Minutes earlier, our coach had turned off the highway and suddenly we found ourselves bouncing through a desert of cacti, incredibly, on a seemingly ancient cobbled road.
It was an incredible landscape, with distant mountains that slowly grew ever larger and before long, the bumpy road was taking us into the foothills, where for several kilometres we followed a bone dry river bed.
Before long, we took a slight detour, driving through abandoned villages, which in fact weren’t empty at all.
These ruinous structures were incredibly, still home to local people, possibly farmers, eking out some sort of life in this hot dry land (incredibly, it also snows here in Winter).
Shortly, we began our ascent, snaking our way around the edge of a valley before our air conditioned bus came to a sudden halt.
In the heat of the afternoon sun, we were now required to transfer to a smaller (non air conditioned) vehicle. So small in fact, there was no space beneath for luggage (we had to wear our packs), nor was there room to seat all passengers.
This was necessary however, as Real de Catorce is reached through a long narrow tunnel, carved directly through the mountains, and larger vehicles (like our nice coach), cannot actually fit.
Our morning journey from San Luis Potosi, a 2 hour journey to the town of Matehuala, where, after an hour or so wait, we’d boarded our first bus for the 2 hour trip to our present location, now felt long ago, as the place we’d sought with some enthusiasm was now very near.
Emerging from the darkness, it was only minutes before we were off the bus and breathing in some mountain (I guess that is one small advantage of being forced to stand in the middle of the bus).
We had nothing booked, but had read in our guide of at least one reasonably cheap place to stay, so it was there that we sought lodgings for the night.
As luck would have it… they were full up! This town was certainly bustling when we arrived, but again, it was all Mexican tourists.
Fortunately, just around the corner we found a basic hotel, which offered us a double room for 200 pesos (about $16.00AU), so we were pretty happy with that.
With a room sorted, it was sunscreen on, before feasting on a delicious lunch of Gorditas, giving us the energy for the exertions to come.
For perched high above the sparsely populated Real de Catorce (it is a former city of 40,000 inhabitants that is now home to just over 1,000), sits the Pueblo Fantasmo, or, Ghost Town.
Real de Catorce sits at an elevation over 2700m (our highest elevation of the trip thus far), so the climb was anything but easy, as each step simply took us higher again.
It wasn’t the easiest of climbs.
Whilst it was paved, the stones were uneven (often missing), there was the constant vigilance required to avoid the horse and donkey excrement, the heat and altitude were an added hassle, not to mention the need to peel our eyes from the view at times, and watch our footing!
Still we began our hike with several groups visible, further up the path.
It wasn’t long however before we’d passed them all (as well as the occasional group of horses coming in the opposite direction), our trusty flip flops leading the way yet again.
We’d read it is usually over an hour needed to make the climb, and it must have been close to the hour mark when we found ourselves entering the first ruins of the village.
Incredibly, but for a few guys with horses (trying to sell rides to people too exhausted or lazy to make the descent on their own legs), there wasn’t anybody else around. I guess we were fortunate we passed all those other groups back on the climb!
After being asked for a 10 peso entrance fee (not sure if it was legit, however it was less than a dollar), we began to explore this pretty cool place.
There was something really amazing just wandering around this place, nobody around and the wind ripping through the broken town.
Word is, there are 2 shafts tourists need to be careful of, both over 100m in depth, however we think we spotted them both (they appeared fairly obvious to us), seemingly safe enough behind sturdy looking iron grills.
Like so much of Mexico’s history, this place was tied to the fortunes of silver, that product that made so few of the country rich, but that few became rich indeed.
When silver prices plummeted (early in the 20th century), so did the fortunes, and population of this area.
Sadly, little of what remain, reflects the grandeur that must have been…
On an even higher point we’d spied the remains of another large structure (you can see it in the image above) and it was to there that we next trekked.
Whilst the paths up to the main part of the town were well worn, these that took us beyond the main ruins, looked far less trodden (although there was still the occasional mound of horse poo).
The higher we got, the louder and stronger the wind, as it was far more open and exposed.
It was unfortunately, whilst more complete than others, still just a remnant of its former self.
The elevated vantage point however, did grant us wonderful views of the main part of town we had just visited, where we could now see several of the aforementioned hikers, finally arriving.
Savouring our time of peace and quiet, we admired the views a little longer, took some more snaps, before making the decent back down to the (small) crowd.
We weren’t in too much of a hurry to make the descent, nevertheless it still wasn’t long before we were back down where the silence was now broken by several voices.
Still, we took a few additional minutes to wander, before making for the path back to town (there had been a couple of areas we’d missed earlier as we’d wandered about).
On the return journey, we took the time to investigate another ruin, this one devoid of tourists (early we’d skipped, seemingly correct in our assumption that others would stop here on their ascent) which had the appearance of some sort of fort or at least military garrison.
The views were just as spectacular during the descent, often (depending which way the snaking path was traveling at the time) give us more great views of Real de Catorce down below.
Having relaxed for a bit after our return to town, we then went for an evening wander, both for just a general look around and also to assess the dinner options.
By this time the town was much quieter, so we can only assume much of the hustle and bustle of earlier, was a combination of stall holders that don’t actually live here, as well as Mexican day trippers.
With the street food vendors mostly shut for the day (this isn’t a town with a huge night life), after reviewing a few fairly expensive options, at least by Mexican standards, we settled on what proved to be a pretty delicious combination of Pizza and Pasta.
Feeling pretty fatigued, we opted out of searching for one of the towns few bars, resolving to try and get up early to see the cathedral and any other sites we’d missed, so we could depart on an earlier bus.
The cathedral was certainly worth it, perhaps not the grandest we’d seen, but I definitely loved the wooden floor, it just had charm!
By 11:00am we were back on the bus, bouncing along in the dark (at least this time we got seats), headed for the coach that would whisk us back to San Luis Potosi (with a wait for our connection at Matehuala).
A lesson was learned this morning. Often it pays, if you’re not sure, to ask.
You see, when our smaller bus deposited us beside the coach area, 2 buses sat in wait.
Many people queued for the first, and a fair number for the second (the bus second in line actually had Matehuala listed on its front).
We didn’t feel like being pushy sorts, so we made our way to bus number 2 (neither bus was full).
About 10 minutes later, the engines on both buses started, and the other, the one first in line pulled away, leaving Real de Catorce behind.
Ours moved forward, idled for a while, then stopped (engine still running).
A few hawkers got on board, trying to sell us cups of fruit, or the odd Gordita, and eventually the engine was turned off and there we sat.
We began to look at the time since the previous bus had left… 10 minutes became 20… became 40… became an hour!
Turns out this bus was going to sit here and wait for the next shuttle through the tunnel!
Not the worst ordeal in the world, and pretty funny now in hindsight…
It was likely an hour later than we’d anticipated when we checked back in to the hostel in San Luis Potosi (in the same dorm as before), where we were finally able to check our emails and see that we could in fact enjoy an excursion to Puente de Dios in a couple of days time.
* Sarah was the unfortunate victim of bed bugs after a solitary night in our budget hotel (at least that is what we assume was the culprit of her many small bites). Incredibly, I who slept right beside her didn’t receive a single bite…
* Although far lengthier as a result of waiting for connections, making our own way to Real de Catorce was far cheaper as a result. $240 pesos each got us from San Luis Potosi (you can buy tickets for the whole journey at the San Luis Potosi bus station) to Real de Catorce (for a round trip of $480 pesos per person).
The cheapest day tour we could find to the town, costs over $1,100 pesos per person, and doesn’t allow the same freedom of exploration we enjoyed!