Real de Catorce


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Real de Catorce

  • Copyright 1995, The Travelers' Club


... a world of bandidos and grandees, of pilgrims and milagros, of John Huston and a stubble-faced Bogart lurching toward fate on an ore-laden mule.

The early spring weather was crisp and clear when we left Saltillo. As we drove south, skirting the flanks of the Sierra Madre Oriental, the land became increasingly dryer, with agave and Joshua trees more abundant. The Joshua trees watched our progress, eerily anthropomorphic shapes, like spirit men of the desert scorning the pneumatic ease of our passage. Perhaps spirits really were watching, for we were on our way to a ghost of a town, the fabled Real de Catorce.

Catorce! Hidden in a remote mountain fastness, once a world renowned name of wealth: for the real treasure of the Sierra Madre was not gold but silver, and Catorce was the second richest source of silver in all of Mexico. Now it is a forgotten crumbling ruin, surviving on a few picked-out veins of ore and the irregular trickle of visitors. Catorce lives more in imagination than reality, in a world of bandidos and grandees, of pilgrims and milagros, of John Huston and a stubble-faced Bogart lurching toward fate on an ore-laden mule.

Cobblestone Road My husband turned the truck off the tarmac onto the cobblestone road which leads 30 km. to Real de Catorce. We passed Potrero, growing nopal cactus for the kitchens and candies of Matehuala, passed ruins of old mine works, an abandoned mission, and narrow gauge railroad tracks, rusting and disused, through tiny nameless pueblos where children and burrows tumbled about after school. The road, though composed of non-stop viboradores, is well built and relatively recent. It was not available to the dictator Porfirio Diaz, who journeyed here in 1895 from Mexico City. Even at the height of the Porfiriate, the great dictator was obliged to travel by mule-carriage and then horseback to reach the redoubt of Catorce. Our truck complained of the bone-shaking road, but we approached in comparative comfort.

After a few minutes the road began a steep serpentine climb. Our young nephew, traveling for the first time to Mexico and away from his parents, protested sharply: he had not yet learned to appreciate the view of a precipitous drop from the window of a vehicle rounding unguarded one-lane curves. We enjoyed a birds-eye view of old mine workings and noted evidence of present-day campesinos living a troglodyte existence in them. We looked back, out across the desert from whence we had come, transformed by the afternoon sun into a hazy arctic white.

We drove on slowly through the tunnel ... some rather rickety timbers shoring up a crumbling portion of the roof ...

Tunnel Entrance At the end of this road was the yawning mouth of an old mine tunnel: Ogarrio, they called it, when it bore silver by the carload. It still bears car loads of silver, but now towards Catorce, in the pockets of visitors; the only motor road to the town drives over a mile straight through the heart of the mountain via this old tunnel. A man standing at the entrance sold us a ticket and then, turning an old crank phone, rang the other end of the tunnel to let them know a car was on its way, for the tunnel is wide enough for only one vehicle. We had driven a little way inside when we noticed an opening to the right, and a small chapel dug into the rock. Stopping, we walked inside and looked up into a simple barrel vault formed from the living rock, where faded remains of some once nice frescos covered the ceiling and walls. TimbersThis was the chapel of the Virgen de los Dolores, built in memory of miners who had lost their lives deep inside the mountain. We noted pictures of dead men, still tended by living family, each with a candle burning to keep away the darkness. We drove on slowly through the tunnel, the light of our head lamps scattering off the gray stone in a spectral glow. Halfway through we were disappointed with the condition of some rather rickety timbers shoring up a crumbling portion of the roof, and thought uneasily of the mine shafts still in operation directly below our wheels.

At last our headlights were greeted by another brightness ahead, and we exited smack into dazzling sunlight and market day just outside the other end. We gingerly maneuvered our Texas-sized 4x4 through tightly packed market stalls with their brightly colored awnings, watching the inches narrow around our side mirrors. Our main objective was to avoid an entrance made memorable by driving over someone or his merchandise, and we came within half an inch of defaulting our goal; but the soft voices of the vendors urged us on with equanimity.

Children As soon as the street widened enough for a small child to squeeze into, one did -- and then another, and another, until finally we were surrounded by a band of small boys, their little cheeks red from the cold. Their proclivity to drama was both entertaining and informative; one ran ahead of the truck showing the way through steep narrow streets while the others hopped aboard the rear bumper, peering in through the window to size up its cargo of gringos. Our nephew quickly took several photos of them, and it was impossible to say who was the more entertained. Our little crew of Orpheuses led us into the courtyard of the Hotel Puesta del Sol, with dramatic flourishes, exaggerated laborious breathing, and the sucking of little sugar water packets produced from their pockets "to restore energy". They then departed, with labors moderately rewarded.

