Real de Catorce - The Incredible City

By Turk Pipkin - originally appeared in Texas Monthly

 

Thousands of feet below me Mexico's Chihuahuan desert shimmered in the mid-day heat, while a mountain of solid rock loomed ahead, the only way through, a long pitch black tunnel just wide enough for my car.  I was headed for the Mexican ghost town of Real (Ree-al) de Catorce.  It is called Real, but in fact it is un-real.  A seven hour drive south of Nuevo Laredo in the state of San Luis Potosí -- the city was founded over two hundred years ago high atop the Catorce mountains at an elevation of 9,000 feet.  At its flourishing peak there were 40,000 residents, but its rich silver mines were abandoned in the early 1900's, leaving a vast and eerie ghost town of just 800 residents, a slender stream of adventurous visitors, and a once a year flood of religious pilgrims to this early day "Hole in the Wall."

   What keeps most visitors away is the only entrance - a mile and a half drive through the one-lane, unlit Ogarrio tunnel.  Traffice flow is regulated between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., either with a rusty old telephone or with a flag that a car carries through to the other side.  At other hours, you are on your own. 

   I waited nervously in my car as a couple of pick-ups drove out of the black hole, then a man who seemed as if he might be in charge waved me on.  My innermost fears made themselves known in my stomach as I slowly entered the darkness.  A small chapel just inside the tunnel, carved into the mountain in memory of those who died digging this vast hole, did little to put me at ease.  And I was not particularly pleased to discover that not only was it dark inside, but dusty too; reluctantly I switched my headlights to low beam.  Negotiating a curve, I considered the local bus driver who likes to speed through no-handed and come out on the other end with his tie perfectly knotted.  A mile and a half never seemed so long.

   The city turned out to be as magical as the tunnel was dark, and it began to works its mysteries on me almost immediately after I emerged into the bright sunshine.  I was wandering around town looking for the Hotel Real, when a tall, bearded Mexican man asked me if I was his guest from Texas.   I had not found the hotel; the hotel's owner had found me.  Humberto Fernandez is a former San Francisco hippie who returned to his childhood home with a mission.  "It was my dream to start a community of artists here: writers, painters, sculptors."  Slowly but surely that dream is taking shape as visitors fall in love with this mystical place and do not want to leave.  A sculptor from Austin, a photographer from Paris; like Humberto they are trying to resurrect the Phoenix from the ruins.

   After the city was abandoned in the early 1900's, much of the iron, stone and even the roof timbers were stripped from once impressive mansions and hauled down the mountain for scrap.  Humberto and many fine local craftsmen are now reversing the deconstruction of Real, rebuilding magnificent structures almost from scratch; pouring molten lead into dyes in order to repair ornate cast iron railing and rebuilding massive stone walls with the same chipped-rock grout patterns that exist throughout the city.  A piece of decoratively painted plaster was carefully set aside in a building Humberto had spent the last two years restoring.  When finished the entire lower floor will be re-plastered and painted to match the original pattern and colors.

   Similar care was taken with the guest rooms of the Hotel Real.  Surrounding a three story courtyard, each has tile floors and colorful adobe walls, with windows and wrought iron balconies looking out onto the town. 

   Not all newly reoccupied buildings receive such loving attention -- several sport shiny tin roofs which from the steep slopes above the town seem conspicuously out of place -- but so far all such work has been piecemeal by individual owners.  There have long been rumors of a government sponsored tourist development, but water is scarce and the tunnel long.

   "There are incredible treasures buried beneath some of these houses," Humberto told me."Many of the buildings were destroyed by treasure hunters, some of whom found hundreds of pounds of pure silver."

   I asked if he'd ever dug in his buildings for treasure.

   "I don't knock things down." he told me.  "I build them up."

Humberto's partner in building up Real is his Swiss born wife, Cornelia Ramseier who runs La Luna gift shop on the main plaza.  I ran around her the small store in glee, wanting to buy nearly everything I touched: hand-crafted silver jewelry, fossils from the area, finely woven straw hats from Michoacan, some of the nicest Oaxacan masks I'd ever seen.  Best of all, La Luna's prices were among the most reasonable I found in four thousand miles of driving Mexico.

   Speaking of which, driving in Mexico -- despite mostly unfounded rumors of bandidos and crooked federales -- can be very safe with even the simplest common sense precautions.  Sleek new four lane toll roads or 'Cuotas' connect many major cities, and Mexico's crime rate is a fraction of what we suffer under in the U.S.  Sanborn's, the primary issuer of Mexican auto insurance for U.S. drivers, issued 80,000 policies last year and had only seven(?) claims for stolen cars.  The Fort Worth auto theft rate is a hundred times higher.

There is no grocery story in Real de Catorce and much of the town's food must be trucked up the mountain from nearby Matehuala.  The best meal are found at the Hotel Real, all prepared from fresh ingredients: huge bowls of caldo with fresh vegetables; rice and hot tortillas; appetizers with home-cured black olives that surpass the Greek Calamata olive imported to the states; caboches, the pickled flower buds of barrel cactus (harvested with a sharp pointed stick); and fresh Swiss cheese made from the milk of Swiss dairy cows that were imported by Humberto’s brother in law.  Did I mention the fresh baked garlic bread?  Pizza and pasta are the house specialties and espresso rounds out every meal, taking the edge off the cool mountain air. 

   I soon discovered there are also plenty of sights to see in town but be warned, the streets are extremely hilly and you need sturdy walking shoes and strong legs.  The local museum is filled with mining artifacts, prized possessions of the European royalty who once lived here, and photographs which spell out the incredible history of the town.  At one end of town the low walls of the abandoned bullring reminded me of the local tales of the last bullfight held eleven years ago, when the bull jumped out of the ring, ran amok through the town and escaped into the mountains.  A reward was offered and he was eventually captured and converted into fajitas.

   I wandered through the Sunday street market where the local Indians were selling various goods ranging from stalactites (presumably looted from nearby caves or mines) to 80 million year old ocean fossils which apparently litter some of the nearby mountaintops.  I bought a few things, feeling no need to haggle over the 'starting' prices, knowing that I still got an incredible deal.

   I found myself repeatedly drawn to the main plaza's exquisitely detailed cast iron gazebo (dated 1888) which is surrounded by a lush garden of gigantic antique roses, but I was usually the only person there.  The locals tend to gather at the smaller square in front of the Templo Parroquia or Parrish Church.  This massive domed cathedral, built in 1783 of cut sandstone, dominates Real de Catorce.  Inside I discovered that the floor I was walking on was actually the tops of a wall to wall assembly of the caskets of dead miners.  As far as I could determine there is no record of the number of miners who died inside this mountain, but the available photos of working conditions, the archaeologic evidence, and the size of the local cemetery all suggest that the numbers were high.

   If Humberto and others like him are saving the town physically, then the credit for the city's spiritual and monetary survival is owed to La Parroquia's famed statue of Saint Francis which is believed to be the source of countless miracles.  The back anteroom of the church is covered in hundreds and hundreds of retablos,  primitively painted but beautiful tin wall plaques which testify to worldly miracles granted by the Saint.  One showed a crying man standing next to his broken cart and dead burro that had been run over by a large truck. "Thank you Saint Francis for saving me from this terrible accident," it read.

   The fourth of October is the birthday of Saint Francis, and the weekends before and after, he is taken around town for a celebratory paseo in front of a hundred thousands pilgrims who come from all over Mexico, jamming the local streets (and the tunnel) for the event.  It's supposedly quite a sight but don't go without an advance reservation at the Hotel Real or its competitor, the Quinta Puesta del Sol.

   Another group of visiting pilgrims are the Huicholi Indians who consider this mountain sacred, trekking here at various times to consume the local peyote in an ancient ritual conducted by their shaman.  The Huicholi do not interact much with locals or tourists but the local peyote has long been a draw for the seekers of Don Juan.  I did not partake of any hallucinogenics, but I did feel a connection to the ancient mystical attraction of this place.  Thrust from the bottom of the oceans, this mountain is straight from the basement of time.  Both the former glories of the city and the human misery which accompanied its construction are clearly present.  There is a sadness in the ruins -- giant cacti grow from the roofs of buildings once painstakingly constructed -- but there is also constant evidence of the Mexican determination to conquer all odds, to make habitable a place that was never meant for man; to climb the mountain and be that much closer to God.

   I am a notoriously restless traveler, always eager to move on down the road, but I stayed an extra day in Real in order to ride up the mountain.  You can rent horses from the Hotel Real for $30 for a half day with a guide and lunch, an adventure straight out of the Treasure of the Sierra Madres ("and you don't need no stinking badges").   Along with Hans and Susan, two new friends from Los Angeles and the only other Americans in town, and with Humberto as our guide, we started through town on small, sure-footed mountain horses, their hooves unshod to keep them from slipping on the sharp, rocky paths.  Following a path up the starkly barren slopes, after an hour we passed the only grove of trees on the entire mountain, Alamore trees, the kind of tree from which the Texas Alamo gets its name, a tree known in Texas as the Sycamore.  (Of course "Remember the Sycamo?" would have made an ill-advised batle cry.)  Most of the Catorce mountains were once covered in forests but the trees were cut  by the Spanish and the Mexicans for heating, cooking, building and shoring up the mines.  With the soil that the trees held now long washed away, the mountain seems likely to remain eternally bare. 

