A few years ago I was driving along the Arizona border when I stumbled across the Amerind Museum. It was a weird and eclectic hodge-podge of artifacts collected by a guy who was passionate about indigenous cultures. I wandered around, confused and amazed at the sheer doggedness such a collection demanded.
Then I found the gift shop.
Two items caught my eye: some exquisite pottery–designs that were finely painted and etched against a creamy background; and some beautifully woven baskets in muted natural colors that smelled to me of home. The pottery was from Mata Ortiz, a village in northern Mexico that was becoming internationally known for a specific type of pottery. (More on this later.) The baskets were woven from pine needles by the Tarahumara, an indigenous people living in the mountains of northern Mexico.
I could only afford the smallest sample of each, but I told myself that someday I’d visit the places where these beautiful things were made.
Then I learned that Mata Ortiz is the neighboring village to Casas Grandes and the ruins of Paquime, which are not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also the inspiration for that exquisite pottery. And THEN I heard about Las Guacamayas, an unusual B&B located almost at the entrance to Paquime.
See how this whole thing is coming together?
So, in planning my trip to Mexico, Casas Grandes, Paquime and Mata Ortiz were first on the list.
After all my border tangles, I arrived at Las Guacamayas so late that I only had time to rustle up some food from Alma’s hamburguesas stand before dark. But the next morning, Mayte Lujan, the owner of Las Guacamayas, took me firmly in hand.
Mayte is steeped in both the history of Paquime and the present-day renaissance of Mata Ortiz pottery. She was the curator of the museum at the ruins, which offers a clear and straightforward introduction, in Spanish and English, to the ruins and their relative significance and function. It informs rather than razzle-dazzles.
This direct approach isn’t surprising, given Mayte’s background in civil engineering. She was appointed to curate the museum “because I want someone with common-sense” rather than an academic pedigree, according to her boss.
And as if she needed another project, Mayte began to build her own casa grande–Las Guacamayas. She experimented with the same rammed-earth building technique used by the ancients at Paquimw until she got it right–the right dirt, the right dampness, the right-sized forms. “I had to stop thinking in terms of iron and concrete, like an engineer,” she said. Her materials now were dirt and wood.
Her casa isn’t made of adobe bricks, folks. This is dirt pounded into a form and covered with a smooth clay layer then a whitewash kind of paint. Just like the ruins outside her door.
And with same view.
Equally compelling (and ongoing) has been her work to identify and develop the best talent in Mata Ortiz–and to market their work in US galleries. But we’ll get to that. Right now the ruins are waiting.
Paquime lay at the crossroads where northern cultures (Anasazi and Ootam) met south (Aztec and Maya), and it absorbed characteristics of both. Like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde on the northern side of a border that didn’t exist them, Paquime was deserted by the time the Spaniards got there, and for the same reasons (drought and enemies), so a lot of what we know is the piecing together of an anthropological puzzle.
“And if we don’t know, we lie, just like the anthropologists,” laughs Mayte.
Paquime was no cultural backwater at that time. Artisans worked in metal, stone, fabric, and of course, pottery. An intricate system of reservoirs and aqueducts stored water (this is arid country, remember) and directed it to each family home. Some families raised macaws, which, apparently is quite difficult, and which were used in religious ceremonies. Pit ovens were used, apparently to cook agave hearts for the ceremonial hootch.
At its zenith, maybe 3000 people lived in Paquime in a meandering arrangement of nine large houses, hence the name “Casas Grandes,” which the Spanish called it when they stumbled across the ruins.
Photos of Paquime don’t do it justice. This is a big, rambling bunch of structures, as impressive in its own way as Chaco Canyon, but with more information available. Add the sweetness of Casas Grandes–the nearby town–and the intrigue and comfort of Las Guacamayas, and you have the makings of a very fine trip.
And that doesn’t count Mata Ortiz.
For more photos of the town, the ruins, Las Guacamayas, and the Mata Ortiz pottery, visit my Facebook page: wanderingnotlost.org.