The second to last leg of the long journey to Real de Catorce involves approximately 15 miles of cobblestone, a Mexican version of the road to a rural OZ that ascends the mountains. The final leg and only way to reach the remote, abandoned silver mining town is through a dark 1.5 mile one lane tunnel cutting through the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. Emerging from the black hole we entered another world and for the first time in months time slowed down to a natural cadence.
Founded by the Spanish in the late 18th Century Real de Catorce’s heyday was in the 19th century when the silver mine was in full swing. It became a ghost town during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921).
About a decade ago the town began undergoing a renaissance. Out of towners, artists and Europeans came to stay and never left. They began, with local townspeople, to restore buildings and open businesses including hotels and restaurants creating a tourist infrastructure.
At 9,000 feet above sea level walking the steep, dusty cobblestone lanes of Real de Catorce can take the wind out of travelers who are accustomed to sea level altitudes. But who needs the ocean when you can explore the ruins of what looks like the set of a western. It brings back the childhood joy of entering abandoned buildings but without having to sneak or face the repercussions of being caught.
Real de Catorce’s atmospheric streets, where restored and crumbling stone buildings sit side by side, and stunning surrounding scenery have caught the eye of Hollywood. The film The Mexican, featuring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, was filmed here.
In the center of town stands the Parish of the Immaculate Conception where each October thousands of religious pilgrims visit to pray to the altar statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the town. The Parish houses a room full of devotional paintings or retablos.
Other sites include the former mint building, now a museum, and a cock fighting ring. Across from the remains of a bull ring, which was being used a soccer pitch, is a chapel and cemetery, where families lovingly decorated graves during Day of the Dead, when we were there.
Jeep and horse rides into the desert are a popular activity. Every morning men congregate at on a corner of Hidalgo Square offering these services. On the other side of the square is a saloon complete with swinging doors where you might expect to see a horse parked outside. It’s not abandoned.
The surrounding landscape is sacred to the indigenous Huichol people who live in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. The Huichol make pilgrimages to a mountain near Real de Catorce to collect the peyote cactus, the hallucinogenic properties of which are used in sacred ceremonies. You’ll see the Huichol selling their crafts in town.
While Real de Catorce has a good selection of hotels and restaurants, during the week many of the eateries and small artisan shops are closed. It is virtually empty mid week, which suited us fine. As the weekend approached the town rapidly filled up with tourists struggling to wheel their luggage across the cobblestone and lines of cars losing traction attempting to navigate the steep inclines of the narrow streets.
Where To Stay
We stayed at beautiful Meson de la Abundancia, a former treasury building. The owners have meticulously decorated each room with local crafts and antiques. We woke up every morning to a beautiful view of the mountains from our large terrace and to the sound of braying donkeys and crowing roosters. The hotel’s restaurant is open all week and has an excellent menu with hearty servings and a good wine list.
How To Get There
Located in the state of San Luis Potisi Real, Real de Catorce isn’t easy to get to. I recommend taking the journey during daylight hours where on that second to last leg the view from the vistas of hairpin turns of the mountains and valleys below is spectacular. If you travel by bus you’ll have to change buses at the entrance of the tunnel for a smaller bus that fits through.
Mexico’s intercity buses run direct to Matehaula, about a 7 1/2 hour journey from Mexico City. Several daily buses also run from San Luis Postosi to Matehaula, which takes about 4 hours. From Matehaula 3-4 buses run daily, about a 2 hour journey.