How Cynta de Narvaez (SF83) Found Solace and Built a Business in a Texas Ghost Town

March 14, 2024 | By Catherine Darling Fitzpatrick (SF16)

Nestled in the heart of a West Texas ghost town, Villa Terlingua—a three-building boutique hotel owned and operated by St. John’s Santa Fe alumna Cynta de Narvaez (SF83)—stands proud. 

Cynta de Narvaez (SF83)

As one skims the “About Us” section on Villa Terlinguas’ website, one phrase sticks out at the tail end of its description: “It’s quiet here.” Guests of de Narvaez revel in that silence during their stay, in full view of the star-studded night skies and just a few miles from the scrubby, sprawling vistas of Big Bend National Park.

The hotel serves new and returning visitors to the West Texas ghost town of Terlingua, just 12 or so miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Terlingua is very remote. Airports and Amtrak stops are hours away by car. The town’s population has nearly doubled in the last decade but still hovers around 300 in total.

With all this in mind, one might ask: What kind of person decides to undertake a project like building a boutique hotel on top of an old ruin in a West Texas ghost town?

Like any good Johnnie, de Narvaez has weathered difficult times by returning to the texts that most spoke to her during her time at St. John’s. Life has presented her with more than a few opportunities to lean hard into the stoicism of Aurelius’ Meditations.

de Narvaez was forced to embrace independence and self-reliance almost immediately after deciding to attend college. “I’m from New York … My parents wanted me to attend a fancy school, marry a rich man,” she recalls. Her decision to enroll at St. John’s infuriated her parents to the point that they provided her with no financial support. The necessity of taking dishwashing jobs and semesters off to work towards her tuition made her Great Books education even more meaningful to de Narvaez. She cherished her time in New Mexico, taking the opportunity to connect with her Hispanic heritage while cultivating a passion for the outdoors.

de Narvaez, who learned the ropes of rowing and river guiding on the Taos River, knew as early as her senior year that she wanted to become a river guide. After picking up the basics in Taos, she moved to Utah, and then to the Grand Canyon, where she worked for several years.

During this time, de Narvaez spent a fateful June day leading a group along the Grand Canyon River route, followed by a 13-mile run in the scorching heat. Fellow guides had mistakenly moved her supply of clean water upstream, and a parched de Narvaez decided to risk wetting her mouth at a nearby stream.

As soon as the water touched her tongue, she knew that something was wrong. Over the ensuing weeks and months, she grappled with loss of sensation in her limbs and debilitating fatigue that rendered her incapable of consistently working as a river guide. It turned out to be Lyme disease.

de Narvaez’s river community rallied around her during her sudden physical deterioration. “It was like everyone in the community saw me get sick and thought, ‘Oh, that could be me,’” she says. They created a desk job for her, which gave her time to build her strength back up while considering her next move. “I was an athlete, and I now had a disabling illness,” de Narvaez says. “I knew I couldn’t rely on river guiding for my income every month of the year going forward.”

de Narvaez decided to attend graduate school, and eventually received an interdisciplinary Master’s in Climate Change from Northern Arizona University. During a break between this degree and a planned PhD, she visited Terlingua and purchased the property that would soon become her hotel. “I had heard about Terlingua over and over again, from river guides in Moab, in the Grand Canyon, on the San Juan River. ‘Have you been to Terlingua? You should go. You’d like it there,’” she says. Sure enough, de Narvaez did like Terlingua—enough to shift her focus towards establishing a boutique hotel in the ghost town.

Lyme’s disease, like many autoimmune diseases, tends to flare and ease in waves. Villa Terlingua, a ruin she bought on a whim for $2,500, turned into a lifeline once de Narvaez’s illness returned. “This time,” she says, “I had a hotel. I had a business.”

Villa Terlingua is filled with books; captivating art objects adorn every room. These are all personally selected by de Narvaez, who procured the furnishings piece by piece over many years as a river guide and sea kayak guide around Baja California, Belize, Costa Rica, and other places. This curation occurred during what she refers to as the “good times”—the months or years-long periods between bouts of Lyme’s disease.

During the “good” stretches, de Narvaez toiled tirelessly, alternating between river guide gigs and constructing and renovating the hotel. Beginning with the renovation of its “main house”—once Terlingua’s largest residential ruin—she progressed to designing and building the property’s “guest house” along with a 5-foot stone privacy wall. As a final touch, she designed and build an eco-friendly “blue house” (named so for its Monet vibes; de Narvaez says she was “very into Monet” during construction) from durable papercrete. “I’d travel, I’d make money, I’d buy a bunch of cool things to decorate my hotel with,” she says. The hotel today features three beautiful, comfortable structures available for short-term rental.

When bad times roll around, de Narvaez returns to her touchstones: “I’m a stoic! When times are good, I live very well. When times are bad, I work on philosophy.” She is grateful for the confidence instilled in her by her St. John’s education— “a real ‘kick the tires’ kind of confidence” she says has come in handy at many points in her life.

“You end up finding what you have that can’t be taken away,” she says. “For me, that was always my heart.”