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Real de Catorce, Mexico: A Magical Town in San Luis Potosi

  • Joel CZ 
  • 12 min read
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In the middle of the Sierra de Catorce lies the Magical Town of Real de Catorce, always waiting for visitors to tell them about its legendary mining past and show them its beautiful landscapes.

It is not known precisely when the first silver vein was discovered, but in 1772 the town already existed.

The first large lodes were found in 1778 and in 1779 the Guatemalan of Spanish origin Silvestre López Portillo founded the town under the name of Real de Minas de Nuestra Señora de la Limpia y Purísima Concepción de Guadalupe de los Álamos de Catorce.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the mines of Real de Catorce occupied second place in production worldwide.

The great wealth of silver came to an end around 1910.

Where is Real de Catorce Mexico located?

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Source: wayak / shutterstock.com

Real de Catorce is located in the north of the state of San Luis Potosi, and it was an important mining town between 1770 and the first decade of the XX century.

The different buildings constructed during its prosperity stages constitute its main tourist attractions.

In 2001, Real de Catorce was incorporated into the system of Magical Towns based on its architectural heritage, mining past, its indigenous culture as one of the main seats of the Huichol civilization, and its legends and traditions.

The closest city to Real de Catorce is Matehuala, about 60 km away, although the trip takes more than an hour because of the return trip to Cedral and San Juan de Vanegas.

If you’re in San Luis Potosí City, you must travel 254 km towards Matehuala.

Saltillo Coahuila is 286 km away, Zacatecas is 310 km away, and Mexico City is 670 km.

What are the main attractions of Real de Catorce, Mexico?

real de catorce mexico
The Purisima Concepcion Parish – Source: Eleni Mavrandoni / shutterstock.com

The mining prosperity lived by Real de Catorce during three centuries left important buildings and ruins, such as:

  • The Parish of the Immaculate Conception
  • The Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe
  • The Mint House
  • The Ghost Town
  • The Palenque de Gallos (cockfight ring)
  • The Bullring
  • The Ogarrio Tunnel
  • The Laguna Seca Hacienda and some bridges, notably the Zaragoza Bridge

The strong presence of the Huichol culture in the Magical Town can be appreciated in the Wirikuta reserve, the Cerro El Quemado, and in the art of this ethnic group.

Real de Catorce’s attractions complement the town’s legends and delicious culinary art.

The Purísima Concepción Parish

The patron saint of Spanish and Mexican miners who exploited the town’s rich silver veins is venerated in The Immaculate Conception parish.

The façade of the 18th-century temple is neoclassical, with Doric brushstrokes, and in the interior, the neo-Gothic style altar stands out, which was installed at the beginning of the 20th century.

On the walls, there are several altarpieces, most of them offered by the faithful in gratitude for favors received.

Other valuable pieces of the church are its 1834 pipe organ, which has 1,200 flutes, and the image of St. Francis of Assisi.

What is the history of the image of St. Francis of Assisi?

An image of Saint Francis of Assisi venerated in the Parish of the Immaculate Conception was first in the Church of Guadalupe, located in the cemetery of Real de Catorce.

The “Catorceños” colloquially and affectionately call him El Charrito and Panchito.

His festivities, celebrated between September 25 and October 12, are attended by tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists in a devotion that has grown over time.

According to tradition, the image arrived in the town on the back of a donkey, its origin unknown.

Visit the Church of the Virgin of Guadalupe

real de catorce mexico
Source: ARTPICHUNTER / shutterstock.com

This church has the unusual particularity that it is located inside the cemetery of Real de Catorce.

It was built to bury at the same time inside a temple and a cemetery the most notable deceased of the town.

In its interior are 70 tombs of wealthy people, priests, and other illustrious catorceños.

On one side of the church, there is a very old chapel that was used to watch over the bodies before burials.

The temple of the Virgin of Guadalupe was the first shelter of the image of St. Francis of Assisi, now located in the Parish of the Immaculate Conception.

The Ghost Town of Real de Catorce

real de catorce mexico
Source: Nickolas warner / shutterstock.com

The area of Real de Catorce that gets the name of Pueblo Fantasma (ghost town) is the ruins of the mining shot of the Compromiso and the haciendas in which the mineral exploited in the mines of Concepción benefited.

Two versions dispute the origin of the name Pueblo Fantasma:

  1. One indicates that it arose from the ghostly appearance that acquires the zone at certain times of the year when the differential of pressure between the interior of the shot and the outside generates some columns of humidity that veil the atmosphere.
  2. The other version of the name Pueblo Fantasma is the ruinous and abandoned aspect.

When was the Mint built?

real de catorce mexico
8 Reales Silver Coin 1803 – Source: josera / shutterstock.com

This large house was finished in 1863, and in that same year, the minting of silver coins began, as indicated by some of the preserved pieces.

In 1866, the French Empire occupying Mexico ordered the house’s closing.

The town council prepared a letter requesting Maximilian to annul the order, asking General Tomas Mejia to be its bearer before the emperor.

However, the letter was never answered, probably because in June 1867, both Mejía and Maximiliano were shot in Santiago de Querétaro.

There were Real de Catorce coins before 1863, but they were made in local workshops. The Mint is now a Cultural Center.

The 8 Reales coin of 1811 is the rarest and most important of those made in the town and most appreciated by Mexican and foreign numismatic enthusiasts.

It is a smooth-edged silver piece with an irregular module of 38 millimeters. Due to its rarity, a specimen can be valued at 50,000 dollars, which is why it is the object of forgeries.

It was minted during the turbulent years of the reign of Ferdinand VII of Spain by the supporters of the so-called Felon King.

