This article is from the May 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Real de Catorce, The Incredible City

by David Christian Newton 

David Christian Newton hails from the McAllen, Texas, area. He has been active in the tourism industry for nearly 30 years, and has also been a consultant to American businesses seeking to buy/sell in Mexico. For many years he and his wife operated a sizeable touring company, but presently he has scaled back to arrange private excursions for smaller groups visiting well known and lesser known destinations in Mexico. He recently has developed a new touring approach of “home-stays” in small towns and rural areas of eastern Mexico. His excursions accentuate comfort and tranquility more than price, and all are individually designed for each small group. Contact him at Privatour@aol.com , or phone/fax him at 956-585-5643. His address is 1705 Highland Park Avenue, Mission, TX 78572. 

This is a place that is discovered from time to time by the adventurous and the misguided. The literary expression that “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times” fits the community perfectly. >From those days when significant amounts of silver were first found during the last quarter of the 18th century up to the present, it has lured a fascinating array of people from all sectors of the spectrum of humanity. 

Rustic prospectors originally found large deposits of silver and significant amounts of gold while checking out “vetas”in the arroyos of the high, arid Sierras to the west of Matehuala. In quick order several claims were filed and received recognition as “reales de minas” from the Crown. The Spanish Empire was beginning its final decline and would eventually lose its grasp on Mexico and the rest of the New World in less than 45 years. In spite of the late hour for the Empire, this little place in central Mexico known formally as “Real de Minas de la Purisima Concepcion de los Catorce” would produce over 15% of all the silver that ultimately found its way to Madrid from the Americas during the colonial period.  

During the period following the fall of the Spanish Empire this outback area languished. Locals became famous for pushing sheep and goats around in the arid mountains and surrounding flatlands. The people became famous as tradesmen, making fine freight_wagons, and as producers of wool of lesser and better qualities. They worked the abundant yucca plants and the ixtle, making fiber from the leaves that would serve to make brushes and rope. They would also derive a good detergent from the tuberous roots. The flower of the yucca was eaten as a delicacy, and the people would quickly learn to make a variety of excellent foods from the nopal cactus, which is also abundant in the lower reaches surrounding the Sierra de Catorce. 

Shortly after the war with the United States, the Mexican government opened the nation’s doors to private investors from Europe, especially Great Britain, France, Italy, and Spain. Heavy industrial activity began in earnest in several parts of the Republic. Railroads, manufacturing, mining, and agricultural projects would be seen functioning in almost every region.   

Spanish and Italian mining interests were drawn to the dry isolated highlands of central Mexico because of the area’s fame for having been a major producer of precious metals during the colonial period. Places like Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosi were once again humming with activity. Tons of ore were once again processed as mines were re_opened, amplified, or started up from scratch.  

Famous Spanish mining families, such as the Ogarrio and the de la Maza clans set up operations in the highest parts of the Sierra de Catorce, which was then something akin to what we would think of the surface of the Moon today. At elevations ranging from 9,200 to over 12,000 feet above sea level and over 30 miles (about 2 weeks hard travel from nearby Matehuala), the task of running the mines profitably was a daunting one.  

Before long, La Purisima and La Luz mines were under production and some of the silver was being reduced by the old “sistema del patio” which employed large amounts of expensive mercury. The de la Maza family built a massive mansion in front of the recently completed Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion (begun in 1799) and began the authorized publishing of official Mexican silver coinage in denominations of 10, 20, and 50 centavos, as well as the famous trade units of the “ley 720" one peso coins that became the currency of international trade in the Orient.

Equally famous was the very tiny and very rare one peso gold “Maximiliano” coins struck for a period during the reign of Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico. 

Because of the striking of that gold coin, it is said that Benito Juarez Garcia, upon re_assuming the Presidency of the Republic of Mexico and ordering the execution of Maximilian in 1867, also ordered the closure of the Casa de Moneda de Real de Catorce. It did remain, however, as the luxurious home of one line of the de la Maza family and even served for a time as a preparatory and finishing school for young Mexican and foreign girls. The facility remains to this day, deteriorated as it is, open to visits from interested parties. Like a lot of the buildings in Real de Catorce, it seems possessed with a certain gloomy resignation that, no matter what comes in the future, the elegance of the period from 1855 through 1909 will never be equaled.  

The traveler today can take advantage of works by local silversmiths who fashion scrap and coin silver into pieces that range from mediocre to excellent at what must be described as very reasonable prices. The last small group of ladies we had in Real de Catorce bought a considerable amount of nice jewelry from the artisans. 

