Mexico's Sonora State tourism: nature vacations and cultural history.
Alison Gardner explores Mexico's State of Sonora tourism: mountains, desert, rich native and Spanish colonial history.
Mexico's Sonora State tourism: nature vacations and cultural history.
Alamos' historic accommodations abound, exemplified by the 10-room bed and breakfast Casa Encantada.  M.M. Cabot
Alison Gardner explores Mexico's Sonora State tourism: mountains, desert, rich native and Spanish colonial history.
Map of Sonora State.
Map courtesy of

Sonora. Most people enter this second largest state in Mexico through Nogales, a short drive due south of Tucson, Arizona. That's exactly what I did on a six-day Sonora Natural History Tour offered by South of the Border Tours of Tucson. My 23 traveling companions were a stimulating and altogether-too-clever Elderhostel group, many of whom already had between 10 and 40 previous educational vacation programs under their belts. These 60 to 89 year olds had got way ahead of me in the curriculum by spending two days in Nogales boning up on Sonora's history, culture and natural assets as well as acquiring a bit of Spanish.

As we headed south with South of the Border Tours owner, Steve Bernier, at the wheel, and veteran guide and naturalist, Robin Baxter, at the microphone, Robin further fed the knowledge base with a blizzard of handouts and a rich personal background in the region's natural and cultural history. Homework became the order of the day!

Mayo indians are a part of Mexican culture and tourism.
Pelicans wait for handouts from Mayo fishermen whose tribe controls a nature-rich marine estuary in southern Sonora. Alison Gardner

We learned that 15,000 to 20,000 years ago the state was already occupied by native populations. The Yaqui and the Mayo [not to be confused with the Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula] still control substantial areas of land in Sonora and provide cultural balance to the strong Spanish colonial heritage dating back to the 1600s. These long-discounted yet culturally rich tribes are now receiving stronger government encouragement to maintain their own distinctiveness and to develop an independent economic lifestyle. Increasing interest in cultural and natural tourism of their areas must benefit the Yaqui and the Mayo to be ethically responsible.

Alison Gardner explores Mexico's Sonora State tourism: mountains, desert, rich native and Spanish colonial history.

Arriving at Guaymas in mid-afternoon, we caught our first glimpse of the magical Sea of Cortez, also called the Gulf of California. This long finger of protected ocean is home to an immense assortment of marine and bird life, including famous schools of Hammerhead sharks and endangered sea turtles. It is also an increasingly popular ecotourism destination.

Sea of Cortez scenery. Sea of Cortez sunset.
From the grounds of Guaymas's Hotel Playa de Cortes, an introduction to the Sea of Cortez.  Alison Gardner

Sharing the mandatory tequila-laced margueritas in the grounds of the historic Hotel Playa de Cortes, we toasted our first night in Mexico, watching the sun flare into a classic sunset while dozens of brown and white pelicans dive-bombed the shoreline for dinner before lights out.

Next morning, just minutes from Guaymas, we toured the Institute of Monterrey pearl farm from which Sea of Cortez pearls have been unveiled on the world's commercial jewelry market only in the past two years. Learn more about these distinctive rainbow-colored beauties as well as the scholarship and educational programs their cultivation supports.

Sea of Cortez pearls.
Distinctive Sea of Cortez pearls are catching the attention of jewelry lovers around the world.
Perlas del Mar de Cortez

It was exciting to discover that the only commercial cultured pearl farm in the Americas is a hub for marine and ecosystem studies, as well as pearl culture skills training. The farm's admirable goal is to be a self-supporting institution through the sale of the pearls and jewelry, some of which is available at its own shop.

Alison Gardner explores Mexico's Sonora State tourism: mountains, desert, rich native and Spanish colonial history.

In the early 1680s, Spanish arrivals in this remote Sonora valley turned their attention to some of the richest silver deposits in the Americas. Alamos was born with all the vigor and urgency of a mining boom town, but with an elegance and permanence rarely experienced with such discoveries in other frontier areas of North America.

In Alamos' long-sustained heyday, many of Mexico's wealthiest individuals made up a total population of 30,000, literally at the end of a mountain road.

Silver was once so abundant it was even used as shiny stepping stones of pure silver to guide one rich landowner's daughter from his mansion to the church to be married. Now that is elegance!

Historic building in Alamos, Sonora State, Mexico.
Courtyards serve as backdrops for restaurants and bed and breakfast hotels.  Alison Gardner
Young men singing in Alamos hotel courtyard reflect a deeply cherished Mexican culture.

