Real de Catorce: A Ghost Town


No wonder Real de Catorce, set high in the Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, is a designated “Pueblo Magico”. Making my way into the heart of the town through a long, dark tunnel that pierces through a forbidding mountain (the only way to access the town if you’re not on horseback or walking), while on the back of an old pick-up truck, I was suddenly catapulted into another period. Inspite of this Semana Santa's or Easter celebrations (including a very realistic reenactment of Good Friday), I couldn't escape an eerie sense of an almost buried past. After all, not so long ago this was a bona fide ghost town which, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, had been a thriving colonial town. 

It’s not hard to become enthralled by Real de Catorce’s intriguing mystery. Decaying buildings offer a powerful testament to its past. Wandering along cobblestone and dirt streets, past crumbling walls and missing roofs, the bare bones of old stone houses beckon.  The former silver mines, some set in deep canyons speak of a former wealth and suffering too.


In the late 18th century, the Spanish settled in this remote, mountainous area to exploit silver. It soon became a boom town with 20,000 inhabitants. But when the price of silver collapsed in the late 19th century and the tumultous Mexican Revolution began in 1910, the population all but vanished. The mines were abandoned; buildings such as an impressive mint fell into disrepair. Of course, churches survived.

Today, with a small dose of tourism, perfect film locations and relentless pilgrimages, both Catholic and Huichol, this is gradually changing.


Still, a powerful sense of a vast, stark, indomitable space will never disappear. Sacred sites still remain inspite of attempted encroachments of new types pf mining enterprises. These barely traveled majestic mountains, reaching up to 11,000 feet, with Joshua trees, cacti (including peyote a type of cactus), yuccas and agaves are home to the Huichols. Along the small streets one can hear their native language while they display elaborate bead jewelry. Intricate, outrageously colorful and symbolic wool artworks make for their traditional signature pieces that can fetch high prices. Following routes from as far as Nayarit on the coast the Huichols come to gather peyote and perform ancient rituals.

With a fellow photographer and my husband and of course a guide, I felt fortunate to visit one of their special sites by horseback. As we passed abandoned houses such as the one above, we steadied ourselves on a rough and rocky path. Our guide rode a mule since he might be making a few long trips a day. "I don't want to exhaust my horse, " he explained in Spanish. Finally, at the end of the horse trail, we attempted to tackle the remainder of the steep mountain where the Huichols perform ceremonies in a maze formed like a spiral. 


Our guide taking a break:


Forever enamored of old stone walls, many highlighted by golden and orange tones of lichen in New England, I invariably gravitate towards them abroad in countries such as Peru and Mexico. Abandoned mines and once extravagant haciendas as well as the "headquarters" of the miners' bosses can be seen below. And then there is always nature's invariable proclivity to re-conquer...


Back to the town's uneven streets, small plazas and churches lively activities abounded. Most dramatic, almost overwhelming was Good Friday.