The village of Real de Catorce is located in the state of San Lui Potosí and sits on the side of a mountain at more than 2,743 meters (9,000 ft). It is located in the Sierra de Catorce range, one of the highest plateaus in Mexico, where summits may extend over 10,000 feet (3,000 m).
Real de Catorce (‘Royal Fourteen’) is named for 14 Spanish soldiers killed here in an ambush by Chichimeca warriors.
Although a town had been there for many years, silver was discovered in the local mountains in 1772 and a few years later in 1779, the village was officially founded. The parish church was built between 1790 and 1817. Real de Catorce’s prime was in the late 19th century, when it had a population of 15,000, with some of Mexico’s richest silver mines. It was almost completely abandoned when the price of silver plummeted after 1900; only a few people remained in this ghost town. Today, its main income comes from tourism and was named a Pueblo Magico “Magic Town” in 2001.
How to Get There
If you are flying into Mexico I would recommend getting a ticket to San Luis Potosí, but it is often cheaper and more direct to get a flight to Mexico City and then take a 5hr bus ride to San Luis Potosí which gives you the benefit of being able to explore Mexico City as well. If you end up hanging in Mexico City for a bit check out my friend’s city guide here.
Or you can take a 9 hr bus ride from Texas if you are traveling from the states.
If you are driving to Real from San Luis Potosí it is a pretty direct and easy 3.5 hr drive to Real de Catorce. You will basically take 57N for 140 miles (226 km) and then off of 57N there is a 17-mile (27 km) cobblestone road which rises into the Sierra, then a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) long Ogarrio Tunnel which only accepts vehicles one way (with travelers in and out having to wait their turn).
If you don’t have a car, Real de Catorce can be more challenging to get to. We took a bus from San Luis Potosí to Matehuala and then a small chicken bus from Matehuala to Real de Catorce. Once we arrived in Real de Catorce they dropped us off in front of the Ogarrio Tunnel which only allows vehicles to travel one way.
We then hopped on another smaller bus (you don’t have to pay for this) and waited for about 15 minutes to ride through the tunnel. Once you arrive on the other side of the tunnel they will drop you off next to the food market. Get a bite to eat (the Gorditas are bomb) and then find the main road and keep walking until you reach the city center. There are not any taxis here and only cobblestone streets so I would recommend bringing a bag that is easy to carry (forget any type of backpack with wheels).
When to Go
I would stick to traveling to Real anywhere between April-October. It gets cold in Real and has been known to snow, not much for the expected Mexican vacation. I would also try and avoid both Semana Santa (the week of Easter) and the end of July during the main Mexican vacation time.
What to Bring
Real de Catorce sits at an elevation of 9,000 feet making it the city with the highest elevation in all of Mexico. This means that you will experience warm days, cold nights and the possibility of altitude sickness. Mexican hotels and homes typically don’t have heat because the cold only lasts for such a short time. If you get lucky they might have a wall unit for heat and AC. So I would recommend bringing some warm clothes, layer up people!
Being this high up means lots of sun exposure, so bring sunblock and aloe if you tend to burn. I am a major whitey and burned badly only to find out they don’t sell aloe at any of the small pharmacies in the city and slathering Neosporin all over my body was not a good look. Also, anything you purchase at the pharmacy is going to be quite pricey here too since the shop owners buy everything in Mexico City and cart it here a few times a year. So essentially just bring medicine with you if you know you might need it.
Real’s streets are cobblestone on steroids and I would recommend wearing tennis shoes or even hiking boots.
Where to Stay
I’m an Airbnb girl through and through, but unfortunately, Real de Catorce isn’t a huge Airbnb town and they run around the same price as the hotels. The one Kiona and I rented didn’t live up to our expectations and we canceled. We walked right down the street to Hotel Ruinas del Real and we were able to book right then and there for 955 pesos ($50 USD) a night.
There are a few beautiful hotels in Real that would be amazing to stay at, many with amazing views. Just keep in mind the location of the hotel that you decide to book. Real de Catorce sits on the side of a mountain and you might be signing yourself up for quite a hike every time you want to run to your room.
What to Do Other Than Peyote
Horseback Riding – 300 pesos ( $15.70 USD)
You can choose how long of a horse ride you would like. We took the 3.5 hr ride for 300 pesos and went up to the mountain to where the Huichol (Wixarika) an indigenous people have their sacred circle and shrine. The Huichol (Wixarike) people of Mexico walk across the desert from Nayarit, Durango, Jalisco, and Zacatecas to the valley of Catorce in the spring in order to present religious offerings at the “Cerro Quemado”. This place is said to have welcomed their ancestral god “Tatewari” or Grandfather Fire to the world. The Huichol (Wixarika) people gather their year’s supply of peyote here in the Wirikuta valley as well hold their religious ceremonies here.
The horse ride was more intense than I had expected since I have nearly no horse riding experience and let the confidence of my 10-year-old self at horse camp get the best of me. This horse I was on was young and delighted in running my dangling legs into brick walls and cacti as well as scaring the living daylight out of me as it chose to walk as close to the cliffside as possible. So I wouldn’t recommend the horse rides to those who are inexperienced, young or old.
Willy’s Jeep Rides – 1300 pesos for 2 people ($70 USD)
Take a ride on Willy’s 4×4 jeep. They are located across from the main square in Real de Catorce and the cost varies depending on how long of a trip you plan on taking. We paid 1300 pesos for the jeep ride for the both of us, but we did pay extra because we wanted to see the peyote in the Wirikuta valley.
You can choose to ride in the back or up on top, but I would highly recommend riding up top. It was a surreal experience being able to look over to the side and see a 100-foot cliffside. You know it is good when you find yourself repeating “Man, they would never allow this in the US”.
We were excited to learn more about the peyote and the stigma that seems to follow it. Real de Catorce has often been shrugged off as only a spot for drug tourism, but we know there is so much more that comes with peyote- history, culture, and tradition.
We asked quite a few different locals about their opinions on the subject and the consensus was pretty much the same. If you come to do peyote solely for the high then they believe that it is disrespectful, but if you are looking to use the plant for its many medicinal purposes or to use it for spiritual purposes than they are okay with visitors using it.
If you do plan to do the peyote while you in Real de Catorce please hire a guide. They will make sure you don’t cut or harvest the plant incorrectly. If you cut the peyote incorrectly it will kill it and endanger the population.
The small one is the male and the large one is the female which our guide said both have distinct medicinal benefits. Peyote is supposed to help cure snake bites, anxiety, depression, toothaches, and fatigue.
If you do plan to take the peyote it is recommended that you bring a fruit with you to eat in between bites of eating the peyote cactus because it can be quite bitter. Also, the consumption of one peyote plant will not give you hallucinogenic effects but will help with your bodily ailments.
Many people get sick from eating the peyote as well. The Huichols believe that if you throw up while trying to consume the peyote than your body is rejecting the peyote and you are not physically ready to consume the plant.
Peyote is restricted for indigenous use only, making it illegal for anyone to pick or have possession of peyote. Peyote is not currently endangered like many believe, but it is currently on the vulnerable list by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
There are plenty of places to hike around Real de Catorce and basically, anywhere you walk is a hike. Many athletes come to train in Real due to its high elevation. Check out wikiloc for some great hikes.
Explore the Pueblo Fantasma (Ghost Town)
These buildings used to house the miners that worked in the mines, but after the decline of mining and its operations after 1905 the facilities were abandoned. You can hike here, take a horse here or even participate in a ghost tour that happens on the weekend.