Shining City

The route to Mexico’s Real de Catorce is not for the faint of the heart, but there is more than light at the end of the tunnel.

November 1993By Comments

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 are the house specialties, and espresso rounds out every meal, taking the edge off the cool mountain air.

I soon discovered that there are plenty of sights to see in town, but be warned, the streets are extremely hilly and you need sturdy walking shoes. The local museum is filled with mining artifacts, prized possessions of the Spanish nobility who once lived here, and photographs of the town’s dramatic history. The low walls of Real’s abandoned bullring reminded me of the local tales of the last bullfight, held eleven years ago, when the bull jumped out of the ring, ran amok through the town, and escaped in the mountains. A reward was offered, and the bull was eventually captured and converted into fajitas.

I visited the Sunday street market, where vendors were selling goods that included stalactites (presumably looted from nearby caves or mines) and 80-million-year-old ocean fossils, which apparently litter some of the nearby mountaintops. I bought a few things, feeling no need to haggle over the prices because I knew that I got an incredible deal.

I found myself repeatedly drawn to the main plaza’s exquisitely detailed cast-iron gazebo (built in 1888), which is surrounded by a lush garden of gigantic antique roses. I was usually the only person there. The locals tend to gather at the smaller square in front of the Templo Parroquia, or “parish church.” This massive domed sanctuary, built in 1783 of cut sandstone, dominates Real de Catorce. Inside I discovered that underneath the wood floor I was walking on was a wall-to-wall assembly of the caskets of some of Real’s wealthiest residents who died long ago. As far as I could determine, no record exists of the number of miners who died inside this mountain, but the available photos of working conditions, the archaeological evidence, and the size of the local cemetery where the miners are buried all suggest that the number was high.

If Fernandez and others like him are saving the town physically, then the credit for the city’s spiritual (and monetary) survival is owed to Templo Parroquia’s famed statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, which is believed to be the source of countless miracles. The narthex of the church is covered with hundreds and hundreds of retablos, primitively painted but beautiful tin wall plaques that testify to worldly miracles granted by the saint. One showed a crying man standing next to his broken cart and dead burro that had been run over by a large truck. “Thank you, Saint Francis, for saving me from this terrible accident,” it read.

The fourth of October is the feast day of Saint Francis, and on the weekends before and after, the statue is taken around town for a celebratory paseo in front of 100,000 pilgrims who come from all over Mexico, jamming the local streets (and the tunnel) for the event. It is supposedly quite a sight, but don’t go without a reservation at the Hotel Real or its competitor, the Quinta La Puesta del Sol.

Another group of visiting pilgrims are the Huichol Indians, who consider this mountain sacred, trekking here at various times through the year to consume the local peyote in an ancient ritual conducted by their shaman. The local peyote has itself long been a draw for seekers of Don Juan. I did not partake of any hallucinogens, but I did feel a connection to the ancient mystical attraction of this place. Thrust from the bottom of the oceans, this mountain is straight from the basement of time. Both the former glories of the city and the human misery that accompanied its construction are clearly present. There is a sadness in the ruins—giant cacti grow from the roofs of buildings once painstakingly constructed—but also the constant reminder of the Mexican determination to conquer all odds, to make habitable a place that was never meant for man; to climb the mountain and be that much closer to God.

I stayed an extra day in Real in order to ride higher up Catorce mountain. You can rent horses from the Hotel Real $30 for half a day with a guide and lunch, an adventure out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With Fernandez as our guide, our small group—Hans and Susan, two new friends from Los Angeles and the only other Americans in town, and I—started through town on small surefooted mountain horses, their hooves unshod to keep them from slipping on the rocky paths. After an hour of riding up the starkly barren slopes, we passed the only grove of trees on the entire mountain—alamito trees, the tree from which the Alamo gets its name, a tree known in Texas as the cottonwood. Most of the Catorce mountains were once covered in forests, but the trees were cut by the Spanish and the Mexicans fro heating, cooking, building, and shoring up the mines. The soil that the trees held has long washed away; the mountain seems likely to remain eternally bare.

We passed an Indian woman and her daughter, both leading burros loaded with products for the market in Real. They had been on the trail for four hours from their village of Los Alamitos. Far below us the city of Real shone in the sun like a handful of diamonds that had been cast onto the barren mountain and forgotten forever.

