Mexico is Safer.

While we’re playing with statistics about tourism, why not get into the real driver of tourism in Mexico these days — violent crime?  Mexico’s Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Publicá provides easy access to all kinds of crime statistics, provided one is willing to use Microsoft Internet Explorer and deal with nasty pop-ups.

The data reveal the miserable trends that have teamed up with the H1N1 virus and a five-year worldwide economic drought to decimate the tourism sector, one of the most important drivers of largest Spanish-speaking country on the planet. Annual homicides with firearms in Chihuahua state, home of both the World Heritage Site Paquime and Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexico border, increased from 212 in 2005 to 2,151 four years later(914.6%, if you’re interested).  By 2011, that total rose another 7.0 percent to 2,301.

While I was having my Chihuahua vacation several residents told me there had been plenty of violence three years ago, but it had declined more recently.  What has been the more recent history in Chihuahua and in Mexico?

Let’s take a look at the most data and compare the first three months of 2012 with the first quarter of 2011.  For the State of Chihuahua, homicides with firearms are down 42.4% between the first quarter of 201 and 2012, from 674 to 388.  The numbers are still frightening, but the drop is encouraging.  Between 2005 and 2009, armed homicides increased at an average annual rate of 59.0%  The 42.4% drop hopefully portends a rapid decline to normalcy. The gentle increase over the first three months of 2012 probably deals more with seasonality than a general increase in killing.  Homicide levels peak in the summer.


Of course, the figures above describe armed homicides in all of Chihuahua State, which includes Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and plenty of smaller places.

The numbers in “Murder City” Ciudad Juarez are more promising, which suggests things may not be so delightful in the city of Chihuahua.  Between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, armed homicides in Ciudad Juarez fell from 378 to 133 — a 64.8% decline, suggesting things there are much improved (for now).


I suggested the city of Chihuahua may be witnessing a worsening homicide rate, and it did. Armed homicides increased from 98 to 113 between 1Q2011 and 1Q2012.  Where else were there problems?

Here’s a bit of a surprise. Mexico City’s armed homicide rate increased 32.9% between the first quarter of 2011 and 2012.  That would be alarming were it not for the fact that the number of armed homicides in Chihuahua (population 809,000) was identical to that of Mexico City (population 8.5 million).




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What Happened to Tourism in Nuevo Casas Grandes?


In the course of my trip I met two tour guides who complained about the disappearance of visitors from the U.S.  (No. Not from kidnapping.)  I met one U.S. tourist down there — an elderly Californian at Paquime.  Leafing through their visitor register, I did notice another gringo visiting ten days or so prior to my arrival.  At Mata Ortiz, we were hounded by people aggressively pursuing us to buy some exquisite pottery at fire-sale (pardon the pun) prices.

One of the tour guides suggested U.S. tourism was 1% of previous levels.  Another suggested a less radical cut.  I did a little digging to see if I could find some evidence for what has really happened over the past few years.

Mexican tourism data is now available through a system called Cedoc Virtu@l.  I grabbed some data for foreign and domestic arrivals at hotels in Nuevo Casas Grandes (and reported by SECTUR’s DataTur system) and information of total foreign tourist flows to Mexico, which is reported by Banco de Mexico.


The data suggest the trend in foreign arrivals at Nuevo Casas Grandes hotels is highly correlated with the overall trend in foreign visitors to Mexico, with a correlation coefficient of 95.  While they may be correlated, the decline in NCG foreign visitors has been more pronounced, with an annual decline of 17.7% since 2006.  In contrast, foreign visitors to all of Mexico (the green line) declined at an annual rate of 4.5%.

With all of the negative publicity about violence along the frontier, this should come as no surprise. Many people near Nuevo Casas Grandes admitted there were problems with violence three years ago — violence which has largely disappeared.  The data suggest the world has yet to get out to the rest of the world.

The decline in domestic visitors to Nuevo Casas Grandes since 2008 has been less pronounced. In fact, domestic arrivals at NCG hotels since 2006 have increased at an annualized rate of 0.7%.

