This article is from the February 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back Issues and Subscriptions available.

The Ghosts of the Past Live On in San Luis Potosi

by Tony Burton

 After 18 years working in Mexico, Tony Burton, an author, educator and travel consultant, moved to Canada in 1997. He returns several times a year to revisit his favorite places, leading specialized tours to such wonders as the Monarch butterflies, Paricutin volcano and the Copper Canyon. He contributed an article on Zacatecas to the April 1998 issue of The Mexico File. To see more of his work, visit www.mexconnect.com

Both the name and the coat-of-arms of San Luis Potosí recall the tremendous importance of mining to the colonial economy. Called Potosí in emulation of the famous mining settlement of that name high in the Bolivian Andes, the source of so much silver, the earlier settlers in this part of New Spain felt sure that this region also had immense silver deposits. Their hopes were certainly fulfilled, though not only in the way they'd originally thought. Besides silver, which was mined in vast quantities, major deposits of gold, fluorite and mercury were also discovered.

When the city was awarded its coat-of-arms in 1656 (confirmed by King Philip IV in 1658), this consisted of an image of San Luis standing atop a hill in which are the entrances to three mine shafts. Left of the hill are portrayed two large gold ingots, and right of it, two large silver ones.

Some of the early mining towns faded into obscurity, while others changed focus, becoming centers for ranching and commerce. In this century some former mining centers, partially or totally abandoned, are being resuscitated by tourism. Today a visit to the western part of the state of San Luis Potosí reveals the past glories and changed fortunes of four towns where mining was once all important; four towns which, as the four ingots on the coat-of-arms suggest, supported the region's economy for decades. The four towns are Charcas, Real de Catorce, Guadalcazar and San Pedro.

From the state capital, follow federal highway 49 west towards Zacatecas for about 30 kilometers. Then turn north for Moctezuma, Venado and Charcas. This route is paved all the way and emerges to join highway 57 just south of Matehuala. This trip holds considerable historic interest although the scenery is uninspiring. First come several ruined ex-haciendas off the road to the east, including tomato-producing Bocas, strategically located on the main Mexico City – Nuevo Laredo railway line and Vallumbroso. Next comes Venado, an unprepossessing town which formerly had a large textile mill beside the river. Then, twenty minutes further, we arrive in Charcas.

CHARCAS

The first town built by the Spaniards on the Potosino Altiplano (the High Plains of the state of San Luis Potosí) was Santa María de las Charcas, known today simply as Charcas. An hour or two spent in Charcas, as a break on your drive north towards Matehuala and Real de Catorce, will prove ample time to capture the town's distinctive flavor.


Silver was found near Charcas in about 1572 and, shortly after, brave attempts were made to establish a permanent mining village here. At the time, it was the northernmost frontier post in what the conquistadors called the “Gran Tunal,” literally the “Great tuna-fruit” area. The tuna is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus or nopal (Opuntia spp.) and the semi-arid area around Charcas is home to a rich and varied assortment of such cacti. All early attempts at settlement were thwarted due to constant attacks by marauding bands of wild natives, the Guachichiles. The Indians’ silica arrowheads and accurate bowmanship proved more than a match for their Spanish-speaking rivals and the town was hurriedly vacated. Later battles with the Guachichiles were financed by private, land-hungry pioneers rather than by the government. When Charcas was finally successfully refounded in 1584, the war-weary victors were rewarded by the Crown with ample grants of land, sufficient for mining concessions and cattle ranching.  

Today in Charcas few early buildings survive but the town's irregular street plan, with narrow alleyways and small plazas, reminds us of its humble origins. It is hardly surprising that the first inhabitants constructed not only a Franciscan church (1574) but also a fort to protect themselves. The old warehouse or granary is now incorporated into a modern school. In the well-kept interior of the present parish church, which dates from the eighteenth century, is a larger-than-lifesize statue, reputed to be more than four hundred years old, of the Virgin of Charcas, the protector of the local miners. Her fiesta is celebrated in style in a celebration held in early September each year.

In prehistoric times, meteorites struck the earth in the vicinity of Charcas. Five, weighing up to half a ton each, were found in the nineteenth century. One, which sat for years in the atrium of Charcas church, was stolen by General Bazaine during the French Intervention and relocated in the Natural Sciences Museum in Paris, France, where it may still be seen today.