CERTAIN MYTHS

“Fourteen Bandits”: Sometimes visitors are told that, during one episode or another of Mexico’s often turbulent past, a group of fourteen bandits lived in the area and preyed upon the trains below to the west, or the caravans of freight and passengers to the east. They might even point to a midway community that can be found on the very precarious route between the rail station and Real de Catorce. That community is named “Los Catorce,” and it is said that it is where the fourteen bandits lived. It was the site for one of the block & tackle stations for drayage, and drew its name from the fact that it pertained to Real de Catorce. 

“The Mines Played Out”: It is common for visitors to be told that Real de Catorce was a briefly wealthy place whose riches were raided by wealthy foreign capitalists. After a period of rampant exploitation, thestory goes, the mines exhausted all the ore and the mine operators abandoned the area, returned to Spain and spent the rest of their days counting their money. The fact is that there is still a lot of silver and even gold in the mountains. The Santa Maria Mines on the east side of the Sierra is still producing massive amounts of gold from several levels, including one area over 4,000 feet below the surface. 

The actual ruin of Real de Catorce happened suddenly, in 1909, when labor union activists incited an uprising among the miners, resulting in an armed conflict. At the de la Mazabank, only a block from the Casa de Moneda, 19 miners lost their lives in the small lobby of the private bank, shot down by security agents who were guarding the facility. The men were so badly shot_up by the guards’ shotguns that the incident is referred to in history as the “Noche de Garras” (Night of Shredded Rags). 

From that day until about 1919, Real de Catorce quickly declined and became moribund. Its great Opera House, the mines, the churches, the electric plant, and all the fine trappings of a great and wealthy industrial center fell into irretrievable disrepair. The mines have opened and closed at various times, but the opulence and prestige have never returned. 

CHURCHES AND PILGRIMS

Real de Catorce, while called a ghost town, does have a vibrant local population. Some folks who live here now are involved in the bit of mining that still goes on. Others are dedicated to tourism and cultural affairs. Among the Huichole Indians who come from the western part of Mexico, an important pursuit is the collection of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus. There is a small but active group of Euros, chiefly from Switzerland and Germany, who have been moving in during recent years and renovating some of the old ruins and turning them into residences.  

The main business, however, is the pilgrimage of the faithful who come to pay homage to San Francis of Assisi. While the main temple of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is dedicated, obviously, to Saint Mary, hundreds upon thousands of the faithful come to the lesser altar of St. Francis of Assisi to repay him for intercessions and favors he has rendered them. On the day of St. Francis, the 4th of October, and for about a week on either side of that date, as many as 400,000 people pour into Real de Catorce to visit the image of San Francisco de Asis. Processions and ceremonies celebrate his continued responsiveness to the needs of those who invoke his power. Many folks leave written mementos, capsulizing in written and pictorial form the nature of St. Francis’s intervention on their behalves.   

These mementos are rather much like “thank you” notes called “retablos.” One particularly poignant message pictures a man tied to a post and facing a firing squad. It is dated in the early 1930's. A child’s printing expresses gratitude to St. Francis for having intervened just before the execution of the child’s father. It seems that the guilty party had confessed, just in time to save the innocent man facing the firing squad. But it is only one of the literally scores of thousands of testaments of the true believers in the powers of the Saints of Heaven. 

Even during the regular times, and especially on weekends, there are scores and scores of faithful who come to visit St. Francis. Most are working_class Mexicans, a few are Mexican-Americans from Texas and elsewhere in the United States. The wealthy and even the Protestant come to pay homage as well, so one should never be surprised at the nature of the visitor. Of late, Greens have come to see St. Francis as an early day animal rights activist, according to a conversation I had with some up-scale European young people recently. 

Although the Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion and its altar to San Francisco de Asis may occupy the central point for the faithful, the older church is the Iglesia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, located on the edge of the far side of town. It is surrounded by the main cemetery of Real de Catorce, and it dates from the 1780's. 

The religious art inside this church is fascinating and worth the little effort it might take to either walk, ride horseback, or to bump out via motor vehicle. It lies only about one mile from the center of the town. Genealogists will have a field day studying the markers and dedications of the graves both inside the church and in the “campo santo”surrounding the church. Many of the wealthy Spaniards who originated in Santander and Viscaya provinces who came during the mining heyday are buried here. Also, the views taken from this location are legendary, including the straight shot of 120 miles over the central highlands of Mexico to the Sierra of Zacatecas. 

GETTING THERE AND DOING THINGS 

Much is made of the stone highway that must be traversed once the traveler leaves the paved highway leading from Matehuala and Cedral. It rattles the bones and teeth a bit, but be assured that it is much preferable to the old dusty “brecha” that I used by in the 1960's and 1970's. While the stone highway appears to be old, it actually dates from the late 1970's and was finished in 1980. You will increase your elevation from Matehuala’s 5,300 feet to Real de Catorce’s 9,600 feet in an angulated approach that involves about 31 road miles. The last11 miles will be quite an up_grade on the stone road.  

