Off the Map in Real De Catorce, San Luis Potosí, Mexico, August, 2001

    It sounds like a fantasy. Less than a day’s drive south of the Rio Grande there is an ancient mountain fastness made up of crumbling ruins in a high mountain canyon. This town lies at the end of a two mile long tunnel which winds its way through the heart of the mountains.  Along the main passage mine shafts lead off here and there, and candles burn at various shrines along the way. The tunnel itself is at the end of a long cobblestone road that switchbacks some 2000 feet up from the valley floor. This is the village of Real de Catorce, formally known as Villa Real de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Guadalupe de los Alamos de los Catorce.  
    The town was founded in the mid eighteenth century as a royal Spanish mining center, and soon became the second largest silver city in Mexico. No one really seems to know the story behind the name, but the it probably originates from the massacre of fourteen (catorce) Spanish soldiers by raiding Chichimec or Comanche tribes. The rich silver deposits in these starkly beautiful mountains brought thousands of people here despite the inhospitable climate, all but inaccessible remoteness and hostile Native Americans.  At full swing, Real had 15,000 inhabitants. The search for stability led the community to construct parks, plazas, mansions, a theatre, a bullring and two impressive churches.  There were salons where people discussed art, literature and mathematics. Citizens conducted their evening stroll as music from choirs and orchestras drifted out of lamplit rooms into the cobblestoned streets.  For a while, it seemed too good to be true.
    The fluctuating silver market governed the lives of the citizens of Real. Their civilization was just a thin veneer over the unyielding realities of life beyond the frontier, and all too soon these dreams of civilization gave way to the inevitable.  The economy was a one trick pony, any hiccup in global silver prices became a major convulsion locally.  The absolute crash of the silver market in the early 1900s, combined with the onset of the Mexican Revolutionary years, transformed Real into a ghost town in short order. The buildings fell into disrepair, gradually roofs caved in and cactus took over much of the town. The church of San Francisco was maintained, and pilgrims continued to visit the town around October 4th, the feast day of St. Francis. The Huichol also revere this place as sacred, and every summer thousands walk to Real from all over the country to the Sierra Quemado just west of town for the annual tribute to the gods of Maize and Peyote.    

The road to Real, about 15 miles of cobblestone that lead up into yonder mountains.

The town inhabits a high canyon, with mountains on three sides and a spectacular view to the valley below to the west.  At sunset the light sets the old buildings aglow, and lends a primeval light to the ancient hillsides.  Above is the Iglesia de San Francisco, which houses a statue of St. Francis around which a cult has sprung up in recent times.

Sublime sunsets.  The formula requires a spectacular view and magical light.

20 foot high prickly pear trees.

The view from the top of a mountain that I believe is called Cerro Quemado.

The same view, looking north, the tiny white speck in the center is, in fact, a church, called the Panteón, which lies just on the western outskirts of town.

Another view of the Panteón.  The church is surrounded by a dense graveyard, apparently the classy real estate are those graves right in front of the church.

Typical Real streetscape.

The town considered as a whole.


Detour: Mountain biking Real de Catorce

Mexico D.F.

Copyright Estate of Anthony Vail Sloan 2009