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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Weekend on the Altiplano

number fifty-six

Our three and a half day vacation to Real de Catorce with one of Sunshine’s coworkers and her fiancé. I was impressed by the beauty of the place as much as the eerie strangeness of the ruins. 2,782 words.

[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 for more Real de Catorce photos © the Author

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A History of Tourism

number fifty-five

While anticipating an upcoming weekend trip into the high deserts of San Luis Patosi, I did some research on our destination. Real de Catorce is a slowly repopulating abandoned silver mine and ghost town near sacred Huichol peyote grounds. 2,023 words.

Things I know about Real de Catorce

[NL]—It is a special place, Real de Catorce. “Magical” is the description I have turned up again and again in the resources I have gathered for this history; a breathless preciousness which is nonetheless evident even in the data. Long before Europeans set foot on this continent, the Huichol Indians lived on the harsh southwestern Sierra Madres in the neighborhood of México’s western central highlands (on the northern borders of Jalisco and Michoacán states). The Huichol people considered the mountains of the northern central highlands sacred and made seasonal pilgrimages there (after Spring and Summer rains) to gather the area’s bounty of peyote to use in ceremonies back home. As history progressed they would make this trek to the Catorce Sierra through the territories of rising Olmec and Aztec empires, but somehow escape being conquered and assimilated. When the Spanish eventually discovered them in their homelands they resisted New World assimilation as well, busily synchronizing their own religion with Catholicism to maintain the low profile that characterizes the tribe.

Probably inadvertently, the Huichol led the Spanish to Real de Catorce in the mid-seventeenth century. The Spanish, busily oppressing the northern indigenous peoples in the usual ways, set up camp here in this unlikely high mountain pass. Here they had numerous skirmishes with local Chichimecas (remember: the Náhuatl catchall name used by the Aztecs for derided northern border people, translating into “Dog People”) and some sources even cite Comanche raids. The settlement was recognized by the Spanish crown in 1638, and designated a official “Real,” which means “royal” and indicates the official blessing of the king. Events of the next hundred years of Catorce’s existence are murky. Sometime in the seventeen forties, an Indian raid reduced the town records to ashes and much of the first hundred years of Spanish Catorce’s history is no longer known. The little Spanish real was forced to persist under a multitude of hardships including the severe climate, Indian uprisings, and food shortages. But persist they did. The Spanish strongly suspected there was silver up there, and one suspects that throughout the years just enough was found to keep Catorce populated.

In 1772 the main silver vein was struck and the settlement boomed. The “real” gained the distinction of actual township, and was christened Villa Real de Minas de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción de Guadelupe de los Álamos de Catorce, or Real de Catorce for short. What followed for a while mirrors the history of Guanajuato. The boom brought miners and magistrates to Catorce, and generated a surprising amount of wealth for everybody. During the heyday it was generating a significant portion of the world’s silver and operating as the number two mine in the nation. Construction was begun on parish church located in the center of town, with world-class neo-classical altars and frescoes decorating the opulent interior. Construction on the church finally ended in 1817. Troubles hit soon after, though, and by the time of the war of Mexican independence, in the eighteen teens, the mines had mostly flooded and silver production began to trail off. Spain was in no mood to lend assistance, but eventually in 1822 an Englishman by the name of Robert Phillips made the journey to Catorce with a patented “steam machine” and pumped the water back out, allowing the mine and town to continue another eighty years or so.

By the eighteen fifties the town was booming again, indeed at its golden age, producing millions of dollars worth of silver a year, and swollen to a population of forty thousand people. Cosmopolitan stone river walks and Spanish colonial plazas dotted this small, unlikely oasis teetering in the dry, thin air. Catorce boasted a world class theater where Caruso sang. In 1888 the plaza and central downtown were completely remodeled and a few years later construction began on a 2.3 kilometer tunnel through the mountain to make the sierra more accessible to the trade routes in the valley below. The parish church installed its iconic neo-classical altar of St. Francis, an incredible jointed wooden figure that could sit or stand. St. Francis had another big impact on the town's spiritual tourism: the installation inspired a tradition of annual pilgrimage to the site on St. Francis’ holy saint’s day, October the fourth. This tradition persists to this day. On the eve of Real de Catorce’s decline, the town experienced one last great moment: in 1895 the Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz traveled here to inaugurate two new mine pumps purchased from California, and to gift the town with a clock for its church. His trip was accomplished by train from México City, mule-drawn cart from the valley town of Matehuala, and a horse to take him over the mountains because the tunnel was net yet completed.

Fifteen years later the bubble of Porfirio’s México finally burst, and the towns of the Catorce Sierra began to quickly decline. The Mexican revolution of 1910 spiraled the country into a new era of domestic change and made control of the badlands in northern Mexico—a hotbed of revolutionists and, incidentally, lawlessness—that much harder to control. This and slumping world silver prices signaled the end of the good times in Real de Catorce. The rich mine owners split, fearing Mexican social reform. Without work, many of the poor laboring class migrated elsewhere. The people in the middle drifted off to make a living wherever all the other people had gone. The lawlessness of the area found purchase in the empty homes and bars of the largely abandoned town and managed to mostly push away whomever still remained there. By the thirties and forties the feared social reforms were busily stabilizing northern México and even the lawless holdouts in the high mountain passes had to leave town. Until sometime in the 1970s Real de Catorce languished, eroding on the mountainside, with a population never higher than about three hundred farmers.