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Acoma Pueblo


After a week of visiting the ruins of ancient cities, I was keenly interested in visiting a more recent outpost of those earlier civilizations — one that bears the distinction of being the oldest inhabited community within the borders of the United States.  Acoma was settled in 1150, making it older than the Taos pueblo in the northern part of New Mexico.

Acoma does not share the distinction of being on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as Taos has been since 1992.  Taos is on the list because it is “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.”  As I discovered, Acoma lacks the uniform traditional adobe appearance that one sees at Taos.  Upon closer examination, one can see liberal use of non-traditional materials, such as stucco instead of adobe and off-the-shelf doors and windows from places such as Home Depot. Perhaps that may explain why Acoma fails to merit the “outstanding universal value” distinction.

A few years back, I made some inquiries to both pueblos about their visitor levels.  Although Acoma is only about 13 miles from Interstate 40 and less than an hour outside of Albuquerque, it receives half as many visitors as Taos, which is far more remote.  Quite possibly that may be due to World Heritage inscription, although a more likely explanation would be that Taos Pueblo is close to other attractions for affluent visitors, such as ski resorts and artist communities.

The visit to the pueblo begins in its attractive new visitors center.  After paying the $20 admission price, which includes a camera permit, visitors board a bus for a five-minute trip to the top of the mesa.  Acoma has strict rules for photography, which are detailed on its website and reiterated by the tour guide.

Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church and within the cemetery courtyard. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork. Use of tripods, video cameras, digital video cameras, cellular phone cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited. Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited. VIOLATORS OF THESE GUIDELINES WILL HAVE THEIR FILM AND/OR CAMERA CONFISCATED.

I arrived shortly after 9:00 a.m. for the first tour, at 9:30.  By 9:25 there was only one other group present, and elderly couple.  The visitor center staff told me a tour bus was expected and that bus, laden with perhaps 30 visitors from Newport News, rolled in a moment later. 

The assembled group required two tribal buses for the climb to the mesa top and it was hardly intimate.  Still the tour guide, a hipster Acoman wearing earrings and shades, did a magnificent job of herding the mob about while explaining the pueblo’s history and answering questions.

Stationed along the route were members of the Pueblo selling pottery.  None of the work I saw compared to the pottery from Mata Ortiz and the prices were perhaps ten times higher. The others in the mob, however, appeared to be spending freely on Acoma pottery.


Our guide explained that most of the dwellings are second homes, with residents living in nearby towns or on farms.  This may explain the somewhat haphazard appearance of many of the buildings.  I didn’t get a powerful sense that poverty is a large problem there.  Some new construction was obvious and the Pueblo appeared relatively lively that day.


The tour brought us around the mesa top.  One corner had a sign warning residents not to toss waste water and trash off the cliff.  Evidently that was the traditional means of disposing of waste. A couple of enormous plastic garbage cans nearby were evidently put there to encourage appropriate behavior.  I didn’t look over the cliff to see if that was successful.


The real gem of the Pueblo is San Esteban del Rey Church and Convent, whose origins go back to 1630.  The building is being restored with the support of a bundle of institutions, including the Andy Warhol Foundation.

Visitors have two choices for a live return to the valley floor: a) the bus or b) the traditional stairs.  I opted for door number two. Much as with the ancient path to Pueblo Alto at Chaco, the stairs were cut along a crack in the mesa wall. In some places one could see hand holds chiseled into the rock.  I was most impressed by a spot near the top, where massive amounts of already-been-chewed gum had been deposited.  After reaching the bottom, it’s about a ten minute walk to the visitors center.


After returning to the rented Malibu, I headed north toward Grants, New Mexico, where I hoped to find a wi-fi connection that would enable me to check in to my flight the next afternoon.  As I made my way up Indian Route 38 to the top of the next mesa, I encountered an old Step Van accommodating a Indian craftsman making jewelry.  Outside was another Indian peddling some attractive pottery which was arranged on a folding card table.  I asked him why he had binoculars strung around his neck.  The answer: “So I can watch for palefaces coming up the highway!”


