I am a sucker for a good UNESCO Heritage Site. Having explored dozens of them, all around the world, we were eager to end our birthday trip to Mexico on a high note with a trip to Paquime, in Casas Grandes. Easily the largest civilization in the Chihuahua desert, villages formed here as early as 700 AD.
Located at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, near the headwaters of the Casas Grandes River, Paquime is thought to have been built around 1350AD, replacing an earlier settlement dating back to around 1130 AD. Multi-storied buildings dot the landscape of the park, indicating only a very small percentage of the actual settlement. Thought to be one of the largest, and most complex cities of the region, Paquime was hundreds of miles away from any comparable city, and for much of it’s heydey was based on a farming society.
Abandoned sometime around 1430 AD, like the Mayan civilizations of the Yucatan, Paquime had no obvious reasons for the abandonment of the city. According to the excellent museum onsite, possibilities range from years of sustained drought to war with the Opata that caused the inhabitants to move on. When the Spanish explorer Fransicso de Ibarra came upon the location in 1565 AD the local Indians indicated the villagers had simply moved on, with no additional explanation.
The architecture is unique with t-shaped doorways and circular pit houses, unlike anything else we have seen. The city was quite advanced for it’s day, featuring a separate manufacturing and farming region, the living quarters which are thought to have been up to seven stories tall, with open air communal areas and extensive aqueduct systems to transport water.
Curiously, the smallish ball courts are the “I” shape found in Mesoamerica, rather than the oval shaped ones of Southern Arizona Hohokam culture, yet another unexplained fact of the site. Burned in 1340, re-constructed Paquime consisted of around 2000 rooms and held and estimated 2500 inhabitants, although around 350 smaller settlements featuring the same architecture can be found as far as 39 miles away, suggesting an overall population closer to 10,000.
What is known is that the population were talented craftspeople. Although only a small percentage of the region has been excavated, thousands of copper bells, beads, and carvings have been found. Elaborate jewelry was unearthed along with the famous pots. Skilled pot makers, the pottery of the region is renowned for it’s thin, delicate sides and unique patterns.
Known today as Mata Ortiz pottery, the tradition continues. Named after the town where Juan Quezada Celado taught himself how to recreate the extraordinary workmanship required to craft such delicate vessels, ancient patterns are brought back to life. Practiced by a relatively small group of artisans, Mata Ortiz are now prized collectors items which, thankfully for us, come in a variety of price ranges.
We said we wouldn’t buy one. We certainly didn’t need one. We’re currently divesting ourselves of possessions. And yet, the sheer beauty drew us in. In the future, at some place and time, our very own reminder of this fascinating region of Mexico will hold it’s rightful place on display.