A Pilgrimage to Real de Catorce

By Sara Elisa Lopez

Us Mexicanos have a tradition of long walks, a tradition of migration, a tradition of pilgrimage. We go seeking a better opportunity. Sometimes answers. A right of passage. A miracle. A bendicion to heal our pains. Across the country, people are making different pilgrimages. Some are crossing the border, perhaps without the intention to return. There are those who visit Catholic sites like the famous shrine of the Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico City. Then there are groups who go to sacred places in nature, whose numbers are smaller but devotion and dedication to maintain their ancestral practices are unmatched. 

Every year the Huichol people of the Sierra Madre Mountains in central-western Mexico make a pilgrimage to Huiricuta, a protected area of land spanning over 540 square miles in the Northern state of San Luis Potosi. This landscape includes a small town called Real de Catorce, a sacred place for Huichol and Catholic pilgrims. For the Huichols, the Huricuta landscape represents an ancient mosaic, a ceremonial center, and birthplace to Grandfather Fire. Along the journey to Huiricuta, Huichol pilgrims visit dozens of other sacred sights as well. The main reason for the pilgrimage is to maintain contact with the Ancient Ones, follow their ancestors’ footsteps and ask for wellbeing and rain. Once they arrive in Huiricuta, they are led by a Mar’akame (priest) to search for the sacred peyote plant, a mind-altering cactus that grows naturally in this desert landscape. The Huichols consider this sacred plant medicine and come to Huricuta to collect it for ceremonial purposes. One Huichol shaman explained it like this: “Peyote is everything; it is the crossing of the souls; it is everything that is. Without Peyote, nothing would exist.” Taking part in Peyote as ceremony is a right of passage for the Huichols.

Little did I know that I would be finding myself on a pilgrimage of my own when my mid-twenties brought me back to my ancestral homeland, Mexico. To tell you the truth, this whole trip of traveling to Mexico was intimidating to me. I had always been terrified of traveling in Mexico alone, and especially as a pocha (term used for Mexican-Americans). It’s a little complicated for us Mexicanos born and raised on the other side of the border. When we arrive in Mexico, or anywhere in the Latin World, it’s difficult to put us in a box, sometimes we are viewed as traitors, and often we just get put in the category of “gringo”. It’s rather complicated. The thought of going to Mexico like this overwhelmed my nervous system for years. But I knew I needed to make this trip. It was finally time. Of all the places I was visiting during my 6-month stay, I was most looking forward to seeing San Luis Potosi, a geographical gem and land-locked state in central Mexico. In a way, arriving there was like a homecoming for me. Mi retorno. It was the birthplace of mis bis abuelos, my great-grandparents, Hermenijildo Montelongo and Julia Alvarez Montelongo. Although I never had the privilege of meeting them since they both died before I was born, I was always very aware of them and their story growing up.

Photo by Sara Elisa Lopez

Everything about my great-grandparents could be scripted into a 19th-century telenovela. Not to downplay the trauma they experienced, especially my great-grandmother. She went through hell in that relationship, where she endured mental and physical abuse in order to survive. This explains so well why she became a devout Catholic until her death. They were living in different times, rough times. They were all just trying to survive.

I was told by various family members that my great-grandma Julia, who was twelve years old, was abducted by my great-grandpa, at the time 30 years old, in the middle of the night. The reason for the kidnapping? Revenge. My great-grandfather, let’s call him Hermen for short, initially went to my great-grandma Julia’s parents to ask their permission to marry their daughter. Who, in fact, was not Julia, but Julia’s older sister. The parent’s rejected his request because they didn’t think he was a good fit for their daughter. So, out of spite, Hermen went to take Julia in the middle of the night. Julia was left with no choice after the incident. She had to accept him as her husband. Hermen and Julia ended up leaving San Luis Potosi in the midst of the Mexican Revolution. They emigrated up north across the border to live in Texas. Julia went on to bear 16 children, including my grandmother, in addition to raising Hermen’s four daughters that he already had from a previous marriage, a few of which were older than Julia.

So there I was back on the same land they had fled over 100 years earlier. I spent a couple of days in the city of San Luis Potosi, but I felt I needed to leave and experience the land outside of the bustling crowds and traffic. I had heard through some people about a town up north called Real de Catorce and felt a spiritual, emotional, and ancestral urge to visit the place. I ended up purchasing a bus ticket from the city of SLP to a small town in the middle of the desert to get there. When I arrived in Estacion Wadley, I had to convince a taxi driver at the bus station to take me to this town that was still about 40 minutes away by car. I lucked out and for a fair price. He took me and a taxi companion through the winding desert landscape, roads that lead us to incredible views of desert mountains where you could admire the sky’s changing hues as the sun slipped back into the earth. We passed small villages along the way, and I couldn’t help but think about my great grandmother, Julia, the whole ride there. Not long after, we approached a long tunnel through a mountain. Time warped as we rode into that dynamited path. After what felt like a trip through the universe, where I lost all sense of time and space, we were spat out the other side of the mountain, into the entrance of a dreamy little town.