I did manage to get to the McDonalds in Grants to check in, but I resisted eating there. There are too many great places to eat in New Mexico.  Why would I consider eating that dreck?  Unfortunately, Grants is hardly a thriving metropolis and there weren’t many choices.  I opted for El Chile Toreado, a taco truck. This was a good choice. As I ate four great tacos, two enormous intermodal trains thundered by on the Santa Fe tracks, only a block away.


I returned to I-40, but couldn’t resist another detour which would complete my Acoma experience. That detour was a visit to the Pueblo’s Sky City Casino.  I planted $5 into a video poker machine and watched the money dribble away.  Then I injected another dollar so I could torture myself a bit longer.  Fortunately, I hit some kind of combination that paid $6.75.  I cashed out an congratulated myself on some excellent and unusual self-control.


Prior to visiting this sad place I entertained the notion that Indian casinos were a good thing because they represented a kind of payback for a long history of injustices inflicted by the white man. That idea evaporated once I entered the building and observed that most of those gambling were Indians.


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The Biggest Threat To Chaco

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is about 90 minutes from the nearest restaurant or motel and it is accessible only by a road that is a challenge to many suspensions.  Consequently, it is only thinly visited.

The chart below shows annual recreational visitors to select National Parks.  How did I select them?  Hot Springs, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon were all honored by America the Beautiful quarters that were issued in 2010.  (Mt. Hood National Forest was also included, but it’s not an NPS property, and I didn’t feel like hunting for National Forest data.)

Chaco Not Boffo With Attendance.

As anyone can see, Chaco’s remote location puts it far off the radar screen of many people, unlike first-tier parks like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.  Put simply, for every soul who enters Chaco, 110 enter Grand Canyon National Park.

Interestingly, the number of visitors to Chaco has dropped rather precipitously in recent years.  Between 2002 and 2011, annual visitor levels declined by more than 50%.  The annual rate of decline over that period was 6.8%.

In contrast, all NPS properties saw visitor levels increase at 1.0% annually over the same period.

What was the trend for the four National Parks that were honored with America the Beautiful quarters in 2010?  Did the coin cause a boost in visitor levels?  At first blush, the data say no.  For the four parks, visitor levels declined by 90,208 in aggregate between 2010 and 2011 — a 2.1% decline.  This is a bit worse than the 1.5% decline for all NPS properties together.

The interesting deviation occurred with Hot Springs National Park, in Arkansas.  Between 2010 and 2011, visitor levels increased by 6.4% after the quarter was released.  The year-over-year comparison is skewed because quarters for all parks were not released at the same time.  The Hot Springs quarter was released first, in April, which may explain the bigger change.  I might avoid this by only looking at December data for 2010 and 2011, as all 2010 quarters were released by November.

My hunch is the impact of a quarter advertising a famous name brand National Park like Yellowstone, Yosemite, or Grand Canyon is minimal.  For a less-well-known spot like Hot Springs the impact will be greater.  For an obscure spot like Chaco, the impact can be monstrous.

We will see.  The quarter was released on April 2, 2012.




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Aztec National Monument

A half hour up US-550 (and a few blocks west on W. Aztec Boulevard and right on Ruins Road, just after the bridge over the Animas River) and the tourist finds oneself at Aztec National Monument, home of Aztec Ruins.  Construction began in the early 12th century and (according to Steve Lekson’s A History of the Ancient Southwest, p. 154) continued through the late 13th century.  Aztec, like Salmon, Chaco, and Paquime, line up at 108 degrees west.  Coincidence? As someone pointed out, it would be a coincidence if it was a coincidence.  Here you have a people who built ceremonial structures oriented strictly north-to-south, a people who connected (some of) these structures with large works of civil engineering, and their alignment along this meridian is a coincidence?

After visiting the other sites, Aztec was a bit of a letdown.  (Remember, I was sorely craving food and coffee at that point and my feet were a disaster.)