Members of the youthful Fantasmos de Alamos sing passionate songs from their cultural heritage. Colorful ribbons on historically accurate costumes boast of awards in music competitions throughout Mexico.  Alison Gardner

By the early 1900s, mines were exhausted, the wealthy owners and the workers were moving on, and the Mexican Revolution in 1910 released an explosion of long-suppressed grievances by the exploited poor. Clearly a reminder of Spanish colonial power and wealth, Alamos did not escape that outpouring of anger altogether. However, it is said that rough-diamond revolutionary, Pancho Villa, barred his troops from sacking this beautiful pueblo because he thought he might retire there.

Though he never settled in Alamos, no doubt Pancho's whimsical command made possible many of the restorations we enjoy today at the end of what is still a windy dead-end mountain road best navigated in the daylight. What awaits the visitor is worth every twist and turn.

Alamos children in 110 year old school greet visitors with songs and poetry.
Left: We visited a 110-year-old elementary school where children welcomed us to their classrooms with songs and poetry. In turn, we each brought much needed school supplies purchased en route at a Mexican Wal-Mart store.  Alison Gardner

Right below:
An Alamos heritage kitchen restored with imagination.
  Alison Gardner
Restored kitchen in a heritage mansion.

In the 1960s an occupation of another sort brought Americans and Canadians to a sadly derelict and drastically downsized community. No doubt wearing several layers of rose-colored glasses, they spearheaded a wave of mansion, public building, and cobbled street restoration that has now raised Alamos to living museum status. With a population of 8,000, it is today one of the safest, strollable historic gems you will encounter, as is the collection of courtyard eateries and historic accommodations from budget to five-star.

Alamos volunteers raise money for educational scholarships.
Started by dedicated members of the foreign community, the innovative Los Amigos de Educación raises money for student scholarships by offering walking tours that rotate through their own homes and gardens so that visitors may learn about the restoration, design and furnishings that make each one a distinctive gem. For a one-hour by-donation tour, it is a rare treat to step over the threshold of any of these properties into the hidden gardens and one-of-a-kind homes, all for a good cause!

This local volunteer nonprofit organization supports post-elementary education for about 300 needy Alamos children with scholarships at the junior and senior high school level, and even post-secondary education in promising cases. The Mexican government pays most costs for elementary education but not beyond. Usually two homes are selected for each tour so that you may linger and ask lots of questions of the owners and your volunteer guide. Sign up at the tourist information center in the main square or inquire at your hotel.

Alison Gardner explores Mexico's Sonora State tourism: mountains, desert, rich native and Spanish colonial history.
Ladies cooperative makes and sells crafts in Aduana.
At a ladies' cooperative in Aduana, guide Stephanie Meyer points out all-natural products crafted from local materials.
  Alison Gardner

A highlight of our time in southern Sonora was an introduction to botanical biologist, natural history interpreter and conservation consultant, Stephanie Meyer. Having lived, worked, and crusaded around the area for the past 14 years, her answers to questions were full of personal insights, occasional ironic humor and a deep love for her adopted territory.

Stephanie joined us for a touching visit to the almost-ghost mining town of Aduana, four miles from Alamos, and she led a day exploring a massive estuary near Huatabampo opening into the Sea of Cortez.

Mayo native-run boats guide visitors into their estuary for nature pictures and encounters.
Mayo-operated pangas head for the mangrove inlets. Alison Gardner

There, in Mayo-owned pangas, we meandered through mangrove inlets, past sandbars populated with thousands of sea birds and out into the vast Bay of Yavaros where bottle-nose dolphins and frigate birds served escort duty. There's not much you can do for encores after a day like that!

Alison Gardner explores Mexico's Sonora State tourism: mountains, desert, rich native and Spanish colonial history.
The Sonora Natural History Tour is one of many Mexico itineraries developed by South of the Border Tours, In addition to cultural and natural history tours of Chihuahua, the Baja Peninsula and a Copper Canyon rail and coach tour, several six-day Sonora theme itineraries focus on birding, annual music and art festivals in Alamos, and the Sonora Natural History Tour described in this article.

Alamos has an impressive online guide covering everything from vacationing to retirement and buying real estate in this beautiful colonial town, I can personally recommend the 236-year-old former convent, Casa de los Tesoros, and its two sister accommodations, all owned by Californian Suzanne Chartrand,

Stephanie Meyer offers interpretive ecological and cultural day-tours in southern Sonora from her home-base in Alamos, email: or visit the Alamos website above.

Many holiday makers choose to go to Sonora on villa holidays and use the villas as a base to experience the true Mexican culture.

While traveling through Mexico, you can stop at one of the luxurious Villa del Arco resorts for ultimate treatment and relaxation.

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.

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