Weekend on the Altiplano
[NL]—Real de Catorce is a little over four hours southwest of my house down Mexican highway 40 and then 57. The route skirts along the interior fringe of the eastern Sierra Madres, the sister to the western range which it meets in a volcanic Y-shape southeast of the capital city. South of the Y, México is low and fertile, giving way to the rainforests of the Yucatán basin. Heading south down the center of the country, the land rises steadily as the mountain ranges move together to form the fulcrum of the Y. Here are México’s many high plains regions, where towns nestled on plateaus are often located seven or eight thousand feet above sea level. Towns on the tops of mountains can exceed even this.
It wasn’t until last weekend that we finally managed to pick a time to drive to Real de Catorce. Sunshine’s American coworker Jen, and Jen’s Honduran fiancé Jack, had been recently reunited (their wedding is here in San Pedro later this month), and we thought it would be nice for the four of us to take a trip together. So at noon on Friday we loaded up Jen’s SUV and headed south out of town. Soon we were weaving through mountain passes steadily climbing toward the dry and unforgiving Altiplano Potosino, a high desert valley about a hundred kilometers northwest of the small waypoint of Matehuala. Matehuala is a gateway of sorts between northern and central México. A short way into this region there is a left turn onto a two-lane cobblestone road that snakes even higher up into the surrounding mountains. The valley floor in this place is already 5,250 feet above sea level. By the time we’d arrived in the Catorce Sierra we had gained an altitude of 9,042. Back in Monterrey the early September temperature had been holding in the lower thirties (the upper eighties, in F), driven down by the recent daily rains. Here the daytime temperatures seemed to fall into the teens at night (or the fifties in F). During the days it was clear and dry; but storms could be watched from miles out, speeding through the valley forty-eight hundred feet below.
We had driven through a number of these storms while making our way through the valley. We could see them coming over the mountains on the horizon: walls of black clouds tracking across the barren, Jurassic-looking landscape. By the time we got to the unmarked Real de Catorce turnoff, however, there was nothing in the sky but sun bludgeoning the baked valley and the cobblestone road. Despite the arid and blasted environment, the ride through this valley was intense with blooming desert flora: bursting red cacti and tiny yellow creosote and some type of fluted white flowers filled the sandy spaces between the shale and slate of mountain washes. The whole area reminded me of a desert terrarium, one I’d have assumed was unrealistic due to the variety and density of the life super-imposed on the yellow boulders and dry white gravel of the valley floor. No matter how close I held my face to the ground the view resolved itself into many disparate examples of exotic plant life. I cannot quite express how much I loved this part of the drive. The desert was like some science fiction fantasy: completely alien and surreal in the face of my experiences and expectations. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and uncomfortably savage. It would not take too long to wilt and die while standing still in this place; the world dehumidifies and mummifies whatever finds it way here. But still the place is populated by blooming, and somehow immortal, plants.
The road next weaves its way up the mountain, past the plots of local gardens, the ruins of Spanish colonial silver rush communities, and the little settlement of La Luz which, like Real de Catorce, is stuck in an existence between the two. The two-lane road is narrow and made of rocks, but this is jarring enough to prevent traffic from speeding up much, and I somehow didn’t find the precipitous drop out my side of the window overly terrifying. In the US that drop would be on the other side of a guardrail, but here it was not, and the tires could feel uncomfortably close to nothing the few times other cars were met coming back down the mountain. The spectacular view as we climbed thousands of feet over the stone ghost towns nestled in the valley was enough to distract me from the height, however. Eventually, the road levels, and we found ourselves at the mouth of the Ogarrio tunnel (famous for starring in The Mexican alongside Brad Pitt) which would take us through the mountain and to the town on the other side.
At the beginning of the tunnel, a man charged us a small toll, gave us a ticket, and then called to the other side of the tunnel on a rotary-dial phone hanging on the wall beside his little chair. Traffic must be coordinated in this way because the mile-plus tunnel is only one lane. There was a minute long wait before we were given the go ahead to proceed. A really long traffic tunnel, begun by miners about a hundred and fifteen years ago, is a spooky and claustrophobic space. The tunnel is lit brightly by bare yellow bulbs every hundred feet or so, but my eyes still had to adjust to the dark to pick out the details there: a little shrine dedicated to safe travel, crosses placed in remembrance of past accidents, and little ventilation or flood runoff shafts cut into walls held up by thick wooden cross beams just like any mine from any movie I have ever seen. After about six minutes we were blinded again by the daylight on the other side.
