Saturday, December 6, 2008

Progreso and Ancient Guerrero

Nuevo Progreso:

We've been traveling back and forth across the border quite a bit recently. Quite a bit. Enough that we are getting to be pals with some of the border guards.

We did a day trip across the border at Progreso, TX to the sister city of Nuevo Progreso, Tamaulipas. I don't believe that I have ever seen a more gringo-friendly town in Mexico in my life, and that includes Tijuana. Contrary to what most Norte Americanos think, for most of Mexico tourism is a minor part of their economy with industry being where it's at. Nuevo Progreso is the opposite - think in terms of Disneyland's spic and span version of Key West. Progreso is all about a crowded main street that you can walk up and down and enjoy numerous restaurants, bars, beauticians, dentists, MDs, and more curio shops than you can shake a wallet at. You see old gringos everywhere wearing bermuda shorts, and housewives having their nails done. With plenty of English language signs and businesses that quote prices in dollars it's pretty tough to believe that this place is Mexican, except for the low prices (even so, dinner or beer will cost you more in Progreso than if you do a little shopping in Reynosa, for example).

Frankly, I have mixed emotions about Nuevo Progreso. We had a great time and an excellent lunch, chatting with a young American accountant and her date about how silly most gringos are for being so afraid of Mexico. Then again, for a first time traveler to Mexico, Nuevo Progreso is almost too easy. In the rest of Mexico you can NOT expect much in the way of English signage and you'd better know your prices in pesos.

Here are some US motorcyclists in downtown Nuevo Progreso:


We decided to head into Mexico for a few days of exploring. Well ... best laid plans, etc.

I had wanted to check out the ghost town to end all ghost towns, the old city of Guerrero, or "Ancient Guerrero," since the entire town was rebuilt maybe 15 miles away from the site of the original city. Today the very clean and pretty town of Nuevo (new) Guerrero sits at the base of the Falcon Dam, which is a relatively unknown border crossing.

A little history: Once upon a time almost all of Texas belonged to Mexico under Spanish control. Guerrero was a major port city on the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo) River and located where the Salado River empties into the Rio Grande.

During the Indian wars in the fledgling United States several Indian tribes were chased so far south that Guerrero found it necessary to fortify the city in order to resist Indian attacks. As late as the 1900's Guerrero enjoyed an international (mostly European) reputation as a resort city.

In the 1950's, when Guerrero had a population of almost 50,000, the USA and Mexico jointly decided to dam the Rio Grande River. Several communities went underwater, including much of Guerrero.

According to several sources that I have, the relocation of Guerrero wasn't pretty, and families were forced off of their properties, particularly those properties that dated back to Spanish land grants. There are a few books out there that claim that, despite initial promises to do so, neither the USA nor Mexico compensated the families for properties that were flooded by Falcon Reservoir, and that the Mexican Army eventually came in and forced the last families out at gunpoint. Buildings were reportedly stripped of their elaborate stone work (much of this going to New York City to reappear on buildings there, I heard) and bulldozers were called in to destroy some of the buildings.

That was then, and this is now. Because the water level of Falcon Lake has dropped dramatically in recent years, Ancient Guerrero is back. And since Mexico has a much kinder, gentler government than in the bad old days, the state of Tamaulipas has even put up signs directing tourists to the site.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the place is still a bit of a bear to find. If you don't look in the right place, that is. I was following some directions from gringos and and using my gringo maps and managed to waste an entire day when, duh ... I discovered that the old city was right there on my Guia Roji atlas that I bought a few years ago on another Mexican trip. Talk about the frickin' obvious.

Day 1. We headed towards Laredo on the US side and crossed into Mexico at the "Smugglers Crossing" at Camargo. This is the last crossing between the USA and Mexico that is a small, cable-operated ferry and is pretty surreal. It's tiny! There is really nothing much on the Mexican side that is nearby to attract gringos, although there is a perfectly nice small Mexican farm town a few miles inland. An older US couple on the ferry told me that the big thing was to buy smokes and such at the duty-free store on the US side and then to ride the ferry to Mexico and back, just to comply with the letter of the law. We saw a couple of Border Patrol guys who looked bored as hell and didn't want to be photographed. Welcome to America!

