This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Adventure in a Desert Ghost Town

Real de Catorce Hosts International Festival

by Ron Mader

Ron Mader is the author of the guidebook, Mexico: Adventures in Nature, and host of the popular Planeta.com: Eco Travels in Latin America website (http://www.planeta.com). Planeta.com is the winner of SECTUR's 1999 "Lente de Plata" award for its exemplary coverage of Mexico. Ron can be reached via email at ron@greenbuilder.com

REAL DE CATORCE, San Luis Potosi. Secluded in a valley, flanked by mountains and surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert, Real de Catorce is undoubtedly Mexico's most famous ghost town – a misnomer since it not only shows signs of life, but of renaissance.

The two‑kilometer tunnel burrowed through solid mountain was a feat of road building at the turn of the last century. Mining companies sought to ease the transportation of valuable ores to the world market and invested one million pesos to burrow through the mountains. Real de Catorce is one of Mexico's acclaimed “Silver Cities” and at the height of its fortune a century ago, it was the marvel of the whole of Mexico. But the fates were not kind. Silver prices crashed in 1905, and in turn, so did Real.

Fast forward one hundred years and the town is desperately trying to move beyond its celebrated “ghost town” image. Certainly, it maintains its grand visual appeal, not to mention magic, but residents would like to see some much‑needed support for century‑old buildings and even more ancient tradition.

“Tourism is expanding,” says local hotelier Thomas Peter. “But it needs to grow,” he said, adding that the town has one phone line – which hasn't been working the past three weeks since a goat chewed the cable. Thomas, a Swiss immigrant who came to Mexico a few years ago, discovered something magical about the place he was working and decided to marry and call this place home. Three years ago with his wife Petra Puente, he opened – or re‑opened – the Meson de La Abundancia, Real de Catorce's oldest hotel.

Residents of the town were the hosts of the First International Festival of Potosi Altiplano, which concluded August 21. This event wove local music and gastronomic events, bike rides and ecotourism presentations in a single week.

"People say that there isn't much to do in the desert, but we have a great deal of attractions," said Fred Hernandez, organizer of the event.

Nearby Matehuala hosted a full day of ecotourism conferences. Presentations were given by an impressive list of experts: Carlos Lazcano Sahagun, director of the alternative tourism department of Chihuahua; Robert Cudney, director of Recreation and Tourism of Mexico's Protected Areas (SEMARNAP); Meliton Cross, owner of Villa Calmecac hotel in Cuernavaca; Sergio Molina, a SECTUR consultant; Carlos Gonzalez, publisher of Aventura Vertical magazine; independent consultants Angel Nieva Garcia and Jorge Chavez de la Peña; and Marlene Ehrenberg, President of Amtave, Mexico's National Ecotourism and Adventure Association.

In Real de Catorce, conference participants went wild – taking part in outdoor activities, including rappelling, rock climbing, horseback riding and a "photo safari" using the jeeps known as Willys.

Potosi natives Carlos Gonzales and Dalila Calvario directed the rappelling and took great pride in explaining both the necessary technical skills and safety issues to novices, including myself.

“Rappelling is not falling,” Carlos explained. “It's maintaining control of your descent.”

Rainbow over Real

The San Luis Potosi Tourism Office invited me to participate for my work as host of the Planeta.com website and as the author of the Mexico: Adventures in Nature guidebook. Over the phone a few months earlier Fred Hernandez explained that he wanted me to discuss the role of the internet in promoting “alternative destinations” such as the Altiplano Potosino.

As I was preparing to give one of the closing presentations at the International Fair, rain clouds were rolling in the late afternoon, and it was unclear if we would meet at the Palenque de Gallos as scheduled or the Palacio Municipal (City Hall). It's just a summer rainstorm, I thought, and pushed for the Palenque, a circular stone amphitheater, formerly used as a cockfighting ring.

As our group arrived at the Palenque, the clouds began to release a soft but steady mist, welcome in this arid zone. Soon a rainbow appeared over the city. This was the perfect place to conclude such a memorable conference.

In some ways, talking about the internet without high‑tech equipment was a challenge, but then so was talking about an electronic medium in a town with one phone line. What impressed me most, however, was the open space created in the Palenque – much like an ancient Greek political forum in the round.

“We are creating open spaces like this one to discuss the merits of ecotourism,” I said. “The success of any type of ‘alternative tourism’ in Mexico will depend on our ability to create linkages and communication so that people with similar interests can find out and learn about each other. 

Of course, if this works – as it should in the coming century – then ‘alternative tourism’ will actually be the mainstay of the tourism industry and remote, rural places such as Real de Catorce will be leaders again.