This article is from the May 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back to Articles List

Real de Catorce, Village of Enchantment

by Elizabeth J. Carmack

Elizabeth Carmack is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, where she writes and edits documents on Texas air pollution for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Oklahoma State University and a master’s degree in mass communication research from the University of Leicester in Leicester, England. She and her husband Jeff enjoy traveling, camping, and Cajun and zydeco dancing. She can be reached at liznjeff@texas.net

The battered Willys jeep lurched up the steep cobblestone grade, inches from the road’s edge. We stared at the 200-foot drop that awaited us should the driver fail to cut the truck’s wheels in time as we doglegged to hug the mountainside.

The hair-raising journey led us back to our surprisingly comfortable 18th-century house-turned-hotel in Real de Catorce. It was just another adventure in this remote, colonial Mexican village in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range. The community was once a major silver producer and now is nearly a ghost town and a little-known but delightful destination for travelers.

Three days earlier, the eight of us had left Austin in a 24-foot Winnebago Warrior. Our tour guides, drivers and on-the-road caterers were Mike and Sandy Hightower of Palenque Travel in Austin, Texas.

We crossed the border at Laredo and headed south for Saltillo. Mike Hightower took the toll road out of Laredo. Mexican toll roads are not only in better condition, but are less heavily traveled than nontoll roads.

Our first night was spent in the Hotel Rancho El Morillo, a family-owned compound that was a leafy oasis in the hot, busy city of Saltillo. In addition to several family homes, the grounds included a small restaurant and bar, gardens, and a pool. Our rooms were spacious and comfortable, with (what else?) Saltillo tile floors and wooden-shuttered windows that were opened to catch the evening breeze.

One of the things for which the hacienda is rightfully noted is its delicious pear liqueur. A short walk around the lush compound the next morning brought us to the orchard, the trees glistening with hand-blown bottles. Inside each bottle was a small, immature pear. Once the pears mature, bottle and pear are picked and the beautiful bottle is filled with liqueur. Both the pear liqueur and a liqueur made from quince were available for purchase at the hacienda.

We spent part of the day exploring downtown Saltillo. Some of our group were intent on visiting the serape factory for its gorgeous loomed rugs and serapes. With Sandy Hightower as my bargaining translator, I picked up a colorful backpack for less than $8. Some of the group negotiated a private tour of the baroque-style Saltillo cathedral. We wound through its bell tower and scrambled out onto the roof for a spectacular view of the city.

Stalls at the city market were laden with blankets, hats, shoes, pottery, jewelry and leather goods. Corners of the market were aromatic from a wide selection of Mexican herbs displayed by the vendors. My nose also led me upstairs to the meat market, with its bloody counter tops and buzzing flies. There was no refrigeration in sight.

By early afternoon we were on the road again for the four-hour drive to Real de Catorce. We gassed up in Concepcion del Oro and headed into the Chihuahuan Desert.

Halfway to our destination we made an obligatory stop at a roadside checkpoint where the federales inspected the inside of the vehicle and inquired about our destination. They seemed more interested in the smell of food from the RV’s kitchen than any contraband we might be carrying. Two vendors taking advantage of the location offered excellent prices on pottery, geodes and other rocks and minerals.

Within a couple of hours we turned off onto the 14-mile cobblestone road that winds up into the Sierra Madres to Catorce, which sits at 9,000 feet. The higher we climbed the more spectacular the view of the desert below and the cooler the July temperatures became.

Our next stop was at the entrance to Ogarrio, the 2-mile-long tunnel bored through the mountainside and one of only two entrances into town. The tunnel is only wide enough for one vehicle but there is usually little traffic and young men with walkie-talkies regulate the entrances. The Winnebago Warrior, at 9 feet, 3 inches high, barely slipped through the tunnel, with just 3 inches clearance.

Undaunted by an eerie darkness that was only occasionally broken by a bare light bulb, a few of us decided to walk the distance. As I choked on exhaust from a passing vehicle, it was easy to see how deaths from asphyxiation occurred here once during the October festival season when a car stalled, stopping traffic in the tunnel.

Every few hundred feet the damp walls were punctuated by horizontal mine shafts leading off into the darkness, and candle-lit shrines to miners who died in their work. I was calmed when the road turned to reveal that after another 200 yards, we would emerge into the Catorce sunshine.

We walked through the village’s cobblestone streets to Hotel El Coral de Conde. The owner purchased the ruined building more than 15 years ago and turned it into his home. Since then, he has made it a home away from home for intrepid travelers. Each of the six comfortable rooms has been furnished with antiques, Mexican textiles and folk art, and each has its own bathroom. The hotel’s small, beautiful courtyard was filled with the gurgling of a fountain and was awash in color from blooming fuchsia and bougainvillea.