We stopped to rest and inspect the massive ruins of Concepcíon Mine, which span several hundred yards. The giant stone arches, swimming pool-size cisterns, and intricate rockwork—though long abandoned to the elements—still show some of their original plaster and decorative hand-stenciled paint, all of which seem incongruous with the dirty work of a mine. The main ore-removal shaft was open wide, cutting straight down so deeply that rocks we tossed in never seemed to hit bottom. Instead we heard the rocks bounce from side to side as they fell, the sound slowly fading away to nothingness.

Concepcíon would be the normal destination for a perfect ride, but Fernandez had no planned that for us. We headed farther up the mountain, rode over the top, and started down the other side. The slope was steep and covered in loose rock, and I thought no horse could traverse it. Easing down the treacherous trails, we eventually came to an abandoned eighteenth-century church, the Chiesa Santa Anita. We tied the horses together in pairs so they could graze on the dried grass and flowers. Then we unpacked and ate a lunch of hot coffee, fresh mangoes, apples, and quesadillas cooked on an abandoned shovel. Slipping inside the sanctuary, which was built for miners who died two centuries ago and now stands alone on the mountain, we discovered that the paint on the walls and roof is still vivid and that although the nearest resident is an hour’s ride away by burro, the church remains decorated for Mass, celebrated here once each Christmas.

We rebridled our horses and continued down the mountain to the recently abandoned Santa Ana mine at the village of La Luz. At the local store, we bought cold Modelo beer and mineral water and presented gifts to some kids, one wearing a Texas A&M cap. With no place else to go on Sunday, most of the town was just hanging out, checking out the fresh vegetables and fruits being unloaded from a truck. The “parking lot” in front of the store had at least thirty saddled burros waiting to be ridden home.

Exhilarated and exhausted, we shortened our return trip by riding up the cobblestone highway to the tunnel. The horses were more comfortable on the smooth stones, and we galloped most of the way while I tried not to think of what lay ahead. Persuading someone else’s horse to walk into a narrow pitch-black tunnel a mile and a half long is only a little more difficult than persuading a gringo from Austin to do the same. We started in gingerly and were soon narrowly passed by a speeding truck, which made the horses more nervous. The light behind us held for the first few hundred yards, then faded quickly. Our eyes adjusted to the blackness, picking up a faint glow for a while, then we were blind, each of us, on horses also blind. Fernandez had a flashlight, but to make the weak batteries last, he blinked it on only for a second or two at a time. My horse was doing fine, but just behind me, Susan’s horse began to panic and backed into a small side tunnel, dragging her off so that Fernandez had to return to help her. Not me. I couldn’t have turned my horse around if I had wanted to. Its mind was set on the other end and it would not stop, so we trotted along, being guided back to the center of the tunnel by my hat or shoulder occasionally brushing on the low arched ceiling. This was either the most fun I had ever had or the most scared I had ever been. Or both.

At long last, the others caught up with me, Fernandez flashed the light a little more frequently, and we began to gallop through the last mile of the tunnel. It was eerie in the cool darkness, the riding effortless. Though the horses were racing at full speed, without visual reference points it felt as if we were standing still. Soon a single lightbulb shown at the curve near the far end—the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

When I bid farewell to Real de Catorce at six o’clock the next morning, I found myself once again at the entrance to the tunnel, this time with no one in sight to wave me on. But the thing I had feared the most now seemed like child’s play. I cruised through at 30 miles per hour and wished I had a tie to knot around my neck. Coming out of the hole in the wall, I found myself high above a sea of beautiful white and pink clouds. I was on top of the world.

Many Texans are wary of driving in Mexico because of the rumors of bandidos and crooked federales. But it can be safe with even the simplest common sense precautions. Sleek new four-lane toll roads, or “cuotas,” connect many major cities, and Mexico’s crime rate is a fraction of what we suffer in the U.S. Sanborn’s, the primary issuer of Mexican auto insurance for U.S. drivers, issued 55,000 policies last year and had little more than 10 claims for stolen cars.

Getting to Real: Proceed south on Highway 57 from Saltillo about 150 miles. Just two miles or so from Matehuala, look for the right-hand turnoff to Highway 62 to Real de Catorce. Go through the onyx and marble mining town of Cedral and turn right on one block past the main plaza. Seven miles later, turn left onto the cobblestones and begin the climb to Real de Catorce.

Double rooms at the Hotel are $23 to $30 a night. Meals are also a bargain.

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