Can tourism help save Cerro de San Pedro?

By John Mitchell

Cerro de San Pedro – It’s obvious that Marcos Rangel Mendoza loves the place where he was born. This unassuming, middle-aged man becomes passionate when he talks about the history of Cerro de San Pedro, an old mining town clinging to a rocky hillside in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

The mining ghost town of Cerro de San Pedro
The mining ghost town of Cerro de San Pedro

Señor Mendoza explains that the Spanish founded Cerro de San Pedro in 1592 after they discovered gold and silver in the area. The conquistadors established a royal mine in the nearby mountains, and Cerro de San Pedro flourished until severe water shortages forced most of the town’s population to move to the present site of the city of San Luis Potosí. As a result, Cerro de San Pedro became a virtual ghost town.

Today, Cerro de San Pedro is home to about 100 people. Many of them cater to a trickle of tourists who make the 20 km (13 mile) trip from San Luis Potosí in order to wander San Pedro’s deserted streets and soak up its colonial ambiance. There are also two 17th-century churches to explore plus a museum displaying historical photographs, antique mining paraphernalia, and work by local artists. The town’s other main attraction is a small store owned by Señor Mendoza. Named “El Huachichil” after the local indigenous people, this cave-like shop is crammed with handicrafts, photographs, minerals, and mining souvenirs.

Marcos Rangel Mendoza outside his shop
Marcos Rangel Mendoza outside his shop in Cerro de San Pedro

On the surface, Cerro de San Pedro appears to be an idyllic spot. But all is not what it seems. High above the town looms a huge “open-sky” gold mine owned by a Canadian company called Metallica Resources and its Mexican subsidiary Minera San Xavier. This rapacious open pit mining operation is threatening to destroy Cerro de San Pedro and poison its inhabitants.

While we stand and chat in front of his store, Señor Mendoza points to ominous cracks in nearby walls, which he claims are being damaged by daily dynamite explosions in the mine. He also shows me nasty sores on his arm that he says he got from bathing in water contaminated by chemicals from the mine. Señor Mendoza’s greatest fear is that his hometown’s fragile buildings will totally collapse if the mine isn’t closed.

Señor Mendoza belongs to an organization that has been fighting Minera San Xavier and corrupt government officials for over a decade, but little has been accomplished. He now realizes that Cerro de San Pedro’s last chance for survival may be tourism. Increasing the number of foreign visitors will hopefully bring more awareness of the town’s historical significance, especially since neighboring San Luis Potosí, which was once one of the most important cities in New Spain, is being considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List.

A typical street in Cerro de San Pedro
A typical street in Cerro de San Pedro

GETTING THERE: Cerro de San Pedro is about a 30-minute drive from San Luis Potosí on good, mostly gravel roads. There is also a public bus that leaves on Saturday and Sundays at 9:00 A.M. from the Temple San José church on the Alameda Park in San Luis Potosí. This same bus makes the return journey at 6:00 P.M. Cerro de San Pedro has a few basic eateries that are open on weekends only. There are currently no places to stay in Cerro de San Pedro, but it is possible to set up a tent and camp. For more information, visit the San Luis Potosí Secretariat of Tourism website.

Please click HERE to see more of my Cerro de San Pedro photos.