Did you know that you can visit a ghost town in Mexico? No? Well, it’s possible. All you need to do is head over to Real de Catorce in the mountainous area of San Luis Potosi.
The town has a population of only around 1,000 inhabitants. It was an important mining center, but it was eventually abandoned.
It was one of the first designated magical towns (pueblos mágicos) by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism. The mysterious atmosphere combined with its antiquity and charm has converted it into one of the most visited small towns in the country. It attracts thousands of visitors each year, not only domestic but foreign ones as well.
History and contemporality merge here into a single entity making this place unique. You will feel like traveling back in time. The spirit from years past permeates the whole town and darkness gives it an eerie look at night.
Let’s see what this town holds for us and why we should visit it.
How Do We Get There?
Real de Catorce is located in the northern part of the state of San Luis Potosi, more specifically, about 160 miles (260 km) north of the capital.
If you travel by air, you will have to fly to the San Luis Potosi International Airport and continue the rest of the trip by land. The latter takes around 3.5 hours. That is if you’re driving. If you take a bus, it will take you more time.
Real de Catorce is strategically located between Mexico’s 3 largest cities: Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey. The closest one is Monterrey in northern Mexico. Below are the distances and estimate times for each one of them:
Monterrey: 220 miles (354 km), 5 hours
Guadalajara: 365 miles (587 km), 7 hours and 45 minutes
Mexico City: 405 miles (652 km), 8 hours and 15 minutes
If you love road trips, this can be the perfect opportunity to visit other places on the way.
Remember I said the town is located in the mountains? You have to cross a tunnel to get there, but before doing that, you have to drive up a 1.5-mile cobblestone path. Once you reach the entrance, you will have to pay 30 pesos. Since the tunnel is too narrow, they only allow cars to drive in one direction. They take turns to let people cross from both ends of the tunnel.
Lookout. Before reaching the town entrance, you will pass by a lookout point. You will get an impressive view of the valley and mountains around you. I suggest you make a stop here to take in the views and take some cool photos of course. 😉
Ogarrio Tunnel. While you are crossing the tunnel, you will be enveloped by darkness. It doesn’t matter if it’s day or night as it’s dimly lit all the time. If there are no cars behind you, then you can make a quick stop to take a couple of photos. But be careful. People claim to have seen apparitions in the tunnel.
Okay, now you made it to the other side. There is an ample parking lot where you have to leave your car. It is my understanding that car traffic is restricted around town.
Templo de la Purisima Concepcion. This rustic church draws thousands of Catholics each year. The patron saint is San Francisco de Asis. The walls of the church rear are decorated by retablos (altarpieces) that pilgrims leave as offerings for miracles received. The saint’s feast is celebrated during the first 5 days of October and is probably the busiest season in town.
Antigua Casa de Moneda. Due to its mining importance, the town hosted its own mint house. The building now hosts a museum with exhibits concerning the history and culture of the town.
Plaza Hidalgo. This square represented the economic and social center of the town back then. A particularity is the plaza is uneven. It’s still a gathering place for locals. If you want to take a tour, this is the place to go.
Palenque de Gallos. This cockfighting ring was built like a Greek amphitheater. Although it no longer hosts any fights, there are occasional cultural events here.
Cemetery. Take your time to look at the austere tombs and the chapel dedicated to San Francisco. You can also admire some murals with Biblical motifs.
Take your time to walk along the cobblestone streets and admire the old buildings all over town. You will find plenty of photo opportunities.
Ex-haciendas. Travel to the past and explore the ruins of the former glorious mining haciendas. Can you imagine what life was like back then?
Cerro del Quemado. This hill is located in Wirikuta and is a sacred place to the Huichol. This place is believed to be the site where everything in the world originated. Each year the Huichol peregrinate to this place walking across miles of desert from the neighboring states of Nayarit, Durango, Jalisco, and Zacatecas.
Peyote Desert. This federal reserve is home to many endemic species such as the peyote, a type of cactus that provokes hallucinogen effects.
Estacion Catorce. It was the original entrance to Real de Catorce. Currently, it’s just a station for freight trains passing by.
