Ciudad Juárez, the behemoth point of entry into Mexico’s central corridor, offers little to detain most people heading south. If you have time, an excursion to the ruins at Paquimé, near Nuevo Casas Grandes, is worth the four-hour ride from the border – and if you have a car, there are several other enticing destinations nearby. History lovers will also enjoy Chihuahua, the home of Pancho Villa and a relatively affluent city that has invested a lot in its heritage, museums and art.Read More
Sprawling Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, is possibly Mexico’s nastiest border town. Vast, dirty and riddled with visible social problems at the best of times, it’s spiralling drug-gang violence led to the Mexican army being deployed to patrol its bullet-spattered streets in 2008 – around 2660 people were murdered here in 2009. This followed the already notorious rape and murder of over four hundred women since 1993, “las muertas de Juárez” portrayed in the depressing Jennifer Lopez movie Bordertown (2007) and Roberto Bolaño’s seminal novel 2666. There’s an element of paranoia to this of course; Juárez is a city of two million people that, by and large, functions like anywhere else in Mexico, and tourists are very rarely targeted by drug gangs. The troops had improved the security situation by early 2010, but it’s still a good idea to pass through Juárez as quickly as possible – you won’t miss much. In five hours you can reach Chihuahua (373km) or, rather closer, Nuevo Casas Grandes, the base for excursions to the archeological site at Casas Grandes.
Paquimé and around
Paquimé and around
The curious ruins of Paquimé are the most significant, and certainly the most thought-provoking, remains of a sophisticated civilization in northern Mexico. Originally home to an agricultural community and comprising simple adobe houses (similar to those found in Arizona and New Mexico), it became heavily influenced by Mesoamerican, probably Toltec, culture. Whether this was the result of conquest or, more likely, trade, is uncertain, but from around 1000 to 1200 AD, Paquimé flourished. Pyramids and ball-courts were constructed, and the surrounding land was irrigated by an advanced system of canals. At the same time local craftsmen were trading with points both south and north, producing a wide variety of elaborate ornaments and pottery. Among the finds at the site (many of them are now in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City), have been cages that held exotic imported birds, whose feathers were used in making ornaments; necklaces made from turquoise, semiprecious stones and shells obtained from the Sea of Cortés; and other objects of copper, bone, jade and mother-of-pearl.
Much must have been destroyed when the site was attacked, burned and abandoned around 1340 – either by a marauding nomadic tribe, such as the Apache, or in the course of a more local rebellion. Either way, Paquimé was not inhabited again, its people leaving their already depleted trade for the greater safety of the sierras. When excavation began in the late 1950s, there were only a few low hills and banks where walls had been, but by piecing together evidence archeologists have partly reconstructed the adobe houses – the largest of which have as many as fifty interconnecting rooms around an open courtyard or ceremonial centre. The foundations of the houses, which were originally two or three storeys high, have been reconstructed to waist-height, with an occasional standing wall giving some idea of scale.
To fully appreciate the sophistication of this civilization, first visit the Museo de las Culturas del Norte, a beautifully laid-out, if thinly stocked museum, architecturally designed to mimic the ruins of the defence towers that once stood on the site. Inside you’ll find a large model of how Paquimé must have looked, interactive touch-screen consoles with commentary in Spanish and English and intelligent displays of artefacts. Modern examples of finds from the surrounding area – drums, dolls in native costume, ceramics and ceremonial masks – compete with Paquimé objects, notably striking pottery, often anthropomorphic vessels decorated in geometric patterns of red, black and brown on a white or cream background.
The capital of the largest state in the republic, Chihuahua was the favourite home of Revolutionary hero Pancho Villa. It’s also been the scene of some crucial episodes in Mexico’s history, not least the execution of Miguel Hidalgo in 1811. Today it’s a sprawling, workaday city of 775,000, but the colonial centre boasts several fine museums and is sprinkled with grandiose nineteenth-century mansions, built when silver brought wealth to the region’s landowning class. This is also vaquero heartland and one of the best places in the country to look for cowboy boots: you’re spoilt for choice in the centre, especially in the blocks bounded by Calle 4, Juárez, Victoria and Ocampo. Incidentally, you’re unlikely to see many of the little bug-eyed dogs here, said to have been discovered in the state in the 1850s – though in the summer months you will see over thirty multicoloured chihuahua sculptures scattered around town as part of the annual “Dog Parade”.
Chihuahua’s centre of activity is the teeming Plaza de Armas, where its fine Catedral Metropolitana stands opposite a wonderfully camp statue of the city’s founder Don Antonio Deza y Ulloa in the very act of pointing to the ground, as if to say, “Right lads, we’ll build it here.” The Baroque, twin-towered edifice was begun in 1725 but took more than one hundred years to complete: work well worth it, though, since the interior detail is the equal of the ornate facade. Look inside for the shrine to Pedro Maldonado (born here in 1892), who was beaten to death by soldiers of Mexico’s anti-Catholic government in 1937. Now known as San Pedro de Jesús Maldonado Lucero, he became Chihuahua’s first saint in 2000. In a modernized crypt beneath the cathedral (enter via the separate entrance on Victoria), the small Museo de Arte Sacro displays some fine examples of Baroque Mexican religious art from the eighteenth century, notably a selection of sombre paintings of saints by Francisco Martínez and a collection of dark and forbidding images in which Christ is pushed, pulled, stabbed and punched; there are also a few works by Miguel Cabrera and memorabilia of Pope John Paul’s visit in 1990.
