Picture a place where the only way to access the town is through a narrow one-way tunnel more than two kilometers long. Where when you wander around it, you find abandoned, empty buildings around each corner and the loudest sounds are the braying of donkeys. There’s electricity, but the internet speed is crawling, even by Telmex’s low standards.
This is Real de Catorce, established in the late 1700s when silver was discovered here and several mines started operating. In Spanish Colonial terms, this town was late to the party: the church didn’t open until 1820. It thrived for a while, minting its own coins for a period, but after a century the mines got tapped out, the price of silver dropped, and the place turned into a ghost town with no jobs. Hardly anyone lived here until the late 1900s, when tourists started visiting. It’s now one of the “Pueblos Magicos” of Mexico and this is one that deserves the title: it really does feel magical here.
There’s another kind of magic that brings in a prominent group of foreign visitors: those with dreadlocks, tattered clothing, and lots of piercings. Peyote, the hallucinogenic cactus, grows wild in the surrounding desert. The local huichol people use it in their ceremonies as a path to another world.
I was on vacation with my wife and teenage daughter though, so that kind of thrill was not in the mix. Instead we chilled out in town and went on some family adventure excursions around the area. Check two of them out on this video below. (I used YouTube’s stabilization offer to get rid of the shakiness due to being on a horse and on the back of a jeep, but this means the captions bounce around like Mexican jumping beans. Sorry!)
We spent five days and four nights here, which is probably well beyond the average. We were looking for a relaxed getaway for a while though and this place delivered. One of the great things about being an expat in another country is you find out about gems like this that most people in a hurry wouldn’t bother visiting. (Last year we visited another magic town, Cuetezalan, where we hardly saw another foreigner.) It was a bit of a long haul to get to Real de Catorce from Guanajuato overland, but with Mexico’s frequent and usually comfortable bus options, it was relatively painless.
If you go, just be sure not to arrive anywhere near October 4. That’s when thousands of pilgrims descend on the town to pray to a miraculous St. Francis image that supposedly doles out miracles to help people with their problems. Visiting then would be a nightmare of crowds and no rooms. Otherwise, it’s pretty sleepy most of the time. We were around the second week of Semana Santa school vacation and there were still plenty of hotels that weren’t full.
As for prices, we paid $67 a night for a triple room in Refugio Romano, a nice place with great garden and terrace spaces for hanging out. Real de Catorce is at 9,000 feet though and this place is up a hillside, so expect a little altitude adjustment time if you’re coming from the lowlands. No matter where you stay, you can hire a porter after you come through the tunnel on a bus in order to help you get your luggage to your hotel. Expect to pay a bit more than you would elsewhere in interior Mexico for food & drinks: it’s like an island here, isolated and long way from another city.
To get here, get a bus to San Luis Potosi—capital of the state—then a bus to Matehuala. From there you take another one to the tunnel entrance and get a complimentary shuttle bus through the tunnel to the town. If you drive there, you need to leave your car on the other side in a big parking lot. Only the residents and delivery people can drive in the town itself. Bring good walking shoes: the very old streets and sidewalks use not-very-flat cobblestones and there are lots of hills.
Tim Leffel is the editor of the Cheapest Destinations Blog, Perceptive Travel, and TravelWriting2.com. He is the founder of Al Centro Media and the author of five books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations.