Adventure, Bicycling, Mexico, Religion, Road Logs, The Great Adventure, Travel

The Ghost Towns of Real de Catorce

Last time I labored over a mountain pass and crossed a desert, setting a new record for the most miles traveled in one day. This time begins my second rest stop in the town of Cedral, SLP.

Sunday, November 16 – Tuesday, November 18, 2014—Rest and Work

Although I had come a long way and arrived early (by the official itinerary), I couldn’t slack off. I had plenty of client work to do and started my time in Cedral by diving right into it.

That doesn’t mean I got no rest. My first morning, I slept till almost 9—my compensation for the early mornings preceding. But as I stirred, wearing only my briefs, I was surprised to see a face at my window: Doña Blanca was there, bringing me breakfast in bed!

She had originally invited me to dine downstairs, but since I was a late riser she brought my breakfast up to the apartment. I threw on my pants and opened the door, accepting the breakfast with my limited Spanish. It was no paltry meal:

Doña Blanca's breakfast. Photo by André.

Doña Blanca’s breakfast. Photo by André.

I spent most of the next two days working. There were occasional forays to the Centro for food (Blanca provided only one meal a day), and I made it a point to explore despite all the looks I got biking around town.

One thing I wanted to learn was where I could catch a bus to Real de Catorce, the nearby tourist destination/near ghost town/gateway to Huichol sacred land. When I asked about this in Abarrotes Conche, the corner store attached to the house, the woman behind the counter asked a 13 year old boy if he would show me the way. Thus began the first serious challenge to my Spanish speaking skills.

Juan, as my friend was called, was very friendly. We made chit chat as we walked toward the bus stop, as best we could with my limited Spanish. I tried to convey concepts much too complicated for my language proficiency, as I’m wont to do, but unlike adults he would question and question and question until we had a moment of communication. At one point, laughing, he told me, “Your Spanish is really bad.”

Later: “You need to learn more words.”

With that sage advice in mind we reached the bus stop, more an unmarked area where buses pause in their journeys than an official station. Juan rustled up Jorge Luis, Cedral’s bus fixer, who told me that I could catch a ride to Real every half hour for just $60 pesos. That was all I really needed to know; with the mission accomplished, I planned to return to working.

Juan had other ideas. “Where are we going now?” he asked.

Deciding to make the most of our time together, I thought about the other chores on my back burner. Blanca had been vague about what I should do for water: over the coming days, I would sometimes get free liters from her, sometimes need to pay for them, and sometimes simply go to other stores where I could get water cheaper.

“I need to get a galón,” I said, referring to a jug that actually holds several gallons. “At the Super. Want to come?”

Juan was game, but he wanted to show me his bike—and see mine. I agreed to wait a few moments while he ran home for the bici, and we saddled up.

As we cruised toward the Super, I pointed at his back rack. “I like your….. thing,” I said in Spanish.

“The grill?” (Helpful bike term: a rack is a parilla.)

“Yeah.”

“I use it when I work for my grandpa,” he said. “He grows onions and cilantro and I take them to market. But he lives 3 kilometers outside of town. It’s very far.”

I cracked up laughing. After Juan rode me all morning about my Spanish, here was something where I finally dominated.

“Very far!” I taunted. “Two days ago I rode 175 km in one day.”

Once Juan confirmed the numbers, I had finally won his respect. We entered the supermarket and left our bikes unlocked outside. I had seen many locals do this, but had always locked mine up regardless; now I left it up to Fortuna, as if my association with this 13-year-old don would protect my property.

Inside, we found galónes. I already wondered how I was supposed to tip my friend—he had helped me, and by Mexican logic I should tip him in some way. But I didn’t know how much, or when, or if it could be perceived as an insult (what if he was just being friendly?). Thankfully he made it easy for me: as we walked toward the checkout he asked, “Can I get some juice?” There was no doubt who was paying for it, and I agreed: at 6 pesos, it seemed like a low price. He’ll learn eventually.

