The north Travel Guide
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Rich in legends of the country’s revolutionary past, Mexico’s north has a modern history dominated by its relationship with the United States, just across the Río Bravo. Though much of the region is harsh, barren and sparsely inhabited, far less visited than the country’s tourist-saturated southern states, cross-border trade – as much about the daily movement of people as goods – means it’s one of the richest and most dynamic parts of Mexico. It’s not all business, though. Rugged and untamed, the north is home to deserts, mountains, seedy frontier towns and modern cities, as well as a proud and hospitable people deeply rooted in ranching culture, perhaps best symbolized by folk hero Pancho Villa.
Archeological remains are also scattered throughout the north, including ancient petroglyphs and ruined Chichimec cities, all of which are thoroughly distinct from the Mesoamerican metropolises of the south. Most notable is the site of Paquimé, where a maze of adobe walls once housed an extensive and highly developed desert civilization.
The north promises urban appeal too. Durango offers a taste of colonial grandeur comparable to Mexico’s heartland, while similarly attractive Chihuahua boasts a wealth of nineteenth-century architecture and stylish contemporary museums. The real draw, however, is Monterrey . Young, energetic and cosmopolitan, this modern city offers a host of cultural and artistic diversions.
Travelling overland from the south of Mexico towards the US border, there are a couple of obvious routes, with the central corridor via Durango and Chihuahua ending at Ciudad Juárez – a sprawling border town notorious for its violent drug wars. Further east, a string of smaller, calmer crossings provides rapid (and safer) access to Texas. The very shortest route north follows the Gulf coast. Hot, steamy and uncomfortable, this route is not especially recommended, but it is the fastest from the fine beaches and archeological ruins of Veracruz, and travelling by bus, avoids Mexico City.
If you’re determined to travel between the Yucatán, Veracruz and the US by the shortest route, avoiding Mexico City altogether, you’ll need to follow the coastal route. North of Tuxpán, there’s plenty of sandy beachfront, but access is difficult, beaches tend to be windswept and scrubby, and much of the area is marred by oil refineries. Several small-scale resorts have been developed here (such as La Pesca and the villages around Laguna Madre), but these tend to be popular with nearby city-dwellers and have little to offer compared with the beaches further south. It’s also very, very hot.
Another issue is drug violence – Tamaulipas, the focus of the bloody conflict between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, had become the most dangerous part of Mexico by 2012, and though things have improved somewhat since then (the murder rate had halved by 2014), it remains blighted by shootings and kidnapping. If you have time you’d be well advised to cut inland from Tampico to Monterrey , where there’s plenty of metropolitan diversions and a larger choice of routes to the border.
The central corridor between Mexico City, the Bajío and the US border is one of the most well-travelled and well-served routes in the country, with fast highways and numerous bus services all the way. It’s worth a diversion into Durango, certainly the most attractive city on route, or historic Hidalgo del Parral. 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. If you have time, an excursion to the ruins at Paquimé, near Nuevo Casas Grandes, is worth the four-hour ride from Chihuahua – and if you have a car, there are several other enticing destinations nearby.
Since 2006 the escalating Mexican drug wars – a violent struggle between rival cartels to control the flow of narcotics into the US, and increasingly, between these gangs and the Mexican government – has put a huge dent in the nation’s tourist industry. The violence made prime-time news in the US in 2009, and has led to a stream of official travel warnings to Mexico ever since.
Mexican gangs began to take over the US cocaine trade from the Colombians in the 1990s, and were originally drawn into roughly two rival camps led by the Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros, and the Sinaloa Cartel with its ally the Juárez Cartel (Gulf ally the Tijuana Cartel has been dramatically weakened in recent years). In 2007, however, the Juárez Cartel started a vicious turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel, for control of Ciudad Juárez. Drug violence and political corruption has also plagued the state of Tamaulipas, and to a lesser extent parts of Veracruz. In 2011 the attention turned to the Tamaulipas border town of Nuevo Laredo, and another grisly turf war between Los Zetas (an especially terrifying group of former Mexican special forces soldiers), and the Gulf Cartel (until 2010 the Gulf Cartel were actually allies of the Zetas). The Zetas have so far dominated, ruling the city with fear; a string of chilling crimes in 2012 included the hanging of nine bodies from a Laredo bridge and the dumping of 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies on a highway near Monterrey .
In 2006, President Felipe Calderón had ended decades of government inaction by sending federal troops to the states affected by drug violence, a policy that had led to an estimated 60,000 deaths by the end of his administration in 2012. President Peña Nieto has changed tactics slightly, focusing on reducing violence rather than head-on conflict. Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano was killed in 2012; top Zeta bosses the Morales brothers were arrested in 2013; and Mexico’s most-wanted men, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Sinaloa Cartel), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez Cartel) and Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva Cartel) were captured in 2014. Though Nieto’s polices have so far succeeded in reducing the number of killings, the drug cartels are still very much in business. El Chapo escaped from prison in 2015, and in 2014, the Iguala mass kidnapping of 43 students by a drug gang in collusion with local police in Guerrero horrified the nation (months later it was confirmed that all 43 had been killed); the case led to national and international protests and a string of high-profile resignations and arrests.
