–Diane LeBow, images by John Montgomery and Diane LeBow
Ah, Chihuahua! Welcome to the Mexican State of Chihuahua, which is as big as Spain and Switzerland together. It features canyons larger than the U.S. Grand Canyon, the fastest long distance barefoot runners who still live in caves, bustling cities off the tourist track, hiking, hot springs, mountain climbing, zip lining, delicious food, and one of the world’s most exciting first class train ride. Sure, people read media reports of drug cartel violence but based on our recent peaceful experience visiting the area and local reports that the last two years have seen an enormous drop in these problems, this no longer seems to be an issue.
The capital city of Chihuahua, which translates as “dry and sandy place,” is itself a bustling metropolis of universities, industry, elegant enclaves mixed with working folks’ homes. We enjoyed a trolley tour of the city that included the gorgeous Cathedral St. Francis of Assisi, Pancho Villa’s home, and the State Capitol Building. The latter features powerful murals depicting the War of Independence against the Spanish led by Don Miguel Hidalgo as well as the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa’s courageous feats.
All aboard the Chepe Chihuahua al PacificoTrain This spectacular train ride begins in Chihuahua and travels across the famed Copper Canyons of the Sierra Madre. You can ride the complete route, stepping off to overnight at various points along the way, or ride just a portion of the route. The complete route is 400 miles across 37 bridges and 89 tunnels, many drilled through rock (one doing a 180 degree turn inside a mountain) out to los Mochis on the Pacific coast so it is understandable that it took 100 years to complete this project. Through the windows, we viewed spectacular cliffs, pine forests, waterfalls, tidy Mennonite communities and fruit orchards (80,000 Mennonites today are descendants of early 20th century Canadian refugees), and the deep purple and green canyons, home of the Raramuri people for over 10,000 years.
Divisadero: overnight on the edge of the Copper Canyons
Las Barrancas del Cobre are actually an extensive system of canyons, now part of the Copper Canyon National Park and at 600 by 250 km is larger than the U.S. Grand Canyon. It’s known as “the Grand Canyon without the Colorado.” The canyon walls’ copper green color explain the name.
Lunch at Hotel Posada Mirador, which offers beautiful views over the canyon, as well as excellent food. We enjoyed our fresh black bass and dessert of hazelnut mousse with chocolate drizzle while absorbing the dizzying canyon views out the picture windows. Some sips of Sotol agave, local grain alcohol, enhanced our experience.
After a spectacular gondola ride down into the canyon, we overnighted at the Hotel Divisadero Barrancas, our room perched at the edge of the sheer canyon drop.
The barefoot runners: the Raramuri ( aka Tarahumara people)
For over 10,000 years, they have inhabited these canyons although there are only about 70,000 remaining. The name Tarahumara was given them by the Spanish. Deep down in the creases of canyons, they dwell in houses that are extensions of caves. Short, stocky, strong people, they wear colorful clothing, the women’s skirts and tops in bright yellow, orange, blue, and green. Often for their dances, they don brightly colored headdresses. Traditionally self-sufficient, they grow corn, beans, potatoes, and squash. Corn especially is a mainstay and gives them their central drink, tesguino, that is used in spiritual rituals and reportedly bestows amazing energy and endurance on the imbiber. More recently the Raramuri’s existence is threatened by infringement upon their lands by mining, deforestation, drug growers, as well as drought.
We visited one Raramuri woman in her cave home which was quite cozy. She told us that it had been inhabited for 400 years. We enjoyed her sense of humor. When I asked why chose to remain living in the cave, since she’s been widowed for several years, she quipped, “Well, my husband left me here.”
Casas Grandes and Paquime archaeological site
Another highlight of our travels in the state of Chihuahua was a visit to the most important archaeological site in North Mexico: Paquime, near the town of Casas Grandes. About 1100 years ago, people moved here who were probably descendants of inhabitants of the south-western USA, the Anasazi. They built a culturally advanced urban city of large multistoried adobe houses, some four stories high. When the Spanish arrived and saw this vast complex with its 1700 rooms, they called it Casas Grandes, or “large houses.”
The city included a complex water system, watch towers from which smoke signals were sent (early social networking), astronomical buildings, and ball courts.
Like many early peoples, they traced their lineage matrilineally, that is through the mother’s descendants with the males holding the political power.
Their carefully detailed polychromed ceramic pieces which are displayed in the adjacent museum at the site find worthy descendants in the work of local potters like Mata Ortiz.
Juarez and the passejo de norte, passage to the North
On our own passage to the North, we overnighted in Juarez, which is just across the Rio Grande from El Paso. With today’s population of over one million, local residents are happy that the infamous violence has fallen dramatically in last couple of years. Frankly recent crime statistics are akin to many large U.S. cities. There’s a lot to visit in the city but we only had time for a short city tour and a very informative visit to the Historical Museum which originally was the Customs Building for the passage to the North. Juarez was Pancho Villa’s military base during the Mexican Revolution., I found it interesting that Pancho Villa, who was truly a Mexican Robin Hood, learned to read during his first stay in jail. His first book, appropriately was Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
As we drove across the border: back to El Paso, “the passage” to Texas, the enormous fence separating our two countries reminds me of the Berlin Wall which I visited when it was first constructed in 1961 and just after it was torn down in 1989. Robert Frost wrote “Good fences make good neighbors,” but won’t it be grand when such solutions are no longer sought.
If you go:
Juarez: Best Western
Pasada Mirador Hotel (superb cuisine, fresh fish)
Hotel Divisadero Barrancas
Chihuahua: Quality Inn San Francisco
Paquime: Hotel y Galeria de Arte B&B