While Salmon was on the periphery of Bloomfield, Aztec Ruins butt right up to a neighborhood.  I’ve got to wonder how many pot shards were churned up when this community was built.

One enters Aztec through it’s visitors center.  I approached the ticket counter and attempted to use my ICOMOS card to get free admission.  The non-uniformed employee or volunteer behind the counter wasn’t familiar with ICOMOS and she asked me to wait while she asked a ranger for advice.  The ranger was equally unfamiliar with ICOMOS, which is an advisory body to UNESCO’s World Heritage program.  I paid the $5, grabbed a laminated guide, and stepped into their auditorium to watch a film on a huge flat-panel television operating on a continuous loop. I found the content of the film to be a bit stale.  The small museum behind the auditorium provided some interesting artifacts, just as with Salmon Ruins.

I emerged from the visitors center to the West Ruin.  According to the Park’s brochure, “the three-story buiding had over 500 rooms and many kivas…” Aztec is part of the World Heritage List designation that includes both Chaco and Aztec.  It would be useful to include the Salmon Ruins in the designation, which also includes “Pierre’s Site, Halfway, House, Twin Angles, Kin Nizhoni, and Casamero. My guess is that it was excluded because Aztec is not on U.S. Government property as are the lions share of U.S. inscriptions.


Unlike Salmon, which was excavated in the 1970s under more modern standards that provide for less reconstruction and more stabilization of ruins as found, the Aztec ruins include some heavy reconstruction.  Earl Morris of the American Museum of Natural History had a major role in Aztec’s excavation and reconstruction.  The extent of reconstruction provides the visitor with a sense that he is visiting a museum as much an important religious center for the predecessors of extant Pueblos.

The tour pathway takes the visitor down a reconstructed corridor of 11 rooms in the northwest section of the West Ruin.  It ultimately deposits the visitor at the elaborately reconstructed Great Kiva, before returning to the Visitor Center.

The Great Kiva is impressive. Indeed, it’s the highlight of a visit to Aztec.

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Salmon Ruin

The literature (or at least some of it) indicates Chaco Canyon was abandoned around 1150, with the migration route following the “Great North Road,” which is visible with satellite imagery.   This migration resulted in the Aztec complex, 60 km due north of Chaco, which was begun around 1110 (according to A History of the Ancient Southwest, by Steve Lekson, Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2008 — a book I highly recommend ).

For a few intervening decades, however, the Las Vegas of the 900 years ago had moved to an intermediate spot on the San Juan River, on the outskirts of what is now Bloomfield, New Mexico.  There is speculation that agriculture at Chaco had become too difficult during a period of drought.  Clearly there is ample water for drinking and irrigation on the banks of the San Juan, which is fed by snow melt from the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado.  Look at the image below grabbed from Google Maps.

Salmon Ruin, Bloomfield, New Mexico.

Below four-lane US-64 is the Salmon visitor center and ruin, surrounded by small houses, trailers, and industrial uses. The San Juan River is in the lower right corner of the image.

The experience is vastly different from Paquime or Chaco.  One gets a sense he’s in somebody’s backyard while also visiting an important archaeological site.  Another big difference is that San Juan Ruins are operated by San Juan County. Its visitor center is large and attractive and the exhibits are more extensive than those available in the current visitor center configuration at Chaco. However; one gets a powerful sense that the place is lightly visited.  When I arrived around 11:00 a.m., I was visitor number one for that Saturday.  The sole staff member on hand was a bearded man with Vietnam veteran regalia on his car and a pack of Camels in his shirt pocket. Admission to the park, which also includes George Salmon’s pioneer homestead and examples of various Indian dwellings, is $3.00 for adults.

The excavation of Salmon (pronounces more like Salomon brothers than like the fish) was excavated fairly recently — between 1972 and 1978. The San Juan County Museum Association provides an excellent guide to the site, which includes descriptions at 18 markers along a pathway.  Markers are also provided to identify various native plants.