For many years, as you drove north from Charcas towards Matehuala along state highway 63, you would stumble across a ghostly other-world graveyard for deceased railroad locomotives, near the village of Miguel Hidalgo. Scores and scores of these beasts, reduced to bare skeletons and deprived of all collectable parts, seemed to have been laid to a permanent rest in the hot desert sun. Alas, they’ve finally cleaned the area up and moved the locos. When I first came across these monsters, it led me to wonder exactly what had happened to all the railroad cars that must have accompanied them in their former life. I was delighted to find them, hundreds and hundreds of them, only a short distance away by rail track, near the town of Vanegas. However, I must admit I don't know if they are still there.

Fortunately, however much time you spend searching for the remains of railroad artifacts, Matehuala, on federal highway 57, has a full range of hotels and restaurants, including the very comfortable Las Palmas motel. Matehuala is the ideal jumping off point for a visit to Real de Catorce, amply described in a May 1998 Mexico File article.

REAL DE CATORCE

Visiting Real de Catorce today, it is difficult to envisage how a town which for many years produced more than 3 million dollars worth of silver each year (and that's pre-inflation dollars!) could somehow become, in later life, a ghost town. The wonderful thing for modern day visitors is that so much wealth was generated here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the townspeople could easily afford to build large, stone houses, many with several storys, tiled roofs, wooden windowframes and wrought-iron balconies. They were so well built that they have survived to tell their tales to those curious enough to wander through the steep streets, soaking up the atmosphere of one of Mexico’s most curious places.

Conscious of the lifeline that a successful tourist industry might offer for the future prosperity of the remaining inhabitants, much pride has been taken in restoring the former cockfighting arena or palenque, as well as other buildings, to something resembling their former splendor. Sad to relate, something of the former atmosphere of Real de Catorce has been lost in the last ten years, now that a line of stalls selling unashamedly commercial “made in China” items has encroached on the main street as a kind of permanent, but junky, street market.


After visiting Real de Catorce, return to Matehuala and head south past the scruffy little monument to the Tropic of Cancer erected on the west side of the road. Twenty-five minutes beyond El Huizache, where highways 57 and 80 meet, still following the main highway to San Luis Potosi, is the side road to Guadalcázar.
 

GUADALCÁZAR

It surprised me on my first visit to the clean, sleepy town of Guadalcázar that there was no overnight accommodation. The first view of the town as you drive in from highway 57 is quite charming. After snaking through yucca-covered hills and along the side of a deep canyon, an oasis of green countryside and the towers of this historic town’s two main churches provide a refreshing and photogenic change. Wandering the quiet streets past one old building after another, it seems impossible that some budding entrepreneur hasn’t seen the potential for converting one of the stone-built houses into a hideaway for the monied classes from the big city, less than 90 kilometers away.

When the town was founded in 1613, the newly arrived Viceroy of New Spain was Don Diego Fernández de Córdoba, Marquis of Guadalcázar (Spain), and the first miners here decided that their town should be named in his honor. The success of those pioneer prospectors resulted in a handsome town. The Viceroy had a house here, a building since turned into the Municipal building, the Palacio Municipal. Two magnificent Franciscan churches were erected. The one nearer the entrance to the town is seventeenth century. Beyond the tall trees of the plaza, the other, eighteenth century and dedicated to San Pedro, has a glorious gilded altarpiece or retablo with original paintings and figures. Down a side street is the ornate sandstone facade of the former Casa de Moneda, or Mint. Determined shoppers can find examples of locally made leather purses, wallets and belts worth purchasing as souvenirs.

The Sierra de la Mesa hills near the town are said to have inspired the local lyric poet Manuel José Othon (1858-1906) to write “En el Desierto, Idilio Salvaje” (In the Desert, Savage Idyll), published posthumously, considered one of the finest poems ever written in the Spanish language. Othón had earlier penned his “Himno a los bosques” (Hymn to the Woods). What would he have thought today, looking over the last few, denuded remnants of woodland left in his beautiful native state? Those wanting to know more about Othón are recommended to visit his former town house, now the Museo Othoniano, in the center of the city of San Luis Potosí at Manuel José Othon 225.

The surrounding area was not only famous for silver, but also for dozens of other minerals including mercury. Even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the local Indians are believed to have mined for mercury, using stone hammers. In colonial times, the district became the largest mercury producer in the entire country. Mercury, of course, was an essential ingredient for the “patio” process of refining silver ore, a process which formed the basis of New Spain's colonial wealth. The riches of Guadalcázar gave rise to the creation in 1768 of a title which elevated the mine’s owner to a permanent place in Mexico’s mining nobility as the first Conde de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Peñasco.

