After what we felt was a great start to our Mexican adventure we started looking around of our next stops. After connecting with a few on-line resources it was confirmed that the next stop would be the stunning little town of Real de Catorce (Real). Although back in it’s hey day, this silver mining town had over 15,000 people , it is now has well under a 1000 residents – descendants of those who could not leave after the price of silver crashed in the early 1900’s. It is of significant cultural and historic importance to Mexico, and so, has been named as one of Mexico’s Magic Towns (Pueblos Magicos) – a tourism project aimed at promoting culturally, politically or historically important locations. Today it is known for its tourism and annual Catholic & indigenous religious pilgrimages.
Real is a couple hours ride from Saltillo and the conditions were perfect, warm and sunny, and there was almost no traffic, so we had a great time racing across the desert and stopped for lots of photos. We stuck to the smaller, more interesting roads, eventually winding though small ranches and haciendas into the Sierra de Catorce mountains.
Things got a lot more more interesting as we neared our destination, the last 27 km are made up of an old, rough cobble stone road that was used to haul the heavy silver carts down from the mines. Cobblestones and motorcycles don’t always make such a great match, especially when the road is of this vintage and this length. This called for a break, and since neither of us had ever ridden on anything quite like this, a quick strategy session was in order where we reviewed all the pointers given to us by friends and fellow motorcyclists. When riding off road or over rough conditions, the best thing to do is stand up, this puts your weight on the pegs instead of on the seat, lowering the centre of gravity and making the bike more stable. It also provides a more comfortable ride and allows you to see further up the road. After sharing a chocolate bar for strength, Sandra walked over to a what would have been called a ghost town had there been more of the actual town left standing, and looked around for the facilities. Surprisingly, she found what she was looking for and we hit the road with a just bit of trepidation.
The 1st couple of kilometres were a bit intimidating, but we soon got the hang of it. We found that the faster we went, the easier it was and more comfortable it got, we were soon flying up the road. We still needed to be careful, as the road climbs high in to the mountains, Real de Catorce is located at more than 2700 meters (9000+ feet) and there were plenty of sharp curves with very steep cliffs and no guard rails, not to mention plenty of road-side free range cattle and horses to keep our eyes on. We stopped at a look-out point near the end of the road for a few photos, there were a few cars stopped as well. When we headed back to the bikes, a number of women asked Sandra if they could take pictures of her, sitting on her bike with their daughters on her lap. We weren’t sure why they wanted the photos, but my guess is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of women in Mexico riding big motorcycles across the country. Apparently it’s no big deal for a man to ride a motorbike across Mexico, as nobody asked to take a picture of me. Of course I am looking a bit haggared these days, so that could have something to do with it…
After the 27km of winding cobblestone mountain road, there was one final hurdle to overcome before reaching the town; a 2.2 km tunnel just wide enough for 1 row of traffic. We only had to wait a few minutes for our turn in the tunnel (they only allow one direction of traffic in the tunnel at a time), since we had mastered the cobblestone road we were feeling very confident in our riding abilities, and the tunnel, although a bit freaky was quite fun.
As confident as we were, we were not prepared for what was waiting for us on the other side of the tunnel. In addition to the throngs of pedestrians, street vendors and market stalls, we had to face more cobblestone, however this time the road was in terrible condition, with sections of the road missing and piles of rubble strewn everywhere, and it now twisted it’s way up and down extremely tight alleys with sharp curves and very steep inclines and descents. It more than qualified as some very tough off road riding.
By now it was very hot, it was getting late and we’d already had a long day in the saddle, so we were ready to stop at the very first hotel we saw. We were unable to stop at the 1st hotel we saw because the road conditions simply would not allow it, so we stopped at the second hotel we saw, and were we ever lucky we did. The Hotel Mina Real was amazing, at almost $75 per night it was way, way over our budget, but it was one of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed at (and between the two of us, we’ve stayed in some pretty nice places), so we couldn’t say no. Plus there was no way we were getting back on those bikes, that last 500 meters did us in for the day.
After securing the bikes by putting them on the front step of the hotel (easier said then done) and pulling the motorcycle covers over them, we explored the rest of the hotel and met a group of Mexicans, Jorge, Susanna, Maria, and Marisa on the roof-top terrace. They had driven down from Monterrey and Saltillo to celebrate Jorge’s birthday to which we were invited. They supplied us with beer, tequila, and delicious snacks all evening. To top it off, they asked us to have diner with them in the hotel. Since we visitors in their country they would not allow to pay for anything and refused our efforts to even buy a round. There was some singing, some birthday cake and a lot of laughs. Jorge gave me a beautiful black Swiss Army knife as a memento of the evening, it even has a cork screw.
Sandra and I spent the next morning horseback riding even higher in the mountains around the old silver mines that made the town famous back in the day. Our guide took us into part of the mine (it’s really dark in there) however the most impressive moment was when he dropped a very large rock down the top of the mine shaft. The rock seemed to take an impossibly long time to hit the bottom, and when it finally did, it made a huge crashing noise, he said the rock was in free fall for more than 300 meters. Wow, what a great demonstration! Also worth noting was the brand on my horse’s rump – a “JH”. Talk about a personalized travel experience! We spent that night with our new Mexican friends and again had a great time, although this time we made sure to pay for the beer.
The next morning we packed up and headed out, we almost made it out of town without incident when on a particularly rough section of road the loose cobblestones grabbed Sandra’s front wheel and down it went. Neither Sandra nor her bike were hurt, although her pannier took a bit of a beating. There were a group of friendly Mexicans on the spot within seconds to help us right (the very heavy) bike and get her on her way.
This was our first exposure to the Mexican people and what a great experience it turned out to be! We really enjoyed our time in Real de Catorce and meeting Jorge, Susana, Maria and Marisa was the highlight, they made us feel so welcome, thank you very much!!!