Once at your destination, one might say, your trip has just started. Depending on the amount of traffic and your time of arrival, you might be able to pass right through the tunnel, or you might have to wait for up to a half_hour for your side’s turn to pass through. The fare is 10 pesos (at this writing) per vehicle, and is good for your return trip as well. The tunnel has several narrow points that prohibit the clearance of two vehicles simultaneously. Once inside, it is a fairly easy drive. There are religious shrines and old ventilation shafts to view, but it is better to keep moving so as not to hold up the rest of the folks. Pictures are possible, but problematic.  

Upon entering the city, the visitor will be met by insistent children and young men who will be trying to direct you to a parking area to the left. While they are legitimately trying to help, they do not pertain to you, unless you are a pilgrim. If you have other business in town (which you do) follow the street ahead and bear TO THE RIGHT and start to drive into what seems a hopeless one_way, ultra_narrow disaster in the making. After about 200 feet of wondering what in God’s name you are doing, you will see a very unlikely looking rustic sign that indicates that you should turn to the left into a very unlikely looking, very bumpy looking, and very narrow street. Have faith, because St.Francis will intervene. I have done this street and even worse ones in Real de Catorce in my old ‘82 Ford Granada, my nice newer Thunderbird, and a number of other vehicles of lesser and greater quality. The 2001 Ford 15-passenger van we drove in this particular trip, with eight persons on board, had no problems negotiating the street.  

After making it to this point, drive four short blocks to the point where the street makes a “T” intersection, and once there, turn right. Then go a block to the Plaza de Armas, turn right again, and then after another block and a half, you will beat the front door of the Hotel Meson de la Abundancia, which is our choice of places to stay, due to its central location and generally pleasant atmosphere. It has nice rooms, a really great restaurant, and reasonable rates. Due to its small size, however, reservations are definitely recommended. 

The owners of the Meson de la Abundancia are an international couple. He is Thomas Peter, from Switzerland, and she is Petra Puente de Peter from an old Catorceno family. They have one child, a handsome two-year-old named Sebastian, who thought terribly spoiled and waited upon hand and foot, is a delightful and engaging child who never causes any problem. The staff of locals is wonderfully doting and competent. They are at once capable and proudly rustic, so the visitor will have the true sense of being and participating in that elusive thing called “The Real Mexico.” The meals at the Meson de la Abundancia range from very good to truly excellent. Everything is made up from scratch, even the superb pizzas for which they are rightly famous.  

The hotel is labrythine and multi-level. It tends to be dark and footing tends to be adventurous for the bifocal crowd. There is no heating in the rooms, although no one ever seems to complain. The rooms are clean, all with private bath with an “abundancia” of hot water, and have a nice decor, even if a bit Spartan. Depending on the size of the room, the rates at this writing range from about 350 for a double to about 600 pesos for a room that can easily accommodate five persons.

There are other places to stay in Real de Catorce. The newly finished Hacienda Real about two blocks up hill from the Plaza de Armas is a good choice. The rates are around 700 pesos for a double room, and it is where Brad Pitt chose to stay during the filming of “The Mexican.” The director and many of the technical staff stayed at the Meson de Abundancia. Pitt made himself quite a popular personality while in Real de Catorce, mingling with people of all ages, ethnicities, nationalities, and classes – and being generally accessible and a “regular Jose.” The same could not be said for the lead actress, who was a real “Ugly American” type and whose name I forget.  

Petra Puente de Peter’s brother has a lodging just a block away from the Meson, but he takes no reservations. His rates are similar to the Meson’s, and his four rooms are quite nice. He has the additional advantage of being close to his sister’s place with the great restaurant. A more humble hotel lies between Petra’s place and her brother’s, and is adequate for the backpacker set. They also have dining alternatives with emphasis on Italian food. It is clean and relatively cheap, around 200 pesos. Another place named the Puesto del Sol, near the cemetery and the Chapel of Guadalupe, is an alternative.  

SUGGESTIONS AND OBSERVATIONS

It is certainly necessary to avoid visiting Real de Catorce during the period around the fourth of October. It would be advisable in this writer’s opinion to allow ten days on either side of that date. The congestion in the Tunel de Ogarrio is massive. One can see thousands of people going over the mountain on foot (12,200 feet) after leaving their conveyances. Once inside Real de Catorce, the streets are totally congested shoulder to shoulder (among other body parts) and restrooms, food, or other basic necessities are totally strained to beyond any reasonable limit.  

