April 19, 2011

Real de Catorce: A Magical 'Ghost Town' Part One

In its heyday, Real de Catorce, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, was a bustling mining town with a population of 15,000. These days, it's a parched village, surrounded by ruins. It's often labelled a 'ghost town', despite the remaining 1,000 residents; and despite the steady stream of Catholic pilgrims and Pagan mystics. The industry may be mostly over, but the spirituality goes on; and, of course, this is the land of peyote.

Real de Catorce

Since ancient times, the Huichol Indians have returned annually to the Catorce Valley. They come from miles around, often walking for weeks, from their lands in far-flung states. Even today, they will come from Nayarit, Durango, Jalisco and Zacatecas, in order to pay their respects in this holy place.

Here is Cerro del Quemado, perched up in the mountaineous Sierra Catorce, a sacred center for these people. It is the birthplace of the God, Tatewari, also known as Grandfather Fire. Three concentric rings of stone, within which offerings have been left since time immemorial. To the side of the ceremonial shrine, there is a relatively recent addition. It's a limestone shack, within with a candle burns. The sacred flame. Traditionalists, amongst the Huichol Indians, will come here three times a year. Once to ask; once to say; and once to give thanks.

Cerro Quemado

The Huichol Indians will then venture down into the Catorce Valley (or Wirikuta in the Huichol tongue) to gather their holy plant. It will be used in rituals back home. It is a catcus called peyote, those properties cause hallucinogenic visions. For the hippies and drug tourists, steeped in chemically produced LSD, this is the real thing. peyoteThus they too come in their droves, to soak up the spiritual ambiance and to harvest their own wild peyote.

It's a situation which is threatening the survival of the catcus itself. So much of it has been removed that Wirikuta peyote is in danger of disappearing from the landscape.

The government recently launched a campaign to protect it. It's now illegal for anyone but the Huichol Indians to pick it. The whole valley has been made part of an ecologically protected zone. The wardens are all Huichol Indians, who patrol the valley. They not only stop people picking peyote, but also educate them on why this should be necessary.

Cerro Quemado

This isn't the first time that the native people have endeavoured to protect this holy place. The Spanish-Mexican name for the valley and the mountain is Catorce, aka Fourteen. The town that was built, when silver was discovered in the Sierra Catorce, is Real de Catorce, or The Royal Fourteen. This refers to fourteen Spanish soldiers ambushed by Chichimec warriors.

The Chichimeca were semi-nomadic people, who lived in this area, at the time of the Spanish conquest. Conquistador Hernán Cortés considered them not nearly as civilized as the Atzec people. In 1526, Cortés wrote to Spain, saying that the Chichimeca would be good as slaves and that they could be put to work in the fledging silver mines.

The tribe fought a long and bloody war against enslavement, from 1550-1590, with the Catorce name around here being a legacy of one of those meetings. The Spanish didn't get a foothold in these mountains until 1721. Even then, the Chichimeca were never conquered.


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