Real de Catorce [pronounced ‘re-al day ca-tor-say’] is a little mountain-town resting 9000 feet above sea level in the state of San Luis Potosi. In its heyday, it was a thriving silver mining settlement with a population of about 40,000 inhabitants. Today it is a ghost town with abandoned mines and less than 1000 full-time residents. Nonetheless, this remote village offers travelers a rare opportunity to experience the tranquility of the scenic mountains and their mystical spiritual energy – without too many annoying disturbances.
To get there, you must journey through the arid desert and ascend the mountains along an unpaved road that passes through several scanty villages whose rickety houses practically flow onto the dusty road. Children play happily along the roadside stopping only to catch a glimpse of the occasional passing vehicle on its way up to Real de Catorce. Chickens make quick dashes across the road while lazy burros (donkeys) graze on the limited patches of greenery to be found. The ground is parched and vegetation is limited to the resilient cactus and other stumpy yellowish-green shrubs.
Although you will pass an arch that reads “Bienvenidios a Real de Catorce” (Welcome to Real de Catorce), your journey to the mysterious town isn’t complete until you pass through the eerieOgarrio Tunnel – Real’s connection to the rest of the world. The narrow 2.5km long tunnel is only wide enough to accommodate one-way traffic, so guards with walkie-talkies sit on both ends directing traffic through the tunnel. Big charter buses do not fit in the tunnel, so travelers must transfer onto smaller shuttle buses (camionetas) to complete the journey.
Coming out of the dimply-lit tunnel feels like you have traveled through a warp zone and entered another century. At the entrance, a group of uniformly dressed cowboys eagerly await the arrival of new tourists, as providing horseback trips into the mountains is their primary source of income. There is no taxi lineup waiting for you like in other towns – as a matter of fact, I can’t recall seeing a single taxi during my stay. Unless you arrive by rented car be prepared to walk from the tunnel to your hotel, which will probably be less than 10 minutes away – as is everything else in Real de Catorce.
The main streets are made from crude grey cobblestones that accentuate the sound of horseshoes as they make contact with the uneven ground. The brightly dressed Huichole, an indigenous group native to the state of San Luis Potosi, line the streets selling their colourful handicrafts. Hotel and restaurant staff stand vigilantly in their doorways ushering you in to check out their vacant rooms and sample their tasty plates. Arriving in Real without a hotel reservation isn’t an issue since there are many fairly priced hotels and posadas (inns) to choose from – many as low as 200 pesos ($18USD) per night.
As the sun sets, life in Real also comes to a slow crawl and it takes on the appearance of a big screen ghost town. As a matter of fact, Real De Catorce has been used as the set for quite a few Hollywood films like The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Salma Hayek’s Las Bandidas. Shop doors close, street vendors pack up their offerings and cowboys and their faithful horses call it a day. With the exception of dim streetlights, there is very little light pollution so exceptional stargazing can be enjoyed from anywhere in town. On weekends mostly Mexican tourists stop in for a night or two and a few bars and restaurants open late to take advantage of the extra business. However, most of the local entertainment can be found at La Palenque, an arena originally built for cockfighting. Although cockfighting is still a popular event at the Palenque, the Roman style amphitheater is also a popular venue for concerts and political soapboxing. If your heart so desires, cockfights start at around 7pm and usually continue well into the wee hours of the morning (50 pesos – $5USD).
No trip to Real de Catorce would be complete without a horseback ride into the desert or to the sacredCerro Quemado Mountain – declared a national sacred site in 2001. Every year the Huichole make their pilgrimage through the desert to gather the sacred cactus (Peyote) and up to the summit of the mountain to leave offerings at the apparent birthplace of “Tatewari”, The God of Fire and patron of all shamans. Many tourists, dubbed “Peyote Tourists”, make their way to Real de Catorce specifically to try the hallucinogenic Peyote cactus while in the scenic desert setting. Although the government has made it illegal to possess Peyote (with the exception of the Huichole), trips into the desert to eat the peyote are offered openly around the town – the choice is yours.
Whether you go to Real de Catorce to escape the hustle of the city or to try the ritualistic peyote, be prepared to be amazed by the landscapes, people, tranquility and overall feeling that you have been transported a century into the past. I would highly recommend the trip to Real de Catorce if you are anywhere near the state of San Luis Potosi.