Despite the sensational headlines, it’s important to remember that most of Mexico remains peaceful. As a visitor it is extremely unlikely you’ll see any sign of drug violence and there’s actually little evidence that tourists are targeted by drug gangs – headlines in the media often attribute petty crime or muggings, which can happen anywhere, to drug gangs, adding to the sense of fear. It obviously makes sense to avoid the major trouble spots, however, particularly along the US border. If driving a car from the US, check the current situation with US authorities before you go
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).
The region around Durango is heavily marketed to domestic tourists as the La Tierra del Cine, the “land of cinema”, in honour of the vast number of film units that once came to the area to take advantage of its remarkably constant, clear, high-altitude light, its desert and mountain scenery. Westerns were the speciality, and although only half a dozen movies have been shot here in recent decades (Luc Besson’s Bandidas in 2004 was the last major one, though the History Channel mini-series Texas Rising was shot here in 2014), you can still see the permanent sets at a couple of locations.
Villa del Oeste, (officially “Parque Temático Paseo del Viejo Oeste”), 12km north of Durango, is a kind of small theme park comprising the 100m-long street of “Bandido”, which looks straight out of the Wild West until you realize the saloons and shops have been refashioned into a themed restaurant, music hall and a bar and grill. During the week it’s fairly quiet, but on weekends there’s a kitschy but enjoyable show featuring gun-slinging cowboys and cabaret girls.
The original Durango movie set – where films were shot starting in 1954 with Robert Wagner’s White Feather – lies 2km north of Villa del Oeste in the dusty village of CHUPADEROS, preserved since 2012 as the Set Cinematográfico de Chupaderos. Villagers had pretty much taken over the faux Wild West main street, but thanks to government funds it now offers elaborate cowboy shows by professional actors.
PARRAL, or “Hidalgo del Parral” as it’s officially known, is fixed in Mexican consciousness as the place where Pancho Villa met his demise under a spectacular hail of hot lead in 1923. The town’s history goes much further than this, however, having been established in the early seventeenth century as a silver-mining centre.
The Museo Francisco Villa, located close to the spot where Villa’s bullet-ridden vehicle came to a halt, commemorates the assassinated hero with displays of Revolution-era effects, antique weapons, a small shrine and plenty of enigmatic old photos. Every year in July, Villa’s death is re-enacted here.
The ramshackle spectre of the Mina La Prieta, the once great silver mine founded in 1629, overlooks Parral from a hill on the edge of town. It closed in 1975 but you can take a short tour of some of the mine workings, 40m down by elevator, left almost as they were over forty years before. At the mine head there’s the Museo Regional de Minería, containing heaps of old mining equipment.
No one really knows why the tradition started, but Parral is lauded all over Mexico for its old-fashioned milk sweets, addictive dulces de leche made with coconut, apricots, pecans, peanuts, hazelnuts and pineapples. Sample the wicked treats at Dulcería La Gota de Miel, 20 de Noviembre 51 (627 522 1217), the shop founded in 1932 by Don Pablito, the acknowledged godfather of Parral’s modern sweet industry.
The intriguing 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 Cortez; 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.
Most travellers simply pass through the northeast border towns on their way between Texas and Mexican cities further south – the towns on the Mexican side have traditionally attracted a steady stream of day-trippers from the US for cheap bric-a-brac shopping and tasty snacks, though like elsewhere this trade has been severely disrupted since 2009.
The Río Bravo, known to Americans as the Río Grande, forms the border between Texas and Mexico, a distance of more than 1500km. The country through which it flows is arid semi-desert, and the towns along the lower section of the river are heavily industrialized. This is the maquiladora zone, where foreign-owned assembly plants produce consumer goods, most of them for export to the US.
Contrary to popular belief, that addictive combination of crispy tortilla chips and melted cheese – a staple snack all over the US and beyond – is not traditional Mexican food. Nachos were actually dreamt up in 1943 in the border town of Piedras Negras by Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, allegedly while trying to feed a group of US army wives after hours. He was forced to cook up whatever he had left in the kitchen: essentially toasted tortillas, cheese and jalapeño peppers. The idea caught on, especially in Texas, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that “nachos” became popular throughout the US (it’s never had quite the same appeal in Mexico). When Anaya died in 1975 a bronze plaque in his memory was erected in Piedras Negras, and the town hosts an International Nacho Festival around October 21 each year. The two-day event features live music, art and a goofy attempt to make the world’s biggest nacho.
Sadly, the original nacho restaurant no longer exists, and the Moderno, where Anaya went on to work, closed in 2010.
Crossing the US-Mexican border can be a time-consuming affair, especially heading into the US. Canadians and even US citizens now require a passport to enter the US. Everyone else needs a visa or a visa-waiver. Whichever crossing you choose the procedures are the same, depending on what mode of transport you choose.
