Real de Catorce

*This is part 10 of a 13-part series. Read part 9 here. *

Now it’s easy to tell you’re in the middle of nowhere when there is but one entrance, one exit and both are by way of a narrow tunnel dynamited into the belly of the huge mountain 9,000 feet above sea level.

Tunnel leading in and out of Real de Catorce. Photo Credit: matt atoms

Or at least it’s a good indication.

Surprisingly, however, there’s a bustling little town here.

Real de Catorce is a Pueblo Magico in the state of San Luis Potosi that has just under 1,000 full-time residents and a steady influx of tourists. The name might derive from the tale of 14 Spanish soldiers (Royal Fourteen = Real de Catorce) being killed by Chichimeca warriors in an ambush back in the day.

Although the area had been known about for quite some time, it wasn’t until a few years after silver was discovered in the 1770s that the place was officially “founded”. As the wealth of the mines, so did the population, reaching a plateau of 15,000 before plummeting to a hardy few once the price of silver dropped in the early 20th century. It quickly became a ghost-town.

One of the hardy folks who stayed around were the Wixaritari, or Huicholes. Actually they’d been coming here for hundreds of years, far before the “official finding” of the village. Many live in western Mexico — Jalisco, Durango, Nayarit, and Zacatecas — but have been drawn here on annual pilgrimages to gather Hikuri, aka Peyote. The travel itself is a healing sojourn meant to take one back to where they believe life itself originated.

A street in Real de Catorce
A street in Real de Catorce. Photo Credit: matt atoms

But there’s been difficulties in recent years. In a post Carlos Castenada world, thousands upon thousands of international peyote-seekers have descended upon this mountain town in search of the mystical cacti. It has led to over-harvesting and cultural-tensions, causing the Wixaritari to contact the Mexican government, who subsequently made it illegal for anyone but them to collect the tiny buttons. “If the peyote disappears, then their whole culture disappears” said Pedro Medellin, the head of a government study on its peyote harvesting.

Although he was talking about the Plains Indians of the American Midwest, the author Robert Pirsig writes in his book Lila:

The majority opposition to peyote reflected a cultural bias, the belief, unsupported by scientific or historical evidence, that ‘hallucinatory’ experience is automatically bad…The Indians who use it as part of their ceremony might with equal accuracy call it a ‘de-hallucinogen,’ since it’s their claim that it removes the hallucinations of contemporary life and reveals the reality buried beneath them.

Although he was talking about the Plains Indians of the American Midwest, it applies equally well here, for the peyote experience influences the Wixaritari’s art, mythology, annual migration and much more.

Despite all the issues of legality and cultural appropriation, many are still lured by the potential for self-transcendence, for a de-hallucinatory experience. An unraveling that can lead you from religion to economics to media, but lets stick to travel. It’s interesting to note the similarities between the vocabulary of psychedelic culture and that of travel, they speak of “trip reports”, “journeying”, and “guides”, all essential components of exploring landscapes both internal and external.

One of the "ghost towns" up the hill from present-day Real de Catorce
One of the “ghost towns” up the hill from present-day Real de Catorce. Photo Credit: matt atoms

If our only goal for leaving the bustling city of Guanajuato and hitch-hiking up north a few hundred miles was to find peyote, then we failed. While there we began to notice how delicate the matter was and let out tunnel-vision go. What we found was something far better than “being light-headed and vomiting on our shoes” as S. so eloquently put it, we found isolation. A time to decompress, step back a few hundred years, and listen to the wind blow. To know silence on long walks up a hill to an abandoned fortress perched atop a mountain.

Desert time is a very unique time, with its own internal logic unconcerned with the demands of industry or social media. Perhaps that’s why so many mystics throughout the ages have felt called to it, to its endless expanse of uncountable grains of sand. Self-transformation, which is something that many travelers seek, also has its own time scale, one that can’t be forced to show up on demand. Perhaps that’s why the desert and transcendence have been so closely linked for so long.

Panorama of Real de Catorce. Photo Credit: matt atoms

Maybe we weren’t ready.