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.

We had decided to save the main church for our last day. La Parroquia de la Concepción Purísima receives thousands of Catholic pilgrims each October; they come to pay homage at its statue of St. Francis, beloved protector of animals and patron saint of the poor.

We walked down the aisle of the cool, well-tended church and admired the unusual wooden floor, designed so that it could be replaced piece by piece if parts deteriorate. We were drawn most of all to a room adjacent to the altar. It's covered, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of little devotional paintings called retablos. The paintings ask St. Francis for help healing gastric ulcers, returning stolen trucks, and understanding the "mysterious illness that killed my cows." Some were naive scenes painted on tin, others near-masterworks on cardboard. More modern dilemmas were illustrated on velvet or came on paper from ink-jet printers.

The egg is intact, as far as I can tell. And then I notice a goat mocking us from a ridge above--and sure enough, I lose my balance. But I can't bear to look inside my bag, not yet.

The trail levels off, and we pass a donkey. I wonder aloud if he's related to the one keeping me up. Cristina says her grandmother believed that when animals make noise at night they're communicating with spirits. Things finally made sense: Real was loudest--and most filled with ghosts--around 3 a.m.

As we approach the stone circles, I reach into my backpack, hoping for the egg but finding shell shards and warm yolk. "I guess we just have to believe," says Cristina. In a way, I already do.

The road to Real

The nearest airports, in Monterrey and San Luis Potosí, are a three-hour drive away. Turn off Hwy. 57 (Pan-American Hwy.) just north of Matehuala and follow signs to Real de Catorce (by way of the village of Cedral). From Matehuala, it's 40 miles to Real, but the drive--over windy, cobbled roads--takes at least an hour. Once you've passed through the Ogarrio Tunnel, you're there.


El Mesón de la Abundancia Lanzagorta 11, 011-52/488-887-5044,, doubles from $55

Hotel El Real Morelos 20, 011-52/488-887-5058,, doubles from $51, includes breakfast weekdays only


El Mesón de la Abundancia Lanzagorta 11, 011-52/488-887-5044, chiles rellenos $5

La Esquina Chata Lanzagorta 2, 011-52/488-887-5060, focaccia sandwich $4

El Malambo Lanzagorta at Allende, empanadas de picadillo with salad $2

El Cactus Plaza Hidalgo 3, 011-52/488-887-5056, cabuches pizza $3

El Tolentino Teran 7, tortilla chips and guacamole $3, margarita $4


Don Boni's Jeep Willys Tour Contact through El Mesón de la Abundancia; from $20 for two hours

Cine Club El Café Mañana, corner of Morelos and Constitución, $1 donation

A web-exclusive slide show of Real de Catorce, Mexico
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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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