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.