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  • Real de Catorce - Ghosts and Peyote

    Real de Catorce is unique in a country where unique is common. It's on par with Xilitla for other-worldly vibes. Real de Catorce is old Mexico, little changed by hordes of tourists (yes, that includes you and me).

    It is a place where people move more slowly, where the air itself (rare at 9,000 feet / 2,743 meters) is wispy and ethereal. Real is not for everyone. It is a special place for special people who want to experience authentic Mexico without the hype and sophistication of more popular tourist destinations. It is now a funky, offbeat and most worthwhile destination. Artistic licence aside, if you have difficulty breathing, you are not going to do well in Real. In fact, you should not go.

    After silver was discovered in 1773, Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi swelled to a population of 40,000 souls. The streets were cobblestoned and many rich Spaniards built stone mansions. Real was the 2nd richest city in the New World.

    Real boasted an impressive church, an opera house where from all over the world played, including Enrique Caruso. Real had a silver coin mint and many upscale shops. Today, the silver is played out. Some of the stone mansions have been turned into quaint hotels. Most are in ruins. They surround the town square, silent sentries guarding ancient secrets.

    More recently, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts stayed here filming The Mexican. Fortunately this brief touch of fame did not turn Real into a tourist trap. The town built a website before the movie came out, expecting gaggles of gringos to come a'calling. Don't bother searching for that site. It is an advertising vehicle for other parts of Mexico.

    Most people come to Real de Catorce for the atmosphere. Some come for the peyote. It is a ghost town with living people. The moutains around are popular horseback riding excursions. Only somewhat less hair-raising is a tour in a Willis (simply called WILL eaze) Jeep. You can ride to Cerro Quemado, the Huicholes’ holy mountain. If you are into spiritualism, you might get some good vibes from here. But only go with a guide and don't go when they are having ceremonies. Then the vibes might be less welcoming.

    Some people come to Real to take peyote. All I can say is know what you are doing. Some locals will sell you "peyote products" that could kill you or at least make you very sick. Be aware that for non-native-peoples, peyote is illegal and you could actually be arrested.

    It is only about an hour off the main highway route from Laredo to San Miguel de Allende or Yucatan via Puebla. But Real is light-years away in essence. Crumbling history crunches underfoot, the people seem rooted in another reality. I swear they seem to be of another dimension. Huichol Indians trek thousands of miles to Real de Catorce for religious peyote ceremonies. As a point of fact, they used to trek. Now they take busses.

    Cars and motorcycles can drive to it via a tunnel. RV's can park their rig in nearby Matehuala San Luis Potosi, at the Las Palmas RV park in town and get to this ghostly village in their tow vehicle or a tour. But get there, thee must!

    The town is about a 45 minute drive from Matehuala. The last 14 miles are on cobblestone. This sounds more exciting than it is. After about a mile, even the most "authentic" traveler will silently scream for asphalt. Consider it part of the attraction. It's worth it (valle la pena in Spanish.)

    You get to the town through the Tunel Ogarrio which is 7,415 feet (2,260 meters) long. It is cut into the rock mountain, originally to get the silver to market. There is no reinforment or buttersses anywhere. It is like a long, unreinfoced mine shaft. It is a one-way tunnel. Control methods vary from two guys with walkie talkies on each end, a flag on a stick given to the last driver. There was a crank telephone line once. Regardless, it "closes" at night. I drove it late one night and I do not recommend it.

    If you are sensitive to the spiritual world, you may feel the presence of ghosts in the town after dark. Some were rich caciques who died there, counting their silver. Most were poor Indians, who toiled in the mines. Regardless, I've never known them to harm anyone, but they can be disconcerting.

    Related Info

    Roadmap - Monterrey NL to Matehuala to Rio Verde, SLP

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    Altitude: 9,000 feet, 2,743 meters.

    Go to Xilitla English surrealist built a monument to surrealism in orchid jungle.