It is almost equally advisable to avoid the city during Holy Week as well as the week after Easter. At this time it is necessary to be certain that you have a prepaid reservation. Better yet, you might ask yourself why you are traveling in Mexico during that time anyway.  

Weekends can be a little crowded as well, with folks arriving from San Luis Potosi, Mexico City, and even Monterrey and Saltillo. We always try to go in during the weekdays, if at all possible in order to avoid the tale about “no room in the Inn.” This is a little easier to do now anyway, because there is no direct dial telephone service to the Hotel Meson de la Abundancia. The prospective visitor can call, preferably after 9:30 (Central Time) any day of the week. With luck, you will reach Ana Delia, the Sargenta Mayora of the Hotel. Once she has told you that you have reservations, you need not worry further. The number to dial, if you are calling from the U.S. or Canada, is 011 524 887 5044. The fax number is almost identical – 011 524 887 5045.  

Another consideration in planning your adventure to Real de Catorce is to be aware of the weather during the winter months. December, Janaury, and February can be brutally cold to wimpy South Texan like me. Nighttime temperatures can plummet into the ‘teens, and bitterly cold winds can slice through every living thing during the day. Even on our last trip, in early March, we had a bit of sleet, snow and frrreeezing rain in the afternoon, driven along by the “navaja de hielo” (knife of ice), as the wind is known.  

If I were to go, just bumming around alone or with a buddy, looking for something interesting to do, I would dedicate a minimum of three nights to this place. It is best to invest a little more time here because it is very high and breathing can be a little difficult at first. Then, the streets which are paved in ore-stone are difficult to negotiate in spite of their nice designs. Here, of all places, the standard advice about wearing comfortable walking shoes should be taken seriously. Settle on a price before departure, and rent a pony down at the Plaza, a block from your hotel in order to take a little load off of your lungs. The ponies are very sure footed and are probably a good alternative for going out to the cemetery, for instance. It is difficult, in any regard, to do anything quickly in Real de Catorce.

As of this writing, no place in Real de Catorce is accepting credit cards. Ana Delia says that Thomas and Petra are working on taking cards, but they want to do it when the electronic validator can be installed. This will take a while, yet, but nowadays mañana comes much more quickly in Mexico. So, don’t be surprised if they are taking cards by the summertime of 2001.  

We urge that you have a good supply of Mexican cash, and small denomination American cash, preferably one-dollar bills, before you arrive in Real de Catorce. There are no banks or casas de cambio. Even traveler’s checks can be a pain. Once again, Mexican cash is vigorously recommended, and try to have a large supply of 10, 20, and 50 peso notes. When checking in at the Meson (or elsewhere), we suggest that you simply leave a cash deposit of a couple of thousand pesos, assuming you will be spending three nights or so. That way, you can sign your restaurant and bar bills as if you had a card open, and not have to cause grief to the staff by looking around for change in a town where change almost does not exist. Those of us who have traveled in remote places know the drill, and this a place to employ it.  

Also, do not plan on liquidating your bill early in the morning (before 9:00) and leaving town. Things get started very, very slowly in Real de Catorce. Matters such as breakfast and settling accounts can usually be started around 9:00 or 9:30 at the very earliest. Even if the night before all assurances have been made that “someone” will be available to handle all necessary matters, the rising sun will reveal a scene of inertia that can only be put into motion by divine intervention.  

There is no gasoline to be purchased in Real de Catorce, but there are two good stations in Cedral (clean), one of which even has the Red Pump (high test). These stations make a better choice than the always congested and forever busy stations on the main highway in Matehuala.  

Although the venerable Las Palmas Hotel and Restaurant in Matehaula is now on the market (asking price around $5,000,000US), it continues to be an excellent place to stay and/or eat. It might be a good place to jump off to or from your trip to Real de Catorce, and lies only about one hour away (about 30 miles).  

For those who have not been to Mexico’s central parts recently, the expressway is now complete. So, driving up from San Miguel de Allende or down from McAllen or Laredo, the veteran will be dismayed by the lack of “adventure” and other attractions associated with the “good old days” – like following convoys of 35 tractor-trailer rigs with double trailers up grades at 12 miles per hour and other such wonders. The stretch from near Saltillo to just north of San Luis Potosi is toll-free. The $2.50 per gallon for the fuel helps pay for things, I presume.  

In any regard, the drive is very easy and pleasant. There are many rest stops that have been maintaining consistently clean premises and restrooms. The stop at La Leona, about eight miles south of the intersection at San Roberto, even has a paved parking lot – highly recommended.  

After making the drive now, the newcomer will wonder why people told all those stories about how hard it is to drive in Mexico. It’s just progress, and Mexico’s steady march into its proper, and long overdue, place as a member of the first world.