Trip to Real de Catorce - a Hollywood Ghost Town in Mexico
It's quite a journey to reach Real de Catorce, a village at 2700 m altitude. After a night in a motel as in American movies in the beautiful colonial center of San Luis Potosi, we take a bus to Matehuala, of which I only know the bus station where we can eat the Gordita. We then take a bus to Real de Catorce. Towards half way, the bus leaves the asphalt road to climb to the mountains through expanses of Opuntia cactus that take us away from the cities in increasingly dry and mountainous landscapes all along a paved road.
We cross hamlets, houses that look ruined, but are actually inhabited, we gradually enter the atmosphere. We plunge into the mountains, here men leave their hat only to sleep (and I'm not sure), life is a little harder, people have skin tanned by the sun and the cold of winter, in short, one enters the deep Mexico.
And then we arrive in front of a tunnel and there we must take a third bus but smaller because the other is too big to pass! The tunnel is an old mine. After 2.3 km in this old mine shaft, we finally arrive at Real de Catorce and when we come out of it, we find ourselves in another world. The city seems to have stopped time for more than a century with stone houses, saloon doors, cowboys and horses in the streets all seem authentic.
But there are still ugly souvenir shops and Sunday tourists to remind us that we are in the modern day. Real de Catorce was a rich mining town where there was gold and especially silver. For some reason still unclear, in the early 20th century the city went into decline. The explanations are numerous but none has been officially retained. The fall of the money price before the revolution is probably the most realistic.
The wealthy minesmen were no longer interested in mining these veins and left the city. On site we were also told that Pancho Villa and his acolytes were terrorizing the area, that the city had become the stronghold of highwaymen and that the inhabitants fled. Be that as it may, the city has been deserted until almost no one remains.
For a very long time, Real de Catorce was a ghost town, where only the poorest inhabitants remained and the Huichol or wirarika Indians from Nayarit and Jalisco came at the mercy of their pilgrimages and ritual ceremonies. In the 1980s, the place was rediscovered by European tourists, mainly hippies or New Age enthusiasts interested in huichol ceremonies and peyote (a hallucinogenic cactus consumed by the Indians).
The place has experienced a new boom and today its inhabitants live mainly from tourism. Today there are only few inhabitants and many houses are in ruins. This is what makes this village so special and attracts tourists. And then there are the landscapes. The village is lost in the middle of the mountains at the doors of the desert.
It is a little complicated to walk the streets with the crowd and all the hawkers, but the turn of the few streets is quite fast. Apart from the architecture, the ruins and the sumptuous landscapes, the main points of interest are the two churches of the city (the first in the center of the village, the other at the exit with a cemetery on the Sad Hill).
There are cacti everywhere but it's almost the only plant trace. Upon our arrival the local guides jump on us to offer a horseback ride in the mountains, in the desert, to the mines. To enjoy this beautiful place we offered ourselves horseback rides. We were also invited to camp in the desert of wirikuta, the sacred desert of huichols where they come to collect the peyote to perform their shamanic rituals a little higher up the mountain. The idea is to go down to the desert to eat peyote and spend the night there.
I see the palenque cock fights that I have never managed to find (I think it's in a space-time gap), the palace of the currency, and the old mines called the ghost village. Accompanied by our guide we trotted to a ghost village abandoned at the closing of the mines. We went into a mine shaft but we did not find anything. The ride also allowed us to have a great point of view of Real de Catorce!
The place is just beautiful and breathtaking, I lack adjectives. It hass a decor and atmosphere worthy of a Sergio Leone movie. We turn from time to time to ensure that Blondin is not around. The very irregular stone streets goes up and down with stone houses, decrepit facades, and buildings in ruins. Obviously, we understand that part of this atmosphere is cleverly maintained to attract tourists.
However, there is a reality that is the roughness and isolation of the place. Most of the inhabitants are modest people and that is not folklore. The village has many hotels. Because of Panchito, many were full and others were downright closed to avoid the crowd. We therefore opted for the superb and a bit off budget charming hotel with restaurant located in one of the oldest buildings in the city (more than 200 years old).
The wooden doors are vintage, the decor is very beautiful, the service impeccable and very friendly, the restaurant is very good and not very expensive. For dinner, we find tacos, and chickens that grill on the embers at a street corner.
