High Desert Decampment

High Desert Decampment
Looking down on the town of Real de Catorce

After eight months of trying to work a regular job and live like a normal person, I'm finally back on the road.

I finally take up the open invitation that Raffaele, my friend whom I met while living in Vietnam years ago and has now retired in México, extended to me to stay in his spare bedroom. I arrive in Querétaro, a city I visited back in 2019, in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave.

Since it isn't supposed to be this hot due to its elevation of over 6,000 feet, very few homes have air conditioning. The temperature soars well into the 90s most days. Only the relatively low humidity makes it bearable.

After more than a week of catching up with Raff and spending most of each day sitting in front of a fan, I journey to the north toward a place that caught my attention a while back, a mostly abandoned silver mining town named Real de Catorce. Raff isn't feeling well and stays behind.

I decide to split up the trip and spend one night in the eponymous state capital, San Luis Potosí. My bus leaves almost an hour behind schedule and arrives late in the afternoon. Despite booking a room that lists air conditioning in the amenities and says in the description "This is an air-conditioned room," it only has a ceiling fan and no windows.

I dodge the afternoon heat by killing time in a museum of masks and then take a stroll through the city's centro and try the local version of enchiladas, which are red, fried, and look nothing like what most Americans would call enchiladas. The centro is clean and mostly quiet and I see large groups of people dancing in multiple plazas.

Even as the temperature outside drops into the 70s in the evening, the room remains oppressively hot. Fortunately, there's a sitting area outside the room that is open to the outside so I decide to take my chances with the mosquitoes and other creatures and leave my doors open through the night.

In the morning, I down a cup of coffee, repack, and check out. The young man working at the desk helps me arrange a ride share and recommends that I go to Estación Wadley after Real so I add it to my itinerary. I get to the bus station in plenty of time for my bus that's supposed to leave at 9:20.

Sometime after 11:00, I go to the ticket counter and ask about the status of my bus. The lady informs me that there is another bus bound for Monterrey that should be arriving soon and I could take whichever departs first.

The alternate bus finally arrives just before 1:00, but of course the attendant sees that my ticket was for another trip so then I have a to try to explain the situation again in broken Spanish. He tells me to wait and then walks away and never returns. As the bus driver gets ready to depart, he tells me to hop in and ignore my seat number.

We head deeper into the desert, crossing the Tropic of Cancer. We reach the town of Matehuala, where I have to change buses, around 4:00. I have about an hour in between, so I head to the town's main plaza. Its cathedral is undergoing restoration and there are a surprising number of people out considering the sun is still high and there is little shade to hide in.

I seek refuge in the bright yellow central market. Since I didn't have breakfast or lunch, I grab a cup of fresh mango and then a couple of tacos on my way back to the office of the company that makes a few daily runs to Real.

We pull off the highway onto the longest cobblestone road I've ever seen. I've been to plenty of towns with cobbled lanes but this particular road winds through the desert and up the Sierra de Catorce range for over 15 continuous miles.

We have to wait outside the Ogarrio Tunnel to let oncoming traffic clear since it's too narrow for more than one car to pass through the two-kilometer corridor through the mountainside. Pedestrians even have to stop walking and cling to the wall as we pass.

At an elevation of more than 9,000 feet, the cooler air alone makes the trip worth the hassle.

Established at the end of the 18th century, the town was mostly abandoned in the early 1900s after the price of silver collapsed. Today, there are no more than about 1,000 full time inhabitants but the tourism industry has revived the area.

México is not so cheap anymore as the peso has appreciated significantly against the dollar in recent years and Real in particular seems not-so-budget-friendly due to its isolation and lack of supply of places to stay.

I rent a very basic room in an hospedaje with a shared bathroom for around $26 USD. All other rooms I see are priced around $60 and above.

I drop my bags and take a stroll around the town. I spot a couple of hippies who have likely come to sample some of the peyote that grows in the surrounding desert. The hills are steep and the thin air makes it more challenging to climb them.

