"All we can do is move forward, against all odds, into the uncertain future. The past is over, the doors are closed; there's nothing left back there but sentimental ghosts."
- D Michael Hardy
REAL DE CATORCE
Pueblo Magico Ghost Town
Located in the Sierra de Catorce mountain range, the small ghost town of Real de Catorce lies hunched-up against a mountainside. Once boasting a population of 15,000 people, Real's population has decreased to just over 1000 residents today. It has remained an important pilgrimage site for Catholics and indigenous Wixárika (Huichol), whose territory covers regions of San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango, Jalisco and Nayarit.
Sources are conflicted about the name of the town - which means "Royal Fourteen." Some claim the name was originally "Real de Álamos de la Purísima Concepción de los Catorce" (Real de Alamos of the Immaculate Conception of the Fourteen), while the generally accepted history is that the town was named after 14 Spaniards who were ambushed and killed by Chichimeca warriors. We prefer the history that hails from the local indigenous peoples, who say the name originated due to an age-old pilgrimage, which continues to this very day. The Wixárika warriors move from the coast of Nayarit to the mountainous Real de Catorce annually, on a journey that challenges them to arrive within 14 days.
Though a town had long been established in Real de Catorce, it wasn't until 1772 when silver was discovered - leading to the founding of an official village in 1779. The Parish Church was constructed between 1790 and 1817, and other important buildings were later added - including a bull ring and a cock-fighting theater. Real de Catorce reached its heyday in the late 19th century, until it was abruptly abandoned when the value of silver plummeted. Few people remained in this isolated village, and the ones who did earned their meager living sifting through the tailings from the abandoned mine.
Real de Catorce was the second village in Mexico to be granted Pueblo Magico status – an honor it earned in 2001. As a village that is less frequented by foreigners, this charming town has managed to retain a sense of having traveled back in time. The government of San Luis Potosi is currently constructing two major parking lots on the entrance side of the Ogarrio Tunnel to manage the high traffic that arrives with the thousands of pilgrims arriving for the feast day of St. Francis of Assissi on October 4th.
Arriving in Real de Catorce is an other-worldy experience that involves passing through a 2 KM tunnel that was completed in 1882. After 5 minutes of driving through near-darkness, past mine-shaft openings, you will exit the tunnel feeling as though you have traversed a time warp to arrive at the end of the world - and considering the Ogarrio Tunnel is the only way back to reality - it's fair to say Real de Catorce truly is a realm beyond the edge of the time.
AROUND REAL DE CATORCE
Wandering the historic cobblestones of Real de Catorce requires sturdy shoes, for the uneven stones that have shifted over time. As you make your way through this time-warp, you will stumble across many fantastic market stands with herbal medicines, cactus flower preserves (that are perfect for tangy salads), quiote, which is cut from the flower stalk of an agave, and small artisan shops that are bursting with incredibly vibrant beadwork of the local Wixárika peoples.
Palenque Theatre (pictured below) is a cock-fighting ring that is still in use today. There is also an old ruin of a bull-fighting ring at the edge of town, near the Capilla de Guadalupe.
As there are so few occupants today, most of the town is in ruins, making it an exciting an picturesque place to explore. If you get tired, stumbling down the cobblestone streets at 9000+ feet altitude, there are often opportunities to horseback with a guide back to town. If you're thirsty, your guide will even stop at a tienda to purchase you cold beer to drink as you clip-clop through the village!
Pictured Left: Wixárika artist Ignacio with a beaded cow skull. This piece was made using beeswax, which the colourful seed beads are pressed into. These designs represent spiritual visions inspired by Peyote. This piece now resides in a private collection on Vancouver Island, BC Canada.
CERRO DEL QUEMADO
The path that leads to Cerro del Quemado quickly winds away from the village scenery of Real de Catorce, passing through the ruins of what must have been a sophisticated Hacienda two hundred years ago. Around a wide bend, and several crumbling mansions, it isn’t long before all settlements disappear, and the vast hills offer only glimpses of far-off fields and random horses. The ride to Cerro del Quemado take about one hour from the edge of Real de Catorce, to a vista where one dismounts to walk. Known as “The Hill of the Burned,” this steep climb takes about 10-15 mins to reach a circular pattern of stones. Just a little further up the hill, on the highest peak, sits the Temple of Cerro del Quemado. From here, one can gaze down to the Peyote desert far below, to see the place the Indigenous Wixárika call Wirikuta – the place where the Sun was born.
Travelling to this sacred place is indeed a beautiful journey worth embarking on. The Shaman at the temple has beaded pieces for sale, which are symbolic of desert flowers and animals considered sacred to the Wixárika. We ask guests to be respectful by only taking photographs with permission.
