternatively, if you don’t mind a longer and much more economical journey, you can take a first class luxury bus with on board video sets and Wi-Fi from Phoenix or Tucson. While in town I did check out the local real estate scene. Not much had changed from my previous visit in June of last year. A few properties are moving, but very slowly and at prices well below the peak of 2007. Few Americans are buying and many more are trying to sell. Very few Sellers have shown a willingness to greatly reduce their asking prices. Instead, they seem determined to remain patient, a concept that seems more abundant within Mexico.  The decline in buying interest from Americans has, to some extent been partially offset by a renewed interest from Mexican nationals.  It was also interesting to see the increase in Canadians in Alamos.  Alamos Gold of Toronto, Canada owns a huge gold mining and milling operation just west of Alamos which is targeting production in excess of 150,000 ounces of gold for the year, generating gross revenues of over $200 million. Perhaps this investment in the area will create more visitors to Alamos from our northern neighbor. I initiated a discussion with a resident American of creating a Sister City relationship with Pagosa Springs. The Town of Alamos currently has a Sister City relationship with an Arizona community, but nothing with any Colorado towns. It might be a mutually beneficial relationship, given the similarities of the towns. If you think you would enjoy the wonderfully interesting culture of Old Mexico, I highly recommend you consider a visit to Alamos, and I would suggest visiting during the Festival Alfonso Ortiz Tirado in January. Be sure to book your trip early in order to obtain good local lodging.

Quite Street in Alamos at 6:30 a.m.A Quiet Street Scene in Alamos at 6:30 a.m. the day after the end of The Festival.


Hacienda’s Tequila Collection Ranks High

Ghosts and spirits: Alamos in a glass

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

We return from the streets of Alamos, Sonora, feet-weary but not ready to put to bed the spirits that have taken hold of our bodies. Throats dry, we reach for a drink. A bottle  of tequila mysteriously lands in our hands.

With the wild celebrations of the Festival Cultural Alfonso Ortiz Tirado still ringing in our ears, we twist open  the bottle of Murmullo Anejo, a surprise gift from host and Hacienda de los Santos owner Jim Swickard.

Forget the lime and salt; this tequila is best drunk  straight, to be sipped, according to Jim, who also teaches tequila appreciation  classes. So, amidst shared snifters, we savor each drop, exchanging stories that  this smooth elixir, and intoxicating town, somehow extract from us. And in  between raised glasses, we listen to the almost hushed souls of Alamos, sidling  past in the gentle breeze, in the rustle of the leaves.

We are told the following evening, that tequila is not  a nighttime drink, that traditionally, it is drunk during the earlier hours of  the day. But what we discover is that perhaps there is no right or wrong way to  consume Mexico’s most well known beverage. Perhaps it is simply a drink to be shared  and savored amongst friends, anytime, anywhere.

Although being in Sonora does have its advantages.

“Sometimes the tequila outside of Mexico is different  to what’s on the label,” says Jim, whose collection of over 400 bottles of  tequila ranks as one of the country’s largest. And contrary to popular belief,  there is no worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle.

It is not until the end of our journey that we are  told of Bacanora, an even stronger, pre-colonial agave-derived liquor unique to  the state of Sonora. But that’s okay. Sitting by the warmth of a fire, on this  cool Sonoran night, we promise ourselves, and the ghosts, that we’ll be back