Terlingua: Exploring the Chihuahuan Desert and The Night Skies in a Ghost Town

While we explored Big Bend National Park, we stayed 8 miles away in Terlingua, a name originating from the Spanish tres lenguas, meaning “three tongues,” referring to the 3 languages spoken by the Apache, Comanche and Shawnee Indians who lived here. Terlingua, now a ghost town, was once known for its mercury mining operations from the Cinnabar ore, which was first discovered in Texas by the Indians, who used it as war paint.

Mining operations have long stopped and what now remains is a quirky town filled with buildings falling into disrepair, homes with limestone rocks and adobe mortars converted into boutique guesthouses to welcome tourists exploring Big Bend. In the evenings, locals hang out by the Starlight Theatre, strumming guitars, listening to music and watching the sunset over the Chisos Mountains.

We had signed up to explore the Chihuahuan Desert on an ATV and Bob, our guide, gave us some history while handing out our gear.

“Carroll Shelby, the racing car legend, and his friends bought a lot of land out here. They have a gentleman’s contract…anyone who owns land here can use the dirt pathways to explore the desert. They didn’t expect a travel company to buy land and take ATV tours……So some of them aren’t happy. Watch out and don’t leave the trail!”

We followed Bob on our ATVs and after a few wobbles and careens around corners, that had my heart racing, we left the town and drove into the vast expanse of the desert. The fine dust blew in our faces and trickled through the pores of the clothes we had on. For miles around, acres of arid land stretched out bounded by rocky hills. Scrubby vegetation dotted the landscape.

An antelope galloped away as we approached it. Bob pointed out some of the interesting shrubs and vegetation – the Mormon Tea, whose leaves are steeped in water to make tea since Mormons are not allowed to drink regular coffee or tea, the yucca plant and the ocotillos with its spare branches and bright red flowers.

As we drove through the dirt path, we came across shanties and trailers with tinned roofs built over them to protect from the sun. No water connections or electric lines existed here and yet people lived out here in this rugged, arid landscape. I asked Bob how anyone lived out here without running water.

“Folks buy gallons of water from town for drinking, use wet wipes for taking a bath. When there is rain, they collect water on the roof.”

We got back exhausted, dusty and in dire need of a shower. Life in the desert without hot water was not for me


Terlingua had no shortage of quirky places to stay at and that night we checked into BaseCamp Terlingua, a glamping outpost with unique stays. For the next 3 consecutive nights, we were staying in a luxury teepee, the Lotus Tent and a transparent Bubble that opened up into the sky.

That night, the husband and I found a quiet spot, by a sea of ocotillo plants, to gaze at the night sky. And once our eyes grew accustomed to the dark, we could spot the faint outlines of the milky way lit by a million clusters of stars. Without the bright city lights, the stars looked brighter and closer out here.

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