Real de Catorce has a history that one would suspect of colonial Mexico. It was named after 14 Spanish soldiers killed there in a clash with Chichimeca warriors, a semi-nomadic group of original peoples of north-central Mexico. Silver was discovered in 1772, and not too long after, a mining town sprung up, generating three million dollars a year in silver. For those times, that was a tremendous amount of money. That tunnel that I mentioned earlier, also referred to as the Ogarrio, was created to protect the town from bandits since it brought in so much money. Real was growing into a small thriving desert city, but after the price of silver crashed at the start of the 20th century, the town was practically deserted. Today the Real de Catorce and the decedents of those that stayed rely mainly on tourists and religious pilgrims that come to see the town’s church.

Photos by Sara Elisa Lopez

I got out of the taxi, thanked the driver, and started walking. Real is the kind of town where it’s best to walk everywhere on foot. I lugged my six months’ worth of belongings to my Airbnb. I was defeated halfway, physically shutting down with the effects of high altitude, a long day’s journey, and the heavy haul on my back. Lucky for me, I was approached by a greeting party, all under the age of 10, local boys from the village wanting to make some extra pesos. They asked me if I needed help with my bags, and I happily accepted. With the heavyweight off my back and more calm of mind, I finally took in the town. It was so lovely. Town folk were making their evening walks down the cobbled streets. Markets lined up where vendors were haggling to sell their goods, locals selling herbs and vegetables they had grown at home. It felt like I was transported into another century. We continued walking up a steep and steady incline. By the time of nightfall, I had arrived at my host’s place.

I stayed in Real de Catorce for a week at the home of a Dutch-Mexican opera singer, Sulahue. She told me that her mother took a trip to Mexico in the 80s to get away from the Netherlands and holiday in Playa del Carmen. That’s where she met Sulahue’s father, a native to the village of Real, who was working at one of the resorts in Playa del Carmen at the time. Thirty-plus years later, Sulahue is here, occupying the house she was once raised in. And a cozy home it was. Several travelers from Brazil, France, and the States, came and went during my time there.

Some of them came looking for Peyote in the desert, others to fall more deeply in love with Mexico. It was a very therapeutic time for me as well. I nestled into that house and made it my own for those seven days. I came down into town mainly for walks or when I needed to grab groceries. At the market, I’d buy tomato, tomatillos, camote, cilantro, lime, onion, garlic, eggs, and jalapeños. I’d also managed to find through my host a place with freshly made tortillas. I’d usually be able to make something different from this combination of things. There were also a couple of small restaurants and bakeries around if we wanted to eat out. 

At the time, I was reading a lot of Carlos Castañeda, cooking Mexican food in the communal kitchen of the house, meeting new travelers, and exchanging many stories over coffee or a meal. Every night I sat in front of the fire, going to bed with leña, fire, and smoke, on my hair and clothes. The simplicity of living in Real de Catorce was therapy and something that gave me tremendous happiness. I wanted to stay there forever, but I knew that was not realistic. I remember taking a walk with Guiot, a filmmaker friend from the south of France, whom I met during my time there. We hiked up a hill overlooking the magical pueblo. I sat down and anchored into the mountain. There was something very holy in the air there. I thought to myself, no wonder why the Catholics and Huichols come from miles and miles away. It’s one of the most sacred places I’ve ever visited, and the spirit of the land can only be felt. 

I thought about my family and their departure from this land. How strange it must have been arriving in the United States. Having to make a new home for themselves. I suppose that’s the case for much of my Mexican family on both sides. My ancestors were forever homesick for the land they left behind. My great-grandparents for Mexico, or even further back, my great-great-great-great-grandparents for Asturrias, Spain. Losing some things along the way. And me? I, too, was homesick. Homesick for what, I am not sure. Perhaps for what I felt had been lost during all of that moving. Conflicted, as well, since I would not be in the position I was in, had my family decided to stay in any of their homelands. I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath. I exhaled in relief and gratitude, opening my eyes, ready to pick up the pieces left behind. 

Photo by Sara Elisa Lopez