Real de Catorce is a gem of a Pueblo Mágico, tucked away into the mountains of northern San Luis Potosí. It takes awhile to get there–but it’s well worth the visit!
About halfway between San Luis Potosí and Saltillo (just north of the Matehuala exit), the road to Real de Catorce winds through mountains for a good hour. When you’re convinced that your mummified body will be found 50 years from now by explorerers even more foolhardy than yourself, the road stops at the Ogarrio Tunnel.
Just as one can’t go to Hogwarts without leaving from Platform 9 3/4, one can’t arrive in Real de Catorce without passing through the Ogarrio Tunnel. Real de Catorce was a mining town, and this mile-long tunnel was built in 1902. How long it took people to travel to Real de Catorce before 1902, I can’t imagine.
For safety’s sake, don’t stop to gawk when passing through the tunnel. The tunnel is only wide enough (in most places) to admit one car at a time. Those supervising the entrance and exit of the tunnel count the cars, and radio their counterpart on the other end to let them know when it’s clear to send more through. A few years ago, my in-laws stopped to investigate the tunnel, and were surprised by oncoming traffic! They had to back up halfway through the tunnel until they found a space wide enough to let the traffic pass.
Once in Real de Catorce, what is there? An assortment of the usual tourist trinkets, antojos, and more than that usual number of hippies. It’s a tiny colonial mining town that has found a way to survive even after the mine closed. Plenty of locals rent Willys (ancient Jeeps) or horses for those interested in a closer look at the desert, a ghost town, or places of interest in Huichol culture.
Emily’s Explorations–on horse!
One of the activities you can’t miss in Real de Catorce is horseback riding. You won’t have to look far for a guide; walk to the town’s main plaza and you’ll be approached by more than a few for hire. After agreeing on a price (we paid around $500 pesos for a 5-hour ride), my husband and I set off on our rented steeds, winding our way out of town on a path that, at times, made me uneasy. I reminded myself that people traveled the path every day on horseback and that my horse knew it like the back of his hand. Err, shoe. In less than an hour, we had made our way up the hill and reached the “Pueblo Fantasma,” or ghost town. You’ll see only remnants of what used to be a thriving mining area. We dismounted, drank some water, and stretched our legs while we explored the ruins for a few minutes.
Next, we trekked (okay, our horses trekked) down the mountain and back through town, and then set off in the opposite direction. This time our horses took us significantly further outside town, the path winding through colorful desert terrain. We were officially the middle of nowhere, free from cars and buildings and all modern conveniences. At a certain point, the terrain was so steep and the trail too narrow that we dismounted our horses and our guide motioned for us to follow him on foot. The large hill at which he was pointing loomed in front of us; it was our next destination. Sore from sitting on a horse for the better part of the day and feeling winded from the high altitude, it took the last of my energy to reach the top of the hill.
What was waiting for us at the top? The circular shrine central to the religious life of the indigenous Huichol (or Wixáritari) people is situated there. Every year, Huichol people journey across multiple states to leave offerings at their shrine in the springtime. The shrine was beautiful, indeed, and I loved hearing our guide describe the yearly ritual that is central to the life of the Huichols. However, it was the view for miles and miles that made the hike up to the top of the hill worth it.
My sister-in-law (from Mexico City) recently commented that she wondered where all these quaint “Mexican” towns were that appear in the Hollywood movies. Then she visited Parras and said, “Ah–there it is!” Real de Catorce is along those same lines, and that means that all the restaurants and hotels fall into the category of quaint and charming.
Nine years ago, I had a memorable meal of rabbit at the Real. (Seriously–nine years ago! Who remembers a meal nine years later? It was THAT good.) The Real is also where Emily stayed, and her experience there was positive. She vividly remembers a coffee shop (Café Azul) around the corner from the Real for their delicious mocha frappés.
Let’s See It!
Are you intrigued by Real de Catorce, but it’s just too far away? Live vicariously through Hannah and Doren while they explore it:
If you liked that, subscribe to their channel here!
So, if you find yourself in the middle-of-nowhere in northern Mexico, keep wandering. You might just find yourself in Real de Catorce.
It’s well worth the wander!