The Lonely Planet travel guide said Real de Catorce is magical. It is. The magic starts with the approach. Fourteen miles of cobblestone road winding its way up a very steep hillside with vistas to the plains below. The views provoke extreme reverence. It gets even better. The next adventure is the one and one-half mile Ogarrio Tunnel. A single lane road through former mine shafts. Traffic control is two locals, each managing a telephone at each end.
And then…there it is! A 1750’s colonial town with steep, narrow cobblestone streets nestled in a valley at 8,300 feet. Undisturbed–for ninety years. Ever so quiet. A place to contemplate. Evaluate. Walk. And walk some more. To soak in life in a very personal way. Absolute tranquility.
The turn of the century street lights cast a surreal glow on the surrounding mountainsides. The sound of horses clopping along and donkeys braying all over town make you pay attention. And then there is the bar keeper unloading cases of brew from pack mules. A child makes his way through town on horseback with six untethered horses trotting along with him. Roosters are crowing at all the wrong hours. Rooftop dogs are barking.
Real de Catorce translates to royal of fourteen referring to Spanish soldiers killed by Indians in 1700. You will find this town 18 miles west of Matehuala, which is 125 miles due south of Monterrey in northeast Mexico. Until the early 1900’s, this was a wealthy, silver mining city of 40,000 people. At their peak in the late 1800’s, the mines were producing three million dollars worth of silver every year. Within three decades, it virtually became a ghost town. Were the townspeople chased off by the Mexican Revolution bandidos? Or by the slump in silver prices after 1900? A topic still up for debate. Until the late 1990’s, the stone buildings were boarded up in various states of ruin with a few hundred inhabitants eking out a living.
Today’s visitors include pilgrims. Some come to pay homage to the figure of St. Francis Assisi in the local parish church. Others are Huichol Indians (most noted for their three-dimensional beadwork) who reside 250 miles away. They believe that their peyote (a hallucinogenic cactus) and maize gods live in the surrounding hills. In May and June, they make a pilgrimage here to practice their cultural and religious rituals.
There is a string of horses on one side of the street and European high-performance motorcycles lined up in a row on the other side. The trendy descend. Artists, wealthy gringos, wealthy Mexicans, retreat seekers of the new age and classic hippie tendencies along with European expatriates. A Swiss expat said he could live here for a year on what it would cost him for a month at home.
Hollywood also made its impact. It installed the town’s first and only cellular tower for the filming of the movie, The Mexican, in the Spring of 2000. Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts were temporary residents.
Real de Catorce is not just a side day trip. You need time to absorb the magic. To muse on the past, what is going on now or what may happen tomorrow…in an imaginative, dreamy, pristine setting. Enjoy!