You approach Real de Catorce, at 2,700 M (9,000 Feet) through a long, narrow tunnel. The pueblo was adjacent to a silver mine, started in 1799 by two Basque families; at that time the town was only accessible on horseback. In 1901 a narrow gauge branch railway line was built to within 8 KM of the town. The 2.1 KM (1.3 Mile) of tunnel I drove through was hacked by hand out of solid rock and horse drawn carts were pulled along tracks laid in it to bring people and goods back and forth. This was subsequently electrified, eliminating the horses – a big advance at the time – and then abandoned when the mine failed.
The 30 KM drive up to the town, off the main highway is mostly on a rough, hand-built stone road. Guaranteed to shake bolts loose and mix up your kidneys. I pass through small towns and hamlets and simple shrines for folks who have died on the road – there appears to be some ranching and a limited amount of farming.
The village fell into disuse when the mine closed and became a ghost town (you can see dozens of abandoned and tumbled down casas just outside the town core); as recently as 1999 a blog referred to the village as deserted. In recent years, the Mexican government has put considerable effort into making it a tourist destination – it is one of the 100+ Pueblos Magicos that have been designated as worth visiting. Mexicans come to mountain bike hike and enjoy the stunning views of the valley.
The name of the pueblo itself is a puzzle: “real” was Spanish coin minted in gold or silver and used from the mid 1300s to the mid 1800s. “catorce” is the number 14; the sense of this phrase is “The reales of the fourteen.” but there is no record of who the fourteen are or why they had reales assigned to them.
The town feels rugged and rough and very close to the countryside, set amongst brown, striated and treeless hills, capped with dry looking scrub. The local folks are poor, with worn faces and hands, indication of lives of heavy labor: tourists and tourism are an alien but welcome thing.
Throughout the town’s history, Huichol shamans have come to the valley immediately below the town from as far away the Pacific coast to worship and indulge in the Peyote which is central to their faith. More recently, the government restricted access to the plant to only the Huichol as more entrepreneurial folks began to harvest the hallucinogen for personal use and ship excess quantities North to the insatiable American market.
The braying, bleating, honking of burros who sound pained and misunderstood, cowboys riding horses up the hand cobbled streets. Uniformed school children riding in the back of a pickup truck, smile and chatting. A lycra-clad mountain biker whizzes past me.
A stout woman, heavily skirted and in a hand knit sweater, with long dark, braided hair and rugged complexion, fresh off a 19th century hacienda, is plumped down on the church steps listening to a smart phone. Her mustachioed, leathery dark husband, listens along, smiling – it is a happy conversation. Church bells chiming in a simple manner. Waking to the sound of roosters, dirt bikes and a couple chatting amiably somewhere below my window.
My hotel was well photographed for booking.com – it has its own charm, is well intentioned, and a little rough around the edges. When making bookings, I need Jennifer’s input – I am too easily swayed by a first impression. She is the AirBNB whisper, able to discern the reality behind a series of photos (“if you look carefully here, here and here, you can see that the kitchen is the size of a shoe box” or “Why did they leave their clothes on the bed when they took the photograph?” or “On Google Street View, you can see that this neighborhood looks like an area zoned for light industrial.” All wise observations.)
A meal of Gorditas made with spicy sausage and blue corn tortillas, accompanied with a Coke (my Mexcian drink), sitting alone next to a long table of boisterous family members in what looks like a souvenir shop. We are the only customers. A gal is working deftly at a large heated pan, assembling the the Gorditas using fresh Masa, ensuring they seal and well cooked. Her partner buzzing around the room taking orders for sodas and an endless stream of food. There is a simple joy and sense of community in the room: whatever the family issues are that come and go – no doubt complex, even deep – they are held at bay for this simple meal.
I go to sleep in my chilly hotel room that night graciously accompanied by a dozen or more dogs around the village engaged in a persistent call and response, which quickly descends in a chaotic background sound of steady yelping; the news they are sharing is far too pressing to fall into the rhythmic structure of a gospel tune. Their stamina is impressive. The serenade is joined by the Tejano music generously shared by the guys fixing a truck in front of the beer store next door, its pumping tuba and trilling accordion giving the call and response a baseline and melody.