There’s an area in the Chihuahuan desert in northern Mexico where radio signals don’t work, and compasses spin out of control when placed near stones on the ground. It’s called the Zone of Silence. It measures only 50 kilometers across, and it is located in the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve, a huge, mostly uninhabited expanse of almost 400,000 hectares, where the flat and desolate terrain is interspersed with lonely mountain outcrops.
“The Zone is my passion,” Benjamin Palacios says as we bounce through the area in his 4-wheel drive Suburban, surrounded by mesquite, cactus, and guamis—brilliant yellow flowers resembling buttercups. Palacios, 61, grew up in the village of Escalón, Chihuahua, on the edge of the Zone, and now has his own UFO-themed ranch on the area’s periphery.
As we head into the heart of the Zone, Palacios, a charismatic man with a deep tan and a full beard, veers his truck onto a desert track. Back on the main road, only a few miles away, the radio came in loud and clear. Now, he hits “search” and it endlessly scans. No signal.
The disruption is believed to be caused by subterranean deposits of magnetite, as well as debris from meteorites. The Zone’s overall effects (and even its location) are disputed, but there’s no doubt that the area, which sits on the borders of the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila, has an abundance of celestial activity—including, some say, visits from UFOs and extraterrestrials.
Throughout the 20th century large meteorites landed in southern Chihuahua near the Zone, with two even falling on the same ranch—one in 1938, and another in 1954. A third fell in 1969 in the Allende Valley, just to the west. “It woke me, and I saw the firmament alight,” Palacios says of that meteorite. “People for miles saw the light and heard the tremendous noise, which broke windows. It attracted the attention of scientists from around the world.”
The name Zone of Silence was not given until 1966 when Pemex, the national oil company, sent an expedition to explore the area. The leader, Augusto Harry de la Peña, was frustrated by the problems he was having with his radio. He christened it the Zone of Silence.
This turned the area into something of a curiosity. However, on July 11, 1970, the Zone made headlines. That was when an Athena rocket was launched from a U.S. air force base in Green River, Utah, as part of a scientific mission to study the upper atmosphere. The rocket was supposed to come down near White Sands, New Mexico. Instead, it went wildly astray and, at two in the morning, crashed in the heart of the Zone of Silence.
The Zone was now—if only briefly—in the international spotlight, and some locals saw a tourism opportunity. Wernher Von Braun, the famous Nazi rocket scientist who helped the Americans build their space program, came to investigate on behalf of the U.S. He was greeted at the train station by Palacios’ father, who was then the mayor of Escalón. Von Braun took reconnaissance flights in a Cessna to confirm the crash site. With the aid of 300 Mexican workers, a 16 kilometer rail spur was built across the desert to the impact crater. A team of Americans then came and excavated.
“Von Braun was here for 28 days after the crash,” says Palacios during our extended tour of the area. “The Americans brought temporary dormitories, labs, kitchens, medical facilities, and set them up right here in the desert. They even built a runway to transport cargo directly to Houston. By rail, they hauled away tons of debris.”
It’s all gone now. There is no evidence of the five-story, seven-ton rocket, of the impact crater, of the rail spur, or of any of the structures. However, the rocket crash sparked interest in the area, and a few years later the Mexican government created the Mapimí Biosphere Reserve. The reserve has a research station, and hosts scientists from around the world, many of whom are biologists attracted to the unusual flora and fauna–including North America’s largest land reptile, the threatened Gopherus tortoise.
A larger area extending to the northeast is part of a bolsón, a depression in the desert which, due to the thickness of the soil, retains moisture. At one time, millions of years ago, the Zone was under the Sea of Thetys, the remnants of which can be seen in fossilized sea shells and vast salt deposits. Today, the salt is mined by laborers with shovels and wheelbarrows. It is difficult terrain, and not an area where outsiders should venture alone.
“We can’t go in that direction,” says Palacios, pointing to Tetas de Juana, twin peaks that shoot directly from the desert floor—and behind which the two large Chupadero meteorites fell. “It is riddled with old mine shafts, and there has been some moisture, which can make for hard driving.”
For generations, stories have abounded from in and around the Zone of encounters with strange beings, unusual lights in the sky, and an over-abundance of meteor showers. These usually come from people living on remote ranches, or outsiders who have gotten lost in the desert. People have seen fireballs in the sky and, at times, flames rolling down the sides of mountains like massive, ignited tumbleweeds.
“There are lots of stories of aliens and unidentified flying objects in the Zone,” says Geraldo Rivera, a bespectacled state bureaucrat who is also Chihuahua’s most devoted UFO investigator. “People often get lost in the Zone. When this happens, sometimes tall blond beings appear out of nowhere.”
Those who claim to have encountered the tall, fair haired aliens, say that the individuals speak perfect Spanish, ask only for water, and disappear without so much as a footprint. When asked where they come from, the beings—known as Nordics—say only, “Above.”
Even Benjamin Palacios has a story. “I was 12 years old when a light appeared from above, and completely encircled us,” he says. “I was traveling with my brother in the Zone. We didn’t know what was happening. When we got back to the ranch, we realized we had lost two hours.”
Palacios’ dream is to capitalize on the supernatural intrigues and turn the Zone of Silence into a “tourist Mecca, with people staying at my ranch, and taking guided tours.” At one time, the area attracted hordes of curious “zoneros” seeking aliens and paranormal experiences, but few tourists come to this part of Mexico now, largely due to the deteriorating security situation. If they ever come back, “I want to build eight small cabanas, each named after a planet in the solar system,” he says.
It might happen. The area has under-explored delights, such as a hacienda abandoned over a century ago, during the tumult of the Mexican revolution, and thermal springs tucked into a cave. This is a starkly beautiful and compelling part of the world, but it is remote: Escalón has under 1,000 inhabitants, and Ceballos has just over 3,000. Their populations diminished as passenger rail service was abandoned and young people moved to the city or the U.S. Other than a few ranches, the desert itself is essentially empty.
Nonetheless, boosters like Palacios carry on, eager to recount stories of the Zone’s unusual properties. These include abnormally large flora and fauna and, according to Palacios, salutary properties—he tells me that he has never been sick, and this, he believes, is because of the Zone.
“The Zone has been good to our family,” says his wife, Cha Cha Palacios, as we move through the waning light. “Our daughter Alejandra and her husband could not have children. They tried everything, went to all the doctors. Then they came to the Zone, and conceived. Two years later, they returned, and conceived again.”
Is it true? It hardly seems to matter as we trundle across the flat terrain, the sun setting to the west and the moon, directly opposite, rising over a distant mountain range. Out here in the desert the world feels different. It is as if we are on a fulcrum, the earth tilting, with an orange fireball raising a metallic saucer in a quiet, celestial see-saw.