December 15 – 17, 2022.
Real de Catorce is one of those places that I’m glad we made the effort to visit. And a bit of effort it was. This town sits nestled in the Sierra de Catorce mountain range at about 8800 feet in the state of San Luis Potosí. The journey there starts with a 17-mile cobblestone road. I think cobblestone roads are lovely but after 17 miles of having your home and body rattled, their appeal diminishes. At the end of the 17 miles of jostling you find yourself at the mouth of a tunnel that was bored through a mountain over 120 years ago. This tunnel, named Ogarrio, which takes you the rest of the way to the town is an adventure in itself. It is also cobbled, stretches 1 1/2 miles, and is only wide enough for one-way traffic. Its height is variable and we were told that its lowest point isn’t tall enough for a 9 1/2-foot tall van.
At the entrance of the tunnel is a sort of plaza of ruins with artwork, informational displays, a few shuttered businesses, many cobblestone parking lots, and a few oversized tour buses and delivery trucks that wouldn’t fit through the tunnel. The parking lots are built into a side of a hill and sit at various levels. They were mostly empty but I’ve read that they can fill up during holidays.
A woman stood at the mouth of Ogarrio with a walkie-talkie. She was collecting the toll for the transit through the tunnel and coordinating the one-way traffic with another woman on the other side. Across from her a line of trucks with canvas-covered truck beds were parked on the side of the road.
Once we arrived and got out to explore we were immediately asked if we wanted a ride into town by people from the canvas-covered trucks. It was afternoon, so we declined and said we’d be going in the morning.
That night we parked/camped for free in one of the lower parking lots. The next morning when we wandered back up to the street we expected to be approached again by people offering rides. But we weren’t. We stood around for a bit and then finally asked. It was 25 pesos per person but we had to wait until they had a truckload. Luckily a bus soon pulled up loaded with Mexican tourists and their luggage. They transferred us from the back of the truck to the back seat of the cab. We squeezed in with an older lady who politely tried to make conversation with us in Spanish. Another woman and the driver sat in front. Once everyone was on board, off we went off through Ogarrio. Driving much faster than we’d ever drive in Ballena Blanca, the cobblestones made for an extra bumpy ride. We passed a chapel inside the tunnel but I was unable to get a picture of it. Most of the pictures I did take ended up a blur.
On the other side of Ogarrio, our driver asked if we wanted to let off there or continue to El Centro. We exited the truck, ready to explore.
Real de Catorce is one of 132 Mexican Pueblo Magicos. The Pueblo Magico Program was started by Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism in 2001 to celebrate Mexico’s culture and traditions, the beauty and historical significance of its towns, natural wonders, the arts and crafts of its people, and cuisine and hospitality.
We have been to about 14 of these magic towns and have never been disappointed. You can read about all the Pueblo Magicos we have visited here.
Not any town can become a Pueblo Magico. There are requirements and an application process. If the town doesn’t continue to meet the requirements its designation can be rescinded.
Real Catorce was one of the first 3 towns to be designated as a Pueblo Magico. It is a historical town where silver was discovered in the 1770s. The town had its peak in the late 19th century with 15,000 residents, a mint, and shops selling luxury goods. But after the turn of the century, the price of silver plummeted and Real de Catorce was almost completely abandoned.
Today the town survives mostly off of Tourism. The remains of the Pueblo Fantasia (ghost town) sit on a hill overlooking modern-day Real de Catorce. In October around the feast day of Francis of Assisi, the Templo de la Purisima Concepcion, which sits in the middle of town, is the destination of a yearly pilgrimage to express gratitude for “granted favors.” In the Spring indigenous people walk across the desert from other Mexican states to leave religious offerings in the Catorce Valley and to collect a year’s supply of peyote in the desert below the town.
Once we disembarked from the truck we started our hike to the Pueblo Fantasma. It is a steep climb. Horses and a guide can be engaged for the journey but we didn’t see anyone offering the service. (The Mexican day seems to start a little later than we start ours) And besides, we needed the exercise.
At Mirador Real de Catorce we found our first set of ruins and picked up a couple of guides – two dogs who joined us on our hike. The views down into the valley were lovely.
Further up we saw the primary set of the remaining buildings of the ghost town. We hiked around for a while taking pictures and taking in the view. Our dog friends would occasionally disappear but always caught back up with us. After we had decided that we had seen everything we headed back down the hill for El Centro.
As we walked into town, stands of souvenirs, food, and sweets lined the streets. It was Friday and there were lots of tourists but as far as we could tell we were the only non-Mexicans. We started looking for a place to eat lunch. One of our dog guides had abandoned us but the other stuck close. Due to our indecision as to where to eat, we let ourselves be swayed by a woman beckoning us to eat lunch in her restaurant (we suspect that this might have been the source of our Montezuma’s Revenge – see our December Nomad Report for more on that). Our dog friend disappeared. After lunch, we set out for more wandering about town. We were about to turn right when we noticed the dog about half a block down the street. We turned left but he had already spotted us.
Now I love dogs. And of all the people and tourists roaming the streets of this town, I was somewhat flattered that this dog chose us. But we had nothing to give him for fear that he might tag along with us all day and ultimately he wasn’t going to be able to follow us back to the van. We wanted to shake him and had been asking him nicely to go away to no avail. But then Greg turned on his stern voice. “Vete! (Go away!)” he said directly at our tag-along. He immediately turned and went the other way. I felt really bad.
Besides just walking around the streets, we visited the church and a museum, the Cultural Center of Real de Catorce. In the museum, we learned about the peyote pilgrimages, traditional dress and artwork, the history of the town, and the museum’s building which used to be the mint. There was also a wonderful exhibit on the artist, Posada.
At the end of the day, we returned to the tunnel. We approached the woman with the walkie-talkie explaining that we needed a ride back. “Su Carro es en el otro lado?” Yes, we said, “Our car is on the other side.” There was one covered truck that could take us but he needed a full load. We waited. No other tourists showed up. Finally, the walkie-talkie woman said something to a guy with a pickup truck who was waiting to go through the tunnel. Three teenagers had already jumped into his truck bed. We were beckoned over. Greg handed the 50 pesos we had ready for our “official” ride back to the diver who seemed pleasantly surprised and we jumped into the back for the bumpy return trip through Ogarrio.