Real de Catorce
As we rattled along the cobblestone road, I began second-guessing our choice to visit Real de Catorce. We were lured by the promise of a ghost town and the vague idea that it was ‘en route’ from San Miguel de Allende to Hidalgo. I had been admiring the desert landscape as we crawled along at 20 kms/hour when it occurred to me that the town was actually a 1.5-hour detour (each way) and that at the current speed, it would take another hour of bumping down the beautiful cobblestone road to reach our destination. I wondered if I should raise these fun facts to Marc, who kept asking how much further, but decided to keep them to myself.
When we finally arrived in Real de Catorce, our GPS indicated that our destination (a parking lot) was immediately to the left but that we’d have to loop through town to get there. At first glance, it appeared that there were vendor stalls blocking the parking lot so we followed the GPS’s advice. During our brief but harrowing drive through the town’s very steep, slippery, narrow streets, we discovered that the GPS’s route was not feasible and then actually slid (with brakes fully locked) down a section of hill attempting to get back to the town’s entrance. On our second try, we quickly discovered that the parking lot was in fact just a left turn away from the main entrance… damn that GPS!
Upon arriving in the parking lot – our campsite for the next 2 nights – we met a pretty wild looking guy with super tanned skin, long hair, a partially shaved head and an elaborate beaded necklace. He was a Californian hippie who had visited Real de Catorce many times and was sure that we’d love it. It turned out that he was not so interested in the ghost town but rather in the Huichol indigenous culture. More specifically, he was interested in the peyote cactus used by the Huichol in their religious ceremonies… he told us, “it’s medicine, man”. Peyote is a hallucinogenic drug used by the Huichol to communicate with their gods. The Mexican Government has legalized the drug but only for Huichol religious purposes. This guy had big plans to drive out into the desert in search of some peyote. He’d already left when we awoke early the next morning and was no doubt wandering the desert in search of his fix.
We weren’t in Real for the peyote. Like most visitors, we were there for the usual stuff – ghost town, ruins, trails and desert landscape. Real de Catorce is in one of Mexico’s highest elevation areas, tucked into the side of the Sierra de Catorce mountain range at about 2,800 m (9,000 ft). It was once a booming silver mining town with a population of 40,000 people, multiple churches, opulent houses and a bull and cockfighting ring. When the price of silver slumped after 1900, the mines were abandoned and the city became a ghost town. It has only recently made a small comeback with some foreign investment in tourism but much of the city remains in ruins, lending it a very eerie, dark beauty.
Shortly after we arrived the first night, it started to get dark and the temperature plummeted – typical in these high elevation places. We bundled up, ate left over pizza in the van and admired the amazing view through our back window.
The next morning we put on our hiking gear and set out on the trails. We had read that there were some old ruins above the town and decided to do some exploring. The trail was well established and as we climbed higher, more and more ruins came into view. In fact, it seemed there were ruins scattered throughout the mountainside with beautiful desert flora slowly taking them over. We visited one ruin after another and had the entire place to ourselves. We discovered a few mine shafts that were covered (sort of) with chain link to prevent hapless visitors from falling in. We threw rocks down the shafts and concluded they must be a few hundred feet deep. From that point on we tiptoed a little more carefully around the ruins.
The entire hike took about 4 hours and offered amazing views of the town on one side of the mountain range and of the valley on the other. Things went really smoothly until our descent. We got a little lost up on the mountaintop and ended up on a series of goat trails…really, I mean trails made by goats. We eventually slipped and skittered our way down toward the town, ending up in what seemed to be someone’s back yard. We guiltily snuck through the yard and wove our way back to the cobblestone streets, stumbling upon Café Azul. It was so strange to discover a Swiss-owned restaurant serving delicious crepes in this little Mexican town. We were starved after the long hike and devoured the crepes and coffee.
Back at the van, we spent the afternoon napping, admiring the view from our van and trying to ignore the faint smell of urine that seemed to be wafting up from the creek bed below the parking lot. No campsite’s perfect. That evening we did a little more exploring in the town, which has some of the most unique streetscapes. Unlike most towns, the ruins and empty buildings just add to the atmosphere.
There were enough trails in Real to keep us busy for days but we’d planned for only 2 nights and it was time to move on to Hidalgo, our last stop before crossing the border back into the US. You might remember the little town of Hidalgo from a previous post. We love this little town but at this time of year, the vibe was very different. All of the climbers were gone, our favourite little El Buho café was closed for the season and all the taco trucks and food stands had disappeared from the canyon. Despite El Buho being closed, the owner of the café actually gifted us a bag of coffee and left it to us for pick up at El Sendero campground. We were thrilled by this generosity and love this café even more, if that’s actually possible.
We took advantage of the quiet campground and excellent WiFi to spend some time catching up on personal admin. We’re always reluctant to leave Mexico so delaying the inevitable we decided to spend an extra day wandering around in the canyon. The clouds were such that the canyon scenery was particularly dramatic this day and I just could not help but take photo, after photo, after photo… I have a LOT of canyon photos.
After 3 nights in Hidalgo, we headed for the border and toward a new adventure, on a mission to camp for free through the US.