On the way home Juan tried to convince me that I should try a nieve (snow cone), which I couldn’t explain to him pales in comparison to the snowballs of New Orleans. I perceived this as an attempt at another free treat and, since I really did have work to do, I passed on the offer.

Being a writer, not a photographer, I failed to snap Juan’s picture. We parted on friendly terms, but I wouldn’t see him again for the remainder of my stay.

Also during these two days I did some laundry with the help of some niños. It turned out pretty well.

But the real excitement of these days was what would come next. One of my traveler friends who happened to be in Mexico heard that my cycling companions had evaporated, and offered to come up to Cedral for a few days so we could go to Real de Catorce together. (That was actually a big part of why I headed to Cedral rather than Matehuala: my friend had spotted Doña Blanca’s place on AirBnB.)

Monday night I watched as a hired car rolled up the street to Abarrotes Concha, my friend sitting inside. After dropping off bags we headed to the only late night taquería in town. Getting some English-language conversation was divine, and not being the only guero in town didn’t hurt either. I was finally part of a small group again, rather than a lone oddity.

On Tuesday we both finished work for our respective clients and finalized our plans for Real.

Wednesday, November 19 (Day 866 of the Great Adventure)—Real de Catorce

Wednesday morning found us huddled in the cold desert wind just after breakfast under Jorge Luis’ watchful gaze. His full parilla of gold teeth gleamed as he reassured us we would love Real. Soon enough we were ushered aboard a (thankfully) warm bus and took our seats.

My friend opted to catch a final nap despite the blaring Will Smith action movie that suddenly lit up screens all around the bus. I preferred to gaze out the window, taking in a surreal cloud-covered landscape that got higher and steeper as we made our way to progressively less paved roads. Goat herders and an abandoned pueblo drifted out of the mist, the only sign of civilization until we reached the final approach: a cobblestone road curving up a mountain to a height of about 9,000 feet.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

View on the way up the mountain. Photo by André.

That was only the first course, however. At the top of the road we stopped and the few other passengers on board simply got up and left. With no explanation in either Spanish or English, we shrugged followed. All of us huddled around a faux colonial plaza, deserted except for a lone candy seller. We knew what came next—the Tunnel, which loomed at the edge of the plaza—but not exactly what the procedure was.

We didn’t have to wait long. A smaller bus rattled out of the mist and opened its door. Hopping aboard, I had a sneaking suspicion that it was the same driver wearing a different hat. The tiny group of travelers spread out on hard plastic seats and we rumbled toward the hole in the mountain.

There’s only one road in or out of Real de Catorce, and instead of going over one of the tallest mountains in Mexico it opts to go through it. The Ogarrio Tunnel is one part mine shaft, one part public works project, and one part tourist attraction. It’s also so narrow that it barely has just one lane; traffic takes turns coming in and going out. (“Taking turns” may be an overstatement, however, since at least on weekdays there was no real traffic waiting at either side.)

I was eager to see the Tunnel, because at one point I had considered bicycling through it. By that plan I would have biked up the mountain and through the Ogarrio to get into Real, then depart by a sort of goat trail to continue the Adventure. I nixed the idea because the first road is paved with tire-busting cobbles. I had also heard rumors that vehicle exhaust inside the Tunnel makes it virtually impossible to cross unless sealed inside a car or bus.

The rumors weren’t exaggerated. In the black of the tunnel I spotted a carved stone doorway, a branching mine shaft and, within a minute or two, clouds of haze choking out the yellow lamps overhead. With over a mile to go, the bus itself began to smell of exhaust.

Yes, we rode a bus through this. Photo via Mexico Desconocido

At length we spilled out into daylight and a mostly empty plaza. The other travelers seemed to know where they were going, and we vaguely followed. Soon we found ourselves mostly alone except for occasional hustlers hoping to sell us everything from breakfast or guidebooks to hallucinogenic cacti.

Our first mission was to find a hotel. We looked at several and settled on Hotel Corral de Conde, a mid-level choice with beautiful interiors but no heaters and wi-fi only in the lobby. Along the way we got the story on the “Catorce” (fourteen) the town is named after, from an old man outside the tourist office:

“There’re different versions. It can be fourteen anything. Fourteen bandits, fourteen Spanish soldiers, fourteen miners, fourteen Huicholes. It depends on who’s telling it.”