We had a fine time exploring Mexican Route 2 along the border. The only problem was that we got a late start and discovered that Falcon Lake and Ancient Guerrero were further west than we expected and that Rt. 2 was pretty slow going, much slower than the US equivalent. This part of Mexico was fairly rural and we didn't see any motels in the smaller towns, so we decided that the best course of action was to return to the USA along the Falcon Bridge and head back home to our RV.

Day2: We got up early the next morning, drove for an hour or two, and recrossed the Falcon Bridge. Beautiful view, and a magnificent structure.

We then drove maybe 20 miles down Rt. 2 past where we were the night before, and found the hand-painted sign for the turn off to the old city of Guerrero:

To say that the road was a bit rough is to be kind. We did the better part of an hour on this surface, at times crossing cattle crossings and opening and closing several fences. It's hard-packed rock, dusty and rough, and would be perfect for motorcycling on a BMW GS.

Driving along this road puts you up close and personal with several head of cattle and more than a few goats. This might have been the main road to Guerrero in the 50's but today it's open range and long horn cattle roam.

We cruised along and finally ran into this, which threatened to stop our trip just before we got to the ghost town:

This wasn't just a little water or a mud puddle, this was the freakin' lake beginning to cover the road for maybe an 1/8 of a mile as the water level had gone up following Hurricane Ike!

We checked for an alternative route but could find none. Nearby farmers' fields had their gates locked and their access roads were flooded as well. We were fearing that we might have gotten this close to Ancient Guerrero and failed in our journey, but refusing to take "no" (or "common sense") for an answer Yours Truly went wading to the other side of the lake to test the depth.

The conclusion? The water never got up to my knees, and we'd put the Land Rover to a test. I wouldn't say that there weren't some sphincter-tightening moments as the SS Discovery II set sail in some of the deeper waters, but we made it!

And over on the other side of the water, we found the remains of Ancient Guerrero:

The metal structure in the foreground is the old town windmill. I don't think that this part of town was ever completely covered with water from the lake:

Notice the town's grand hotel, today and in it's heyday in the 50's:

And finally, the centerpiece of Ancient Guerrero, the local cathedral, the Nuestra SeƱora del Refugio Church. The church has never been completely underwater and in recent years was dry enough that a restoration effort took place where the local believers restored the church interior and repainted the exterior. Alas, with the water levels high again, the church has partially gone back underwater:

As you can see from some photos that I found online, it hasn't been too long ago that the church was completely high and dry:

This aerial view of Ancient Guerrero is fascinating. The church is in the foreground. Out there somewhere there is a large stone bridge that crossed the Salado River. In this photo the lake is slightly lower than it is today:

All and all, a fascinating trip and a fascinating learning experience. While we were in Ancient Guerrero we ran across a gentleman from the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Roma, Texas and his photographer who were working up materials for the tourist trade, but otherwise it was pretty lonely. The one caretaker at the entrance was gone the entire day and no other tourists showed up. So this place is pretty isolated, although there are some large ranches nearby and two or three farmhouses within walking distance of the town. If you go there in the summer then take plenty of bottled water. Don't expect to find a 7-11 nearby.

And the photographer was wearing snake-proof pants, which I thought was a pretty prudent idea.

Hey, Disney this ain't! This is a real ghost town, and in Mexico, to boot.

For more information on Ancient Guerrero may I suggest that y'all check out the sites at

and at

Next post: Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey.


NomadRip said...

Yet another place we need to check out! Thanks!

Jesse said...

Very interesting blog and post. Glad I stumbled across this, seems like a pretty fulfilling and laid-back existence.