At 9 a.m. the next morning the peaceful courtyard was a tempting spot to relax with a book and cup of coffee, but horses and local guides waited for us outside the hotel. We packed a lunch and climbed onto our transportation for the day. The horses were small and shoeless, but were accustomed to carrying loads up the old, rocky, winding road above Catorce. This was how residents made their way into and out of the town before the Ogarrio tunnel was built.

The morning ride rewarded us with a windswept plateau that offered a 360-degree view of the Sierra Madres. The only other people for miles were a shepherd and his son. Their herd of goats and sheep grazed around us as we shared our lunch and practiced our Spanish.

Riding the horses down the steep road that afternoon was an unwanted thrill for some of our group. After the third hairpin switchback at a 45-degree angle, most hopped off and decided to hoof it themselves.

Back at the hotel we relaxed with cold drinks and dressed for the cool evening. Because Catorce has a small but eclectic populace, Mexican food is not the only cuisine available in its handful of restaurants. The Hightowers led us to a nondescript stone building a few blocks from the hotel. Inside was one of the best Italian restaurants I have ever visited. The chef had a spacious, completely outfitted kitchen opposite the small dining room of eight tables.

The entrees and appetizers the group shared included freshly caught rabbit in wine sauce, and foccacia stuffed with ham, cheese and onions. Dessert choices included an apricot tart made with fruit from the chef’s orchard. The meal was complemented by the house-chosen red wine and cups of strong, fragrant coffee. After stuffing ourselves we barely made it back up the hill to collapse into our beds.

The next day’s hike took us to a mine ruin below Catorce. The old buildings only hinted at their former splendor in the faded frescos and weathered doors hung with ornate rusted iron hardware. A family of on-site caretakers greeted us warmly and let us explore the grounds and abandoned shafts as we liked.

Thus far, we had been walking on a rocky road headed down the mountain for our lunch time destination, Los Catorce. But the more adventurous decided to trek with Mike Hightower down a narrow trail across the valley for the rest of the hike.

Moss and ferns sprouted on the ancient but still-used aqueduct that ran alongside the trail. It moved water from the mine ruins to the village below. The sound of the cool water and the lushness of the greenery was a stark contrast to the spiny tasajillo cacti, daggerlike lechuguilla and other desert plants covering the sun-blanched terrain.

This hike was not for the acrophobic. Several times two members of our party climbed a few feet up the mountainside to leave the trail because of its unsure footing and the steep drop into the valley. I actually enjoyed the dramatic view from the trail, but if I did this hike again, I would wear long pants. Those of us in shorts walked away with nicks and scratches from the thorny vegetation.

The concentration and agility needed on the hike sharpened our appetites. We were satisfied with the lunch our guides had planned. Home-cooked chiles rellenos, beans and rice, cold beer and soft drinks were served to the group under avocado trees at our hotel owner’s modest home.

A siesta in the relaxing atmosphere lulled us into thinking that our adventures for the day were over. They weren’t. So that we wouldn’t have to make the climb back up to Catorce on foot, our guides had arranged a jeep driver to pick us up that afternoon.

The road-weary Willys jeep that arrived looked like it had made the trip up and down the mountain road a few times too many. The cheerful driver, whose dashboard and rear view mirror were decorated with images of various saints, was unconcerned about letting his small son ride on the hood. We scrambled into the back. He ground the transmission into first gear and in first it remained for the entire, 5-mph creep up the mountain road.

Despite the road’s hairpin turns and unprotected outside edge, the Hightowers assured us vehicles could pass each other. We didn’t want to find out. Although the ride up was tense, the party tried to find comfort in the fact that our guides had taken more than a dozen other groups through the same paces without incident. Our nervous laughter and death-grips on our seats dissolved into sighs of relief and relaxed smiles as the jeep pulled back into the streets of Catorce and stopped in front of our hotel.

All our time in Catorce was not spent in the pursuit of thrills. We had plenty of free time to ramble through its streets, exploring the old cock-fighting ring, the village’s two beautiful old churches and graveyard, and the open-air market.

During a free afternoon my husband and I snacked on chicken gorditas and papaya ice cream as we wandered the market stalls that proffered religious trinkets, embroidered clothing, Mexican candies and fresh herbs.

The village also has a few shops that sell beaded masks, pictures, and other traditional crafts of the Huichol Indians, as well as silver jewelry and South American imports.

Reluctantly, we left Catorce after a three-day stay that felt much longer. We retraced our steps back to Texas, this time stopping in Monterrey overnight. We arrived in this industrial city during the afternoon rush hour. What a contrast to Catorce, where the cars are outnumbered by burros.

By 7 p.m. the next evening we were back in Austin unloading our collections from the trip — blankets, pottery, jewelry and geodes. But our most treasured souvenirs are our memories — some tranquil, others thrilling — of Catorce and its charms.

1998 Elizabeth J. Carmack