REAL DE CATORCE, San
Luis Potosi -- Secluded in a valley, flanked by mountains
and surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert, Real de Catorce is
undoubtedly Mexico's most famous ghost town -- a misnomer since
it not only shows signs of life, but of renaissance.
The two-kilometer tunnel burrowed through solid mountain was
a feat of road building at the turn of the last century. Mining
companies sought to ease the transportation of valuable ores
to the world market and invested one million pesos to burrow
through the mountains. Real de Catorce is one of Mexico's acclaimed
Silver Cities and at the height of its fortune a century ago,
it was the marvel of the whole of Mexico. But the fates were
not kind. Silver prices crashed in 1905, and in turn, so did
Fast forward one hundred years and the town is desperately
trying to move beyond its celebrated "ghost town" image. Certainly,
it maintains its grand visual appeal, not to mention magic,
but residents would like to see some much-needed support for
century-old buildings and even more ancient tradition.
Tourism is expanding," says local hotelier Thomas Peter, but
it needs to grow," he said, adding that the town has one phone
line -- which hasn't been working the past three weeks since
a goat chewed the cable. Thomas, a Swiss immigrant who came
to Mexico a few years ago discovered something magical about
the place he was working and decided to marry and call this
place home. Three years ago with his wife Petra Puente, he opened
-- or re-opened the Meson de La Abundancia -- Real de Catorce's
Residents of the town were the hosts of the First International
Festival of Potosi Altiplano, which concluded August 21. This
event wove local music and gastronomic events, bike rides and
ecotourism presentations in a single week.
"People say that there isn't much to do in the desert, but
we have a great deal of attractions," said Fred Hernandez, organizer
of the event.
Nearby Matehuala hosted a full day of ecotourism conferences.
Presentations were given by an impressive list of experts: Carlos
Lazcano Sahagun, director of the alternative tourism department
of Chihuahua; Robert Cudney, director of Recreation and Tourism
of Mexico's Protected Areas (SEMARNAP); Meliton Cross, owner
of Villa Calmecac hotel in Cuernavaca; Sergio Molina, a SECTUR
consultant; Carlos Gonzalez, publisher of Aventura Vertical
magazine; independent consultants Angel Nieva Garcia and Jorge
Chavez de la Peňa; and Marlene Ehrenberg, President of Amtave,
Mexico's National Ecotourism and Adventure Association.
In Real de Catorce, conference participants went wild - taking
part in outdoor activities, including rappelling, rock climbing,
horseback riding and a "photo safari" using the jeeps known
Potosi natives Carlos Gonzales and Dalila Calvario directed
the rappelling and took great pride in explaining both the necessary
technical skills and safety issues to novices, including myself.
"Rappelling is not falling," Carlos explained. "It's maintaining
control of your descent."
RAINBOW OVER REAL
The San Luis Potosi Tourism Office invited me to participate for
my work as host of the Planeta.com website and as the author of
the Mexico: Adventures in Nature guidebook. Over the phone a few
months earlier Fred Hernandez explained that he wanted me to discuss
the role of the internet in promoting "alternative destinations"
such as the Altiplano Potosino.
As I was preparing to give one of the closing presentations
at the International Fair, rain clouds were rolling in the late
afternoon, and it was unclear if we would meet at the Palenque
de Gallos as scheduled or the Palacio Municipal (City Hall).
It's just a summer rainstorm, I thought and pushed for the Palenque,
a circular stone amphitheater, formerly used as a cockfighting
As our group arrived at the Palenque, the clouds began to
release a soft but steady mist, welcome in this arid zone. Soon
a rainbow appeared over the city. This was the perfect place
to conclude such a memorable conference.
In some ways, talking about the Internet without high-tech
equipment was a challenge, but then so was talking about an
electronic medium in a town with one phone line. What impressed
me most, however, was the open space created in the Palenque
-- much like an ancient Greek political forum in the round.
"We are creating open spaces like this one to discuss the
merits of ecotourism," I said. "The success of any type of 'alternative
tourism' in Mexico will depend on our ability to create linkages
and communication so that people with similar interests can
find out and learn about each other."
Of course, if this works -- as it should in the coming century
-- then 'alternative tourism' will actually be the mainstay
of the tourism industry and remote, rural places such as Real
de Catorce will be leaders again.