With our things deposited at the Corral we set out for the first objective of our stay: an ancient cemetery and chapel outside of town. Travel websites make it sound like it’s miles away, so that you’ll hire a horse (or a bike or a jeep) to get there, but it’s really about an 8 minute walk—at least once you get directions. The few locals on the street wore tourist blinders and had little interest in telling us the way, but we found a sun-faded and vine-covered map on a placard by the centro that gave us the right general bearing.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

Streets of Real de Catorce. Photo by André.

The walk may have been short, but it wasn’t easy. At 9,000 feet every breath of air is a lucha match. Add in a steep hill or three on every street in town and we understood why horse rides are so popular.

The view was worth it, however. At the edge of town we caught our first glimpse of what I’ll call the Cloud Desert, the Huichol sacred land straddled by the mountains that surround Real. It was one solid expanse of white below us, a fog-covered lowland where you can die of thirst while soaked with dew.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

View of the clouds. Photo by André.

The cemetery before the chapel was crowded with old graves, many bearing fresh offerings. The chapel was built 300 years ago by a small mining community, and yet it’s more impressive than most cathedrals in the US. Even so, centuries of wear left the murals inside peeled and faded, looking more like Pollock paintings than pictures of angels.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

The cemetery. Photo by André.

Inside the Chapel. That's Guadalupe on  the  left.

Inside the Chapel. That’s Guadalupe on the left.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Chapel. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Damaged murals. Photo by André.

Flanking the chapel entrance are two holy images, Guadalupe on the left and St. Francis on the right. I had brought candles for both. I approached Guadalupe first. Lighting her candle was a struggle in the drafty mountain temple. Eventually, candle lit, I knelt before her and prayed. Guadalupe is a miraculous virgin who has been sainted by the Church, but whom many believe corresponds to an earlier Aztec goddess. Kneeling there, I understood that she was the female presence that had appeared to me on top of the mountain pass.

I also offered to St. Francis, although the town’s main image of him is actually kept in the parish church, not out here in the roadside chapel.

Afterward we sought out a late lunch. We settled on the restaurant at the high end Hotel Meson de la Abundancia, as much because it was warm inside as because of what was on the menu. The food was incredible, however, and this became our eatery for the next 24 hours.

While my friend checked in on client work, I ran some errands (like buying us water) and stopped by the parish church. It has the most unique floor I’ve ever seen. It seems to be made out of old mining pallets rather than planks, arranged like giant hardwood tiles. Each board of each pallet is rounded smooth from centuries of feet. They sounded hollow under my footsteps.

The parish church  with the great floors. Photo by André.

The parish church with the great floors. Photo by André.

I was there mainly to see the other image of St. Francis, however:

St. Francis. Photo by André.

St. Francis. Photo by André.

This one is reputed to be miraculous and is the object of a long annual pilgrimage. The people of Real apparently are quite attached to St. Francis and have various local nicknames for him. I made offerings to him for my mother, who has always held him especially close to her heart, and then took a small pilgrim pin from a jar of them beside the statue. (I’m actually not clear whether you’re supposed to pick one up when you pray there, or wear one on your pilgrimage and deposit it in the jar at the end; in any case St. Francis said to go ahead and take one if I wanted.)

By this time it was nearly dark and the chill intensified. I explored a bit more before heading back to the hotel. We both caught up on work and grabbed an evening snack at the Meson before heading to bed.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Kids practicing for a parade. Their brass section was better than the one in the Procession of Silence. Photo by André.

Thursday, November 20 (Day 867 of the Great Adventure)—El Pueblo Phantasmo

Our alarm went off long before dawn. There was something else we had to see before leaving Real, and the hike there and back would take all morning.

Real de Catorce itself is often called a ghost town, but the truth is it was only mostly deserted after the silver industry collapsed in the early 1900s. By now it’s made a resurgence and has plenty of year-round residents. Other communities in the area, however, were truly abandoned; whole villages sit around forgotten mineshafts in the hills. I had spent a good part of the previous afternoon rustling up exact directions to one. “Exact” might be an overstatement, but I was confident I could at least find the trail head.

