The Wirikuta, the flat semi-desert at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental near Real de Catorce (and Wadley), was a rich source of peyote – a hallucinogenic cactus – long before the Spanish Conquest. The Huichol people traditionally make a month-long, 400km annual pilgrimage here (now often shortened by truck or car) from their homelands in northeastern Nayarit to gather the precious hallucinogenic cactus (it contains psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline), which they regard as essential food for the soul. After the peyote “buttons” are collected, many are dried and taken away for later use, but some are carried fresh to their sacred site, Cerro Quemada (Burnt Hill), near Real de Catorce, for ceremonies.
Tales of achieving higher consciousness under the influence of peyote have long drawn foreigners, many of them converts of the books of Carlos Castaneda (who started writing about native Mexican shamanism in 1968). Indeed, Real de Catorce only made it onto the tourist itinerary after it became a waystation on the hippy-druggy trail in the 1970s. New Agers continue to visit, but the hills round about have been picked clean and there are fears that over-harvesting may threaten the continued Huichol tradition.