We all have pre-conceptions about a place especially as a foreigner in a distant land, but arriving into the US from Mexico and finding ourselves in the beautiful far flung outpost of Terlingua, West Texas I had most of my pre-conceptions thrown out of the window. Driving to Big Bend national Park was the order of the day to escape the not so pretty Presidio, Texas. A great place to cross the border back into the US from the Ojinaga, Mexico border crossing (Toll road most of the way from Chihuahua City) due to the Loma Paloma RV Park 6 miles from the border, but that’s about it. Terlingua on the other hand is a place you want to hang your hat for at least half the year as many of the current residents do.
On your way to Big Bend National Park you might find yourselves like we did parking up at one of the RV parks outside Big Bend but if you are in this area then make the trip along the road and follow the signs to spend a little time in the not so ghostly ghost town of Terlingua whose name is a twisted version of Tres Lenguas or three languages (tongues) that were spoken by the locals of the village back in the 1800’s.
This is an old mercury mining town close to the romantic and dangerous Rio Grande, established in the late 1800’s and situated in Chihuahua desert surrounded by Chisos mountains and huge cavernous skies. With the closure of the mines in the 1940’s the town was abandoned of it’s workers which by 1905 was over 1,000 mostly Mexican miners. The miners lived on the eastern side of the town and I was told that the stone structures they built are the ones that are more complete. The old graveyard is still there with the local historians working through the graves trying to identify them. The simple yet beautiful naturalistic buildings that were left behind have been slowly rebuilt by the people that have been attracted to this area. Through the 60’s new blood arrived in the town and with the establishment in 1967 of the first Annual Terlingua Chili-cook off this became a town for partying and was christened the “Chili Capitol of the World” by the Chili Appreciation Society. Today there is a mix of people who like to enjoy the great outdoors with river rafting, hiking, biking of all kinds and to hang out in the porch of the old Starlight Theatre to play blues and enjoy the cool evenings under the stars. But there is enough going on here for those who still like the occasional party and I hear from the locals that any excuse to dress up in fancy dress is jumped at.
Another resident explained in her words, “When I came to Terlingua I realised that rather than talk about yourself you talk about each other, so I adjusted”.
This has some benefits and some downsides but when strolling down the road peering at the unfeasibly large pair of great horned owls planning their evenings activities and being checked out by the local coyote I was stopped by the judges wife who handed me the local newsletter. In May there were three benefits for local people who found themselves in a state misfortune of some kind either through illness or just plain old bad luck. In Terlingua people rally round and do what they can to help and they are proud of it.
“What do you do around here for fun”? Well there is the biking for starts. If you like road-biking then this is a dream location, the roads are undulating enough to give you a serious workout and they are quiet. If you like motor-biking then…ditto – the road from Presido to Terlingua is an absolute must. From the ghost town itself there are back roads and some sweet single track for mountain-bikers in the Lajitas and Contraband trail system. To get the low-down pop along to incredibly helpful and just plain old nice people at Desert Sports they will tell more than you need to know to get out there to ride. In fact these guys are the hosts of the Mas o Menos 100k race on every winter, a race that takes 4 days through rugged terrain. During the winter when the river is high then these are the people to go to for your river trip as they offer smaller trips finding the less busy spots along the rivers.
The locals, the people that live here now are not all from Texas let alone West Texas are interesting, engaging, open and very community minded. Now I say this with only having spent a few days in the area but having to leave was actually very hard. I found myself pondering whether I too could own a little piece of dry scrub and an old ruin that I could call home. As one delightful resident said to me, “You either get this place or you don’t,” and I definitely got it.
How to Get there
Driving – Highway 170 west of Big Bend
Where to Stay
We lucked out and stayed with some very kind locals and had the ultimate Terlingua experience but you can still have fun staying in the Ghost town at La Posada Milagro or camping at any of the RV campgrounds.
– Big Bend Motor Inn RV Campground, Junction TX 118 and FM 170 at Big Bend Motor Inn with full hookups & pull throughs. 800-848-BEND
– Terlingua Ranch Lodge RV Park And Campground, Full hook ups and tent camping. Swimming pool. Located 16 miles east of TX Highway 118, turn off approximately 12 miles north of junction FM 170 and TX 118. 432-371-2416
– Study Butte RV Park, Electricity, flush toilets and showers. TX Highway 118, Study Butte south of junction TX 118 and FM 170. 432-371-2468
– BJ’s RV Park, Full hook-ups, showers, laundry. FM 170, 5 miles east of junction TX 118 and FM 170, near Terlingua Ghostown. 432-371-2259
Places to eat
For a small place this is packed with fantastic places to eat. Try the Phat Cafe for $10 lunch in Asian fusion cusine or the filmic outdoor cafe called Kathy’s Cosmic Cowgirl for breakfast, Starlight Theater for dinner (check out Mondays for the two for one burger that can’t be missed especially with live music to boot) and for the late evening fun try The Boathouse or La Kiva, a bar built in a cave.
Check out the documentary that was made of the town interviewing the locals- 24 hours in Terlingua