We found the officina deserted, and called out. In the gloom of a back room we could see a prostrate bundle stir, gather itself up in its blanket which became a serape, and sleepily rise to greet us. It was late in the day, and we were anxious that there would be a room at our hotel. It would be a long drive back through darkening mountain roads if not. Our worry was needless: the hotel was utterly empty. Not only was it early in the year for visitors to this high-mountain retreat, but we were traveling during one of those national pastorelas in which Mexicans are familiar but unwilling players. There had been a recent election, and as the helm of state passed from the hand of Carlos Salinas to Ernesto Zedillo, someone churlishly drew attention to a minor irregularity in the foreign reserves account, and the value of the peso had plunged by 50%. As a consequence, the Mexican middle class was not in holiday mood, and most gringo tourists were likewise discouraged by rumors of impending riots and tanks in the street. So for now, we seemed to have Mexico to ourselves.


... another version tells of 14 soldiers of the Crown, hanged here by the Indians they were sent to pacify.

The Hotel Puesta del Sol is situated at 2700 m. elevation, high on a mesa overlooking the valley. Behind and to the side more hills rise steeply up while at the front a cliff drops to the valley floor below. It is newly constructed of cement block and would be wanting in character had it not had the good fortune to be built in Mexico. Somehow even the most ordinary building can be made charming by the addition of gardens and flowers in pots and whimsical combinations of color.

The air was thin, and we willingly allowed the sleepy clerk to carry our bags to the room. We took the "grand suite" for 350 pesos, a surprisingly affordable luxury after devaluation. It had three large rooms, the foremost one suspended over the valley with windows on three sides. The center room was dominated by a huge Jacuzzi tub mounted in a raised platform, tiled with every style imaginable and surrounded by plastic flowers poked into a Styrofoam base. Against one of the walls was a glass topped table with several sterling silver objects on display and some champagne and various whiskeys. Our nephew fell in love with a curve-bladed knife with a serpentine wood handle and would not be parted from it.

We have learned that Mexico would be a poor place were it not for her horses. Whenever presented with an example of mineral discovery in Mexico, we immediately inquire about the equine connection. In Taxco it was the steed of Don Jose de la Borda that, dislodging a stone with its clever foot, revealed a vein of what became the richest mine in Mexico. And in Catorce it was the mare of Ventura Ruiz who went missing, to be discovered standing over an outcrop of silver ore.

At least so we are told. And in Mexico, everything is in the telling. Facts are superficial inconveniences that only get in the way of a good story. The name "Real de Catorce", for example. Translated, it means the "Royal of 14". But 14 what? In one version the name recalls 14 bandits who found the location commodious. That there were 14 bandits in these sierra we are generously prepared to accept. But why "Royal"? No, it doesn't work. Another version tells of 14 soldiers of the Crown, killed here before the town was founded. A more vivid telling has them hanged by the Indians they were sent to pacify. Given the time honored and customary relations between Spanish and Indians, continuing even today, we find this etymology more plausible.

Whatever the origin, silver and promise of wealth soon brought adventurers, visionaries, and rascals to Catorce. Engineers came from Ireland, Germany, and France. In 1821 the Englishman Robert Phillips made a year long journey from London, bringing a new-fangled "steam machine" for pumping water out of mines flooded during Mexico's War of Independence.

A few miners and merchants became wealthy and lived in great ostentation, but it was the Indians who supplied the labor. They dug shafts deep into the roots of the mountains, breathing noxious airs, sometimes drowned in floods or crushed in cave-ins. They hauled out the ore with their own bodies, climbing crude ladders of notched logs, carrying the heavy loads in the same blankets with which they wrapped themselves at night. Yet they were not slaves: the pay was good enough that there was always willing labor to make the mines go.

Street And go they did. In its day, Catorce rivaled the fabulous Valenciana mine in Guanajuato or the Borda in Taxco. Catorce was the second richest source of silver in Mexico, and Mexico produced as much silver as the rest of the world combined. Catorce became a bustling city of 40000 people, with a trolley line and cobblestone streets lined by elegant stone houses, and an opera house, where Caruso once sang.

ChurchIn late afternoon we walked uphill from the hotel to see the little church of Virgen del Guadalupe. In front and all around the church's immediate grounds were gravestones in varying styles and decor. Many were tiled all over and glistened in the slanting sunlight. A beautiful pagoda structure on closer inspection turned out to be a mosaic of small river stones. It was the grave of a boy of twelve. In the mosaic, his family had lovingly portrayed all of his toys: a car, a small train, a boat and so on. Hanging from the roof was an electric light that was lit this day and one must assume remained on at all times -- a small child's fear of the dark in life had been respected in death.

