Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Two Sisters and Their Adventure at Guerrero Viejo, c. 1996

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. 


  1. I love the mood shown by the lighting in your pictures. It's heartbreaking what the drug wars have done to that poor area of Mexico.
    I feel like we should be putting billboards all over our country saying, "If you buy street drugs, YOU are the problem!"

  2. Your photos are absolutely outstanding. Old poured stoone structures are so beautiful. But aside from the beauty, what an adventure. At that time, you were scared but you probably had no idea to what extent this drug-lord protection would really go. If you did, do you think you would have gone on into the town? I've been listening to the news on the man who was shot and did you know the man who was assigned to the case was de-capitated? That was a broad warning to stop the investigation, huh?

    Next Tues, California is voting on legalizing pot. If it passes, do you think it will ease up on the drug killings? This blog is one of your very best. You deserve an award, a grammy or something of note...... or at least a sorbettos.

  3. Wow, you DO have a sense of adventure! And it was worth it, given the wonderful memories you have, not to mention the great photos. Mexico is definitely suffering, and I doubt that I will ever revisit even the seemingly safe places.

  4. Your photos are wonderful, what an experience you and your sister had, but what sadness there is too.

  5. These photos are stunning. The story is sad and yet exciting. While I read it I wondered, if you had been scared about your way back? Were the Federales there? Would they let you pass? (It was sensible of you to accept their allowance to go to the place, otherwise they might have been crossed!)
    It's sad to hear what is going on in Mexico now. I don't quite understand why so many people here want to take a trip to Mexico, since we are warned not to go. But some young people want to be adventurers.
    So great pictures and yet sad. A dead town, a dead church, a dead culture. The horse the only one living like before.
    Thank you, Teresa.

  6. Beautiful photos and what an adventure. So wonderful you were able to capture this town before it deteriorates and crumbles to nothing. Your photos bring back so many memories of Mexico.

    I lived in California's central valley for much of my adult life previously and over the last ten years the pot growers are everywhere in the mountains. It isn't safe to go camping or driving in the mountains any longer unless in a designated campground. The rivers are littered with garbage and it isn't safe to go there either as thugs with knives and worse drive people off. In recent years there are many towns in California I would never go to at night, some even during the day, as it wouldn't be safe, so the drug wars are here in the USA too. The same is true in other cities and states as well, but I only know first hand about California. Buying, selling, and making drugs is a get-rich-quick enterprise and with that all love or even liking of humananity seems to fall by the wayside. But I guess the same could be said for many getting-rich-driven life styles, when money and power become more important than people, there-in lies the greatest problem of society.

    I traveled in Mexico on so many trips over the years, the last one for the Spring of 2007, but even in the early 1990s I saw Federales starting to line the outskirts of towns with their machine guns and rifles at checkpoints. We thought about moving to Baja Sur and Gary would still like to, but I doubt we ever will go back. I wouldn't relish driving through the northern part of Baja, I still think most parts of Baja Sur are safe. The mainland of Mexico that's another story I am sure.

  7. Ms. Sparrow, thank you for reading and commenting. I'm glad you like my photos.

    Manzi, I don't think things were as deadly as they are now, or we would not have even thought of going across the border. It was there, but a different time. The situation has deteriorated severely. I did hear of the investigator.... re:Proposition 19 in Calif: There are many thoughtful and intelligent people who believe decriminalization of pot would have a profoundly Positive effect on these drug wars, saving lives actually and I think its important to look at that possibility. There was an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal this past Monday on why it should be decriminalized. George Soros wrote it and people love or hate him, but either way, its a thoughtful and well-written article. Thank you for your comments.

  8. Nancy, Yes, it was definitely worth it. A wonderful memory. And now I can share it with others.

    Marilyn, Yes, much sadness to the town and the circumstances. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    Grethe, Accepting their offer was important, I think. And, it led to my ability to share it now. I thank you for your comments. Yes, the Federales were gone. The horse was a wonderful gift.

    Linda, "When money and power become more important than people..." is a problem at all levels of society. I personally believe the pharmaceutical companies are a much greater threat to America than marijuana is. But we have, through the media for the most part, come to accept it as normal and, as Shakespeare said, "There's the rub."

