¡Viva Terlingua!
Leah Walker July 10, 2012

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.

Moonrise over TerlinguaCredit 

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.

Old TerlinguaCredit 

terlingua housesCredit 

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.

Terlingua CemeteryCredit

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.

Terlingua Ghost Town CemeteryCredit 

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.

Terlingua Ghost Town CemeteryCredit

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.

slow skeleton children at terlinguaCredit 

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.

Starlight TheatreCredit 

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.

Terlingua, TexasCredit 

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.

Starlight Theater in TerlinguaCredit 

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.”

first pourCredit 

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.

Chili cookoff Terlingua 527Credit

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.

Viva Terlingua

Featured Photo

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.


  1. I really enjoy your Texas Tuesday articles (and all the other ones). These are somehow different, because you are actually sharing your special place, ie home, with us, and I love it.

    Ohhh and someone was a blondie, huh? 😉

    1. Thank you, Mrs. O. Texas is a huge place and I’ve been lucky enough to live in most parts of it. Each region is special in its own way, but I’m particularly fond of West Texas. It’s under appreciated by the world and even by Texans. Through this weekly feature, I hope to highlight the famous and not so famous things that make Texas so diverse and great.

      And yes, I had a heavy dose of blonde and I wore jean shorts. Kill me now!

  2. I can’t believe that you went to the first chili cook-off! I’d love to hear the stories from that experience. I really hate that they stopped Americans from crossing the Rio Grande. One of my favorite memories was a Mexican rowing me across the Rio Grande in a boat then saddling up on a donkey for the walk to Boquillas. That damn donkey ran me into a mesquite tree and a patch of prickly pears. :-) Supposedly, the crossing was to be reopened in April of this year. I’m not sure if it is though. Do you?

    Yes, indeed. ¡Viva Terlingua! We must return soon.


    1. The crossing at Boquillas has not opened yet. The facilities on the US side are complete. It is apparently fouled up in international bureaucracy or election year politics or both. It will open at some point in 2012, everyone is sure, but exact date is unknown at this time. We are all waiting to be first in line.

      1. Thanks for that update, Mike. I know that both sides benefit from being able to cross. I’m really glad that they’re going to get it done this year. I’m thinking about a trip out there this spring. Thanks for sharing on Visit Big Bend’s Facebook page, too.

  3. Wow, it DOES look like the set of an old western. It looks like Terlingua would make a good “photo quest” spot. This is right up our alley. We’re also big fans of the throwback pictures of you and the mister :)

    1. Oh, yes, Tawny. I know y’all could do some amazing things with Terlingua and Big Bend National Park. And as for my pictures, I was 24. Dang, I can’t even remember what it was like to be that young. {sigh…}

    1. This is just the tip of the iceberg, Brock. Google Big Bend and prepare to be in awe. It really is spectacular with the canyons, hot springs, and mountains. I’d love to go rafting and hiking, but only after it cools off. It’s really hot right now.

  4. Many memories from La Kiva. Most of them blurry but still a lot of fun. You have to love the Mayor of Lajitas.

    1. I’m right there with you on the blurry memories of La Kiva. Don’t think I’m not going to write about the former mayor of Lajitas at some point, but it’s time I head east for the next installment of Texas Tuesday. :-)

  5. I really like cemeteries, there is one in Taos that is just colorful! The one in this travel blog looks interesting and old to me, I’d like to visit, I too enjoy Texas Tuesdays.

    1. I’m glad you enjoy Texas Tuesday, Jody, because I really enjoy writing them. It’s been so long since I’ve been to Taos or New Mexico, really. I imagine that cemetery is beautiful and certainly colorful, like so much of New Mexico.

    1. Everyone knows something about the major cities in Texas, but few outside of the state know about the rest. I will feature many places in the cities, but they don’t define Texas to me. And that’s what I’m trying to do…define what Texas is to me (and so many others). Thank you and I hope I continue to intrigue you.

  6. Leah, this place looks amazing! I’ve never heard of it before. It looks so damn creepy but in the best possible way. I really can’t decide if the giant dragonfly is adorable or the stuff that nightmares are made of, however.

    Oh and HAHAHAHAHA at Penisaurus Erectus! Loving that. La Kiva sounds like it’s my kinda bar!

    1. There are a couple little towns right around there that have the same vibe. It’s just an all-around interesting place. Creepy, yes. Fantastic, yes. Easy to get to, NO! We’ll just add La Kiva and Penisaurus Erectus on your USA tour. Ok?

  7. What an interesting, out of this world place. It’s neat that a lot of people still choose to come together, even in this almost-ghost town.

    1. There are several communities in the area, so there are more people than most think, though not a lot. I’d love to see the photos you could get of the area. It’s a photographer’s dream.

  8. Looks like Terlingua is my kinda place! Such an awesome introduction you provide – thank you. I would like to get to Big Bend one day soon… I shall stop in Terlingua when I do make the trip! Though if I admit I don’t like chili, will I be banned?

    1. With your love of National Parks, Francesca, you will adore Big Bend. No need to like chili. I’m not a huge fan myself {gasp!}, but you must like beer or tequila. They won’t let you into Brewster County if you don’t.

  9. Fun! I know what you mean about Texas always being home- even though we travel all over the world, Florida will always be and feel like home. Ha- we even live in California now and I still call Florida home!

    1. Exactly, Jade! I’ve briefly lived in Atlanta and LA, but I’ve always been a Texan. It’s not just geography. It’s a mentality that goes with me everywhere. It sounds like you’re the same with Florida.

    1. I agree, Callie. Who wants more of the same? There’d be no need to travel is that be the case. Check back every Tuesday and I’ll have something new from Texas. I can’t guarantee everything will be quite this unusual, but I’ll do my best. Thank you for stopping by!

    1. I believe it, Raul. You’ve always been a little different in my mind 😉 They have a really cool Día de los Muertos celebration you’d probably enjoy as well.

    1. Watch the hair comment. I’m not going to take that from a couple of faceless girls that wear headbands and barrettes in their hair! You just wait until your my age and look back on that! 😉

  10. I hiked Big Bend National Park back in high school, but I don’t remember going through this town. The last town I remember before getting to the park was Fort Stockton. If I get back around those parts, I will have to check this interesting town out.

    1. I was wondering when/if you’d been to Big Ben, Ted. Fort Stockton is where my husband’s family ranch is, so I know exactly how you got to the park. You went through Marathon before you got to the park. That’s a cool little town, too. That Gage Hotel in Marathon is classic.

  11. For a ghost town, Terlingua has a lot going for it! Nothing like the ghost town I visited in New Mexico with no much more around than train tracks and a couple of run-down buildings. Another fun TX Tuesday piece from you, Leah!

    1. Most of the ghost towns I’ve been to or read about are for the birds. Terlingua is THE ghost town. It has gotten a bit more commercialized with some art galleries and such moving in, but it still retains its unique vibe.

  12. Holy, I have a live version of Jason Boland’s “Mexico or Crazy” on my ipod and he starts out with “….anyone ever been down to Terlingua?” I never knew about the place except it was a border town… and now I know tons… thanks.

    stay adventurous, Craig

    1. What does a Yankee like you know about Jason Boland? Yes, that’s one of my favorite CDs. The song was written after a weekend at one of the chili cook-offs. You don’t know how happy it makes me that you know that song. :-)

Your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have the world delivered to your inbox
Well, maybe not the whole world, but some of it. Either way, subscribe to my monthly newsletter. I'll include my latest articles from around the Web, travel announcements, and maybe even a few Paris insider tips.