Ride a Willy. People ride these 4×4 jeeps from the 60s to tour the surroundings of Real. You ride atop the jeep and they will drive you through the rough terrain and steep inclines. If you’re into adrenaline, you will love it. Private tours cost between 500 and 1,500 pesos ($22-$68) per vehicle.
Did You Know?
Real was such an important mining center that it was called “the second or third highest silver producing mine in New Spain” by explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Although it’s not what it used to be, you can still buy silver items in Real.
You can get in trouble with the authorities for buying or removing peyote from its location. Its use is restricted to the Huichol people. Peyote is sacred to them and it’s protected under Mexican law.
Real has been the setting for Hollywood films such as The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and Bandidas, starring Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. In fact, it was because of these productions that the town has now phone service and cellular coverage. There was none before that.
What to Eat
Just like Mexican cuisine, the regional cuisine of Real has indigenous and Spanish influences. You can find barbacoa (slow-cooked beef), pork with chile ancho, enchiladas potosinas, cabuches (a type of cactus), and nopales (another type of cactus). Oh, and don’t forget their delicious gorditas! If I were to choose just one dish, I’d pick gorditas without hesitation. My favorites are the cabuche and flor de calabaza (pumpkin flower) ones, although you can order them with cheese, beans, or eggs too. Delicious!
Real is also famous for its alcoholic beverages. You can try aguardiente (made from sugar cane), colonche (made from nopal), or the worldwide famous mezcal. If you don’t like alcohol, you can drink champurrado, aguamiel, or cafe de olla. Thank me later.
For dessert, you can try sweets made of goat milk such as cajetas and natillas or you can also try some delicious chocolate.
The options are quite varied and range from puestitos (stands) to fondas to pricier restaurants. Don’t be afraid to eat at one of the many stands on the street. Their food is the most authentic and inexpensive you will find.
On the other hand, if you prefer a restaurant, one of the most famous ones is Meson de la Abundancia. Besides Mexican restaurants, you can also find places that offer pasta, pizza, crepes, and fine pastries.
Where to Stay
There are several hotels to choose from. Just keep in mind they can fill up fast during the peak season. If visiting during these times, I highly recommend booking in advance. Some of the most famous hotels are Meson de la Abundancia and Hotel Amor y Paz.
Another option is Airbnb. You can save some money and get more privacy.
Last but not least, you can camp outside. I was told by local guides that you can do it by the cemetery. Would you dare?
Wear comfortable shoes. You will do a lot of walking through uneven streets and inclined roads.
Wear a hat and sunscreen. The sun burns a lot in this area.
You can tour the town and surrounding areas on foot. Just keep in mind that some parts of the journey are difficult due to the terrain and the burning sun. I don’t recommend walking out of town if you suffer from a heart condition or asthma or if you’re pregnant. The good news is you can ride a horse to virtually anywhere around Real.
Due to its altitude, Real experiences chilly nights even during the summer. Bring some kind of sweater or jacket regardless of the time of year you visit. If you visit during winter, you can even see snow!
Some of the busiest times are Semana Santa (the week before Easter) and the first week of October.
Bring plenty of cash as there are no banks or ATMs in town and some merchants don’t accept credit cards.
It’s best to get there driving your own car. It’s a little bit complicated to reach the town by public transportation.
Real de Catorce is the perfect destination for couples, single travelers, adventure seekers, those seeking a peaceful place, and pretty much everyone else. Its streets and buildings evoke a distant past. It’s something hard to describe. You have to witness it in person.
It’s a place full of history and culture. The mysticism that envelopes it is out of this world. The town refuses to enter the modern era and preserves its ancestral traditions. This is evidenced by the Huichol people who peregrinate each year to perform their rituals in the hills outside Real and the stone buildings inside that keep a thousand secret stories.
The Catholic religion also plays a vital role here, although it hasn’t made the people’s ancient traditions disappear as it has done in other parts of Mexico. No wonder it was one of the first places to be classified as a magical town. It didn’t come across as a surprise either that Hollywood stars fell in love with it.
Come and see why people from different countries and ages love this place. What are you waiting for?
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below. See you later!