  9. Correction: the Wall Street Journal article was on Tuesday, October 26th.

  10. What lovely memories and photos. I admire your bravery. The first time I went to Mexico, I remember being struck by the military with their weapons and mean faces. Not something you want to see when you first get off the plane. It will take a miracle to overthrow the current reign of evil inhabiting those parts. Prayers should be said daily for those poor people having to live in fear.

  11. Teresa,
    I read the article in WSJ by Soros. I think I totally agree. I used to enjoy going to Mexico, too..... even thought I'd like to live there, once. I had 3 other widows who wanted us to move there together. But the drug lord problem is out of hand. Every day they shoot into innocent crowds of people. And children, some no. like 1200 killed. I think there are 2 solutions. Try legalizing pot in the US. That would slow them down a lot and the next thing would be offer big rewards and get both the US military and Mexico and snuff them out. This would be war, bloody and brutal and peole would get killed.... but how else could they put an end to this???? They are amoral. Thanks for calling my attention to the article.

  12. Linda, Yes, I love doors, as you know. I think I may do more of same... I love all they represent.

    Gail, It's a terrible situation. I agree.

    Manzi, It was hearing of the execution of the young boys in rehabilitation that really moved me to write about this. Amoral, exactly so. I would like to see the U. S. work with Mexico to put an end to this violence. The problem is, it appears that many in the government in Mexico are also deeply embedded with the drug lords. Nothing new there.... story old as time... repeated in Afghanistan today and elsewhere.

  13. I don't know how I missed this exciting post. Maybe because I have my granddaughter and her friend over and my normal? activities have gone by the way side. Great post, exciting post. I've never been to Mexico and probably never will. Wanted to, but now that I have time, it's become too dangerous. "War" on drugs hasn't worked, nor has war on proverty, cancer, crime or anything else. Obviously it's time to try something different. I'm not sure what that might be, but good grief...there's a lot of smart people out there (or so I've been told) and if they'd quit fighting amongst themselves, and work together for "good", maybe progress could be made. maybe....

  14. I don't think marijuana is the problem, only those in control of selling and distributing it. But there are many other problems from corporations and executives in power other than drugs, here's oil, banks, insurance, etc.

    I definitely agree legal drugs are a much bigger problem than marijuana and similair farmed drugs ever could or would be. I know a lawyer who worked for he will take unless he is absolutely dying is aspirin, shown to us from the willow tree by native americans.

  15. Lynne, I agree, a war on anything at all is a misguided approach and in some cases, like the war on drugs, it's a complete sham. When we put energy into the negative aspects of anything, it seems we feed it. Having said that, politics has become an ignorant and ugly "Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robot" repetitive game.

    Now, I'll go back to staying present and peaceful. :) Thank you for the nice comments on the post.

    Linda, We're on the same page when it comes to corporations. And, I believe I've found something in common with a lawyer... :)

  16. What a very rich history--one that is currently being overshadowed by the drug wars. My family is from Guerrero Viejo, and we also made trips out there to photograh a history that is so relevant to many spanish colonial descendants. We no longer can go. But thru our history we were able to go back in time to the 1300's (Guadalajara Spain). Many of these ancestors were (due to hostile indians)from other towns at different times--like Monterrey, Saltillo, Cerralvo, & Mier. Our Ramirez bunch arrived with Hernan Cortez back in 1519 having already established homes in Hispaniola (current Haiti). But the fondness of Guerrero Viejo is still so palpitable.....Wonder if the Government would ever purposely flood Jamestown??? They had no problem doing this to such an old town with hundreds of years worth of history and recorded colonial expansion---so, so glad my family ended up on this side of the border, but also sad because many family members ended up on the other side......Most people do not realize that this ghosttown was very much alive until the 1950's, generation after generation grew up here and went back & forth to the Texas side to build on their landgrants dating from the 1700's, before their was a border--the whole region reaching to southern San Antonio was all Nuevo Leon and very much (Jewish)- many Sephartic Jews from this region having converted to Catholicism as early as the 1300;s due to the severe pogroms. Generations trying to survive and hide their Jewishness, and generations losing that history are only now finding out the truth....

  17. I am so glad you wrote to tell me this. It greatly expands my understanding of this town and what happened to its inhabitants. It's a terrible thing, what governments do without any respect for the people. I had no idea of the Jewish aspect. How interesting. I carry a small amount of German Jewish blood myself so this really enriches my knowledge of this time. I am very grateful that you took the time to read and comment, and to share your history with us.