On this side of the tunnel we were to give half of the ticket back, proving that we had paid. While Jen handled this, local children ran up to the windows asking us if they could help us to a hotel, a parking place, or a restaurant. The kids were just trying to make a living, but we didn’t need the pressure after the long drive. We pretty much knew where we were going so we waved them all off and began rolling slowly through the town. The road immediately becomes main street on this side of the tunnel, and cuts straight to the south of the zócalo about three blocks away. Lining those blocks were market stalls, shaded by the traditional blue tarps, which were selling food and religious souvenirs to the pilgrims here. Between these stalls there was hardly enough room for our SUV, so we had to detour down a spindly, almost vertical side street to find a parallel route. It took us a little over forty minutes to make it all the way to the hotel, but this is partially because we scouted ahead on foot at one point. In Real de Catorce there is really no predicting when the road being traveled will wilt away to nothing under your wheels, or incline so steeply that stairs have been carved into the stone. Turning around is pretty impossible too: the old stone buildings were built in many cases right at the road, without sidewalks, at times less than ten feet from one another. It was slow and interesting going, but eventually we were parked and checked into the hotel. I was really impressed with Jen’s driving all along. There were a couple of places where we had to talk her through some nerves, but she never did give up or start crying. Kudos.
There is not a whole lot to see in Real de Catorce. Or rather, there is not too much to relate. The center of the city is to a great extent restored and populated. Here is the imposing Templo de la Purísima Limpia, the parrish church dedicated to St. Francis. Two blocks west is the little terraced zócalo, Plaza Hidalgo (a story higher than the street at its southern border, and a story lower than the street at the northern one) with a lot of plants, wrought iron gates, and a large, festive gazebo. Situated on the steep street around this plaza are Italian and Regional restaurants, grocery and convenience stores, and artesanias selling primo Huichol Indian handicrafts. Here it’s also possible to rent a Jeep or horse tour of the surrounding countryside, get a guide or shoeshine, or just have a chat with any of the multinationals visiting or living here.
The church is impressive, its two-toned façade a by-product of multiple stages of construction and reconstruction, towers over the predominantly one- and two-story town. It is possible to see the stark white dome of the church from almost any point in the valley. Inside it boasts fine art and a floor made of casket lids. A large part of the walls are dedicated to the display of retablos, small works of devotion serving as a prayer of thanks to, or perhaps a favor of, St. Francis. These predominantly take the form of art printed or drawn on a small card with a written message. These are the postcards the tourists here send to god.
Straight up the western side of the plaza the road levels out after a block, and then rambles over an old bridge and away from town. Here we found the gate to the hill-top cemetery and the austere Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The cemetery is exceedingly beautiful and broken into two parts: a newer section in front of the church and an older section up the hillside behind. In the old area there is a particularly pristine and predictably fertile example of the rich plant diversity in the area. Alongside sage and globemallow and filaree storksbill; beaver tail, cholla, and prickly pear cacti; century plants, chuparosa and brittlebush; I saw my first peyote buttons. I didn’t even know what they were until later when I saw peyote depicted in a Huichol yarn picture in town. Peyote grows primarily right beneath the surface of the soil, so the tops of the buttons look like a cactus version of moss. The new area of the cemetery is cluttered with interesting graves, ornate with mosaics and wreaths and crosses and statues, rather serving as the final witness to the variety of people who have visited here and stayed. There are mestizo and Indio Mexican graves, Swedish and European graves, Asian and Middle Eastern graves, and even United States hippie graves. The graveyard is picturesque and calm, but it is difficult to walk around the tightly-fitted plots. Here and there little trees cast little shadows, and when we were there—in a sunny part of the day—there were people stretched out napping in them.
