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.

Before dinner, we went for a walk. "This rock is magical!" a man shouted from his doorway. He had long black hair and wore sandals made from old tire treads. "Try it--pruébalo." He introduced himself as Renato, an Aztec medicine man and owner of the fossil and amulet store we were standing in front of. I slipped off my flip-flops and placed my bare feet on a giant quartz crystal. He instructed me to rub my hands together while he put eucalyptus oil on my neck and temples. After 10 minutes, my arms ached from the rubbing and my head was light, but clear. "Ves?" he nodded. "Sientes la magia?" I had to admit, I did indeed feel the magic--or at least profoundly relaxed.

I floated back to the hotel for the quintessential Real de Catorce meal. As if on cue, the lights went out in the middle of tangy chiles rellenos and fettuccine al pesto. Guests screamed, then giggled, as waiters fumbled to light candles. After a creamy, rum-laced wedge of pastel de la abuela (grandmother's cake), we slunk off to bed. Even with the windows shut, the bray of a donkey woke me just before dawn.

The owner of El Mesón, Petra Puente, had invited us for morning coffee and ghost stories. A Frida Kahlo lookalike in Calvin Klein jeans, she regaled us with tales of characters such as the Rag Man--he supposedly blew out the lanterns that people used to carry through the Ogarrio Tunnel. More than a few times, she reported, guests at El Mesón have felt something tugging at their sheets in the middle of the night. Even Cristina, who grew up in Mexico hearing tales of local hauntings, cringed. "There are no rules here, probably because we're so isolated," Petra explained. "Even the ghosts do whatever they want."

As the days unfurled, another bit of wisdom from Petra rang especially true: "There's an art to doing nothing in Real." At first we wondered how to fill our time, since it's possible to see the sights in an afternoon--the 1888 Plaza de Armas with its old-fashioned gazebo; El Palenque, a ring used for cockfights and concerts; the abandoned mint (Casa de la Moneda); the church (Iglesia de Guadelupe) and cemetery on the edge of town; and the main church (La Parroquia de la Concepción Purísima).

It didn't take long to fall into the natural rhythm. Our walks became slower. We checked out what was playing at the Cine Club, which shows works by indie filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, but never sat down for a movie. We lingered in shops, at the stalls selling candied spaghetti squash and My Pretty Ponies, and over beers at our favorite café, La Esquina Chata. We chatted up everyone: a woman from New Zealand who'd been traveling for four years; three friends from Aguascalientes who stumbled on Real by accident; a guy from San Antonio who told us how he heard footsteps behind him in the desert but never saw a soul. We found ourselves contentedly watching the shadows lengthen to reveal giant folds in the valley below.

"When was the last time you spent half an hour watching birds?" Cristina asked one afternoon from a rooftop hammock at another place we stayed, Hotel El Real.

One day, we decided to explore the surrounding hills--in particular, the pueblo fantasma, a tiny ghost town vacant since the old mining days. Petra put us in touch with tour guide Don Boni. Before heading out, he showed us a photo of what looked like a miniature Machu Picchu, with beautiful terraces of avocado trees. It was Real de Catorce in 1898.

Don Boni claimed to be able to accommodate up to 25 people at a time in (and on top of) his brown 1958 Jeep Willys. It looked like a prop from The Night of the Iguana. He told us he'd been driving the vehicle since he was 12 and had never had an accident--a detail that calmed me down only slightly as we set out on the narrow roads overlooking dizzying precipices. "How do you say 'vertigo' in Spanish?" I half-joked.

He smiled and masterfully pumped the clutch with his dusty cowboy boots, but I couldn't stop imagining the brakes giving out--and us tumbling hundreds of feet into the ravine in a massive ball of twisted metal, brush, and dirt. "One American woman was so scared she grabbed my hair and wouldn't let go," he said.

With my heart thumping, I confessed that I didn't have the stomach for the ride either, and closed my eyes for the three-point turn. Ten minutes later, a thunderstorm rolled in, and I took comfort in the fact that my wimpiness had saved us from being stranded. Cristina and I ducked into an Argentinean-owned restaurant, El Malambo, for empanadas de picadillo stuffed with cinnamony beef, olives, and raisins. I slept well that night--until 3 a.m., when the dogs began to bark, joined by a chorus of donkeys and horses.


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