As an example, the description for Marker 1, says the following:

You are standing at the northeastern corner of the Pueblo.  The back wall is 120 meters (394 feet) in length and was three stories high.  The exterior eastern wall was approximately 50 meters (164 feet) long and western exterior wall was approximately 56 meters (183 feet) long.  Current research suggests that the pueblo’s back wall was laid out in alignment with astronomical observatins that were based on a Lunar Standstill. 

The construction of the wall represents a hallmark of Chacoan wall construction: core and veneer masonry.  Using sandstone that was specifically cut to fit, masons used constructions methods unique to their culture and exercised great skill at their craft.  The location known to be the source for the majority of stone materials for Salmon is a quarry about three miles north of the site. Exactly where the timbers used to build were harvested is uncertain, but is likely they were procured (in) the Chuska or the La Plata Mountains, nearly 50 miles away.  It is possible that the beams were floated down-river, but, more likely, they were carried by hand to the site.  

And here is what one sees at Marker 1:

Marker 1.

According to William Morgan’s Ancient Architecture of the Southwest, Salmon contained 290 rooms, compared to the 800 rooms at Pueblo Bonito, perhaps the largest of Chaco Canyon’s structures.

It was lonely at Salmon, but hardly quiet. The din cocks crowing and traffic on the adjacent highway reminds the visitor that he’s in the midst of a bustling gas-fueled economy.


Given the noise and the visual pollution, the experience is quite a bit different from serene experience at either Chaco or Paquime.  Granted I was only there for a quick run-through, but the timeless sense of spirituality this jaded observer felt at Paquime and Chaco proved a bit more elusive here. The experience was a bit closer to that of the Tlatelolco site in a residential area of Mexico City. (See below.) My stomach was rumbling and I was thinking way too much about coffee and food, so I made back through the foggy Camel-generated haze in the visitors center to the parking lot and psychologically speaking aimed the Malibu back in that same due-north direction to Aztec.



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After Chaco

Saturday morning, March 31st.  I left my park housing and made one last visit to a Chaco site, the great kiva at Casa Rinconada, which sits at mile 6 on the loop road.  It was a bit after eight, chilly, and very quiet when I parked the car and headed up the short trail to the kiva site.  The silence was interrupted by a curious raven which circled and landed not far from the path.

The photo below shows the path as it approaches the kiva.  This huge kiva is the only one I noticed in the park that included a sign warning visitors not to enter nor leave objects within it.  I suspect there may have been a problem with New Age types wanting to get a bit closer to the spirituality of the ancients.

Keep out of the kiva!

This kiva is big!  One excellent website reports it as 63 feet or 19.2 meters in diameter. The photo below shows (I believe) Pueblo Bonito beyond on the canyon floor.  Above on the mesa, one can see the silhouette of the Pueblo Alto ruins.

Casa Rinconada Kiva.

As I headed for the exits, I got a glimpse of some elk enjoying Chaco’s complimentary breakfast buffet.


The Malibu and I headed out of the park onto County Road 7950 and then turned onto CR 7950.  Shortly after the turn, I encountered two middle-aged Navajo hitchhikers.  They were headed to Bloomfield, site of the Salmon ruins, and where they said they were getting some help with their income taxes.  I was happy to have the company for the 35-minute trip north to this town which appeared to be bustling with activity related to nearby natural gas exploitation.

The older Navajo asked if I was an archaeologist and then told me of some caves near his place where there are some old and undisturbed artifacts.  “The Navajo are superstitious people,” he said. “We don’t ever mess with that stuff.”  I had just been reading about how the some of the earliest white visitors to Mesa Verde during the late 19th century saw clothing and food left around as if the dwellings had recently been abandoned.

I thought about and what the hitchhiker told me.  I have to assume that various Indian populations had plenty of encounters with Mesa Verde in the 600 or so years between its abandonment and discovery by palefaces Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason.  My guess is that they too had no interest in interfering with the items left by Mesa Verdes inhabitants and the spirits that went along with them.

