Back in 1996, before Trouble took over large areas of Mexico, one could travel there unimpeded, other than the occasional checkpoint, and feel relatively safe. I, being a gringo and unaccustomed to life in any foreign country, still felt a little uneasy when my sister and I decided to drive into Mexico from near her home at the time, in Progresso, Texas, and check out the old town of Guerrero Viejo. Christy knew how much I loved ruins and the history that goes along with them, and she is as adventurous as I, so away we went.
Guerrero Viejo is a colonial village dating back to 1750, serving briefly as the capital of the Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840. It has a rich history dating right up to the early 1900's, when it was known as an international tourist resort, complete with a grand hotel and rose gardens. That, however, is not the town that exists today.
In 1953 Falcon Dam was built, creating Falcon Lake, and the result was the flooding of many villages along the Rio Grande. Villagers were forced to relocate to higher ground. Guerrero Viejo was one of those towns.
Perhaps you've heard of this place in the recent headlines. Two Americans, a couple, rode their jet skis down the river hoping to get photographs of the oft-photographed old church lying half-submerged by the new water levels, as it was after the building of the dam. The man was shot and killed, apparently by those, uh, familiar with Trouble, as a further warning that Americans are not welcome there. My first response was, 'What in the hell were they thinking?' But, I don't want to linger on that question. Too much grief to be explored here. What I would like to do, is introduce you to the Guerrero Viejo I visited in 1996, in the Before-time.
We drove down the highway, probably twenty miles or more, before we saw small, old signs pointing off to the right. We turned down a dirt road and were soon met by maybe a dozen Federales. I might not have gotten a real good count. They had AK47's, at least that's what they looked like to me, as well as machine guns on the roofs of their vehicles, and those definitely were machine guns, aimed at us. Now, I have to tell you, that American tourists had been going down this road for many years, as the lake had receded and the town was no longer under water. This was not an entirely unusual event. Still, I was sweating bullets, much like the ones in their weapons pointed at us. We stopped the car and my sister rolled down her window, using her minimal familiarity with Spanish to ask permission to go ahead and visit the town, still ten miles down the dirt road. I was praying. Hard. A brief discussion took place between this soldier and another, with the result, as we understood it, that permission was being denied. I can't say I was entirely disappointed. I wanted back on terra familia. And soon.
We turned the car around and, as we did so, another Federale stopped us again. Again, I sweated bullets. And prayed. Hard. I was trying to keep my thoughts from the fearful scenario that wanted to unfold in my mind. This time, the Federales granted us permission. It seems there was a misunderstanding, ours or theirs, not certain, but we made an almost instantaneous decision to go ahead, turn around again, and head to the abandoned village. Needless to say, I do not have any photographs of the Federales. But, this is the road leading in:
As we traveled that dirt road, I tried to let go of my fear and settle into what we knew would be an interesting experience. Foolish, you say. Maybe. But, at that point, it seemed like no matter what we chose, we had to trust. Not much else to do. So, well-armed ourselves, with a whole lot of trust, we arrived at Guerrero Viejo.
Much to our relief, there were two other cars that looked like they were on the same adventure. However, we never saw another soul in the village the entire time we were there, except for the single family still inhabiting a roofless stone house on the corner of the first street. Chickens and goats roamed in and out at will; the family itself just looked at us with mild curiosity. We felt safe.
Our first stop was an old cemetery on the edge of the village, a cemetery that had no Perpetual Care Plan, that's for certain, and had not been attended to, in any fashion, for what looked like forever.
We wandered the deserted streets, stopping for the countless photo opps that presented themselves. Eventually, we found our way down to the church, Our Lady of Refuge. That church has definitely not lived up to its name, at least not in its original intention, but I can't blame it. It was a casualty of the dam. What was once, from what I've read, a beautiful interior, is now just a ghostly memory. I paused before passing through its entrance, as though I wasn't sure I belonged there. I felt a bit like an intruder, walking among its stone arches, taking photos and imagining what was, what might have been.
We spent the afternoon, exploring and photographing, reveling in an adventure we knew, as it was taking place, we would always remember.
On the way out, we stopped for a minute so I could photograph this horse, grazing on the only oasis for miles around.
When we came out, the Federales were gone.
I feel more than sadness at what has happened right across our borders. Since 2006, over 28,000 people have been killed due to Trouble. Our trip to Guerrero Viejo will not ever be repeated, nor will the equally fine trip we made to the city of Monterrey. I can't imagine ever returning. But, I will always be grateful for this little journey. What fun, having this adventure with my sister.
She called me, when news of the American being killed came out. We reminisced about our day there, and talked of the changes wrought by time...and, I just wanted you to know, there was another Guerrero Viejo, once upon a time. Wouldn't it be nice, if that one would emerge again?
The photographs are my own, taken with my 35mm Canon AE-1, now resting forlornly on a closet shelf, displaced by its digital cousin. I shot these with available light, far poorer than the preferred, optimal time for photos. Early morning or evening was not a consideration, and I can't say I'm sorry.