A Backpacking Trip to Real de Catorce

by Verónica

Real de Catorce is an old mining town in the Sierra de Catorce mountain range in the state of San Luis Potosí, México. My husband did field work there as an undergraduate and told me great stories of the place. So, the day after Christmas one year, we grabbed our backpacks and took off to Real. (Real is pronounced with two syllables – Rĕ ∙ ǎl – with short vowel sounds).

Unless you climb mountains, the only way to reach Real de Catorce is to take a 25 kilometer cobbled road off Highway 62 up the mountain. By cobbled I mean we rode in a bus at about 10-15 mph bumping along the whole way.

Once at the top, we transferred to a small passenger van for the ride through the tunnel. The only way to town is through the Ogarrio Tunnel, one of the longest tunnels in México, at 2,229 meters long. One can go through the tunnel on foot, on horseback, on a motorcycle or car or truck, but only in one direction at a time. The tunnel is only wide enough for one vehicle. A man with a walkie-talkie stands at the entrance and talks to a man with a walkie-talkie at the other end of the tunnel. They control the flow of traffic by allowing visitors to take turns going through the tunnel in only one direction.

The movie “The Mexican” with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts was filmed in Real and Brad Pitt’s character drives through the tunnel.

This is the main road in town and a typical side street.

This is our room at the Rincón Mágico (magic corner).

This is the view of the mountains from our room. Real is located 2,770 meters (9,000 feet) above sea level. The mountain range has two peaks that reach 3,100 meters (10,000 feet) high.

Here’s the view in the direction of town at dusk. As it grew darker, it got colder. The temperature dipped into the 20s. We slept under a stack of 14 woolen blankets.

This is La Antigua Casa de Moneda, the mint. It is now a museum. In its heyday in the early 1900s, Real de Catorce was a prosperous mining town due to its abundance of natural resources in the form of silver. The town started to decline with the devaluation of the price of silver and fell apart in 1905 when Mexico switched from silver to gold as their monetary standard. The mint was constructed between 1863-1865; a year later it closed. In only 14 months of operation, 1,485,405 pieces of silver were minted there.

This is the view from inside the atrium. Renovations preserved the work rooms and machines used to mint the silver coins. The museum houses works of art and displays the history of Real through old photos and documents.

Ruins of abandoned homes.

We believe this could have been a shooting wall – a remnant of the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the 19th century.

Work mules.

The old cemetery.

The Iglesia de la Purísima Concepción is the central gathering spot of the town. The church was constructed in 1817. While not the actual patron saint of the church, St. Francis of Assisi is much venerated here.

The small pendants hanging from the robe are milagros (miracles). For a small donation, you can buy a gold-plated arm or leg or heart. You then pin the milagro to the robe and say a prayer to St. Francis of Assisi to heal the ache in your arm or other part of the body.

These are retablos. Not being a word I typically use when speaking in Spanish, I had to look this one up. It translates as “retable,” “tableau,” or “altarpiece.” Each retable is a small work of art painted by parishioners as an offering for hearing one’s prayers.

The following are close-ups of some of the retablos. I’ve translated the dedications as close in tone and style from the original Spanish.

Retablo about chickens: There having come a strong sickness among chickens and since I had so many and out of fear that some would die, I entrusted them with all my heart to the miraculous St. Francis of Assisi and since not a single one became sick I gratefully offer this retable. (October 1952).

Retablo about cows: Mr. Daniel Tella gives thanks to God and to St. Francis of Assisi because they took care of his cows and nothing serious happened to them. His wife, Mrs. Elodia Segundo de T. also gives thanks for the same favor. (October 1967).

Retablo about embolism (possibly misspelled in the original): I give thanks to our Lord St. Francis of Assisi of Real de Catorce for having cured me of an embolism, high blood pressure and taking away the tingling in my legs.

Retablo – painting only.

Retablo about tetanus: I dedicate this retable to you for having performed the miracle of healing the child of 12 years, Pedrito Ibarra Agüero of the illness of tetanus that lasted 29 days in therapy and without assurances because it was a mortal illness and we give to God thanks. (January 1981).

In order to gather and confirm facts, such as dates, heights of mountains, etc., I relied heavily on this wonderful guide-book we picked up in Real: Gómez Romero, Josemaría. Real de Catorce: San Luis Potosí, México. Guía Gráfica. Guadalajara, Jalisco, México: IVADIA & G, 2009. For more information or to plan a visit to Real de Catorce, visit their website. If you haven’t already, see the previous post on the Huichol Indians that live in Real and their yarn art.