Well, we still haven't even written about Real de Catorce and frankly, I already have enough stories to write a memoir. So I am going to do a bit of backblogging for y'all while I look at the photos of myself on our Picasa albums, where I am desperately in need of a haircut. If you know of some really great hairstylist en route, this 1970's-ten-year-old-boy haircut I've been sporting in various fashions is getting old, fast. Or, if you're a really hip person and great with a pair of shears, I am a really desperate person with a floppy mess of hair. (It wouldn't hurt to get Ben's hair cut, too.)
So, like most of our trip thus far, our route is inspired by others' suggestions. When we were in Humble, TX, Billy and Anna suggested to us that we should go visit Real de Catorce. On the first night we spent in Humble, the four of us went over our map and circled in red all the places they recommended. A month later, in Monterrey, MX we were staying with Gaby, where she too, recommended that we visit Real de Catorce. Ben, I think, remembered the initial recommendation, but it wasn't until after we left Real de Catorce that I actually put two and two together.
Real de Catorce's historic name, depending on the source is: Real de Alamos de la Purisima Concepción de los Catorce or Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de los Alamos de Catorce, which roughly translates to 'Royal Alamos of the Immaculate Conception of the Fourteen' or 'Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of the Alamos of the Fourteen.' San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas and Real de Catorce are all old, colonial, silver mining towns and they tend to have these romantic and blustery names. The town was founded in 1779 and produced silver until the Mexican Revolution, when it was shut down due to the dropping price of silver in the world market.
The town has been until recently living on tourism--cowboys stand on all the corners and ask you, in Spanish, if you would like to take a ride up into the mountains on a horse. Almost every large (and small) house has been converted into a hotel-cum-restaurant-cum-souvenir store. We later found out that the charming pueblo of Real de Catorce is on the 'hippy drug trail' due to the peyote found in the surrounding area, ritualistically consumed annually by Huichol Indians and consumed the rest of the time by hippies worldwide, leading to concern that the Huichol tradition of peyote-induced spiritual trips may die out.
The demographic made sense, in retrospect, as every third person we passed on the streets was either wearing tie-dye, had dredlocked hair or was a tourist under the age of 25. Ho-hum. A lover of both the extreme authentic and the terrible imitation, I enjoyed wandering the streets of Real de Catorce as tourists took photos of people in their 'authentic' Mexican campesino clothes, unaware that the people in traditional dress were just as much outsiders to a town surviving on string of tourism as the tourists themselves. Everyone stares at everyone else in Real de Catorce, because everyone is both the spectator and the spectated in such a dynamic tourist town.
Now, there are possible bids to reopen the Real de Catorce mines again. I've been reading up a bit on this, to give you a good opinion of what's going on out there regarding Real de Catorce. I couldn't say for sure whether this is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, but it is definitely A Thing. The beautiful churches in town, gaudy on the inside and more relic-like than the older and larger cathedrals in San Luis and Zacatecas, were built on this money.
In fact, the entire desirable city was built on this money, and if all this 'reopening of mines' stuff goes down democratically, this might be an incredible thing. In another two-hundred year cycle of newly opened mines and building and closing of mines and downturn and tourism upturn, Real de Catorce may be more or less integrally the same.
I've watched New Orleans go from a 'mostly-surviving on tourism' to an 'only surviving on tourism' town and you can see the matte black wall, about two inches past the pupils of the eyes' of people who only survive on tourism. It's not good. And for the tourist, it becomes a wheedling uncomfort of feeling like you constantly owe something to someone, like everyone is infuriated with you after you walk away without hiring their services. I suspect to some extent that this is what is so attractive about the concept of 'eco-tourism,' because it makes consumption look and feel really good. (I swear, Ben is going to have to update soon with something upbeat before I go all communist on this blog.)
So. Real de Catorce is beautiful.
9,000 feet up, and you can stand in the town and watch the clouds pass above and below you, and they compress themselves to fit into the clefts between mountains.
The masonry is incredible--in some places, three different layers have fallen off of decaying buildings and give you an idea of the makeshift reparations and the generations of people who've built this place all willy-nilly on the side of the mountains.
With dozens of abandoned houses, people still find unused pieces on the hillside to build new buildings, usually half out of concrete blocks and the other half out of rocks found nearby.
(This is hair that needs the badly needed haircut.)
And the views?
One of the concerns with the reopening of mines is the undermining of the historic quality of towns like Real de Catorce. Real de Catorce is part of the Programa Pueblos Mágicos a program run by Mexico's Secretary of Tourism. I am unsure as to the benefits of degree of legal historical preservation by being designated a Magical Town. Real de Catorce was the first town we have visited on this list, and we visited a second, Jerez, last night. San Miguel de Allende, another magical town is also on our route, after Guanajuato. If you haven't watched the video of the trip into the tunnel, I suggest you look at it again.
Real de Catorce has a romantic, blustery name because it is a otherworldly place that you get to through a tunnel in the earth with an unopenable altar to something that you can't really see.