Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosi is one of those places you either love or hate. I have done both at different times. A lot depends on your sensitivity to psychic phenomena. As was said in Pirates of the Caribbean, “There be ghosts ….”
“Real” was once one of the richest cities in Mexico and the New World. It was founded in 1779 when silver was discovered. Tons of silver were ripped from the mountains and carried out on the backs of slaves. A lot of those slaves died. Sometimes they are the ghosts who contact-sensitive visitors. Sometimes the ghosts are more benevolent, the patriarchs and matriarchs who owned the crumbling mansions that have been turned into hotels. Most people think I am crazy and have never met a ghost in Real de Catorce.
The silver booms came and went. So did the population. At most, 15,000 people lived here. At the least, 250. Now there are reputed to be 1,200 living souls here.
Part of the movie, The Old Gringo was shot here. As part of the deal, the movie company put in a water purification plant and tidied up the town square. Today there are “chichi” shops and bed-and-breakfasts that come and go. This ain’t Santa Fe or Sedona, though some people try to make it so.
There is weird energy to Real de Catorce. Besides ghosts, it is considered a sacred place by the Huichol Indians, who trek from their homes in Nayarit state on the Pacific Coast to participate in Peyote Rituals. A special variety of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus grows in this high desert. This also attracts peyote heads from around the world. On any given day, many of the foreigners you see on the street are stoned.
Real de Catorce is an old mining town and you get there through a 1 ½ mile-long tunnel (details below). When you exit, you enter a marketplace. On weekends, there are stalls with canopies over the road and if you are too high (so to speak) you will tear them down. I have done so, and it is not fun. I think my camper top extended about a foot over the top my truck cab.
Don’t even think of getting a room here during the week of October 4th. It is the festival of St. Francis of Assisi, Real’s patron saint. BTW, several miracles of healing are reputed to have taken place here. The festival is officially the Feria de San Francisco. Now, some sort of festival is pretty much going on between Sept. 20 and late Oct. Semana Santa, or the week before and often after, Easter is also crowded.
At 2,750 meters (9,022 feet), Real de Catorce can be very cold. GPS 23°41′ N 101° E. If you have heart trouble or any difficulty breathing, think twice before coming. I got winded last time and my heart is fine, but my lungs, not so much. The streets go pretty much straight up and down and there is no place to sit down and catch your breath.
Tourists explore the desert and mountains. You can hike (if you are in incredibly good shape), ride burros or horses (if you are brave) or take a Jeep tour, called “Wee’ lees” (if you are adventurous). Bring an extra cushion as the strain on your spine from bouncing around is rough.
It’s only 35 miles from the highway turnoff just north of Matehuala to Real de Catorce, but the last 12 miles are on a cobblestone road (only built in the 1970s as a tourist attraction), which sounds more enticing than it is. After 5 miles, the novelty wears off and you just have to pee a lot. Don’t worry about stopping on the road and doing so, it is okay. The trip will take about an hour. The last 1 ½ miles are through a tunnel, “El Ogarrio.” There could be a ½ hour wait for the tunnel traffic. The height of the tunnel is approximately 4 meters. It is 2.3 kilometers long, built-in 1901.
The tunnel is “open” from 8 AM to 5 PM. That does not mean it is barricaded during the “closed” hours. It just means you are on your own. After all, this is Mexico, the land of less regulation. So what happens if you get there before or after the “opening”? I speak from experience. It is scary, and you should not do it if you are not good at backing up. You drive with your lights on and hopefully, so does the guy coming at you. There are 3 or 4 places that are wide enough for you to park and the other guy to pass. Use your own judgment.
RV’s – Only trucks with campers or class B or C rigs should even think about coming here. Even then, ask at Las Palmas RV Park in Matehuala if you will clear the tunnel. I have done it and it all depends on how tall your camper is. The “toll-takers” at the entrance will advise you if your rig is too tall for the tunnel.
Traffic is one-way. A line of cars goes through and at the other end, everyone waits until the first group finishes. The “traffic control” used to consist of a stick with a red flag. This was given to the last guy in line. When he got to the other end, he was supposed to surrender the stick. Once I was the “last guy” and stopped to take pictures in the middle of the tunnel. The guys on the other end were upset when I meandered up. Since then they have used a radio. Now they use cell phones. Don’t tell them that you know the “stick-stealing gringo.”
There are (now anyway) 16 hotels in the town. My favorite is the Quinta Puesta del Sol out past the metropolis across from the cemetery. They used to be the most expensive, but since the place has been gentrified, they are now middle-range at around $45. The Meson del Refugio is the most expensive at about $90-$100 USD a night. The Hostal Alcazaba is pretty nice and on the high end too. The Casa Sierra Catorce is on the low end at about $40. I have seen a few truck campers parked by the cemetery too, so you could also boondock there. If you are into tent camping, it is free. Nobody will hassle you and I believe you would be perfectly safe. The last time I was there, half the kids in town wanted to direct me to their house where rooms were available for rent.
This is high desert and cool if not cold all year around. The average temperature is between 16º C and 18º C (61 F. and 65 F.). That is like saying the “average temperature” in Los Angeles is a balmy 70 º F. At night it is often in the ’40s in L.A. In Real, there is often frost on the ground in the mornings. So don’t spend an evening here unless you are dressed for it. Some hotels have rooms with fireplaces and others give you extra blankets and their best wishes. What little rain there are (15-20 inches) occurs in the summer.
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