Real de Catorce, one of Mexico’s most atmospheric towns

Destination: Real de Catorde

Real de Catorce is Mexico’s oldest silver mining village. It is an ultra-quaint and semi-abandoned mountain town. For those of you that know Spanish, Catorce phonetically sounds like “14” but nobody really knows what Catorce means. This town is so old that the original meaning of Catorce has long since been lost.As for its population, in the late 1800’s, forty-thousand people lived in Real and the income produced by their local silver mines funded lavish colonial architecture and city projects.By around 1900 the mines had flooded and the town’s population dwindled quickly to near nothing. Today, the dry desert air that gently blows through town from the surrounding mountains has preserved the streets and buildings extremely well and the result is that a walk though Real de Catorce is a walk through time.

For those of you who don’t know this gorgeous town yet, as it is my case, Tom Robbins offers an incredible description of his trip. Hope you like it as much as I did.

Back from the brink
By Tom Robbins
Published: April 15 2011 22:04, Financial Times

Mexican Desert

As it gets dark, we begin to get a little nervous. My girlfriend and I are driving through the central highlands of Mexico, thoughts of narco-bandits and corrupt policemen never far from our minds. The billions of cacti that stretch away up the hillsides cast strange, somehow threatening shadows, and we start to pass roadside food stalls which, on closer inspection, aren’t food stalls at all but are selling rattlesnakes, dried and strung up on a rope, their oil hanging in small jars beneath them. Further on the snakes run out, and instead the stalls, lit by flickering oil lamps, are selling squashed roadkill.

Our destination is Real de Catorce, which in the 19th century was a thriving silver-mining city with two grand churches, three newspapers, a bullring and its own mint, but now seems to have retreated to the back of beyond, marooned at the end of a dead-end road on a plateau 9,000ft above sea level. With 16 miles still to go, we turn off the main road and the tarmac runs out, replaced by an ancient cobbled road that slowly climbs towards the mountains. As if this narrow, spine-crunching track weren’t a tenuous enough link to the outside world, at the top of it we find not the town but the entrance to a tunnel into the mountainside, its rough rock walls just wide enough for one car. We later learn that there is usually a man with a radio stationed at either end of the tunnel (which is a mile and a half long) to ensure vehicles don’t meet in the middle. Tonight, though, no one is around so I take a deep breath, squint into the darkness in search of oncoming headlights, and simply go for it.

Nothing but desert and my travel dog

And then, after the nerve-shattering journey, comes the reward. On the far side of the tunnel is the most atmospheric, other-worldly place I’ve ever been. Real de Catorce is quite gloriously decrepit – everywhere you look houses are artfully collapsing into the cobbled streets, which rise and fall at crazy angles on the hillside. Founded in 1779, by the mid-1800s Catorce had 40,000 residents but in 1905 the sudden slump in silver prices led to the mines being abandoned. The population gradually dropped to just a few hundred, who retreated to a couple of streets in the centre, where they lived surrounded by crumbling mansions overgrown with cacti. Today numbers have recovered to around 1,500 but the town still feels utterly cut off from the modern world. Until 2000 it only had one phone line.

We check into Mesón de la Abundancia, the best hotel in town, and for £52 a night are offered its best room (number 12). It’s gorgeous – floorboards covered with sheepskin rugs, fresh flowers, a vast wooden bed and two huge old wardrobes, their deep polish contrasting with the rough stone walls. Feeling a little like Clint Eastwood, I open the shutters and step out on to the narrow balcony to see what’s happening on the main street below.

Real de Catorce architecture

After a fine dinner of steak and rösti (the hotel is owned by a Swiss-Mexican couple) we wander outside to the little square, where the locals are clustered around a bandstand and lights are strung in the trees. It turns out we’ve arrived during the fiesta de Santa Cecilia, the patron of musicians and, in her honour, amateur bands have come out for a competition. They play Country and Western, and like the audience, wear 10-gallon hats, jeans and cowboy boots. The nervous adults hang around the edge of the square chatting, the delighted children dance arm-in-arm at its centre. Horses are tethered at one side of the square; at the other is a bar, complete with wooden saloon-style swing doors.

But for the odd battered pick-up, it’s as if the clock stopped when the price of silver went south all those years ago. And while Catorce does get tourists, the drug wars in northern Mexico have put off many from driving down from the US. Today most visitors are Mexican pilgrims who come to worship at the church of San Francisco, a colossal building out of all proportion with the town, one of the few signs of its former wealth. Other visitors are the Huichol indigenous people, who come to conduct ceremonies using the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, which grows in the desert.

The peyote has long drawn a steady stream of hippies too – “You have to understand, this is a magic place,” says one American we meet. He’s right: Catorce has official pueblo mágico status, being listed by the government as one of Mexico’s most atmospheric towns, though I’m not sure this is what he’s referring to.

You could spend a few days here living out your wild west fantasies, going for hikes or horse rides through the sierra, watching the eagles, visiting abandoned hamlets. More surprising is that you can also spend at least a day on more urbane distractions. For, though it has hung on the edge of oblivion for nearly a century, Catorce is now supporting a nascent art scene.

Pueblo Mágico, Mexico

Behind the battered wooden doors are a growing number of studios, galleries and shops. Much of what’s on offer is traditional folk art, such as the Huichol cattle skulls at Artesanía Wirikuta covered in thousands of rainbow-coloured glass beads, to stunning effect. Others, such as Galería Vega, exhibit contemporary and abstract art.

Art has already had a massive impact on the former mining cities of Mexico’s “colonial heartland” further south. San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato are now full of galleries and smart shops, while Zacatecas even has an offshoot of the Hay literary festival. All are within a few hours’ drive of each other, and so easily fit into a self-drive holiday of a week or more. But all three now have branches of Starbucks, as well as sizeable expat American populations. After a while you may start to yearn for more desert views and tumbledown houses, in which case, your next stop should be Mineral de Pozos, another ghost town staving off extinction thanks to art.

Arriving in mid-afternoon, it seems the archetypal sleepy Mexican village – the whitewashed central square baking in the sun, empty but for an old man enjoying a siesta in the shade of a giant cactus. Its story echoes Catorce’s – in its heyday it had a population of more than 50,000, which fell to just 250 before bouncing back to around 4,000 today.

But, though it looks half-dead, Pozos is buzzing with creative energy. In the corner of the square is a doorway leading to Galeria 6, one of at least seven galleries in the village. This isn’t artesanía but bold contemporary art with price tags running in to thousands of dollars. “I’m totally a city guy, I never dreamt I’d be here,” says its owner Nick Hamblen, a magazine art director from Dallas who moved here full-time last year. “People spend the afternoon and the next thing you know they are buying somewhere. There’s been a real renaissance in the past two years.”

Like Catorce, Pozos has been designated a pueblo mágico, and artists and expats are starting to move here from San Miguel and other cities in search of a more authentic Mexico. But Starbucks is a long way off. Next door to Galeria 6 on one side is Arte y Diseño de Pozos, another gallery that also sells clothes and delicate silver jewellery. On the other side is a spit and sawdust bar, where the owner wears an old army jacket, has a grey beard to his waist and fills glasses of tequila to the brim.

The galleries and art shops have now been grouped together into a signposted “art walk” which leads visitors around the village. In the centre, the odd house is ruined and empty, but walk two or three streets out, and the dilapidated begin to outnumber the restored. Walk more than 100 yards from the art installations and designer jewellery and you find yourself once more among crumbling mine workings, beyond which is nothing but desert and deep blue sky.

Real de Catorce, San Francisco Church
Cactus (typical plant from the desert)


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