Near El Realejo, a village reached along a dirt track which leaves the main highway five kilometers before Guadalcázar, a collection of giant stone marbles, some as big as seven meters in diameter, affords a strange sight. In the same general vicinity, there is a great view over the surrounding countryside from the top of the Cerro de los Comadres, a hill named for two large standing stones which approximate two gossiping ladies. This hill’s name is loosely and wonderfully translated in the local tourist promotional literature as Midwives’ Hill.

 

South of Guadalcázar, deep inside the Cerro de San Cayetano, is the Gruta de San Cayetano, a cavernous chamber with formations. Astonishingly, despite its relative inaccessibility (by horseback or a long hike), this was one of the first caves to be described in the state of San Luis Potosí, though the state is now known to be riddled with underground caves, including some of the deepest in North America. The first to describe the San Cayetano cave, according to an article in Mexico Desconocido, was José Tomás de Cuéllar in 1869, some 22 years after he had defended Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City against the invading “norteamericanos” from the U.S.A. Tomás de Cuéllar later became Secretary of the Mexican Legation in Washington D.C.

Numerous tombs containing skulls with flattened foreheads (cabezas chatas), more normally associated with the Maya, have been found in this area. These are almost certainly the remains of Huastec Indians, who also knew and practiced skull-deforming techniques. While modern day Huastec Indians live only in the southern part of the state (and no longer deform heads), in earlier times their range may have extended as far north as Guadalcázar. 

Given the town’s rich history and excellent location, only 18 kilometers from highway 57, it would be very surprising if some Potosino entrepreneur does not soon attempt to mine tourists for gold by provisioning a small hotel and restaurant to attract weekend and passing trade.

SAN PEDRO

Enterprising Potosinos have already begun to take advantage of another former mining town, conveniently located even closer to the state capital. Cerro San Pedro, San Pedro hill, less than forty minutes drive from the capital, was the original site of San Luis Potosí and is the hill depicted on the coat-of-arms. Lacking an adequate water supply, the early settlers soon chose to move their embryonic city down to the bottom of the valley, where it prospered, growing into an industrial and commercial center catering to half a million inhabitants.

San Pedro, site of the silver strikes, has superb potential to become a classy dormitory suburb of the big city. In the cooler, windier climes of this largely abandoned ghost town, which once housed a population of some 12,000, a handful of old buildings have been restored as stores and restaurants. San Pedro is full of character and should definitely not be missed if you are visiting San Luis Potosí, even if you hire a taxi for half a day to see it.

The paved road, which leaves the Rio Verde highway near the village of Garita de (Los) Gómez, ends where the ghost town begins. It’s worth stopping here to explore the empty, stony streets and peek into the abandoned houses on the edge of town. Today, the most numerous inhabitants are cacti growing in the cracks and crannies of rock walls. Some buildings are still being maintained by invisible guardians, reluctant to completely relinquish their tenuous hold over meager pieces of real estate which, in this desperately desolate terrain, cost them the best years of their youth.

Nearby, you may be lucky enough to spot miners exiting from one of the few mines still being worked in San Pedro. Steeped in sweat —  there are no mules or tramways here —  they heave their heavy cargoes of ore into a small, dark strongroom before relaxing, cigarettes in hand, chatting and joking. They definitely still expect to strike it rich one day.

San Pedro was only abandoned some fifty years ago and so the central area of the town, higher up the valley and far enough away to warrant driving along a narrow, dusty, winding road, is still largely intact. An imposing parish church towers over a small, neat plaza. Next to the church is a museum. Its opening hours are variable, so don't rely on seeing it if your time is short. Still further up the valley is an impressive-looking Augustine church dedicated to San Nicolás. Sadly, its interior has been destroyed by fire and looting.

San Pedro’s main fiesta, complete with fireworks, dances, food and drink, is held on the Sunday before June 27th. The mass return of former townsfolk and their families, to be reunited with the 150 or so present day permanent residents, brings San Pedro fully back to life again, at least for a day. Once the fiesta ends, the lizards, spiders and other critters crawl out from their hidy-holes to reclaim their temporarily forsaken territory.

By hiking into the hills (not to be attempted without carrying plenty of water), you can explore other historic mining villages, such as El Encino, Calderón and Monte Caldera, where Captain Miguel Caldera, the mestizo son of a Spanish father and Guachichil mother, once lived. Caldera was the original founder of San Pedro in 1592, even though, as in the case of Charcas, silver had probably been known to exist here from about ten years before.

To the traveler who takes a little extra time to wander off the highway, San Luis Potosi will offer up enticing treasures in her old mining towns —  monuments from a golden age, built on the wealth from silver.