Ghosts of the Sierra Madre

In the remote mountains of central Mexico, the old mining town of Real de Catorce is being reborn as a mystical outpost of the counterculture. Whether you go to eat peyote, soak up the hippie vibe, or commune with the spirits, visiting is always a trip.

All I can think about is the egg in my backpack. My friend Cristina and I are hiking in the Sierra Madre mountains to the stone circles at El Quemado, a sacred Huichol Indian ground. The word around Real de Catorce, where we're staying, is that an egg will stand on end if placed within the circles. But first you have to get the egg there--which means no slipping on the rust-colored shale.

At almost 10,000 feet, the air is clean but thin, and I begin to regret taking the steep shortcut to the top. "Do you think we're cheating?" wonders Cristina between breaths. "I mean, the Huicholes make month-long pilgrimages on foot to come here." The thought occurs to me that our little adventure may in fact be cursed.

I wasn't the first person to get that feeling about Real de Catorce. In the late 18th century, so the story goes, a cowboy was toasting tortillas when he noticed a stone melting near the campfire. It was silver. Opportunistic Spaniards rushed into the area, and Real became Mexico's second-largest source of the precious metal. At its peak in 1898, Real had a population of 40,000. Evidence of the boomtown days is everywhere--intricate wrought-iron balconies, old photos of well-dressed matrons displayed in hotel foyers, arched Moorish entrances to mines, and, if you believe in ghosts, the spirits of prospectors who met their fates in the lawless town. As another story goes, a priest planted a series of crosses up in the hills to get the people to repent. When his efforts failed, he cursed the town to ruin. Silver production fell off steeply in the early 1900s, and by mid-century Real was crumbling and largely deserted.

Modern-day Real was "discovered" in the 1970s by an Italian hippie on a quest for mind-blowing peyote, the tomato-shaped hallucinogenic cactus. Counterculturists from around the world followed. Today, the town is home to 1,500 residents who proudly celebrate the "confusion of cultures": towheaded children of "los hippies" tend goats with local elders; a Swiss expat grows lettuce for restaurants, many of which are Italian (though pizza toppings include artichoke-like cabuches, the pickled blossoms of the biznaga cactus); a couple from Buenos Aires entertains kids with rides on an ATV. Even one of the shamans is Italian.

Tourists seeking adventure and mysticism have been slowly turning up. Real isn't especially beautiful--on the surface. But amid the crude cobblestone streets and ramshackle architecture are elegant stone buildings and gorgeous churches. And the atmosphere is relaxing, to say the least. There are no banks or ATMs, horses and mules are still a main mode of transportation, and siestas are taken seriously.

Some visitors come with one thing in mind: tripping on peyote. They brave its bitter flavor and endure extreme nausea in the hope of tasting higher consciousness. The Huichol believe that this altered state helps them commune with Kauyumari, the dancing deer deity who ensures that pilgrims on peyote don't experience thirst, hunger, or fear. No one in Real gets busted for eating peyote, though these days it's not easy to come by--the hillsides nearby are picked clean. To discourage backpackers from dipping into the Huichol peyote supply, and to keep everyone "happy," locals have been considering cultivating a special grove.

Just getting to Real is a challenge. We drove through a hardscrabble village, past sparse clusters of yucca palms, before rising into the Sierra Madre. Finally, we reached the mile-and-a-half-long Ogarrio Tunnel, the sole route into Real. Carved at the turn of the 20th century, it's only wide enough for one-way traffic. A tiny man waved us onward, after getting the all-clear by phone from the other end. Things were fine until we skidded over the well-worn stones and nearly ran into a wall where the tunnel unexpectedly turns.

We emerged into the sunshine, only to hear a loud thud. A group of Mexican boys had jumped on the car, giving us the standard welcome for new arrivals. They made their way to the bumper, surfing like pros and guiding us up steep stone streets, past donkeys and abandoned buildings.

Our hotel, El Mesón de la Abundancia, is the center of town, in the middle of the main drag, Lanzagorta. The sidewalk in front of the hotel is a nexus for tourists, where 20-something locals with dreadlocks peddle puka-bead necklaces, and where guides, many of whom have barely sprouted chin hairs, offer tours. Gaby at reception handed us a massive, old-fashioned room key while a suit of armor looked on from the corner. Our room was charming, with stucco walls; high, wood-beamed ceilings; and bright, scratchy Mexican textiles. We shared a terrace with two couples from Canada, who immediately advised us to close our windows at night because the animals in the street make a lot of noise.


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