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”.
Museo Casa de Villa
Chihuahua’s premier sight, the Museo Casa de Villa, is 2km east of the centre. This enormous mansion was built by Villa in the early twentieth century (though he only spent time here in 1914, when governor of the state) and inhabited, until her death in 1981, by Villa’s “official” widow Doña Luz Corral (there were allegedly many others); it has now been taken over by the Mexican army. The collection is a fascinating mix of weapons, war plans and personal mementos, including the bullet-riddled Dodge in which Villa was assassinated in 1923. Look out for Villa’s incredibly elaborate saddles and a grimly comical poster of 1915, urging “gringos” to head south and ride with Villa for “gold and glory”. Quite apart from the campaign memories, the superbly preserved old bedrooms and bathrooms, richly decorated with florid murals and Spanish floor tiles, give an interesting insight into wealthy Mexican life in the early 1900s.
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).