When people buzz about this or that newly “discovered” colonial Mexican town as “the next San Miguel,” they usually mean the pre-malls and pre-traffic city of 10, 20, or 30 years ago. In recent years, the buzz has hovered over the central highlands pueblo fantasma (ghost town) of Mineral de Pozos, an hour’s drive from San Miguel itself. Pozos (the locals’ shorthand) was nearly lost to history until the 1990’s, when a handful of artists fled here from the urban overgrowth of its famous neighbor. They opened their own galleries and restaurants and were followed by other solitude and spaciousness seekers, including discerning store owners and hoteliers. By the 2000’s, the inevitable weekend visitors had arrived, and for good reason: the town was charming, small, and had far more Mexican residents than newcomers. The spectral ruins of mines strewn over cactus-thick hillsides nearby deepened the atmosphere. Pozos was still very sleepy, I was told, sometimes in appreciation, sometimes as a warning. Time to head south.
I arrived in Mineral de Pozos to mostly empty streets and soon found myself the only diner at a rooftop restaurant where the view of the Church of San Pedro’s rosy dome encompassed a large black web of electrical wires. The streets were still quiet as I walked back to my hotel. One customer stood at the counter in the one bar on the Jardín Principal. A small tienda selling sundries was open, but nothing else. It occurred to me that, if Pozos is the next San Miguel, it’s not the San Miguel of 30 years ago, the already well-established American expat destination, but the San Miguel of 80 years ago: the seminal sleepy ghost town woken up by artists of a different, post-revolutionary stripe. Without knowing exactly what I was looking for, I had found it here in Pozos—the small-town Mexico of before: before maquiladora-labor horrors, international-drug-cartel violence, and globalized type-A-ism had forever changed the landscape. This was the old Mexico that a foreigner can blend in to, the Mexico that still sleeps when it is sleepy.
Pueblo fantasma describes the once flourishing colonial Mexican towns that all but died in the early 20th century from sharp, successive blows to the silver-mining industry: abruptly falling prices, the revolution, and, in Mineral de Pozos’ case, a massive epidemic—either typhoid or influenza, depending on who is telling you about it. Population counts in Pozos vary widely, but at its economic height, in the late 1800’s, the town was estimated to have had some 70,000 residents and 300 mines. By the 1950’s, the population had fallen to 200. Today, there are about 5,000 full- and part-time residents. Of those, the nonnative transplants add up to about 50. As they redefine Pozos, they are doing so on Pozos’ terms.
The town started to yawn awake in 1982, when President José López Portillo designated it a national historic treasure. Vicente Fox was the next president to extol Mineral de Pozos’ merits on a 2003 visit. But it wasn’t until last year, when Pozos was promised Pueblo Mágico status, that federal and local investment began to materialize. Wealthy Mexicans are now buying land and houses, and new places to stay have increased the town’s stock from three to six: a quartet of luxury suites called Su Casa en Pozos was just opened by gallerist Eva Axelsson, and the expats originally behind the LavenDar Farms collective are now renting out their own houses on the property.
But a trip to Pozos is still an exercise in slowing down, helped along by the steep cobblestoned streets and narrow sidewalks rising from the shaded Jardín Principal as if from a canyon floor. One morning, the only people I saw during my wanderings west of the Jardín were a woman with a basket crossing Plaza Zaragoza and a little girl in a red dress jogging by in the opposite direction. The Church of San Pedro was open, but I was the only one there, admiring the walls tiled in un-churchy shades of yellow and green. Wherever I went, I had all the attention of the proprietors of the tiendas selling crafts, cotton clothes, sodas and candies, or handmade pre-Hispanic musical instruments (a Pozos specialty)—shapely whistles, drums with carved cases, and percussive round pots to tap with sticks. At the shop Camino de Piedra, I met artisan/musician and mine guide Marco Antonio Sánchez García, who took me through the haunting ruins of the 16th-century Santa Brígida mine a few days later.
The galleries that bring outsiders to Pozos show work that reflects a wide range of styles, but all of it seems drawn to Mexico’s texture, color, and light—a light that you can almost touch. For the newer residents, the connection to the local landscape and culture is crucial. “We moved here to be in Mexico,” says Nick Hamblen, owner of Galería No. 6, who arrived in Pozos from Dallas in 2004. The moment I walked into his gallery, I understood the rapport between Pozos old and new.
There is nothing in Galería No. 6 that fails to suggest take me home—from the wooden casement windows in foot-thick walls to Janice Freeman’s big, splashy paintings of agave cactus. Hamblen’s restored 200-year-old house is both gallery and residence. The first meanders into the second’s outdoor living room, where I found an old pine table, two friendly mutts on an antique rug, and a small open-air kitchen decorated, spectacularly, floor-to-ceiling in blue tiles. The space is shared with guests of El Secreto de Pozos, a sophisticated three-room B&B hidden in the exuberant but orderly gardens designed by Hamblen’s partner, horticulturalist ManRey Silva. This corner of Pozos fills in all the details of a fantasy of heading down to Mexico for good.
Which is not to say I was unhappy back in the real world, staying at the eight-room Posada de las Minas, a former mansion and adjacent factory restored by Houstonians David and Julie Winslow. Posada’s courtyard restaurant serves typical Mexican dishes and Mexican-American mash-ups like fried asparagus with a lime-butter sauce. It competes for best-in-town with La Perseverancia, at the hotel Casa Mexicana, whose menu ambitiously offers both chicken fajitas in a mole poblano sauce and a walnut-pesto tagliatelli. Such globe-trotting eccentricity would hardly fly in any foodie town in the United States nowadays, but in Pozos, hospitality flaunts its personality—a right afforded to quiet towns that remain under the travel radar.
Midweek at Posada de las Minas, things were slow enough for me to play Goldilocks and sleep in two rooms. From the one named for Santa Brígida, the view from my bed was of sky and mountains, and electrical wires dotted with birds. Pueblo Mágico status will ensure that those wires are buried. It likely, eventually, will bring more development, and more hubbub. The birds of Pozos will look for other places to light.
Alice Gordon is program director of Blue Mountain Center, an artists’ colony in upstate New York.