THE HILL OF THE REPENTANT
Real de Catorce is of major significance to the Huichol peoples, who make an annual pilgrimage by foot across Nayarit, Jalisco, Durango and Zacatecas enroute to Wirikuta, which they believe is the birth place of the world. To reach the Wirikuta, one must board a Jeep Willy and traverse a hair-raising, audacious path, known as The Hill of the Repentant, which descends rather quickly to the infamous peyote desert. It is highly illegal for the Wixárika peoples to share or sell peyote to tourists, and is also considered incredibly offensive, as peyote is not used as a recreational drug among the Wixárika - but rather in sacred ceremony.
When riding a jeep willy, you can opt to travel inside the carriage, or on top. If you sit up-top, be prepared to cling for dear life - as this road is bumpy, narrow, and edges a ravine. Slipping from the vehicle is not an option!
As this journey is for the daredevils among us, we only offer this as an additional option on our tours. That said - we highly recommend it, as it's been the highlight of all those who have risked it.
EL SOCAVON DE LA PURISMA CONCEPCION
El Socavon de la Purisma Concepcion is a main attraction for visitors to Real de Catorce. Just a few kilometers from the town, most visitors ride Jeep Willies to the site, as the altitude can be extremely exhausting for hikers who don't reside at high altitudes.
Formerly a hacienda, the site is located at the base of The Hill of the Repentant. The slope was named after pilgrims of San Francisco of Assisi, and is sometimes called The Path of the Repentant.
While exploring this picturesque site, you will see the entrance to the mine, a sinkhole filled with water, the dramatic chimney where metal was once smelted, houses where the workers were lodged, and other structures where minerals were stored. Pictured here is an oven-like structure that was utilized as a torture chamber for disobedient workers. The workers were forced to sit inside, where due to angling, the sun rendered it a smoldering furnace.
As with all labour camps of this time, the workers were largely abused, poorly paid, and lodged in slave-conditions.
A Canadian mining company holds title to this mine, though so far, have not been able to establish permits for further mining. Thankfully due to indigenous activism and protections, there is hope that the mines of this region will be suspended permanently.
WIRIKUTA & THE PEYOTE DESERT
The Wixarikas (Huichol’s) say the sun first appeared in the sacred desert known as Wirikuta. This is the consecrated land of deified ancestors, and ultimate destination for an annual 400 kilometer pilgrimage led by Shamans between October and March.
There are five venerated places that include the four directions and the centre. The Centre is called Teakata, and is in Santa Catarina, Jalisco. The North is at Cerro Gordo, Durango, and is known as Huaxamanaka. West to San Blas, Nayarit is Haramara, and South is Xapawleyeta, on Isla de los Alacranes del Lago Chapala, Jalisco. Wirikuta, the final destination, is the Eastern point.
The Wixarikas travel a sacred path that pays reverence to their deities, beginning with Haramara’s sea in Nayarit. They believe their Gods were guided by the Grandfather Fire, known as Tatewari. It is said a Deer used his antlers to lift the sun into the sky, thus brightening the heavens.
The pilgrimage is a ceremonious way of life that includes collecting peyote, which assists the pilgrims to engage in direct commune with their ancestors and Gods. Each group is led by a shaman, and is instructed to adhere to a number of rules and principles that include abstaining from sex, limited food, water and rest. Confession is also a part of this process, involving admissions of transgressions before the entire group. Transgressions can include minor trespasses to more serious actions, such as murder, adultery and theft. The concept of confession before the group encourages humbleness, humility, healing and inner peace.
When we visit the peyote desert, please be respectful by refraining from jokes about recreational drugs. For the Wixarikas, Peyote is a sacred vehicle to the Gods and ancestors, and is in tandem with immense self-control and sacrifice.
Towering over the small village of Real de Catorce, from the steep slopes that crown the Ogarrio Tunnel is a settlement known as Puebla Fantasma (ghost town). Complete with several hacienda ruins and a temple, this region has several mine shafts that empty into the Ogarrio Tunnel, far below.
There is little written on the history of this settlement, and one can only imagine what a sight it must have been in its heyday. What once would have been a colourful scene of construction workers, miners and guards is now a beautiful mess of historical ruins, spread across a punishing landscape.
To visit Puebla Fantasma, we will horseback ride, led by local guide Omar. The first part of the journey is a spectacular, handmade road that ascends sharply up the slope in a series of switch-backs. The stones themselves can feel slippery beneath the hooves of your horse, but these beautiful beasts are seasoned travelers here. Once at the end of the road, a narrow path crosses the terrain at a much easier angle. We will dismount at the top to explore the ruins and climb through one small section of the mine shaft, the lower opening of which is closed-off.
Descending the hill, back to the village, will offer you stunning views and opportune moments for photography.