Crossing the border by bus can save time and money, depending on your destination, though customs checks are meticulous on both sides. Heading into Mexico, there is no US immigration check, but make sure your bus driver knows if you have a foreign passport – he’ll stop at the Mexican migración office so you can complete the FMM. After that everyone gets off the bus for a thorough Mexican customs check. Heading into the US, there are no Mexican checks, but everyone gets off the bus to walk through US immigration (passport check), before a US Customs check of bags and the bus (which can take some time). Further into Texas there is likely to be a US Border Patrol check, where officers will check IDs and question everyone on the bus.
If driving into Mexico, remember to pull in at the migración office to get your Immigration Form. You’ll also need to get a temporary importation vehicle permit (for details see “Getting there”). This must be dropped off on the Mexican side before heading back into the US. Cars also pay a toll crossing from either side of the Río Bravo. Heading into Mexico, customs checks are often very light, whereas the queues heading back into the US can be several hours long; a US Immigration officer will check your passport at a booth (no need to leave the car), and will direct you to park if he deems a customs check necessary. If there is even a tiny hint you are carrying anything illegal, US Customs officers will literally take your car apart and have sniffer dogs all over the seats – don’t expect them to clean up afterwards. You can also expect further US Border Patrol checks as you drive further into Texas, and army checkpoints on the Mexican side.
Crossing the border on foot usually means a walk over a bridge traversing the Río Bravo (for a small fee), connecting with local buses or taxis on either side. Heading into Mexico, there is no US immigration and often very casual Mexican checks – remember to stop at the migración office and ask for a “multiple migration” form or “FMM”. Heading into the US, you’ll have to clear US immigration (no Mexican checks), and often a full customs check of your bags.
The capital of the largest state in the republic, CHIHUAHUA was the favourite home of Mexican folk 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 900,000, 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 premier sight, the Museo Casa de Villa, is 2km east of the centre. This enormous mansion was built by Pancho 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 recruitment 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.
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, its spiralling drug-gang violence led to the Mexican army being deployed to patrol its bullet-spattered streets in 2008. 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 affected by drug violence (it’s also just as famous in Mexico for being the home of Juan Gabriel, the nation’s most successful singer). The security situation has improved dramatically in recent years (murders had dropped almost 75 percent by 2014), but it’s still a good idea to pass through Juárez as quickly as possible – you won’t miss much. Travelling between the main transit points is perfectly safe during the day.
In the 1960s John Wayne came to the beautiful colonial city of DURANGO to make seven Westerns (among them Chisum and The War Wagon), a tradition maintained today in studios outside the city. Although the Sierra Madre still looms on the western horizon, the country around the city itself is flat; just two low hills mark it out 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 or cable car ride up the Cerro de los Remedios provides a wonderful panorama over the whole city. Durango, with its roughly 630,000 inhabitants, sits between these two hills in the Valle del Guadiana.
Durango’s month-long festival, held in July, celebrates the city’s foundation on July 8, 1563 by Spanish explorer 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.
Just across the Río Bravo from Brownsville, Texas, MATAMOROS is a buzzing little town with more history than the settlements strung out to its west. What began in 1774 as a cattle-ranching colony eventually became known – with the introduction of the port of Bagdad – as “La Puerta México,” and in the nineteenth century Matamoros (along with Veracruz) became the main port of entry for foreign immigrants. At the turn of the nineteenth century, rail lines from both sides of the border were directed through Matamoros, and again the city found itself as the necessary link in the trade crossroads. Since the passage of NAFTA in 1994, Matamoros has established itself as an important point for trade, with the outskirts dominated by strip malls and factories; the Matamoros–Brownsville Metropolitan Area has a population of almost 1.2 million, and when restrictions on car imports were lifted in 2005 it became the used car capital of the world. Sadly, Mexico’s ongoing drug wars hit Matamoros in a big way in 2015, devastating local car businesses and tourism (a feud between Gulf Cartel factions, nominally based here, is blamed). Though the old centre retains some provincial charm, with a slightly run-down blend of historic buildings and cheap stores, it’s not advisable to visit Matamoros until the security situation stabilizes – check the latest situation online (UK foreign office at gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice, or the US at travel.state.gov).
Capital of the state of Coahuila, SALTILLO feels far more provincial than Monterrey, despite being another large city of some 700,000. Lying just 85km to the southwest, through a high desert of yucca and Joshua trees, it’s infinitely quieter than Monterrey and, at 1600m above sea level in the Sierra Madre Oriental, usually feels a little cooler.
If you read Spanish you’ll get a lot out of Saltillo’s surprisingly good cache of museums, but if not it’s still a lovely place to stroll around, admire some beautiful buildings and soak up the colonial ambience.
Top image: Evening sun on Copper Canyon from above rim at Urique, Chihuahua, Mexico © William Hammer/Shutterstock