From the plaza you can stroll north along pedestrianized Libertad, lined with chain stores and cheap snacks stalls, to Museo Casa Chihuahua and Plaza Mayor, though aficionados of Mexican history should detour to the Museo Casa de Juárez at Juárez and Calle 5, also known as the Museo de la Lealtad Republicana (“Museum of Republican Loyalty”). This is essentially a monument to Benito Juárez and the turbulent years of the French Intervention; forced out of Mexico City by the French, President Juárez spent three years here from 1864, when this house was the epicentre of the independent national government. Today his former offices and personal chambers have been furnished in period style, and many of his letters and personal affects are on display, including his battered horse-drawn carriage. Other rooms put the whole period in context, though you’ll need to read Spanish to make the most of this.
South to Durango
South to Durango
Below Chihuahua sprawls a vast plain, mostly agricultural, largely uninteresting and broken only occasionally by an outstretched leg of the Sierra Madre Occidental. At Jiménez the road divides; Hwy-49 heads straight down through Gómez Palacio and Torreón, while Hwy-45 curves westwards to Durango.
On the longer route, Durango is the first of the Spanish colonial towns that distinguish Mexico’s heartland, and it’s certainly the most attractive city between here and the US border. That said, it’s a good eight to ten hours on the bus from Chihuahua, so you might consider breaking the journey in Hidalgo del Parral.
Although the Sierra Madre still looms on the western horizon, the country around Durango itself is flat. Just two low hills mark out the city from the plain: the Cerro del Mercado, a giant lump of iron ore that testifies to the area’s mineral wealth, rises squat and black to the north, while to the west a climb up the Cerro de los Remedios provides a wonderful panorama over the whole city. Officially named Victoria de Durango, the city, with its nearly 550,000 inhabitants, sits between these two hills in the Valle del Guadiana. Highways 45 and 40 intersect here, making it an important transport junction between the coast and the interior cities of Torréon, Saltillo and Monterrey, but the town is worth a visit of a day or two in its own right, with beautiful colonial architecture and evocative film sets where the likes of John Wayne made movies in the 1960s. The people, too, are a charismatic and gregarious bunch whose hospitality comes as a charming respite from the north.
Durango’s fiesta, on July 8, celebrates the city’s foundation on that day in 1563 by Francisco de Ibarra. Festivities commence several days before and run right through till the fiesta of the Virgen del Refugio on July 22 – well worth going out of your way for, though rooms are booked solid.
Almost all the monuments in downtown Durango are clustered in a few streets around the Plaza de Armas and the huge covered market nearby. On the plaza itself is the Catedral Basílica Menor its two robust domed towers dwarfing the narrow facade. It’s a typical Mexican church in every way: externally imposing, weighty and Baroque, with a magnificent setting overlooking the plaza, but the interior is ultimately disappointing – dim and uninspired by comparison. Much better is the opulent collection of religious art and historical artefacts within the cathedral’s Museo de Art Sacro; enter on Negrete, behind the cathedral.
Few Mexican folk heroes command so much reverence as Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the ruthless bandito and cattle rustler turned revolutionary, though facts about his life remain surprisingly obscure. Born in San Juan del Río, Durango, around 1878 (sources differ), to a simple peasant family, he became an outlaw whilst still a teenager and seems to have developed a loyal group of followers. Though he had virtually no formal education, Villa was not the average bandit; quick-witted and ambitious, in 1910 he decided to support the revolt of Francisco Madero against the Díaz regime. As commander of the formidable División del Norte, Villa became a key player in the Mexican Revolution. He became a bitter enemy of Victoriano Huerta after Madero was executed in 1913, helping to oust the dictator the following year and briefly becoming governor of Chihuahua after hard-fought victories at Chihuahua, Ciudad Juárez, Tierra Blanca and Ojinaga. When Villa fell out with the new president, Carranza, fighting continued and even spilled across the border (leading to a failed US expedition to capture the rebel). With the death of Carranza in 1920 Villa finally laid down his guns, dividing time between Hidalgo del Parral and Chihuahua. Violence continued to haunt him however, and he was assassinated in Parral in 1923 – it was never determined who ordered the killing.
In Mexico, Villa remains a national hero, a Robin Hood-like figure who not only defeated the Mexican regime, but was also the only foreigner to attack the US (since the War of 1812) and survive. North of the border his image was enhanced by lurid US media reports – indeed, his sombrero and cartridge belts have become the stereotypical accessories of Mexican movie banditos ever since. Villa himself courted Hollywood and even starred in a film incorporating actual scenes of the Battle of Ojinaga in 1914 (portrayed by Antonio Banderas in And Starring Pancho Villa As Himself).