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Before he knew it, Don Humberto was hosting Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, who came to town to film The Mexican. He points to a corner of his restaurant where Brad Pitt ate breakfast every morning for two months. Don Humberto, with his aquiline nose and stringy black-and-grey beard, looks like a Hollywood character actor — the classic ethnic bad guy. His involvement with The Mexican led to a bit part in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but his heart is still in Real de Catorce, where he's the most recognizable face in town.
"I came here as a dropout," he says. "There was nothing in town when I arrived. There was one lady on the corner who sold rice, beans and eggs. That was it. People asked me why I was coming here, but I had a dream, a vision." (Don Humberto has plenty to say over here.)
About 90 percent of the town's economy revolves around tourism. There isn't much to see in the town — an old church, some crumbling colonial architecture, and abandoned silver mines. The sacred mountain of the Huichol, Wirikuta, is just an hour's horseback ride away.
While most of the locals embrace the new peyote tourism, it also attracts some unsavory characters. On street corners, young men harass foreigners for a "ride in the desert." For about $70, they'll take tourists out to the peyote gardens below the mountains. It's technically illegal, but no one seems to care much. As Don Humberto says, peyote tourists are the core of the town's livelihood.
He's hoping that Indians longing for the lost peyote gardens of South Texas will work their way to his little village on a mountaintop. He's already seen a few relocate to Real. An Indian from San Antonio bought a house and lives there part-time. Then Don Humberto and his Swiss wife, Cornelia, met a group of Indians near the Four Corners, who promised to come.
"They said they had a vision that was leading them down here," says Cornelia, who was attracted to Real 20 years ago, in part because of peyote. "But peyote's not for everyone," she adds.
Cornelia and Don Humberto see peyote tourism as both a blessing and a curse. When tourists first started arriving in big numbers, local police preyed on them. "Police used to harass foreign tourists," Cornelia says. "They'd take watches and cameras as bribes. Now, they leave everyone alone."
She says that there's an unspoken agreement that police will never go into the desert looking for peyote seekers. "But," she says, "if you take it out and get caught with it, you could go to prison."
The Mexican government also has ambivalent feelings about the foreign influx. It has designated the area around Real de Catorce as a Natural and Cultural Reserve, protected under UNESCO. Although the government wants to promote tourism to the region, it also passes out flyers warning peyote seekers that the collection and trafficking of the cactus can be punished with up to 25 years in prison.
On the other hand, there's a long history of peyote's use as a folk medicine in northern Mexico. Mexicans have been using peyote as a cure-all for rheumatism, arthritis and other ailments for centuries. They drink it in teas or rub it directly on the skin.
Martin Terry says that even here in San Luis Potosí — the peyote heartland — the cactus is endangered. He says that the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) — the biggest and most prestigious university in Mexico — keeps GPS data on clusters of peyote plants around the sacred area of the Huichol. Last summer, someone ripped huge roots from the area. They squeezed the mescaline out of the cactus and left the roots to die. He thinks it may be a drug cartel.
"Only six years ago, it was a place of great abundance," he says. When he went back this summer, "there were just a few plants left. Those that were of no value were left to die."
Frank Collum, the Anglo peyote eater and sometime poacher, says that Native Americans should back off the Mexican peyote gardens. "If it keeps going like it is," he says, "there'll be a war with the Huichol. They eat an incredible amount of peyote. They've got their own problems with the Mexican government."
One local from Real de Catorce, Juan Hernández, makes his living taking foreigners to the sacred places of the Huichol on horseback. He charges about $20 per horse and serves as a guide. Hernández is a mestizo who lives in town, but he has close ties to the Indians.
"They call me before they start their pilgrimage in April," he says. "It takes them about four weeks to walk here and when they get here, I have firewood and food ready for them."
Hernández guides three horses straight up a mountaintop to a spiral of stones. It's not much of a monument, but the landscape is breathtaking, with a view of the Chihuahuan desert stretching as far as the eye can see. Hernández says that this is the birthplace of the god of the sun, Quetzal. He rubs coins across his body — it is a symbol of cleansing — and enters the stone spiral. When he gets to the center, he places the coins on a mound of other offerings. There are old shoes, a driver's license, candles, and Mexican and U.S. coins.