   We passed an Indian woman and her daughter, both leading burros loaded with products for the market in Real.  They'd been on the trail for four hours from their village of Los Alamitos.  Far below us the city of Real shone in the sun like a handful of diamonds that had been cast onto the barren mountain and forgotten forever.

W  e stopped to rest and inspect the massive ruins of Concepcion Mine.  Several hundred yards across, the giant stone arches, swimming -pool sized cisterns, and intricate rockwork -- though long abandoned to the elements -- still show some of their original plaster and decorative hand-stenciled paint, all of which seems incongrous with the dirty work of a mine.  The main ore removal shaft was open wide, cutting straight down so deeply that rocks tossed in never seemed to hit bottom.  Instead we heard the rock bouncing from side to side as it fell, the sound slowly fading away to nothingness.

   Concepcion would be the normal destination for a perfect ride, but Humberto was not planning a normal ride for us.  Mounting up, we headed farther up the mountain, over the top and started down the other side.  The downslopes were steep and covered in loose rock I thought no horse could traverse.  Easing down the treacherous trails and challenging our fear of heights, we eventually came to the abandoned 18th Century church, the Chiesa Santa Anita.

   Tying the horses together in pairs so they could graze upon the dried grasses and flowers, we unpacked and ate a lunch of hot coffee, fresh mangoes, apples and quesadillas cooked on an abandoned shovel.   Slipping inside the sanctuary, which was built for miners who died two centuries ago and now stands alone and barren on the mountain, we discovered that the walls and roof are still vividly painted and that -- though the nearest resident is an hour's ride away by burro -- the church remains decorated for the once a year mass celebrated here each Christmas. 

   Rehaltering our horses, we continued down the mountain to the recently abandoned La Luz mine.  At the local store, we bought cold Modelo beer and mineral water and presented gifts to some kids, one wearing a Texas A & M cap.  With no place else to go on Sunday, most of the town was hanging out, checking out the fresh vegetables and fruits being unloaded from a truck.  The "parking lot" in front of the store, had at least thirty saddled burros waiting to be ridden home.

   Exhilarated and exhausted, we decided to shorten our return trip by riding up the cobblestone highway to the tunnel.  The horses were more comfortable on the smooth stones and we galloped most of the way as I tried not to think of what lay ahead.  Convincing someone else’s horse to ride into a narrow, pitch black tunnel a mile and a half long is only a little more difficult than convincing a gringo from Austin to do the same.  We started in gingerly and were soon narrowly passed by a speeding truck which only made the horses more nervous.  The light behind us held for the first few hundred yards then faded quickly.  Our eyes adjusted to the blackness, picking up a faint glow for a while, then we were blind, each of us, on horses also blind.  Humberto had a flashlight but, trying to make the weak batteries last, he would only blink it on for a second or two at a time. 

   My horse was doing fine, but just behind me Susan’s horse began to panic and backed into a small side tunnel, dragging her off so that Humberto had to return to help her.  Not me.  I couldn’t have turned my horse around if I’d wanted to.  His mind was set on the other end and he would not stop so we trotted along, guided back to the center of the tunnel by occasionally brushing my hat or shoulder on the low arched ceiling.  I clearly remember thinking that this was either the most fun I’d ever had, or the most scared I’d ever been.  Or both.

   After ten or fifteen minutes, it occurred to me that if we didn’t hurry, they might allow cars to come towards us from the other end -- perhaps a speeding bus driver knotting his tie.  At long last, the others caught up with me, Humberto flashed the light a little more frequently and we began to gallop through the last mile of the tunnel.  It was eerie in the cool darkness, the riding effortless.  Though the horses were racing at full speed, without visual reference points it felt as if we were standing still.  Soon a single lightbulb shown at the curve near the far end, and we saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

   Saddle sore and hungry, we ate on the park benches of the Zocalo and none of us could quit talking about our incredible trip.  My knees were racked from the short stirrups, my butt was sore, and I was very happy.

   When I bid farewell to Real de Catorce at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, I found myself once again at the entrance to the tunnel, this time with no one in sight to wave me on.  But the thing I had feared the most now seemed like child's play.  I cruised through at 30 mph and wished I had a tie to knot around my neck.  Coming out of the hole in the wall, I found myself high above a sea of beautiful white and pink clouds.  I was on top of the world; and in my head I was already making plans to return.

 

The Mexican tourist bureau has their eye on Real de Catorce  -- and so should you.  Go now before the 40,000 ghosts are replaced by discos and parking garages.

150 miles south of Saltillo (just north of Matehuala) it’s only thirty miles from the Highway 57 turn-off to Real de Catorce,.  Go through the onyx and marble mining town of Cedral and turn right one block past the main plaza.  Seven miles later, turn left onto the cobblestones and begin the climb to Real de Catorce.

Double rooms at the Hotel Real are $33 per night.  Meals are also a bargain.