This article is from the June 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back to Articles List

Matehuala and Real de Catorce :
The Mexico That Was

by Robert and Cynthia Garrett

Robert and Cynthia Garrett hail from Wharton, Texas, and travel frequently in northern and central Mexico. They took the trip to Matehuala and Real de Catorce between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, 1996.

Matehuala and Real de Catorce are not your usual tourist destinations, and we decided to travel via Mexican bus, again not one’s usual tourist mode of travel. For several reasons we left on our trip from McAllen, Texas, again not your usual tourist mode of travel. First, McAllen has direct bus service via Noreste Bus Lines, and second, McAllen has adequate free public parking at the downtown bus station. Third, the Doubletree Hotel is across the street from the bus station.

The Doubletree is located in the historic Las Palmas Hotel. The rooms are large and the restaurant, excellent. Rates begin at $49.00 per night for a double, and they allow you to leave your car in the covered parking garage at no charge. The setting is superb. The Doubletree is an excellent starting point for a trip into Mexico: the oversized chairs, fireplaces, tiled floors, excellent service and warm staff make you feel as if you were already there.

The 7:15 a.m. bus is equipped with video and WC, and the cost is $19.50 per person one way from McAllen to Matehuala. The buses, as usual for Mexico (but sadly not for the U.S.), are modern, clean, comfortable and they run on time. Although the bus is direct, it makes several stops as part of its regular trip.

The first stops are in Reynosa, Mexico, once at the border for customs and then again at the bus station to pick up additional passengers. The bus departs Reynosa Central de Autobuses at 8:10. This bus station is large and clean, and it makes many connections throughout northern Mexico. A word of warning: be sure to pick up your tourist visa before you reach immigration. We did not and had to depart the bus, secure a tourist visa from the immigration officer at the checkpoint, and this hardly endeared us to the driver and other passengers who had to wait. Immigration charged us $5.00U.S. for the visas, but they are free if acquired at the border. The bus stops in Monterey at 11:00, and by 4:00 in the afternoon we were in Matehuala.

Billboards proclaim the Las Palmas Motel in Matehuala to be "midway." We never confirmed what it was midway between, but a glance at the map indicates that Matehuala is approximately halfway between Mexico City and Laredo, Texas. The Las Palmas appears to be the nicest motel in Matehuala. It has bungalows nestled over a garden-like property. The rooms are large and have both a sitting room and a bedroom. The water is purified and the restaurant is excellent. The exchange rate makes it a true value.

Matehuala is not the town you see along the highway. Take the time to go downtown to see the real town. A small cathedral was begun in 1905 and has never been completed. The architect attempted to replicate the cathedral in Lyons, France, but the local economy has not been able to fund its completion. The locals don’t seem to know just why the architect had an interest in replicating a European cathedral. The downtown square houses the local government offices and offers a glimpse of daily life in Mexico away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. The town comes to life around the square. People move and the sidewalks are watered and swept. The real life of rural Mexico is there for the observant, suggestive perhaps of a life not so far removed from that of rural America. The people live and work together, friends stop and chat, and life has a sameness seen throughout the world. The architecture is not remarkable. The streets are pure rural Mexico: narrow, painted buildings adjacent to the sidewalk, planted trees, dusty, and an occasional automobile. The pace is slower and the people are friendly. Here the tourist is an oddity. English is not spoken and our attempts at Spanish were welcomed.

The bus for Real de Catorce leaves from the Central de Autobuses and also from a small office in downtown Matehuala. The buses depart every two hours and the fare is 15 pesos per person each way. We found that it was best to buy a roundtrip ticket in Matehuala, although it is possible to buy a return ticket from the bus driver in Real de Catorce. There is no real bus station in Real de Catorce, and passengers with prepurchased tickets are seated first on the returning bus. The last bus of the day leaves at 4:00 in the afternoon. Be forewarned: the buses are full and it is a two-hour ride over a cobblestone road back to Matehuala.

Real de Catorce is a jewel. Nothing can prepare you for this experience of moving back in time and space. When you arrive from Matehuala you must change buses, because the original bus you came in is too tall to fit through the tunnel. Yes, tunnel! The only route into Real de Catorce is through an old mining tunnel dug through the mountain. This tunnel is not very tall, unlit, and narrow enough only for one-way traffic. Real de Catorce has been preserved...not for the tourist, but in spite of the tourist. The Mexican pilgrim comes to worship at one of two churches. Religious medals and candles are sold by vendors to these pilgrims. They come and crawl on their knees, to prostrate themselves before the saint. This is Mexico. These are the true people who have populated the country for centuries. Their eyes are focused. The belief is there.

The first church in Real de Catorce has wooden floors worn by the knees of countless pilgrims. These floors are composed of the lids of coffins for the priests who have been buried there. This church has not been restored, but it has been maintained. It is used daily, and its painted surfaces reflect the adoration of the people. The second church is beyond the bull ring with a cemetary in front. The church doors open to a beautiful panorama of the hills beyond the grave markers. It is a small church and is maintained well. Both churches illustrate the use of color, light and texture in 19th century Mexican architecture.

The bull ring is in ruins, but is has a vista which can be enjoyed. The site is currently under excavation, and a walk through the ruins is recommended.

This city has not changed in years. The streets wind narrowly uphill and down. The sound of horse’s hooves echo on the cobblestones. Yes, they still use horses here for transportation. Horseback rides are available, and we talked to several people who had visited ruins and churches accessible only by horseback.

This village suggests the life that existed here 100 years ago. The houses and shops reflect the heavy wood and masonry construction of the 19th century. The shops are clean and the food is good. There are several restaurant and hotels in town, and reservations are recommended at the hotels. We stopped for lunch at the Real and the hotel was booked. It has an Italian restaurant with excellent food. The hotel rooms are small, but clean and well-appointed. Its rooms are located around an open central courtyard with a winding stairwell up three floors to a rooftop terrace with an excellent view.

There are few vehicles in town, although cars and trucks can make it through the tunnel. The town is quiet with the sounds of hooves echoing through the streets. Life is slow here, conducted at a walking pace on cobblestone streets built a century ago.

Real de Catorce has a small international contingent, as well as a small artist’s colony, as seen in the painters depicting street scenes. There is also a herbal healing presence with fresh herbs for sale by numerous vendors. This is, after all, a high holy place for Indian tribes. It all adds up to an unspoiled segment of the Mexico that was.

Matehuala and Real de Catorce offer the traveler a chance to step back into a slower time without cell phones, beepers, jarring sounds and pressing schedules. They offer a glimpse into the rural Mexico that was...and still is: sparse, remote, arid, with warm vistas, warm people, and a relaxed lifestyle we all should envy.