Except on sacred days, of course. Pilgrims still walked here to pay homage to St. Francis on his special October day, in the church famous for his altar. The Huichol still came here seasonally for their ritual peyote. Wanderers still made their way here, following the trail of these pilgrims. In the seventies some of these strays who found themselves here, stuck. Since then, Catorce has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Artsy and hippie type people have descended in relative droves, attracted by the ghost town atmosphere, the indigenous culture, and the abundant peyote. Affluent folks looking for a quiet, interesting location have bought and restored homes here. Restoration projects have rebuilt, to a degree, the center of the village, and continue to preserve the ruins of the Spanish towns on its outskirts.

The surrounding landscape of harsh rock and historical, abandoned ruins are appealing to the traveler looking for adventure; as is the quiet isolation. Global expatriates are opening shops and restaurants. The stunning Catorce Sierra backdrops appeal to movie producers, also. Today, so many tourists are sampling the peyote growing naturally across the hills that the powers that be fear for the Indian supply. The municipality has toyed with the idea of growing special crops just to assuage the demands of this non-traditional tourism. There are new cosmopolitan things happening in Real de Catorce, and the town is struggling to live again by capitalizing, finally, on the pilgrimages it has been inspiring for thousands of years.

Things I do not know about Real de Catorce

The name “Real de Catorce” translates into “Royal of Fourteen,” and it has become somewhat cosmopolitan to speculate as to why. No one really knows, but the same can be said of many place names in a country so filled with dramatically disparate etymologies. Explanations include stories of Spanish hardships (Indians may have killed fourteen early settlers, or maybe soldiers, on the hazardous altiplano passes near the towns inception), or odes to the location’s remoteness (fourteen bandits might have lived in a hideaway in the high valley in the town’s early years). More plausibly, It may have been the fourteenth silver strike in the area (the previous thirteen would have collected, with their equipment, at the site of the bonanza), or the fourteenth town in the northward expansion along the Sierra Madre range. Possibly is was named after thirteen other caravans had been less successful in discovering the high route through the mountains. Many other towns enjoy strange names decreed by the Spanish crown in the days of colonization. The long, official name of the town translates loosely to “royal village of the mines dedicated to our lady (of the immaculate conception) the Virgin of Guadalupe of the fourteen cotton trees.” Is that a clue? Or is it more accurately “… of the cotton trees of fourteen,” deepening the mystery? No one knows for sure, but in the case of Real de Catorce, everybody seems to be guessing.

Other mysteries about the town persist. Much of México is surrounded by folklore, and in a place with a history as haphazard as Catorce, fueled as it is by a hallucinogenic cactus, strange stories are prevalent. This might explain the rich conjecture around the village’s name. Or another example: it is hard to understand why the settlement persisted for the hundred and forty years between its beginning and the eventual discovery of the big silver vein that marked its success. Catorce Sierra is a lousy high mountain pass: it is almost impassible, for one thing, and so high up that it is much colder, dryer, and has thinner air than surrounding routes. It is far easier to simply walk around this high sierra. Local explanations insist that a vaquero, cooking by his campfire early in Catorce’s history, noticed the heat from his fire was melting the surrounding, silver-laden rocks. Apparently, this tiny amount of incidental silver sustained Real de Catorce for the better part of a century and a half, but this simplicity is unlikely. Perhaps the vaquero had noticed the peyote, and the “melting rocks” are only a sly allusion to his resultant chemical dependency. But is this a reason to doggedly raise generations of little Spaniards in the cold, the sun-bleached dessert? Fanciful explanations lead to more of the same, and they are also easy to invent.

Ghosts supposedly walk all of the mines, as well as the route leading into town (the Rag Man used to blow out the lights leading the way through the long Ogarrio tunnel). Goats are prevalent here, and so are Chupacabras, the nocturnal phantasms who prey on them, leaving behind a carcass drained of blood. At night, animals keep tourists awake: donkeys and horses bray loudly, dogs bark, and roosters crow. The sound is amplified by the barren vertical surroundings. It is known by the locals that at night animals talk to the ghosts living in the ruined towns surrounding the valley. Some nights it seems like they are having an argument.

To me, the most prevailing mystery is why this beautiful place is a ghost town at all. The facts listed in the history above in no way realistically account for the exodus of tens of thousands of people in less than three decades. There was no black plague, no volcano, nothing that would suggest the kind of cataclysm usually associated with a whole population picking up and disappearing all at once; and yet this has happened. There are very few records in other places to indicate an influx of Catorce immigrants in any great number at any time in history. The population of this prosperous town just up and vanished into destinations unknown between 1910 and the 1930s. By the time Franciscan restoration work, in the person of Father Albino Enríquez, began on the parish church in 1939, the only few families occupying the high Catorce Valley were farmers and goat herds. Why was the town so completely abandoned? This remains a much more compelling mystery that what the word fourteen is doing in the name.

Map: the state of San Luis Potosí.

An official website about Real de Catorce; includes some good photos.

View from Catorce Sierra © the Author

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It's that time again. Beginner headquarters is picking-up house and relocating back to the United States on July twenty-fifth, 2009, to enjoy a month at home with family and friends. By the end of August we'll have set-up a semi-permanent household in Washington, DC, near the Cleveland Park metro stop on the red line. [DC metro map] Then, sometime after Labor Day, our boxes and boxes of stuff should catch up with us. After that it'll be smooth sailing till sometime in July 2010, when we will be moving abroad again, this time to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for a little real winter.

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