April 20, 2011

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

Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce sits 2,750 meters (9,022ft) above sea level, high up in the Sierra Catorce mountains. This is one of the highest plateaus in Mexico. In 1779, there was no access road, no buildings, no sanitation and no water, but there was silver. With silver came the mines; and with the mines came the people. Almost overnight, it seemed, a large town sprang up from this barren, desert landscape. It was hedonistic and practically lawless. Life savings could be lost, and fortunes made, on a single cockfight. Yet still the people poured in.

It wasn't only the Mexican people here. As news of Real's silver wealth spread, people came from all over the globe to try their luck in this anarchistic town. Many were Spanish, but there was a British mining company too; and it was a Guatemalan, Silvestre Lopez Portillo, who first set about forging a proper town from the chaos. He brought the amenities, law, local government and planning that served a population, which had now boomed to 15,000 people.

Real de Catorce

In its heyday, Real had 190 mines, extracting some of the highest price silver in the world. It had its own mint, a bullring and shops selling luxury items from Europe. It had a theater, which the celebrities of the day would visit. In 1895, the town even welcomed the president, Porfirio Díaz, when he came to the inaugaration of new machinery in one of the mines.

Yet the greatest achievement had to be the tunnel which allowed access into Real itself. 2,300 meters (7,546ft) long, this subterranean road is still used to reach the town. Walking or driving through it can be an utterly surreal experience. Thousands of people have passed along it, filled with their hopes and dreams, or the desolution of their losses.

Real de Catorce

In 1900, the international price of silver plummeted. It wasn't worth keeping the mines open, so one by one they shut. The trickle of people leaving became a flood, until only a few were left. Buildings lay empty. The mine-shafts were boarded up. The great and grand mansions sank into ruin. Thus the town is now and, for many tourists, is its charm. They wander through streets that, just a century ago, were teeming with crowds; and peer into windows, where people lived and worked and raised their families.

Only a thousand people still live permanently in Real de Catorce. A couple of the mines remain open, but the digs are small scale. Many of the residents find work in serving the tourists: those who come for the indian shamans, the peyote, the history or the ghost town spectacle. A couple of the mines have been opened as tourist attractions too. But there is also another class of regular visitors - the Catholic pilgrims.

Real de Catorce

Templo de la Purisima Concepcion (Church of the Immaculate Conception) was lavishly built in the 1790s, but was added to throughout the 19th century. Master builders and silversmiths were brought in from Mexico City, to create some of the beautiful details throughout the interior. It's a truly glorious church to visit. However, the pilgrims aren't here for the spectacle. They are here for the miracles.

The church is home to an image of St Francis de Assisi. The statuette has the affectionate nick-names of 'Panchito' or 'El Charrito'. Reports of miracles occurring, after leaving votive offers in front of St Francis, started early in the town's history. As Real died, this belief never did. Today, the area around the image is shrewn with candles and metal plaques, engraved with details of successful blessings.

Real de Catorce

On his feast day, October 4th, the town is busy again, as the streets fill with thousands of Catholics come to pay homage to this image. The festivities begin around September 20th and last into late October, though the 4th has the largest events.

Many people, who trace their ancestry to those who used to live in the town during the silver days, return with their families. They come to ask for favors, or give thanks for miracles enacted in their own lives. There are so many pilgrims that they couldn't possibly fit into the church, thus St Francis is taken out and paraded through the streets.

It is a time for piety, but this being Mexico, food, drink, song and dance also make up a large part of the tradition. Yet all of this is done in simplicity. It's a time for self-reflection and the emotions, not lavish hedonism. Just part of the inherent spirituality of the place, as was discussed in yesterday's blog.

Real de Catorce

By the end of October, the Catholic pilgrims all go away and Real de Catorce takes on its ghost town aspect again.

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