Saturday, 8 March 2014

Real de Catorce

Almost as soon as we left Saltillo the upwards climb continued. The road is astonishingly beautiful and even in the Alps I can’t say that I’ve ever been on a road like it. The Mountains on either side of the road are huge, but are gently folded and carpeted in vegetation, giving them a softer appearance than the sharp, craggy rock faces you normally find in mountain passes. Thankfully only the short stretch of the 57 through the steep ascents is a toll road, and the more gentle section beyond is free and in reasonable condition. In a number places the smooth tarmac degenerates, but attempts to smooth over the cracks and dips leave areas of darker tarmac which enable you to change lane well in advance and avoid the worst patches.

About 140 miles from Saltillo, we saw the signed turnoff from the 57 for Real de Catorce; the turnoff is approximately 10km north of the road marked on Streets and Trips but rejoins the marked road 17km later at Cedral. The 62, running between the 57 to the east, and the 54 to the west (San Tiburcio-Matehuala) passing Cedral and Vanegas is well paved and in good condition throughout, and so travellers coming from Zacatecas could use this road to get to Real de Catorce. I expect that the road will be signed to Matehuala for travellers on the 54. The map on Streets and Trips showed two roads off of San Tiburcio-Matehuala leading to Real de Catorce; the east most road is the road signposted well, and that given in our guidebook, I could find no information on the other road and so we took the signposted route.

The route that we took goes through a tunnel just before it reaches the town of Real de Catorce, large vehicles, including Jim, have to park at the east entrance of the tunnel and get on a local bus (15 Pesos/person when we visited) to visit the town. Looking at the map I had considered using the alternative route to the west, to enable us to get closer to the town, but used my better judgement given that the guide book did not mention it and the signs point towards the route with the tunnel. As we later found out on a walk out of Real de Catorce, this was the correct decision. The western route marked on some maps is the old road, passing through Vanegas and Estacion de Catorce and used before the tunnel was made; it is impassable except for small 4x4 vehicles. The old road is extremely steep, very narrow in places, and with precipitous drops; I can say with 100% certainty that this route cannot be used as means of getting larger vehicles into the town. Nor would you want to, Real de Catorce is full of very narrow and very steep roads, and even if you could get a large truck or RV up there, you would not be able to navigate the streets. Rugged motorbikes, and Land Cruiser or Land Rover sized vehicle may like to use the road to add some adventure into their journey, but I would not recommend it in anything larger.

The old road from Estacion de Catorce to Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce is a great place, but you have to be keen and dedicated to endure the 26km road up into the mountains. The road that we used is reputed to be the longest cobblestone road in the world, and is an unrelenting pummelling the entire way. One blog that I read suggested that the only difference between driving slowly and driving fast, is that the punishment lasts longer if you drive slowly; to some extent this is correct. Driving at about 25mph turned out to be least uncomfortable for us, the vibrations did not get considerably worse at this speed and the journey took less than 45 minutes. Driving faster became increasingly uncomfortable and at any rate there are some extremely steep sections which do not permit greater speeds in a heavy vehicle anyway.

Jim the Overland Motorhome Truck, on the cobblestone road to Real de Catorce

The road is actually in good condition, being fairly level and wide for most of its length, and I would suggest that almost any sensible vehicle could travel on this road (I wouldn’t try it in your Lamborghini), even large and tall RVs with poor ground clearance should be fine, however the vibrations are fairly gruelling and flimsier motorhomes may suffer if driven at speed. I had 45 minutes to ponder which kinds of vehicles would be least uncomfortable on this kind of road, but had the satisfaction of noting that none of the vehicle we passed looked to be suffering any less. Jim’s big tyres and air sprung seats no doubt put us in better stead than the lightly loaded pickups with stiff old fashioned leaf springs.

Even if we’d never ended up taking the bus into town, the drive would still have been worth it for the view from the parking area at the east side of the tunnel. Real de Catorce is at 2,700 metres, and the distance that we could see from where we parked was only limited by the haze in the atmosphere; you can see peaks rolling off into the distance, getting progressively paler in shade until they blend into the sky.

The view north from the east side of the Real de Catorce tunnel

I guess that in summer the town gets a lot of visitors because there are some large areas for parking in, (and a couple of bars/restaurants which were shut when we visited) all of which were empty. We spent two nights in the flattest of the parking areas, with no other vehicles or people to disturb the beautiful tranquillity; the only company we had was the driver of the bus that runs into town, and the guy that stands at the entrance to the tunnel directing traffic.

The Real de Catorce tunnel entrance, photo taken standing on the roofof our truck

We spent only a few hours in Real de Catorce itself, the town is interesting in various ways, but out of season it felt strange. It used to be a silver mining town, but was abandoned in the 19th century, and I guess for a long time it must have been almost derelict. Nowadays there are lots of souvenir shops and stalls, lots of guys renting out horses, and a number of bars, but in our time in the town we saw only two other tourists.

Real de Catorce

Real de Catorce

When we visited, Real de Catorce had a feel of despondency about it, although I suspect in peak season it would feel entirely different; driving miles into the mountains from the nearest settlements and coming across a bustling colonial town full of people must be quite a surprise.

There seem to be a lot of tracks heading off into the surrounding mountains, and so I expect you could spend many days hiking from Real de Catorce, however for us one day was enough, we walked west out of the town, down the steep track leading to an old ruin.

The old road down to Estacion de Catorce from Real de Catorce

After two nights spent with a view I can't see us beating, we headed down the mountain, and headed west to meet the 54. Despite being a free road, Mex 54 is in extremely good condition, and with no drama at all we arrived at our next stop, Zacatecas ciudad.

View from truck window parked at Real de Catorce. Anothe rgreat reason to travel overland.


  1. Fantastic! (and the link to Jim's technical page now working.)

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