Located 160 miles northwest of San Luis Potosi the town of Real de Catorce sits on the side of a mountain at more than 9,000 feet. It is situated in the Catorce Mountain Range, one of the highest plateaus in Mexico, where the summits may extend over 10,000 feet.
To get to Real de Catorce, one must exit Federal Highway 57 just north of Matehuala onto Highway 62. The 30 mile trip up to Real de Catorce will take you through the old mining village of Cedral, then across the plateau where you will enjoy great vistas. As you get closer to the mountains you turn left and drive down a cobblestone road for 11 miles, through quaint little villages with burros and chickens to watch for, winding up the side of the mountain on a narrow road and finally arriving at the Ogarrio Tunnel dug into the side of the mountain. Awaiting your turn, as the tunnel is one way only, you drive through the dimly lit tunnel for 1.5 miles and viola - you are at Real de Catorce.
Once in Real, you are greeted with the cool, fresh mountain air. Every fifteen minutes the bells ring at the Parish of Immaculate Conception in the center of the town. Ocassionaly, the silence is broken by the brey of a burrow, the cuckle of a chicken, or small children laughing. Cowboys with horses await you to take you up the mountainside where you can enjoy the spectacular 100+ mile visitas.
The town shuts down early as a night on the town in Real consists of sitting in one of the many restaurants, sipping coffees or wine and listening to a local musician strumming a classical guitar. Conversions are a large part of the diverse multinational makeup of the town. A fair number of foreigners have made their homes in Real - Italians, Swiss, Germans, Slovenia, and a few Americans blending with Mexicans tourists from Monterrey, San Luis Potosi or Mexico City. English is spoken by most of the expatriates and the locals understand enough English to make your stay comfortable. At night, you sleep soundly, partially due to the intoxicating altitude but also the peaceful silence of the night.
Originally founded in 1779 as Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepcion de los Alamos de Catorce, this once thriving silver mining town presently has a full time population of under 1,000 residents. Its Colonial style buildings, picturesque surroundings and remote location have made Real del Catorce a popular movie set. Several Hollywood films that have been shot there. Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and James Gandolfini shot the movie The Mexican in Real de Catorce, as were some scenes from Las Bandidas with Penélope Cruz, Salma Hayek, Steve Zahn, Dwight Yoakam and Sam Shepard. Sections of the area were also used as scenes in John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt.
Today, Real del Catorce is very popular on the weekends with travelers from the capital city of San Luis Potosi and other areas of Mexico. Mondays through Thursdays are the best time to visit, where you will find better rooms available at a less expensive cost at the hotels and the restaurant service will not be quite so rushed. Be sure to bring cash as there is no bank or money changers in the town. One hotel and restaurant accepts credit cards.
Thousands of pilgrims visit the Parish of Immaculate Conception the week around the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4 to express their gratitude for favors granted. Inside the church are hundreds of Retalbas attesting to the miracles that have been performed.
Huichol Indians walk across miles of desert from Nayarit, Durango, Jalisco and Zacatecas to visit the valley of Catorce every spring to leave religious offerings at the "Cerro Quamado", a ceremonial center to the east of their mystical reliqious territory. Quemado is, according to their ancestral beliefs, the birthplace of their "Tatewari" or Grandfather Fire.
During this time, they also visit the "Wirikuta" or desert below Real de Catorce to gather a year's supply of sacred nourishment in the form of peyote or "hikuri", the magical cactus that they use to guide their path and consciousness. Though found throughout the region, the cacti in the Wirikuta purportedly produce the most desired crop.
At other times of the year, there is a continious pilgrimage of people of all ages and nationalities, motivated by the writings of Carlos Casteneda. They travel thousands of miles to arrive at this sacred site and experience a mystical communion with the magical cactus.
Others come to Real de Catorce for health reasons. At 9,000 feet the city is an excellent training ground for bicyclists and runners. Matthew McConaughey, the actor, is a frequent visitor as he enjoys running in the area.