For the Huichol Indians, the desert mountains here are sacred, a cosmic portal with major mojo, where shamans collect the peyote that fuels the waking dreams that hold the universe together.
For a Canadian mining company, these same hills look like a billion dollars worth of buried silver.
In a stark collision of cultures, the famously mystical Huichol are trying to stop a $100 million, 15-year mining project from starting this year.
Their struggle comes as indigenous people from Alaska to the Amazon are rallying to protect not just their environment but also their cultures from decay.
This raises a tough question: How do you protect a cosmic portal?
“For them the whole mountain is a temple, and the gold and silver below the ground are there for a reason — they contribute to the energy, and it would be best if they just left it alone,” said Eduardo Guzman, an activist and spokesman for the Huichol living in a hard-scrabble pueblo called Las Margaritas at the foot of the magic mountain.
Past Guzman’s ranch gate, a minivan loaded with Huichol, dressed in embroidered muslin tunics and straw hats dancing with colored balls and feather totems, bounced by on their way to a ceremony. The elders said they were too busy to talk and departed in a cloud of dust.
The Huichol had come from their village 150 miles away to hunt peyote — the hallucinogenic cactus they call “the blue deer.” The Huichol eat the peyote cactus raw or dried, producing auditory and visual hallucinations — pleasant or not — and sensations of introspection and deep insight.
“For the Huichol, peyote serves as the central sacrament of their rituals,” said Paul Liffman, an anthropologist at the Colegio de Michoacan, who has studied the group for years. It is not a party drug. “It is taken to illuminate the user, to light them from inside.”
As the permits are sought for the silver mine, and other threats mount in the area (another outfit seeking gold, a hothouse tomato industry nearby), Liffman said, “I have never seen the Huichol this scared. In their view, this is an existential threat.”
The Huichol, who might number 50,000, are poor but proud. They may be subsistence farmers eking out a living growing beans and corn, but they believe that their rituals to honor the deities and their ancestors — and their protection of a sacred geography of springs, hills and beaches — are necessary to preserve the integrity of the entire universe.
“They’re not exactly given to modesty,” Liffman said.
Wary of outsiders, living in inaccessible villages far away, they are allying themselves with a loose confederation of hippies and anthropologists, Mexican activists and horticultural tourists who have made the former ghost town of Real de Catorce into a kind of New Age energy hub of their own, where an ersatz Apache from Italy might take a couple of visiting seekers into the desert to hunt some recreational blue deer for themselves.
Humberto Fernandez has lived in Real de Catorce since the 1970s. A local character — and a character actor — Fernandez owns the Real Hotel, and the lobby is lined with photos of the hotelier with Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. The movie “The Mexican” was filmed here, and its director, Gore Verbinski, is a friend.
Fernandez sees both sides. His family manufactures mining equipment. And he has been friends with the Huichol for 40 years, has participated in many of their ceremonies and is himself an experienced hunter of the blue deer.
“Hundreds of mines have opened in Mexico, and we don’t care. But this place is so special, I worry about what will happen.”
The controversy is made more complex by the fact that most people in Real de Catorce support the new mine. They want the jobs, close to home. They point to the fact that silver mines have flourished in the area for hundreds of years, and that there are already 250 miles of old abandoned shafts under the ground.
“When a mine closes, everything stops, and the town dies,” said Juan Tabares, who has spent his working life underground.
After the mines were forsaken, Real de Catorce was mostly a ghost town, until its recent rebound as a tourist site in the 1970s. The place is again facing hard times, as visitors, especially the Americans, have fled because of drug war violence in the northern Mexican states.
The land around their cosmic mountain, known to them as Wirikuta, and the pilgrimage route toward it, have been granted protections by the Mexican state and acknowledged as a sacred site by UNESCO.
It is an hour horseback ride to Wirikuta and the top of Cerro del Quemado, the Burned Mountain, where the Huichol say the sun was born. Along the way, burros graze the corn stubble; hawks draw lines across the blue skies.
There is scorched wood of old campfires at the peak, and a ceremonial circle of rock where offerings have been laid: candles, mirrors and God’s Eyes, the yarn weavings made around a pair of crossed sticks.
Nearby is a tiny rock chapel that doubles as the shelter used by the Huichol watchman and his wife, who are not home.
The Canadian company First Majestic Silver, and its Mexican partner Real Bonanza, promise not to disturb this sacred place.
“There has been a lot of misinformation, a lot of lies spread,” said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a top executive for Real Bonanza.
There will be no open pit mining. The companies are seeking permits to drill deep subterranean shafts, which will approach the tops of Cerro Grande and Cerro del Quemado — two sacred peaks — but will stop a mile short.
The miners say they are setting aside two square miles around the Wirikuta to turn over to the Huichol nation in perpetuity. They say they will adhere to international environmental standards, build water treatment plants and employ at least 500 miners.
In addition, they plan to restore an historic mine, to allow tourists a look, rebuild the mine’s hacienda, create a museum, restaurant, public plaza and artisan workshops and stores to sell silver work to tourists. All this is a dozen miles away from the sacred peaks and the road to Real de Catorce.
The Huichol and their defenders are careful not to disparage the Mexicans who want to work in the mines, who have had their own struggles, with a history of exploitation, low wages and dangerous conditions.
“We are in conflict,” said Marciano de la Cruz, one of the few Huichol who live in Real de Catorce. He sells the vibrant beaded art made by the tribe, which is famous throughout Mexico for its Sgt. Pepper colors and trippy sunburst design.
“Before Christ, this is the center of the world. It is our church,” de la Cruz said.
The mining company has promised the mountain will look the same, he said. “But it won’t be the same if you take away its soul.”
More world news coverage: