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.

By Adrien Glover, Tuesday, Oct 18, 2005, 3:10 PM

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.

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.

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.

Lodging

El Mesón de la Abundancia Lanzagorta 11, 011-52/488-887-5044, hotelabundancia@hotmail.com, doubles from $55

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

Food

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

Activities

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


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