The hitchhikers pointed out the sacred mountain Dzil Na’oodilii (or Huerfano Mesa) along the roadside. The mesa top was bristling with various communications towers, which one would think would be regarded by the Navajo as a desecration.  Actually, the desecration of the landscape didn’t stop there. In this thinly populated country plenty of white trucks belonging to gas exploration companies were seen darting around.  I took a look the neighborhood with the Google Maps satellite view and noticed that the earth was pocked with gas wells.  Zoom out a bit an you see this wonderful image.

Polka dots and gas wells.


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Chihuahua Safety

As I revisit my wonderful visit to Chihuahua state, I though it might be useful to take a little detour and offer a brief word on safety.

Here is an excerpt from the U.S. State Department Travel Warning dated February 8, 2012:

15.  Chihuahua: Juarez and Chihuahua are the major cities/travel destinations in Chihuahua –see map (PDF, 286 kb) to identify their exact locations: You should defer non-essential travel to the state of Chihuahua.  The situation in the state of Chihuahua, specifically Ciudad Juarez, is of special concern.  Ciudad Juarez has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico.  The Mexican government reports that more than 3,100 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez in 2010 and 1,933 were killed in 2011.  Three persons associated with the Consulate General were murdered in March 2010. The state of Chihuahua is normally entered through Columbus, NM, and the El Paso, Fabens and Fort Hancock, TX, ports-of-entry.  There have been incidents of narcotics-related violence in the vicinity of the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua.

I feel I’ve done a reasonable job of documenting my visit to the state of Chihuahua. I was in      Ciudad Juárez a few years ago and it was scary.  The only people I saw on the streets were guys in their twenties with gold teeth and multiple cell phones, police, military, and desperate people.  It was scary in the daylight and even scarier as we eased into twilight.

My experience during my recent trip (March, 2012) to Casas Grandes, Nuevo Casas Grandes, and Janos was entirely different.  I walked around N. Casas Grandes quite a bit — in the daylight and after dark.  The city’s main plaza appeared safe and active. The atmosphere of fear I experienced in Ciudad Juárez was absent.

I ran through my inventory of photos in an effort to find something that would communicate the greatest moment of fear I experienced (outside of the customs officer threatening to make us return to the border to get a car permit) during the trip.  Here it is:  a group of teenagers hanging out in the main square in Casas Grandes.  As we passed by they reacted to the rare presence of gringos by shouting something that was unintelligible to me.  By the way, none of them were wearing hoodies.

Casas Grandes

Here’s another shot, which communicates the paralyzing atmosphere at Constantino’s, a big, well-lit place in Nuevo Casas Grandes (and one which I highly recommend).

Constantino's, Nuevo Casas Grandes

Would I return? Absolutely.  However; when I return I will — as we did with this most recent trip — cross the border anywhere but in one of Ciudad Juárez’s border crossings.  (I was promised an invitation to a conference at Paquime this July.  I hope it comes through.)

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Roaming Chaco

Chaco is not only difficult to get to, it’s also takes some effort to see some of it’s most important sites.  The nine-mile Chaco Canyon Loop Road (which is also paved) provides easy access to the superstar great house Pueblo Bonito, plus Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo, Casa Rinconada, and Hungo Pavi.  Other sites include a bit of hiking.

I wanted to see the Pueblo Alto Complex, which sits atop the mesa adjoining Pueblo Bonito.   This 3.2-mile jaunt starts out with a steep ascent up a crack in the canyon behind Pueblo Bonito, and then continues around the canyon rim and up to Pueblo Alto and it’s little brother New Alto.  There is a longer version of this hike (5.1 miles) that provides a view, but not use, of an ancient stairway, but I elected to skip that portion to I could meet with park officials and do a bit more hiking in the afternoon.

It gets pretty chilly on late-March mornings in northern New Mexico.  I wore my black leather blazer to keep me warm, and carried a bottle of water in my little knapsack.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have any hiking shoes, only a pair of ultralight sneakers, that provided insufficient support during this hike.  After my rapid ascent to the top of the mesa I was provided with a spectacular view of Chaco Canyon and Pueblo Bonito.  Despite temperatures a few degrees above freezing, I was burning up in the torrid sun.