The inside of the church at the cemetery is in many ways as bleak as the outside. The walls are blue and water damaged, as if major restoration might not have made it quite this far down the road. The frescoes on the walls are faded and damaged, making them difficult to decipher. The floor here is stone, and the barren interior echoed with the click of my new boots. It is my favorite church in the world: in the apse, rising twenty feet in the air, the framed Virgin of Guadalupe stands in her brightly colored robes before her radiating halo. She is hung in a larger painting of columns and flanked by statues of angels. Across all of this is a net of Christmas lights, surrounded by sparkling garlands. Well-tended and marvelous, our Lady looks forever out the wide wooden arch of the doorway across the limitless blue valley almost five kilometers beneath her.
Heading back to the plaza we passed a new-looking hotel, made of cinder blocks instead of stones, whitewashed and gaily accented in typical Mexican pastels. Behind barbed wire in a shrine of its own are the framed photos of Brad Pitt, Julia Robert, and Gene Hackman—these are headshots and publicity photos, not local snapshots, but serve the purpose of commemorating the event of their stay here. The film production that took over the town at the turn of the century was a debatably positive thing at the time, and its effects on the town’s press and tourism may very well be debated still. But Real de Catorce remembers dozens of weird times and strange happenings; and like those other moments in history will claim these stars as its own.
On south of the plaza things quite literally go downhill. Traveling only a block or two, all roads come to the Arroyo de la Concepción, a dried-up mountain runoff filled with spiny cactus paddles. Here the central area of renovation also comes to an end, and it is possible to walk past a bewildering array of roofless, tumbled stone structures from the heyday of Catorce just on the other side of the arroyo across whitewashed, antique bridges. Archways remain, supporting little but debris and a tangle of cacti carved with graffiti. Old brown walls stand in a drift of broken terracotta. Chickens and cattle graze here and there; some are tied to a tire, some are not. Packed occasionally in and around the ruins we could see a cleared field sporting gamecock cages. Sometimes walking around a ruined building brought us face to face with a territorial dog in someone’s backyard. For a while, Sunshine and I were followed by a saddled horse who had taken an interest in us. The canyon goes on and on, down and down, with steep mountaintops all around, and the remains of this city’s long history strewn like an unraveled labyrinth that had slid down and come to rest there.
We stayed in Real de Catorce for two chilly nights and one, full, sun-roasted day. During this time what we mostly did was wander around and look at the marvelous place, drink plenty of fluids, and get a little sunburned. There is no place in town to exchange money, no ATMs or banks, and it is rare to find a place that will take a credit card. The people are gregarious and helped us in our discoveries of Indian art and interesting new food (cabuches are pickled biznaga cactus sprouts which look like the end of an asparagus and taste a little like an artichoke). I was simply not dressed well for climbing down through thistles and ruins: my new boots are not as adequately constructed for climbing as the old ones were, my pants were not rugged Levis but silly Dockers. Nor was there much time to wander without restraint. These frustrations cancelled each other out, and prompted my oath to soon return with a rope and a flashlight and some band-aids. In the evenings we ate good food and I watched the others play Uno while we all drank good Mexican rum. The room was cozy and orange and lit by provided candles and an overhead bulb with a tin shade that threw stars around the room like a disco ball.
On Sunday we headed home along the same route we’d taken to get there. The wait to exit the sierra through the one-way tunnel took about thirty minutes longer this time. We took the road a little slower, stopping occasionally for a quick walk through the amazing plants to take pictures, or to look out over the incredible views. We stopped in the little town of La Luz to see the ruined monastery, old church, and abandoned mine shaft there. In La Luz, enterprising people had turned a number of the old Spanish ruins into pig pens. The dirt road in front of the dilapidated church was strung with white paper banners. These were either leftovers from a party last weekend or decorations for the upcoming Independence Day celebrations. A group of children on bikes guarded the SUV cheaply while we were away.
Soon enough we were on the road again. On the mountain side of the road the trip was less frightening than the cliff side had been. The trip through the high valley was less riddled with racing thunderstorms today. All too soon the weekend was over. I really fell in love with Real de Catorce. The countryside is harrowing and hot and beautiful and terrible to behold. The remains of the mining town are a playground of hidden nooks awaiting discovery. The air is far cooler there than it is here. It’s like paradise.
More excellent photos here, here, and here.
Want to travel to Catorce Municipality cheaply, immerse yourself, and help people?
Click here to read the entire text of this post.