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Adventure in a Desert Ghost Town
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 email@example.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.
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.
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,
“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
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.