GraveOur nephew surprised us by being extremely hesitant to either touch or walk over any of the graves. I ran my fingers over the beautiful mosaic, and he begged me not to touch it. We assured him that in all our 46 years not once had anyone from the grave objected to our presence; he was not convinced. We entered into the church and remarked from our guidebook that the entire wooden floor was fashioned from the lids of coffins, a macabre Mexican Catholic design touch. We thought that our nephew was going to levitate. He managed to see the entire church by creeping around the extreme edges of the floor.

Light on the HillsCatorce is believed to be a place of miracles. The Church of San Francisco Assisi in the town below draws thousands of pilgrims, many walking 30 km. from Matehuala through the dark mountains in a single night. The campesinos leave their little milagros, each with an urgent prayer to the gentle Francis for a miracle for their own. And before the Christians, perhaps before Christ himself, the Huichol came to these hills, the dwelling place of their gods of peyote and maize. We were told that people see still small bands of Huichol wandering the sierra from time to time, and that in a couple of months many hundreds would make a pilgrimage, 400 km. by foot from Nayarit, to worship their ancient gods. As we stood in the dark church looking out through the radiant arch of the door, it was easy to understand that sense of the sacred that lies over these glowing hills.

Ruins We walked back down into the city, along the cobblestone street in the setting sun. The sun silhouetted the broken stone houses lining the street, making the vacant windows glow incandescently like skulls lit by flames from within. A cow stood stupidly passive on a mound of broken rubble from a collapsed wall. A goat stepped precariously along a ruined balcony where once perhaps a mine owner's daughter sat reviewing her promenade of suitors. We passed an Indian couple, wrapped tightly in serapes against the growing cold. The man smiled shyly at us in quiet Indio dignity; the woman did not meet our eyes. These were perhaps descendants of the workers who dug Catorce's fortunes.

... roving bands of Heroes of the Revolution, with their flashing bandoleers and muddy hoofprints in the foyer.

After its glory, Catorce followed a cycle familiar to the gold fields of California and the oil towns of East Texas. Sometime early in this century, about the time of the Mexican Revolution, the mine owners abandoned the place, closing the shafts and taking their riches with them. Exactly why Catorce declined is as confused as its origins; or rather, we are free to choose what explanation we like. Some say the mines became flooded. Others blame a drop in the world price of silver. We prefer to think that the mine owners prudently decided to establish a certain social distance between themselves and the new roving bands of Heroes of the Revolution, with their flashing bandoleers and muddy hoofprints in the foyer.

With night the temperature went from pleasantly brisk to chilly and then to rather cold. We returned to the hotel and found chill winds whistling and moaning through cracks that heretofore we had not noticed. The wing of the hotel was new by Mexican standards, and newspapers taped to the windows served in place of draperies or window coverings of any kind, increasing the air of chilliness. A plea was put to our porter and night manager, who returned with three small space heaters; two actually worked, but in the large frigid suite they had the efficacy of spitting into a hurricane. They would however warm your hands or a pair of socks, as long as you did not attempt both tasks at the same time. We asked the night manager if the town was always so cold at this time of year. "No, it is norte weather," he said, looking at us suspiciously as if we had brought it with us personally.

Our nephew wanted to try out the Jacuzzi and promptly exhausted all the hot water. The water remaining was tepid but warmer than the air, so I was able to complete my bath. My husband flatly refused to bathe until morning. We put on layers of clothes and sat in bed sipping hot chocolate and reading aloud from Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt and feeling that life was grand.

The next morning we awoke as the sun was coming over the distant hills. A small orchard with various types of fruit trees bloomed just outside our windows. We stood on the balcony of the suite in the cold still morning, looking in an unbroken view down the valley to the desert beyond. A man and two donkeys in silhouette descended the hills on his way to fields in the valley. All we heard were his encouraging clucks to the unenthusiastic donkeys and the sound of the river in the canyon 1000 m. below.

At breakfast we met the owner of the hotel. I recognized him by some photos scattered around … him with Salinas and various other dignitaries. He had a beautiful wife who served us our meals with a lovely smile. He was a compact little man with a wrinkled face and warm personality. We told him how much we loved the hotel and its fantastic view. We finished the hearty breakfast and asked for the bill. "My wife says you would like the bill but there is no bill, it is on the house." We were touched by this, the first of many small courtesies on our trip.

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Copyright 1995-2004 by The Travelers' Club. Revised February 22, 2004.
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