|'By Logan Hawkes
Mysterious' falls short when describing Real de Catorce, mostly a ghost town these days, located high in the darkest mountains of central Mexico and hidden away from casual discovery. To find this old city, you have to be looking for it.
At nearly 10,000 feet in the clouds, you'll often find yourself gasping for breath - but not always because of the altitude.
It all starts the moment you take a turn off Central Highway 57 west of Matahuala and head deep into the mountains. Located right on the Tropic of Cancer in the Sierra Madre Occidental, you'll find plenty of breathtaking sites to see on your drive up to the 'ghost village in the clouds'. Eventually you come to an opening in the mountainside, a tunnel that stretches nearly a mile and a half under the rock. This is the only way in to the mountain city by car. The tunnel is only one-lane wide, and there is a phone at the mouth of the tunnel where you can call to determine whether there is any traffic headed out of the city (through the tunnel). But don't bother, the phone doesn't work anymore.
In this part of the world, you simply have to take your chances.
According to indigenous legend, you are entering the mountain valley where the sun was born; the place where the world was created. And whether it is the power of suggestion or some trick of the altitude and weather extremes combined, you do "feel" an overpowering sense of awe and mystery.
The town was founded around 1770 after a man named Ventura Ruiz stumbled across a rich deposit of silver while searching for his lost horse. People flocked to the area, and before long a number of mines were established. In short time, Catorce became the second richest silver town in Mexico with a population of around 40,000.
It can't be said that the old city is without local inhabitants anymore. They are there, though you don't see them very much. Officially, the so-called ghost town has about 11,000 residents. But few of them actually live there. Property owners who have long moved away seem to keep their property in this mystical city, though the majority of dwellings there are in ruins. That's why you should avoid the city on the weekends when these 'property owners' take the bus to stay in one of three hotels still open in Catorce.
Weekdays, however, the city belongs to the few and far between, a city far too large for the few that permanently reside there.
Chief to the city's past are the silver mining operations that once flourished. The mines are still there, along with a scant few miners who still try to carve a living out of the mountains. Why the silver mines are no longer a going concern is a matter of speculation. Some say the silver simply dried up. Others say the mining 'disturbs the gods', which caused much 'bad luck'. A few say the mines are haunted.
One local legend has it that a ghost (the locals call him El Jergas) leads miners away from their fellow workers underground and into remote areas of the dark mines. The outcome, however, is a good one, because apparently the phantom miner is pointing the way to another vein of silver.
Each year many of the nine thousand remaining Huichol Indians in Mexico pay visit to Catorce for a spiritual pilgrimage. Now spread out across several Mexican states, the Huichol claim this mountain valley as the birthplace of creation and come annually to participate in a peyote hunt. By reenacting a mythical hunt taken by the gods, the Huichol hope to return to the beginning and be reborn. Their journey through the desert takes 30 days. They travel with only a few tortillas and a little water, acting out various rites along the way. Most notably, when the first hikuri (peyote cactus) is found - which represents the Deer deity, it is ceremonially slain by an arrow from the shamans bow. The spirit, then released, guides them on their journey.
Initiates are blindfolded as they take the mythical journey and for several days throughout the year the ghost village is filled with colorful pilgrims in search of spiritual rebirth.
In fact, if you could chose but one primary reason for the continued existence of Real de Catorce it would be because it is a center for annual pilgrimages and festivals, mostly for the indigenous people of Mexico.
There are three active churches in Catorce, serving the 800 or so permanent residents, and its throng of weekend visitors. Each is worth a visit. The Parish of the Immaculate Conception is the site where tens of thousands of pilgrims come each year for a special festival in honor of Saint Fransis of Asisi, the town's Patron Saint.
Also a must visit is an old mint, which actually minted coins in the 1800's. You'll find a pleasant town square surrounded by small shops and restaurants as well. Check out the silversmiths of Catorce, or the works of several resident canvas artists who call the village home.
Not all the permanent residents of Catorce are Mexican citizens. There is a contingent of both European and Americans who have chosen the remote location to spend their remaining days and nights. Many other international travelers pass through as well, many on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. A few have come to search for the peyote and the spiritual experience that comes with it.
If you're planning a visit, remember that the altitude makes Catorce a cold and windy place at times. It's not unusual for snow to fall in the winter. Bring some heavy coats if you're going to hike or camp in the surrounding mountains.
Also be aware that there are bandits in the remote regions of Mexico, just like everywhere else. Use a local guide and heed their advise when taking to the surrounding outdoors.