REAL DE CATORCE is an extraordinary place. Silver mines were founded in the surrounding hills in 1772, and at the height of its production in 1898 the town had forty thousand inhabitants. But by the turn of the twentieth century mining operations had slowed, and in 1905 they ceased entirely, leaving the population to drop to virtually zero over the next fifty-odd years. For a period, a few hundred inhabitants hung on in an enclave at the centre, surrounded by derelict, roofless mansions and, further out, crumbling foundations and the odd segment of wall. Legend has it that Real was “discovered” in the 1970s by an Italian hippy searching for peyote (which perhaps explains the town’s curious Italian connection), and particularly since the mid-1990s, an influx of artists, artesanía vendors, wealthy Mexicans and a few foreigners has given the town impetus to begin rebuilding.
The centre has been restored and reoccupied to the extent that the “ghost-town” tag is not entirely appropriate, though Real de Catorce certainly retains an air of desolation, especially in the outskirts; the occasional pick-up shoulders its way through the narrow cobbled streets, but most of the traffic is horses and donkeys. The population now stands at around 1500, the foreign contingent coexisting amiably with locals who increasingly depend on the tourist industry (it was made a Pueblo Mágico in 2001). The town has also become another popular Hollywood location, featuring in movies such as Bandidas (2006) and The Mexican (2001). There’s not much in the way of sights: simply wandering around, kicking up the dust and climbing into the hills are big and worthwhile pastimes here.
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.
Catorce’s sights are soon exhausted, but you could spend days exploring the surrounding mountains, visiting ruins, or heading downhill to the altiplano (high plain) of the desert below. If you don’t fancy the exercise, you’ll see plenty of ageing US army jeeps, known here as “jeeps Willys”, shuttling around the area. Negotiate the price before setting off.
One of the most relaxing ways to go is on horseback: horses are usually available around Plaza Hidalgo and in front of the Mesón de la Abundancia, from where guides will take you out across the hills, perhaps visiting the Huichol ceremonial site of Cerro Quemado, though this can seem unpleasantly voyeuristic if any Huichol are around.
For short hikes, the best nearby destination is the Pueblo Fantasmo “Ghost Town,” extensive mine ruins reached in an hour or so by following the winding track uphill, just to the left of the Ogarrio tunnel entrance as you face it.
The most rewarding unguided longer hike (12km one way; 3hr down, 4hr return; 850m ascent on the way back) leads downhill on Allende from Plaza Hidalgo (with the stables on your left), then forks right after 50m and follows a 4WD track towards the trackside town of Estación Catorce. You’ll soon find yourself walking among mine ruins – you’ll pass a dam built to provide water and power for the mines, and the Socavón de Purísima, a tall chimney from one of the smelters. After about an hour you get to the small village of Los Catorces, and beyond its cemetery, a second settlement known as Santa Cruz de Carretas (about 2hr from Real).
At this point, you’ve already experienced the best of the hike, but it is possible to continue to Estación Catorce, an hour further on. If the idea of hiking back seems too daunting, try flagging down the occasional vehicle, and be prepared to pay for your ride. Estación Catorce itself is not a place to linger, though if you get stuck, there are a couple of fleapit hotels and places to eat, located where buses depart, on the scruffy square by the rail tracks. Apart from local services to Wadley (at 10.30am, 4pm and perhaps a couple of others; 20min), most buses head to San Tiburcio where you can change for Saltillo and Zacatecas.