The path to Pueblo Alto.

The marvelous view of Pueblo Bonito also gave me a sense of how difficult it is to monitor visitors there…let alone at any of Chaco’s other sites, some of which, I discovered are pretty remote.  I got to play Don Whyte for a minute and observe a single visitor wandering through Pueblo Bonito.  Unlike Paquime, the pathways are not particularly well marked and no elevated station staffed with minders.  There was little to prevent this visitor from removing a souvenir, or vandalizing the site. Pottery shards, arrowheads, and other artifacts frequently appear after rain storms or merely from the pitter patter of feet on pathways.  They disappear.

So, I followed the pathway, past the fossilized burrows of Cretaceous shrimp, past the pecked basins along the cliff sides, past the stone circles, past the ancient steps, and up to the Pueblo Alto Complex.  According to the trail guide, portions of the plaza and 14 rooms were excavated between 1976 and 1979.  Most of the site remains undisturbed.

A handful of steps beyond Pueblo Alto, one gets an extraordinary view that helps to put the Chaco sites into context.  Ahead are the San Juan and La Plata Peaks in Colorado, the Navajos’ sacred mesa Dzil Na’oodilii, and some parts of the 400 miles of Chacoan road segments, including the Great North Road, which follows a route 40 miles in that direction.

Following my excursion, I dropped by the Visitors Center and offices and had a brief meeting with Jim Von Haden.  I shared some of my observations, particularly regarding the problem of maintaining the feeling of the place and the sense of freedom, while simultaneously dealing with a nearly impossible task of controlling visitors in such an expansive park — and one which is loaded with objects to loot.

Changes which may infringe on visitors’ freedom are implemented slowly.  Rangers are disinclined toward hassling people.  Apprehended scofflaws are typically invited to do the right thing rather than being fined.  Couple this atmosphere with the nature of the sites, which are relatively undisturbed.  For the most part they are either preserved, marginally restored, or left as found.  Consequently, the experience feels real.

The cost of course is vandalism and theft.  In some cases, this can be particularly difficult.  The park’s campground is located next to a small ruin.  The ruin is roped off, but this proximity invites problems.  Buried ancient buried corn cobs have been bubbling to the surface like tires in a landfill, a function of their lower density than the surrounding earth.  These relics (the corn cobs; not the tires) have been disappearing.

The afternoon plan called for visiting the Peñasco Blanco ruin, a 3.6-mile hike west up the canyon.  According to the trail guide, this hike takes from four to six hours.My feet had already been brutalized by sloshing around in my lightweight sneakers, so I switched to my only other alternative, a pair of Johnston & Murphys.  The trip follows the north wall of Chaco Canyon, passing Casa Chiquita and the Petroglyph Trail.   I plowed ahead , reserving time to explore those two sites for the return trip, provided I had enough time before dark.

The trail eventually crosses to the south side of Chaco Canyon, below Peñasco Blanco. It was there, after an hour of walking and jogging, that  I was able to find a shady place to rest and drink some water.  This also is the site of the Supernova pictograph.  There is evidence dating this image to 1054, when Asian astronomers recorded a supernova, which resulted in the Crab Nebula.  In the image below, one can see the faint spiral image of the Supernova pictograph.  One can also see the more distinct images above of a star, the moon, and a hand.

The "Supernova" pictograph.

Ten minutes later I was back on the trail.  The remaining segment up the cliff was advertised as only 0.8 miles, but it was a rough and steep trail, with lots of switchbacks.  This last chunk required 45 minutes to drag myself up to the ruins.

The last part of the path was a bit more challenging.
It was also a beautiful climb.


Peñasco Blanco.

With its oval layout, Peñasco Blanco is atypical of other Chaco sites.  While the site may have been disturbed by early white explorers, such as Richard Wetherill,  Peñasco Blanco remains relatively undisturbed.