Bullring and Cockfighting

real de catorce mexico
Cockfighting Palenque – Source: wayak / shutterstock.com

Cockfights are controversial entertainment in several Latin American countries. Along with bullfighting, it was the favorite amusement of the miners of Catorce between the XVIII and XX centuries.

Real de Catorce had one of the most monumental henhouses in Mexico, and the arena of Roman architecture now offers cultural shows after a restoration in 1977 with which it recovered its old splendor.

The bullfighting arena was inaugurated in 1791, and according to tradition, it was a reward to the people for the ascension to the Spanish throne of King Carlos IV El Cazador.

Unfortunately, most of the building was lost amid the ravaging raids of the fighting armies during the 19th century.

It was restored in 1863 to bring the fiesta brava back to Real de Catorce, but a prohibition of bullfighting began five years later.

Two great bullfighters passed through the arena: Ponciano Díaz, nicknamed El Torero Charro, and “Ojitos,” Rodolfo Gaona’s teacher.

Explore the Ogarrio Tunnel in Real de Catorce

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Source: Eidrian Vargas / shutterstock.com

This 2.3 km tunnel, which is now a tourist attraction, was one of Mexico’s most significant engineering projects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was built by the Counts of La Maza, wealthy Spanish mining entrepreneurs who named it after Ogarrio, their hometown in Cantabria.

The tunnel, which today constitutes the access road to the town, was built to enter and exit materials and personnel in the mining exploitation.

You can still admire the shots that have been preserved unaltered for more than 100 years.

Visit the Hacienda Laguna Seca

Not far from Real de Catorce is this former hacienda, where it is possible to admire the environment in which mezcal was made several centuries ago.

The manufacturing process of the ancestral beverage has been modernized.

Still, the building preserves its basic structure, with its characteristic architectural elements, such as the vaults above the fermentation basins, the mills, and the stills.

It is also possible to admire the stone ovens for cooking the maguey and the old brick chimneys.

The maguey stalks now arrive at the factory in motor vehicles, but you can still sense the atmosphere where the transportation was done with mules.

Admire the Zaragoza Bridge

real de catorce mexico
Source: FernandoAlcantara / shutterstock.com

This broad and beautiful bridge, one of several in Real de Catorce, Mexico, is located on the way to the cemetery and the old Bullring and is the oldest in the Magical Town.

Triangular structures crown its wall, and in its center, it has a high sidewalk and an attractive top.

The bridge is over a canyon that disappears into the foothills of the sierras, offering beautiful views.

Hire a Tour

A small company in town called the Caballerangos de Real de Catorce takes tourists on the three most exciting routes in the Sierra de Catorce: the Cerro Grande, the Ghost Town, and the Quemado Hill.

The Cerro Grande route has stops at the San Agustin and Milagros mines, the Zapato and Los Riscos caves and the Pueblo Fantasma.

The unique route to the Pueblo Fantasma includes a stop at the Purísima Concepción mine.

The Ruta del Quemado has the Cerro del Quemado as its final destination. If you want to ride the old-fashioned way, get a horse.

The importance of El Quemado Hill

real de catorce mexico
Source: wayak / shutterstock.com

Wixárikas or Huicholes are an Indian ethnic group of the Sierra Madre Occidental, whose ancestral traditions consume peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus endemic to Mexico.

The primary sacred center of the peyote collection is the Cerro El Quemado de Real de Catorce, the “Place where the sun is born” for the Indians.

The pilgrimages of the different Huichol communities, who go there to communicate with their gods and ancestors, end at this desert elevation with the appearance of scorched earth.

What is Huichol art like?

The artistic expressions of the Huichols are beautiful, such as the paintings or worsted boards, their most characteristic and recognizable handicraft product.

These figures have striking and colorful designs made with stamens on boards covered with wax and resin.

Although the elaboration of the boards has been modernized using commercial threads and beads of a great variety of colors, it is still possible to find authentic pieces, mainly made for ceremonial purposes.

Real de Catorce gastronomy

This town offers some of the most delicious dishes in Potosina cuisine.

Among the most valued delicacies are the bocoles, pork stew with ancho chile; the enchiladas potosinas made with refried beans and red chile; the cabuches and the nopales with tomato, onion, and aromatic herbs.

The typical drinks are aguamiel and colonche.

Lodging

Real de Catorce has some simple but cozy hotels, such as:

  • El Real
  • Ruinas del Real
  • El Rincón del Pintor
  • Shantiniketan Morada de Paz
  • Hotel Real Bonanza

Many visitors to the Magical Town prefer to stay in the nearby city of Matehuala, 60 km from Real de Catorce, where Hotel María Esther, Hotel Casa Real Matehuala, and Las Palmas Midway Inn stand out.

In the town of Cedral, 35 km from Real de Catorce, is Hotel Desierto.

A few restaurant recommendations

  • Mesón de la Abundancia, located at Lanzagorta st. 11, is praised for its pizzas and pastas
  • Café Azul, at Lanzagorta st. 27, serves delicious crepes
  • Realbucks, also on Lanzagorta, offers excellent Veracruz coffee with yummy pastries
  • Al Gusto is an Italian house located on Calle Lerdo de Tejada 3, serving freshly made pasta with authentic Italian flavor
  • Other options are the restaurant at the Hotel El Real, Tolentino’s, and Restaurante Monterrey

What is the weather like in Real de Catorce?

Real de Catorce has the typical “high mountain” climate, protected by its altitude of 2,728 meters above sea level.

The coolest months are the northern hemisphere winter months, with the average temperature below 10° C in December and January.

However, the thermometer can drop as low as 5° C in the cold season, so precautions should be taken. In the hottest period, the average is around 21° C, from June to August.

I hope your next trip to charming Real de Catorce will be full of unforgettable experiences. Vamonos!

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