I reach a hilltop at the edge of town just in time to see the sun drop behind the mountains and then have dinner overlooking the main plaza.

After talking myself out of setting my alarm for 6:00, I finally settle on a more realistic 6:30. Most tourists choose to see the puebla fantasma (ghost town) by horse but I want to go on foot.

I'm clearly the first guest up at the lodge and have to unlock the front door and gate myself and hit the trail just after the cathedral bells ring at 7 am.

It goes above the Ogarrio Tunnel and winds up the western face of the mountain. Horse manure and the occasional white arrow painted on a rock let me know that I'm on the right path.

Again the elevation weighs on me and forces me to stop for rest often as I work my way up the switchbacks. With each one I climb the view of the town below becomes more impressive. The sun is still low enough that the trail is mercifully shaded until I reach the crest and I thank myself for getting out of bed early.

I reach the first ruins in less than 45 minutes. I toss a stone into a well that has been covered with chain link to keep tourists from falling in and wait several seconds to hear it hit the bottom.

The trail flattens out and I reach the main set of ruins around 8:00. To my surprise, there's a public toilet for women.

The first group of tourists riding horses catches up with me around 8:30. I decide to go further and the trail starts climbing again.

I spot what must have been an entrance to the mine and a building called "El Castillo con Dientes" (The Castle with Teeth) due to the white stones above the doorway and go inside.

I decide it's time to turn back and as I exit the ruins a wild donkey and me startle each other. It hurries away up the mountain and away from town. Although I am tempted to follow it I need to have breakfast and check out of my room.

On the way back I have to move aside to let several groups of riders and their horses pass. One of the caballeros asks me if I want to hop on his horse so he can take me to get some peyote but I politely decline.

Loose rocks force me to descend cautiously. The temperature has increased significantly and the dusty trail is now fully baking in the sun.

After a quick shower I make a brief visit to the stone amphitheater where cockfights are apparently still held but decide I don't have enough time to see the other cathedral and cemetery outside of town.

Breakfast consists of chilaquiles, refried beans, bread, and instant coffee. A shaggy-haired busker playing a guitar and pan flute asks me where I'm from and I give him a coin.

I quickly pack my stuff and head to the jeep terminal. There's a group heading down to Estación Catorce and from there I can catch another ride to Estación Wadley, which is named for an American entrepreneur who helped expand the Mexican Central Railway.

There's no seat to be had inside the black-and-yellow jeep and there are three people already on top, including a mom and her young son, sitting on old tires. I stand on the tailgate and grab onto the rails alongside a young guy with a ponytail and earbuds in his heavily pierced ears as we take off.

The cliffside road is narrow and rocky and we often have to stop to let jeeps going into town pass by.

I start to think that standing on the tailgate might actually be the safest option. If the vehicle were to slide over the cliff, I'd at least have a chance to jump off. The folks inside and on top would just be along for the ride.

We cut through some beautiful mountain passes but I don't dare try to take photos. While I keep a death grip on the rails with both hands, except to occasionally keep my hat from flying off my head, the guy next to me frequently takes one hand off to play the air drums or air guitar and check his phone. This isn't his first rodeo.

We stop to let a herdsman guide his sheep and goats off the road and onto the steep hillside above the road.

The land finally flattens out, the road becomes paved, and we pick up speed. Less than an hour after we started careening down the mountain, we're back in the vast expanse of the plateau.

The jeep slows to a halt as we enter Catorce. The driver, an older man with a bushy white mustache and cowboy hat points me to the plaza where I can catch a ride to Wadley.

I don't see any colectivos around so I negotiate a ride with a man sitting in the park. After I get in, another guy comes running over and tosses a bag, a straw hat, and a pile of something I don't recognize into the front seat and hops in the back with me. He has long, curly hair and for a minute I'm certain it's the same busker I saw in Real earlier.

He's a Frenchman named Igor and has lived in México for 30 years. He denies being the guy I saw earlier, although he was in Real, and after some thought I accept it. After all, he isn't carrying any instruments.

