Desert Ghosts: Abandoned Mining Towns
Updated: Sep 18, 2019
Deep in the dry Sierra mountains north of Guanajuato is the village of Real de Catorce. The origin of the town’s name, Royal Fourteen, differs depending on which legend you come across. Some say it arose from a massacre of fourteen Spanish imperial troops, others that it refers to a group of bandits who preyed upon merchants and miners leaving the town. Regardless of the truth, no one can deny that Real de Catorce (or just simply ‘Real’) is a town that captures the imagination.
Long a place of pilgrimage for local Huichol people, who consumed the hallucinatory peyote cactus that dots the desert floor at the foot of Real’s mountains, the town is also a sacred hot spot for Catholics from around Mexico. If you visit the town’s largest church, you can see carved and painted wooden scenes of St. Francis of Assisi granting pilgrim’s prayers. Real de Catorce would probably never have developed, however, if not for the silver that ran through the unforgiving mountains that surround it. Like Guanajuato (see our post on Guanajuato here), the town boomed on silver as miners came from around Mexico and Europe. Unlike Guanajuato, when the silver ran out so did almost all of its residents.
Within a few years, Real was a ghost town and its fine buildings began to crumble and be reclaimed by the desert. In recent decades, however, Real has seen people move back in as travelers have begun to visit the town. In addition to its sacred significance, Real draws explorers in with its history and its unique separation from the modern world. To reach Real from the south, you must take a succession of buses, each smaller and more beat-up than the previous. The final bus to Real takes you from a small village on one side of the mountain straight through a 3-km mine tunnel (sorry claustrophobes) out to the other side of the mountain, where Real is wedged between the hills overlooking the endless desert horizon.
Contrasting with the colourful splendour of the typical Mexican colonial town, Real’s beauty is more muted. Its cobblestoned streets are nearly silent, with only the occasional pick-up truck or rider on horseback slowly passing you by. Real is not a museum, far from it, as its townspeople continue to gather, work and play. Nevertheless, its isolation and quiet rhythms blur the lines between this century and its former life as an abandoned mining town.
It probably goes without saying that nightlife is essentially limited to the local cantina, and restaurant options are few. Numerous local cowboys will offer guided horseback tours into the shrubby hills around Real, where other small mining villages lie completely abandoned, gracefully decaying for over a century. These tours are very reasonably priced but if you are decently fit you can also head out to explore yourself by following the dusty cobblestoned path up and out of town. Keep in mind that you will be heading into uninhabited desert and bring enough water and food to sustain you if you lose track of the dirt path back down into Real.