DescriptionNote: For current information about safety/security issues in Nuevo Casas Grandes, refer to the U.S. State Department website (travel.state.gov).
A harsh climate, an equally harsh landscape and a remote setting long impeded large-scale settlement of northern Mexico, and this vast region has few ancient ruins or cultural reminders of past greatness. One notable exception is the Paquimé Archeological Site near Nuevo Casas Grandes . Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, this former city was once an important trade and cultural link between the Pueblo culture of the southwestern United States and the more advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica. Paquimé was mysteriously abandoned about a century before the arrival of the Spanish, and excavation and reconstruction of the extensive ruins left behind is ongoing.
The safest and most convenient way to get to Paquimé from the United States is to use the Columbus, New Mexico/Palomas, Chihuahua border crossing (US 11 to Mex. 2, then west). The paperwork to obtain tourist and temporary vehicle importation permits can be processed at the Mexico port of entry, which is open daily 8 a.m.-midnight (the U.S. border station is open daily 24 hours).
Palomas, which means “city of the doves,” is a typically dusty Mexican border town with one paved street (the main drag) and a rustic plaza where vendors sell cold drinks, cactus candy and cheap sunglasses. A must stop is The Pink Store (La Tienda Rosa); you can't miss the bubblegum-colored exterior. The restaurant here has quite a reputation for authentic and tasty regional cuisine (the cheese comes from a nearby Mennonite community). And in addition to souvenirs like sombreros and paper flowers, the store itself carries an outstanding selection of folk art, jewelry, clothing, furniture, leather goods and handicrafts handpicked by the owners from all over Mexico.
Across the street from The Pink Store is a bronze statue of Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Francisco “Pancho” Villa. As commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North) during the Mexican Revolution, Villa led an attack on neighboring Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, seizing horses and mules and burning part of the town. The revolutionary is depicted on horseback at full gallop. It's said that the statue faces east because Americans objected to it facing north and Mexicans did not want it facing south.
From Palomas, proceed south about 32 kilometers (20 miles) to the junction with Mex. 2, then take Mex. 2 west about 90 kilometers (56 miles) to the town of Janos. At Janos, follow Mex. 10 south about 61 kilometers (38 miles) to Nuevo Casas Grandes. Driving at night on these paved but narrow two-lane roads is not recommended.
From El Paso, use the Santa Teresa, New Mexico border crossing, about 13 miles west of I-10 exit 8 (Artcraft Road). Crossing here allows you to bypass Ciudad Juárez and avoid having to navigate that city. At Santa Teresa (where you also can complete the necessary paperwork for tourist and temporary vehicle importation permits) you can either take Mex. 2 west toward Nuevo Casas Grandes, or stay in New Mexico and take SR 9, which parallels the border, west about 60 miles to Columbus/Palomas.
Combine an exploration of the Paquimé ruins with a visit to Mata Ortiz, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Nuevo Casas Grandes and 17 kilometers (11 miles) southwest of the much smaller town of Casas Grandes, locally called el pueblo viejo (“the old village”) or just el pueblo. More than 400 potters of various ages live in Mata Ortiz, and they all create the distinctive style of pottery that is known by the same name.
The pottery-making tradition here is young—going back only to the 1970s, when a local man, Juan Quezada, began to re-create the pottery-making techniques once practiced by the people of Paquimé after he found some ancient pots near his village. In the process Quezada became a self-taught potter and artist, passing on what he learned to family members and other families throughout the village.
Many of these artisans fashion their beautifully designed creations using age-old methods. Pots are shaped without the use of a wheel; intricate designs are painted by hand with brushes made of human or horse hair; firing is done on the ground utilizing cow manure. Native clay and the minerals used in making paints come from the surrounding mountains.
A couple of galleries in town sell the work of village artists, and if you're a first-time visitor this is the easiest way to discover the world of Mata Ortiz pottery. Besides pottery, the Jorge Quintana Gallery sells woven goods from Oaxaca and Mexican crafts. Juan and Mauro Quezada maintain galleries out of their respective homes. All three galleries are just off the main street that runs through town; inquire locally and someone can point you in the right direction.
Dollars are readily accepted, but most potters have no means of shipping purchases to the United States. The Jorge Quintana Gallery will pack and ship purchases for their customers. If you're transporting your treasures across the border, keep in mind limits and exceptions for bringing back duty-free articles. Pottery is duty-free but must be declared; keep receipts for any large purchases.
If you just want to visit Mata Ortiz for the experience, don't intend to buy pottery and don't want to drive, a taxi can take you to the village and the driver will wait while you walk around and explore. The cost can be negotiated with the driver, but expect to pay around 650 pesos for the round-trip fare, plus another 150 or so pesos per hour for him to wait. In Nuevo Casas Grandes there are taxi stands (sitios) in the vicinity of the main plaza.
Things to SeePaquimé Archeological Site