We took the direction of the mountain of Quemado, a place of ritual Huitchole (the natives of the corners) very important in the country. It is possible to do it on horseback or aboard a willys jeep of the 1960s with thrills guaranteed. I chose the jeep fearing to have too many jerks on horse. When we realize that the jeep does not have any dial that works, that the road is in fact a stone path that goes down a ravine (on which it is impossible to cross) and that it has rained down previous night and well we take on ourselves!
And the Oscar for the best joke of the year goes to our little co-pilot who offers us to sit on the roof of the jeep because it's much more fun up there. In the end we went down and reassembled in one piece and I must admit that the trip is beautiful and then it's true that it's rather fun.
The scenery was beautiful with the land that was full of different colors and all the cactus. We feasted all the way. After arrival at the top, we walk in spiral to reach the center of the circle where offerings are deposited. Mexicans come in number during Holy Week in this place laden with positive energy to pray, sacrifice a toro and take peyotes, hallucinogenic cacti.
I would like to point out that the collection and consumption of peyote is prohibited in Mexico with the sole exception of Huichol Indians who are allowed to pick it up and consume it as part of their religious ceremonies. I add that for me, to consume for recreational purposes substances with a sacred character for other populations (and especially on the territory which it considers sacred) is a lack of respect, to see a form of blasphemy.
Finally, it is to take the risk that the authorities end up totally prohibiting this practice, even for religious practices. I also recall that the authorities are relatively open-minded about the use of drugs and other narcotics, especially by foreigners. The reality is that a large majority of foreign tourists who come to Real de Catorce do so to live this mystical experience and not for the architecture, the western atmosphere and the beauty of the mountains. And yet it is an absolutely magical place.
It is a place that makes me want to stay because it is quiet and the view is very beautiful. We are above the desert plain of Mexico! But we do not have time to sink into the desert. Real de Catorce has also served as a set for several films, including The Mexican, with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. On the return we continued to be taken for cowboys. Well, especially me!
We had a big crush on this village. First because it has a lot of charm and then because after all the cities we visited for 3 weeks to be in the middle of nature was a real pleasure. The only inconvenience is that if it is difficult to arrive here it is even harder to leave! The little old man from the office gave us the bus schedule but it was only the weekend! We took advantage of this beautiful village for a few more hours!
In normal times, Real de Catorce is a very quiet place, with few people in the streets, close to the image of the abandoned village of postcards. But that's normal! This is without counting on the patronal feast of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the city, which take place throughout the month of October, and especially on weekends. And what an experience!
The streets of the village are invaded by merchants who settle to sell all kinds of candies based cajeta, flowers and religious objects for ceremonies, medicinal herbs, some huichol crafts, in short, the junk in a 100% Mexican atmosphere. The travel guides advise to avoid the period of pilgrimages to St. Francis of Assisi, or Panchito for intimates, and during the three days of our stay, we were almost the only foreign tourists in the village.
What a pity for others who have followed this advice. From Friday evening a ballet of livestock comes pouring a steady stream of pilgrims, mainly from Monterrey and Saltillo. The access tunnel is closed to traffic and it is now in carts pulled by mules that we enter or leave the city. The crowd of pilgrims settles everywhere, they sleep and eat in the street before leaving on Sunday.
The people, all very modest, come by piety and religious devotion to touch the miraculous statue of St. Francis and attend mass and other processions. It is very touching because all these people have a deep faith and whatever our personal convictions, we can only respect such fervor.
As everywhere in Mexico, Christian rituals mingle with older traditions, cemeteries around churches are invaded by onlookers, we sometimes walk on the graves, but never for lack of respect. In the evening, we find ourselves near the tacos and gorditas stalls to eat and sing to warm up because in October, it is chilly at night when we are at nearly 3000 meters above sea level.
We arrived this morning in Guanajuato our last stop before Mexico City. After dreaming for more than ten years to finally see Real de Catorce, I was not disappointed. The magic of the place, its isolation, its decor worthy of the greatest Westerns have been up to par. The small surprise of the great pilgrimage, far from being a disadvantage, added a touch of authenticity to this place that could look like a museum in normal times.
It was a great opportunity to mingle with the crowd, to see people live, to share precious moments with them. It was a great opportunity to dive into the real Mexico, deep, rural, rough and so welcoming for who knows how to smile and show respect. So unlike travel guides I do not advise you to avoid the month of October. However, prepare your stay a little in advance.
If you want to enjoy the calm and the ghostly atmosphere of this city indeed, wait a bit and go to another period. I'll see you soon for Mexican adventures, to Puebla the (too) beautiful and the port of Veracruz and its European influences. So do not miss the rest and see you soon!