On the edge of the known world (or so it seems) lies a dusty, little ghost town filled with a cast of characters that even the best Hollywood script writer couldn’t conceive.
Along the Rio Grande River, hugging the border between Texas and Mexico, is a part of the Lone Star state that few visit and even fewer live. Terlingua (Spanish for “three tongues”) can’t rightly be called a town; it’s a community at best. With no more than 100 permanent residents, it’s like no other place.
An hour and a half south of Alpine, Terlingua is most often a stop on the way to Big Bend National Park, but I consider it a destination in itself. Once a prosperous cinnabar mining town, Terlingua is now a shell of what it once was, but that’s part of its charm and what attracts those wanting to get off the grid.
What might look like a movie set for the latest Western film is actually the remains of the miners’ homes. There are also abandoned mines throughout the area, too. You’ll want to stop by Terlingua Trading Company for information on a self-guided walking tour. Exploring the dilapidated remains offers a glimpse of what life was like when the Chisos Mining Company was in full swing.
Given that the town’s motto is “¡Viva Terlingua!” (“viva” means “living” in Spanish) you’d think that the last place anyone would suggest you visit would be a cemetery. However, as morbid as it may sound, do not skip seeing it. Dating back to the early 1900s, this authentic boot hill cemetery (known as such because many died with their boots on through a violent death) contains more than 400 graves. Many of the plots contain residents from long ago and even some more recent burials. There’s probably more people in the cemetery than in the actual town of Terlingua.
I’m a huge fan of sunsets, and I’m convinced that the ones in West Texas are the most beautiful in the world. With that being said, the sunsets in Terlingua are awe inspiring, and the cemetery might be one of the best places in the area to experience one. The calm and serenity, combined with the stunning surroundings, make for an unforgettable experience.
The golden glow of the sun sliding below the distant mountains illuminate the crosses; it’s as if they are on fire. And once the light is nearly gone, the wooden crucifixes create black silhouettes against the navy sky. After seeing this, you might not want to ever leave.
Although much of Terlingua’s charm centers around its ghost town fame, there are things to do that revolve around the here and now. There are crazy roadside attractions that include a pirate ship, the Statue of Liberty, a giant dragonfly, and a submarine.
I told you, things are different here. People march to the beats of their own drummers. Terlingua is a place where you can be yourself, no matter how wacky that is. Want to live in an old school bus with no engine? Dr. Doug does! If that kind of idea appeals to you, Terlingua is your kind of town.
Life in the Chihuahuan Desert is certainly not for everyone. It’s seemingly never-ending summers are only rivaled by their brutally-cold winters. Rattlesnakes, scorpions, and other deadly things are liable to cross your path on a regular basis. It is the desert, after all. With that being said, there is electricity and indoor plumbing. There’s a variety of lodging options and even a watering hole or two.
One of my favorite places in Terlingua is the Starlight Theater. In order to bring some culture to the area, this restaurant and bar used to be a place for movies and performance theater. Dating back to 1931, it’s now a place for dinner, drinks, and live music.
The porch at the Starlight is the closest thing to a town square that Terlingua has. It’s a place for townspeople and visitors alike to chat, drink beer, and listen to an impromptu concert. Folding chairs and benches provide a place to relax and experience life in the desert. If time on the porch doesn’t convince you to slow down and enjoy life, you’re unreachable.
Burgers and sandwiches dominate the menu, but this wouldn’t be Texas without a steak option. And it wouldn’t be Terlingua without chili; Terlingua is FAMOUS for their chili. There’s salads and fish for those looking for something lighter. Perhaps most impressive is their selection of margaritas. With eight speciality margaritas on the menu, even the most picky tequila drinker will find one they’ll love.
Walking down the steps into La Kiva takes you to a strange and wonderful place. “Kiva” is a religious rites chamber built wholly or partly underground and was used by male Pueblo Indians. But if you’re in Terlingua, it’s a subterranean restaurant and bar.
Named in 2002 as one of the top 50 bars in America by the Men’s Journal, La Kiva has carved out a place in the area’s lore. Opened in 1981, this place attracts locals, bikers, college kids, and dwellers of suburbia for it’s unique design and ominous atmosphere. On their Website, La Kiva even touts the stairs as your “descent into hell.”
With stonework, jagged redwood tables, and Mexican clay pots hanging from the ceiling, La Kiva creates an atmosphere all its own. Embedded into one of the walls is Penisaurus Erectus. This fictional big-cat fossil also serves as La Kiva’s mascot. Nice, right? Come to La Kiva for the experience, but stay for the award-winning bar-b-que and huge selection of tequila. And a word to the wise, be careful when ascending the stairs, especially after a few hours bellied up to the bar.
Any mention of Terlingua isn’t complete without talking about the Original Terlingua International Championship and the International Chili Championship. Yes, my friends, there are TWO chili cook-offs on the same weekend in the same ghost town. This IS Texas, where everything is bigger and chili is the state food.
On the first Saturday in November, these three-day cook-offs become the center of the universe for chili. But like everything else in Terlingua, things are a bit different. Sure, these two events bring out the biggest and baddest chili makers in the world, but they are the occasion for one of the biggest parties in the state. Crazy costumes are common, as are countless coolers filled with frothy adult beverages.
Terlingua is a place for people who don’t want to live like everyone else, whether that’s for a weekend or a lifetime. Looking and thinking differently isn’t unusual, which makes it the norm here. Terlingua, like much of West Texas, isn’t just a place. It’s a state of mind. A kooky, unconventional state of mind.