The mysterious pile of stuff in the front seat is dried nopal (prickly pear cactus), which he collects and uses to make lamps. He also crafts things out of silver and gets by through selling the lamps and jewelry. On this trip, however, he came up empty-handed.

The driver pulls off the highway and scolds Igor for making a mess in the front seat as we get out and head into town.

He doesn't offer to split the fare with me but he buys me a Tecate at a small shop that he stops in to pick up a few things after we cross the train tracks that bisect the town.

He shows me what is apparently the only panadería and the town's coffee shop, owned by an Italian expat.

There are only a few places to stay and he takes me to the one he recommends, Estación de Suenos (Dream Station). There are a couple of girls staying there long term, one from Germany and the other from Israel.

I drop my bag in a vacant room and we drink our Tecates in the shade of the courtyard. Then we walk over to the owner's house so I can pay her. A room costs around $10.50 per night but it sounds like she offers a discount for longer stays. The room doesn't even have a fan, meaning a stay of more than one night is out of the question for me.

I inquire about another lodge that we walk by. Igor informs me that someone was killed there recently. Apparently, he was involved in trading gems and crossed someone he shouldn't have. He returned to the town after a long hiatus and was promptly taken care of.

I thank Igor for his help and he heads back to the small house he rents. I drop by the coffee shop but the owner said he has to close for a few days due to a rowdy female customer who broke things. He shows me a menu made of wood lying in pieces on the table.

It's too hot to do much of anything and there is little shade to be found in town so I go back to my room to wait until closer to sundown. I worry that I won't be able to find anywhere serving dinner but luckily there's a food truck out on the main road still open so I have a few simple tacos. A middle-aged Japanese woman with pigtails also comes to eat there as they close up for the evening.

For a town without any major fixed attractions and a population of less than 600, there sure are a lot of foreigners around. Many come for the peyote but there must be something more to keep them around for a while.

The desert around here is called "Wirikuta" by the native Huichol or Wixárika people. It is sacred to them and is the destination of an annual pilgrimage where they collect peyote and use it in rituals.

After dinner I buy some things at the convenience store around the corner from my room and walk out to the edge of town to watch the sunset. I see the same local girl at the store and again as I stand there admiring the fading colors. A couple of wild hares scurry off into some brush.

Even at night the town's main plaza is deserted. In every other place I've been in México it is teeming with life in the evening.

Although the rails no longer carry passengers, they are still used for freight. Trains plow through town at all hours of the day and night.

My room is only a block from the tracks and the building shakes with each passing train. Between the noise and stifling heat, I don't get a lot of sleep.

The next morning, one of the other guests tells me the train becomes part of the experience but as a light sleeper I don't think I could ever learn to appreciate it.

Igor comes to my window and asks if I will let him cook me breakfast in exchange for some cash. I agree because I feel bad for him and also because it might be my only option unless I want to cook something myself. I plan to take the bus all the way back to Querétaro and probably won't have a chance to have a proper meal until I get back so I figure I need to eat while I can.

He makes a Spanish omelette and gives me some bread and fruit and also makes me some fresh coffee. It's probably heartier than anything I would have found in town.

He tells me that when you first get to Wadley, you can't sleep because of the train. Then you get used to it. Then you find you can't sleep without it.

I wish him well and then go to get a bus ticket. There's no bus station. A woman sells tickets out of her home. She also has a sign that says she sells cakes. Passengers wait under an awning by the plaza.

I meet a Spaniard who has been staying in Las Margaritas, a village of barely 50 people just west of Wadley, for half a year. The sky turns gray. He tells me it hasn't rained for a long time. He's heading to San Luis to visit the immigration office to hopefully get four-year visa so he can stay longer.

This is the type of place where it's either torture to stay for more than an hour or it gets in your blood and you can't seem to leave. Although I am moving on, I can also understand what makes people stay.

Just not in the summer.