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Outpost Of The Arts

Once a mining ghost town, Pozos is now a haven for artists and a rare find for visitors.

November 16, 2008|Christopher Reynolds | Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

MINERAL DE POZOS, MEXICO — I arrived in eerie, old Mineral de Pozos in the middle of a half-sunny afternoon, with cotton-candy cloud shadows creeping all over the adobe rubble, the reclaimed ruins, the cactus thickets and the little-trod cobblestone streets.

Never heard of the place, a hotel clerk had said in Spanish as I prepared to make the 50-mile trip here from Queretaro.

Another clerk piped up, I have. It's small.

Very small, said a taxi driver.

Now I was here, paying the cabbie, waving goodbye, turning to face a scene as dusty and forsaken as the one Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid found upon their cinematic arrival in Bolivia.

Bleached skulls hung atop old poles. The hands on the clock that towered over the main plaza were frozen. At an abandoned chapel that now serves as a goat pen, 4-foot cactuses rose from the eaves. I could have fired a cannon in that main plaza and hit nobody, although it might have disturbed a sleeping dog or two.

The Mexicans call their ghost towns pueblos fantasmas, and Mineral de Pozos -- about 185 miles northwest of Mexico City and 40 miles northeast of San Miguel de Allende -- is one of them, a relic from the great Mexican mining boom of the late 19th century.

But Pozos isn't dead. It's slowly growing, its ghosts joined by perhaps 3,500 residents who have begun filling the reclaimed ruins with contemporary art and pre-Hispanic music. The town has three hotels, eight to 10 art galleries (depending on how you count them) and perhaps 50 Americans, many of them artists, who live here at least part time.

But none of that quite gets at the nature of the place. If the Mexican acordionista Flaco Jimenez and Texan guitarrista Willie Nelson ever team up to make a concept album about regret, decay, renewal and high-desert succulents -- which they should -- they'll have to shoot the cover photo here.

I found my hotel, the Casa Montana, asked about a guide and soon was shaking hands with Marco Antonio Sanchez, whose family history tells the story of Pozos: His grandparents worked in the mines. Sanchez, on the other hand, earns his living by making, selling and playing pre-Hispanic musical instruments and occasionally guiding newcomers like me. (We spoke mostly Spanish, but he seemed to understand every word I uttered in English.)

We started our tour in the middle of town, where forsaken structures seem to outnumber occupied buildings about three to two. Out on the edge of town, the ratio is more like 10 to one. And then there are the outskirts.

At one rustic crossroads between town and the Santa Brigida mine to the northeast, we stopped to ask a local named Pepe Fernandez about road conditions.

"It's ugly this way," he said in Spanish, looking up one rugged path. "But it's uglier this way," he added, looking up another.

Still, it was only a few miles. Before long, we were crouching amid the ruins of an old mining hacienda, the sky spread above where a roof should have been, peering into the black depths of an old well (pozo).

Muy profundo, Sanchez warned me. (Pozo: well. profundo: deep.)

At the Santa Brigida, a trio of bulky stone ovens loomed like pyramids or maybe smokestacks on a half-buried cruise ship. At the Hacienda de Cinco Senores mine on the west end of town, the buildings arched and sprawled down the hillside, the walls riddled with strange openings that once held all sorts of mineral-extraction machinery. Crazy sunbeams and shadows all over.

Some of the old mine sites are owned by individuals, some are owned by ejido, or communal, organizations, and some are in dispute. Sometimes a modest admission fee is asked, sometimes not.

As for measures to ensure safety or prevent vandalism -- there are nearly none. At Santa Brigida and Cinco Senores, the biggest sites, deep shafts were minimally marked. It's a rotten place for unsupervised kids, an excellent place for hiring a guide. (There are a couple of them in town who speak more English than Sanchez.)

I'm not proposing Pozos as a honeymoon spot either, and I recognize that most travelers probably wouldn't choose this destination by itself. But Pozos lies just under an hour's drive from San Miguel de Allende, one of the bigger magnets for culturally inclined tourists in all of Mexico; about an hour from Santiago de Queretaro, which has a fascinating historic center and a convenient airport; and about two hours from Guanajuato, another artsy town that's rich in history and collegiate energy.

So if you're a painter, photographer, history geek, architecture dweeb, mineralogy wonk or just a seeker of singular landscapes, this could be the beginning of a larger adventure.

And it's a cheaper adventure now: After two years of trading at 10 or 11 pesos to the dollar, the peso on my visit last month had weakened to about 13 to the dollar.

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