Thousands of feet below me, Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert shimmered in the midday heat, while a mountain of solid rock loomed in front of me. The only way through the mountain was a long pitch-black tunnel just wide enough for one car. I was headed for the Mexican town of Real de Catorce. It is called Real, but in fact it is unreal. A seven-hour drive south of Nuevo Laredo in the state of San Luis Potosí, Real de Catorce was founded more than two hundred years ago high atop the Sierra de Real de Catorce at an elevation of nine thousand feet. In its heyday, the city had a population of 40,000 people, but its silver mines were abandoned in the early 1900’s, leaving a vast and eerie ghost town of just 800 residents. Today this early-day Hole-in-the-Wall is visited by a slender stream of adventurous tourists and once a year a flood of religious pilgrims.
What keeps most visitors away is the town’s only entrance—a mile and a half drive through an unlit one-lane tunnel. The best advice is to arrive at the tunnel during daylight hours. The chances are good that someone will be on duty to regulate traffic. If no one is on duty, you are supposed to pick up a flag near the tunnel entrance and drive it through to the other side. If there is no flag, either you must wait for another car to bring it through from the other side, which could be hours, or you can take your chances.
I waited nervously in my car as a couple of pickups drove out of the black hole, then a man who seemed to be in charge waved me on. My innermost fears made themselves known in my stomach as I slowly entered the darkness. A small chapel just inside the tunnel, carved into the mountain in memory of those who died digging this vast hole, did little to put me at ease. I was not particularly pleased to discover that not only was it a dark inside but it was dusty too—reluctantly I switched my headlights to low beam. Negotiating a curve, I recalled the anecdote I had heard about the local bus driver who likes to speed through with his tie undone and come out on the other end with it perfectly knotted. A mile and a half never seemed so long.
The city turned out to be as magical as the tunnel was dark, and it began to work its mysteries on me almost immediately after I emerged into the bright sunshine. I was wandering around town looking for the Hotel Real when a tall, bearded Mexican man asked me if I was his guest from Texas. I had not found the hotel; the hotel’s owner had found me. Humberto Fernandez is a former San Francisco hippie who returned to the place he had visited often in his childhood: “It was my dream to start a community of artists here—writers, painters, sculptors.” Slowly but surely that dream is taking shape as visitors fall in love with this mystical place and do not want to leave. A sculptor from Austin, a photographer from Paris—like Fernandez they are trying to resurrect Real’s former glory.
After the city was abandoned, much of the iron, stone, and even roof timbers were stripped from once impressive mansions and hauled down the mountain for scrap. Fernandez and many fine local artisans are now reversing the deconstruction of Real, rebuilding magnificent structures almost from scratch, pouring molten lead into dies in order to repair ornate cast-iron railings, and rebuilding massive stone walls with the same chipped-rock grout patterns that exist throughout the city. A piece of decoratively painted plaster was carefully set aside in a building Fernandez has spent the past two years restoring. When the renovation of the building is finished, the entire lower floor will be replastered and painted to match the pattern and colors of the original. Similar care was taken with the guest rooms of the Hotel Real. The rooms have tile floors and colorful plaster walls, with windows and wrought-iron balconies looking out onto the town and the courtyard. Not all newly reoccupied buildings have received such loving attention—several sport shiny tin roofs, which from the steep slopes above the town seem conspicuously out of place. But so far, all such work has been piecemeal by individual owners. There have long been rumors of a government-sponsored tourist development, but water is scarce and the tunnel is prohibitive.
“There are incredible treasures buried beneath some of these houses,” Fernandez told me. “Many of the buildings were destroyed by treasure hunters, some of whom found hundreds of pounds of pure silver.” I asked if he had ever dug under his buildings for treasure. “I don’t knock things down,” he told me. “I build them up.”
Fernandez’s partner in building up Real is his Swiss-born wife, Cornelia Ramseier, who runs La Luna gift shop on the main plaza. I ran around her small store with glee, wanting to buy nearly everything I touched: handcrafted silver jewelry, fossils from the area, finely woven straw hats from Michoacan, some of the nicest Oaxacan masks I had ever seen. Best of all, La Luna’s prices were among the most reasonable I found in Mexico—my stop in Real was one of the many highlights of my four-thousand-mile drive around the country.
Real de Catorce has no grocery store, and much of the town’s food must be trucked up the mountain from nearby Matehuala. The best meals are found at the Hotel Real, all prepared with fresh ingredients: huge bowls of caldo with garden vegetables; rice and hot tortillas; appetizers with home-cured black olives that surpass the Greek Calamata olives imported to the States; caboches, pickled flower buds of the barrel cactus (harvested with a sharp pointed stick); and fresh Swiss cheese made from the milk of Swiss dairy cows that were imported by Fernandez’s brother-in-law. Did I mention the fresh-baked garlic bread? Pizza and pasta