The morning started with a cold breakfast in the dark. We had pestered the hotel clerk the day before with a million variants of the same question: is there a free breakfast? A paid breakfast? Coffee at least? Is there somewhere else we can go for breakfast?

No, she explained between sighs. There is nothing.

So we had pastries I’d bought from a local vendor the night before, and washed them down with cold water. Then we put on every layer of clothing we had and opened the door to the freezing mountain wind.

We made our way through the abandoned cobble streets. At the edge of town we were surprised to see one tiny kitchen that was actually open, run by the world’s grumpiest doña. She offered us go cups of Nescafé at Starbucks prices. We used them alternately as beverages and hand warmers as we continued on our way.

To the left of the Ogarrio tunnel entrance we found a gravel road up out of town. Soon we were in the mountains, the sky barely grey and the town shrinking in the darkened valley.

The sun rose somewhere between the mountaintops above us. The endless white of the Cloud Desert flared into being below, and then the rooftops of Real. The tolling of the church bell came to us on the wind.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

This was no beginner’s hike. The trail was steep and the wind wasn’t just cold, it was also low on oxygen. We gulped for breath and sniffled, walking along the mountainsides.

This is what we found:

Photo by André

Photo by André

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

It’s a bro on a burro. Photo by André.

Photo by André.

Photo by André.

The first set of ruins clustered around the opening to a vertical mineshaft, a pit in the earth twenty feet across. It was half-heartedly covered with wire mesh to discourage accidental skydiving. Dropping a rock through the mesh, we listened in silence. We never heard it hit bottom.

There were other, more diagonal mine shafts as well. I would have gladly explored the underground palace if we’d had more time and a bit of chalk. Responsible adventurer that I am, I contented myself with entering the foyer for now.

Wandering the ruins left us with many questions. Were any of these big stone buildings bunkhouses, or did the men sleep in tents? Did the men have wives and families out here, or just prostitutes? Did they leave their camp town and its chapel to go on leave in Real, or did they live up in the hills all the time? What happened to a man who took sick and couldn’t work?

Supposedly, the miners were paid a share of the monthly silver yield, which made it a lucrative job. I don’t imagine it was a safe one. I wonder how many of those men planned to do it only a little while, save up, and quit; and how many succeeded.

By the time we came down the mountain the sun was high in the sky. We collected our empty coffee cups from the branches where we’d stuck them on the way up. Unlike the miners, we left no sign that we’d ever been there.

Now everything in town was open. We had a late breakfast at the Meson, then rounded up our things at the Corral. We caught the noon bus just as it pulled into the tunnel, and began the trip back down. We’d had very little time in Real, but I’d already decided I needed to come back. It’s somewhere I’d like to rent a room for a few weeks and do a proper writing retreat. I’d also like to put on a backpack and hike the desert.

The tunnel and mountain road were less mystical now. We’d learned at least a few of their secrets, and the mist had begun to thin. In just an hour we were back in the ordinary world. We spent the rest of the day working, hanging out or looking for better food options around Cedral. We didn’t find many.

Friday, November 21 – Saturday, Novvember 22—Work and Planning

The next morning we once again rose before dawn. My friend had an early bus to catch, and we walked together to Jorge Luis’ bus stop. Afterward, alone again, I made my way home for one of Doña Blanca’s breakfasts and more work. I spent my last two days in Cedral writing, with afternoon and late evening forays to get food. There wasn’t much else to do in this sleepy little town, except plan my route onward.

Next time, I take off across the desert… which is the worst place to break down. Until then, here are the rest of the road logs.

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4 thoughts on “The Ghost Towns of Real de Catorce

  1. Kenneth W. Johnson says:

    Wow! What a fantastic place, fantastic article, and fantastic pictures! Beautiful! You have outdone yourself. I’m really anxious to hear about your 1st few days leaving San Miguel Allienda and going South into the unknown.

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