Archeological Treasures And Adventures Just South Of The Border
It was the rainy season in Chihuahua. Creeks had swollen and afternoon thunderstorms were the norm. From The Turtle Expedition's earliest days of exploring Mexico in our old blue Land Rover, aka La Tortuga Azul, we have always been fascinated by the backroads. They invariably have led to the most interesting places and people.
For over 1,000 years, while Anasazi, Utes, and Navajos settled the canyons and mesas of the southwestern United States, far to the south, their counterparts, the Toltec, Aztec, and Mayans flourished. These major civilizations dominated North and Central America long before the arrival of Europeans. But who were the Paquim? Some 900 years ago, this unique culture thrived in an area today called Casas Grandes, or "Big Houses." They had been noted as early as the 16th century by Spanish explorer lvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca. With an estimated population of 10,000 at its height, the ruins of their adobe "city" and surrounding cave dwellings are considered the most important archeological site in Northern Mexico.
We had been invited by Eduardo Payn, a local rancher, to accompany him as he checked on some cattle in a foothill pasture near the community of Nuevo Casas Grandes ("New Big Houses") in the state of Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. The rain was a welcome sight for Eduardo. The area has been suffering from several years of severe drought. Splashing through the occasional flooded arroyo, we gazed out over the surrounding grassland, pocked with cacti and thorny mesquite trees.
Sitting on our horses atop a low hill, we watched thunderheads build in the afternoon shadows over the valley. We felt somewhat exposed as streaks of lightning flashed menacingly across the mountains and invisible waves of thunder rumbled over us. Then, to our total astonishment, as the sun slowly dropped behind the line of squalls, the sky erupted into a brilliant orange across the entire horizon. This was more than a sunset. This was a light show beyond imagination. We sat dumbfounded as the spectacle unfolded before us. With the smell of rain in the air, I had left my camera in the truck. Some things you just need to record with your memory.
A week earlier we had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at Douglas, Arizona (see sidebar, "Crossing the Border"), and threaded our way out of Agua Prieta over to Highway 2 south.
About the only menace was the occasional cow or horse, and the seemingly huge semis coming the other direction. The width of most Mexican secondary roads was never designed for these big overland transport trucks, and they take all of their lane, right up to the line. On a hairpin corner, they take the whole road! Without losing our momentum, and drawing on some of our Power Stroke diesel's 550 lb-ft of torque, it was often a matter of looking far ahead and slingshotting around. The good news is, the drivers of the big 18- and 26-wheelers know what they're doing, and are mostly considerate of their size.
Nuevo Casas Grandes (the locals simply call it Casas) was at once a friendly place to be. Our Spanish is fluent, but we found that many locals spoke surprisingly good English. As it turns out, a large number of people in town had gone to the Mormon school in the adjacent community of Colonial Juarez, which until a few years ago taught only in English. By chance, we were introduced to Norma Pion. She offered to show us around Colonial Juarez, the Mormon community where she had gone to school. It was like driving into a Pennsylvania suburb, with tidy gardens around neat brick houses. The Mormons had originally settled in this part of Chihuahua in the 1880s, and their peach and apple orchards have been prosperous, as some of the beautiful homes demonstrated.
Equally industrious, to the north of Casas there are two Mennonite communities which have helped make the Chihuahua cheese one of the most famous (and delicious) in the country. We were invited to lunch at a family's home, and the man of the house gave us a tour of the cheese factory and the school.
As we met and talked with locals, our planned two-day stopover quickly stretched to two weeks, and then to three! The main ruins of Paquim, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are adjacent to an excellent cultural museum, Museo de las Culturas del Norte, with many interesting displays showing the similarities of all the tribes of the Southwest, long before international borders were created. Paquim had running water, sewers, and a complex system of underground water storage for domestic and agricultural use.
While the Paquim ruins were interesting, there was much more to see and do in the area. Eighteen miles south of Casas, a bumpy, unpaved road brought us to the small town of Mata Ortiz
Along the way to Mata Ortiz, we stopped at the Hacienda de San Diego, an old mansion dating back to 1902. Pancho Villa took it over during the Mexican Revolution. Bullet holes can still be seen in the adobe walls. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing and his Expeditionary Force camped in nearby Colonia Dubln while they chased Pancho Villa. The future general, George Patton, was Pershing's aide. Interestingly enough, we learned that Dubln is also the birthplace of George Romney who became governor of Michigan and president of American Motors. His son, Mitt Romney, organized the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2003 and is the current governor of Massachusetts
The famous Chihuahua al Pacific Railroad climbs 8,000 feet over the mountains of Northern Mexico, passing through 86 tunnels and crossing 39 bridges on the way to the coast. A little known spur of the line descends through the mountains from La Junta, all the way to Nuevo Casas Grandes. The tracks are in poor shape, and the rotting bridges would no longer support a fullsize locomotive, but portions of the route are still in use.
On a sunny morning, we climbed aboard a small passenger carriage, a rickety little "speeder" powered by a smoking, six-cylinder gasoline engine, and lurched out of the old train station in Casas. We bumped and swayed over the twisting tracks for over 100 kilometers, climbing into pine forests, slowing for cows who invariably would decide to cross the rails just as we approached.
At the midway stop, an old logging camp, our hosts brought out what looked like a plow disc with legs. In fact, that's what it was. A fire was built under the disc, and a local dish called a discada was prepared with beef, onions, potatoes, and spices. Bowls of guacamole, cilantro, tomatoes, and pico de gallo along with piles of fresh tortillas, all made the job of building our own tacos fun and delicious.
Each time we thought of leaving Casas, someone would come up with another place we just had to see or something we must do. Following potholed dirt roads west into the mountains, we visited remote cave dwellings once inhabited by the ancient Mogollon culture.
On twisting roads, we crossed narrow suspension bridges spanning river gorges and camped in beautiful pine forests. Arriving in the lumber town of Madera, we learned that there were an estimated 300 cliff and cave dwellings nearby. Some theorize that they may have been Paquim defense outposts or stopovers on distant Pacific trade routes.
Cueva de la Serpiente, "Cave of the Snake," was accessed by a log chicken ladder leading down a narrow crack in a canyon wall. The cave itself was actually built under a natural arch which opens to both sides of the cliff. Cueva Rancheras was reached by a beautiful trail that wound up a box canyon. This site is on private ranchland and is seldom visited by anyone, adding to its intrigue. Both of these cave/cliff dwellings were in surprisingly good condition, considering their age.
In the end, our imagination had been captured by the fascinating land of the Paquim, so close to the border yet so undiscovered. We have organized a route that retraces much of our original adventure, and in 2006 we will lead a small group of like-minded backroad touring enthusiasts. For more information on this trip, see our website, www.turtleexpedition.com. Join us on a Turtle Expedition Backroad Adventure.
Crossing The BorderCrossing the border into mainland Mexico can try your patience. You will need copies of every document you possess, including driver's license, vehicle registration, vehicle title, a letter from the legal owner of the vehicle (like a bank) if you do not appear as the sole owner on the registration, and your passport. There may or may not be a copy machine in the customs office. The immigration office will want $20 for your Tourist Card, which needs to be paid at the bank across the street. After a few rubber stamps, Tourist Card in hand, you move to the customs window where the girl at the computer will fiddle and fumble and rubber-stamp for an eternity. You will then sign half a dozen papers promising not to sell your vehicle in Mexico, and pay the $24 fee with a major credit card. All in all, the ordeal may take about an hour and cost $64.