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13307 kms: Real de Catorce - A real ghost town

Written on: Wednesday June 4th, 2008

A journal entry from: North America in our Camper Van!

In the mid 19th century, the Real de Catorce silver mines were producing over 3 million dollars a year and the town was bustling with opulent houses, luxury & silvers shops and wealthy residents with a population of 40,000 people. By the mid 20th century the town was nearly deserted, buildings crumbling and the once lavish homes abandoned. Less than 1000 people remained scratching out a living on old mine tailings and the annual influx of pilgrims. In recent years, this ghost town has been undergoing a re-awakening. An influx of artists have moved in, new hotels and restaurants established in restored colonial buildings, and new tourism established greatly fuelled by the interest in the mysterious Huichol indigenous peoples. Every year, the Huichols make a 400 km pilgrimage across Mexico's central plateau to the sacred mountain, El Quemado, located near Real de Catorce. During their pilgrimage they seek out the peyote cactus, a strong hallucinogen with great cultural and spiritual significance. Real has also gained Hollywood fame status as several movies have been filmed in town and in the surrounding hills, including "The Mexican" starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.

The journey to get to Real (pronounced Ray-yal) was something in itself, and started by driving down what we think must be the world's longest cobblestone road. Many bumpy kilometres later across a desert flat, out-of-view of the start of the cobblestone, the road started to slowly wind up an abrupt mountain range for several more kilometres. A giant archway, with "Bienvenidos a Real de Catorce" written atop, marked the entrance to the 2.3 km tunnel leading through the Ogarrio mountain to the mining town located on the other side. 

Once through the tunnel, we bargained with a hotel owner to let us park our van and camp in his large gated gardens on the outskirts of town. The town was largely built into the side of a mountain and from our campsite we had a beautiful vista of the surrounding hills. We spent a few days just relaxing at our campsite and wondered out into the town, exploring tiny shops, interesting buildings and took some short hikes in the nearby hills. It was a small place and on numerous occasions we came across Gilberto, a middle aged Mexican cowboy, persistent to take us on a guided horseback tour to the sacred Huichol mountain. After much persuasion, we found ourselves on sitting atop horses and heading out into the surrounding hills with our guide. The trip turned out to be quite good, except for the extremely uncomfortable saddles and the inability to walk properly that we both experience upon dismounting. However, the hills surrounding Real are as magical and surreal as they are reported to be and once at the top of El Quemado, we could sense why this place is considered to be sacred by the indigenous people.

Back at the campground, we thought to overcome our saddle rashes by taking a short walk. As we followed the road leading away from town, we first heard, and then saw a fancy SUV blaring Mexican pop music parked in a roadside pulled out. Three men were standing by the tailgate and were bellowing out the words to the pop songs, beers in hand. "Rob, I think they are gesturing for us to come over". "Okay," he said, "let's go". I trailed behind reluctantly as Rob walked up to the men and introduced himself. Before we knew it, we each had a drink in our hand and I was playing translator for Rob, Aureliano, Francisco and Miguel. Aureliano, Franciso and Miguel were all slightly intoxicated, but very nice, and ended up inviting us to join them for diner as they were interested in our story and travels. They brought us to a beautiful up-scale restaurant which had been renovated from a 19th century bank building. The architecture and stone work inside was breathtaking. Aureliano then ordered a feast and dishes started arriving and wine was poured until we were all so full we sent the last plate away. Despite the language barrier, Rob did an excellent job communicating and everyone laughed so much I was worried that we were disturbing the other upscale clientele of the restaurant. By the end of the evening, Aureliano was offering Rob and I engineering jobs in San Luis Potosi, the nearby city where he worked as a Development Officer for the State. We had nearly solved Miguel's love life problems, and I had given him some tips for finding a good woman. Francisco and Aureliano insisted on paying the entire restaurant bill, and then invited us to a nearby pub to watch the Brazil-Mexico soccer match. We enjoyed another few beers at the pub, but the Mexican team was doing so badly that our friends lost interest in watching the game and decided to head back to Matehuala, about an hour away. They were supposed to be attending a business meeting the following morning. We thanked our new friends for a lovely evening and then stumbled our separate directions.