The route home was a bit quicker.  When I arrived at the Petroglyph Trail, about halfway to the trail head, I encountered something I hadn’t seen for hours: people.

The Petroglyph Trail is a four-mile round trip that follows the first two miles of  the Peñasco Blanco Trail.  Six panels of ancient rock art are highlighted. In addition there are more contemporary carvings from early white explorers, the Navajo, and later visitors who   wanted to leave their marks.  As with other situations, the preservationists and managers at Chaco are forced to make decisions about which graffiti is welcome and which needs to be eliminated.  During the previous night’s dinner I asked the rock art experts about where the cutoff is.  There wasn’t an answer, but it’s certain no further additions are welcome to the art already on hand.

Bighorn sheep, man (or supernatural figure), and katsina mask.
Old graffiti: desirable.
Newer graffiti: bad.

After lingering a bit around the ancient and not-so-ancient art, I continued toward the trail head, and picked up speed.  The end, and a tall, cold glass of Coca-Cola was near.  As the end came into view, I spotted someone off the trail among the bushes, steps from the trail head and near a covered picnic table.  I could see that this fellow was bent over.  As I became closer, he saw me and then quickly inserted something into a clear plastic bag, which he subsequently and quickly zipped into his knapsack.  Obviously, he had been searching for rocks or Indian artifacts.  I found it interesting that this law breaker didn’t look any different from most of the visitors, equipped with sturdy hiking boots and articles of expensive outdoor apparel.

Wasn't wearing a hoodie.
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Chaco Culture

Like Paquimé, Chaco Culture is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, joining it in 1987 — 11 years before its Mexican cousin (or descendant).  Chaco’s World Heritage designation also includes Aztec Ruins National Monument, 71.8 miles and two hours  due north, in the town that is also named Aztec.

World Heritage is highlighted at Chaco and there is high awareness of it. Good.

I arrived at Chaco a bit after 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 29, 2012.  I stopped first at the Visitor Center, where I was warmly greeted by Ranger Landis Ehler, behind the desk.  Landis warmly welcomed me and noted that I’d be sharing his park housing unit with him for the next two nights.  (The other usual occupant would be next door, babysitting for the park superintendant’s dogs, while she was vacationing in Spain).

Entrance to Chaco Culture NHP Visitors Center

Jim Von Haden, Chaco’s Chief of Natural Resources emerged from his office and was introduced.  He took me to meet Teri Jaquez, who is in charge of assigning space to visitors and collecting the $11.28 per night (if I recall correctly) that one has to pay for a room in a rather perfunctory three-bedroom, one-bath house with a view that would knock anyone’s socks off.  I also met head ranger Don Whyte, who provided another friendly welcome. Jim suggested I pop over to Pueblo Bonito, the superstar attraction of Downtown Chaco, where Landis would be conducting a guided tour at 2:00.

Energized by the incredibly warm welcome and by the thrill of finally being in this place, I reinserted myself into my rented Malibu (equipped with sunroof, leather seats, and non-functioning satellite radio), and motored over to the Pueblo Bonito parking lot.

A large group had assembled around Landis, who provided a thoughtful introduction, assisted by photographs contained in vinyl sleeves in a looseleaf binder.  Landis’s preamble included a friendly warning to avoid touching the ruin’s walls. Given the girth of at least half of the tourgoers and the diminutive dimensions of the Pueblo Bonito’s doorways, that admonition soon  proved worthless.

Ranger Ehler provides an introduction to Pueblo Bonito.
Don't touch the walls.

Although Chaco is enormous, encompassing hundreds of sites.  Prevailing theory indicates the “great houses” (complexes with hundreds of rooms) were “impressive examples of public architecture used for ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations came to the canyon for these events.”  (Source Chaco Culture pamplet from NPS.)  I like Landis’s description.  He said Chaco was the Las Vegas of its day.  I haven’t yet begun to study maps to understand the parallels between Chaco and Las Vegas and I probably won’t.  What happens in Chaco stays in Chaco.

These T-doorways didn't stay in Chaco. They are also found in Paquime.

A team of rock art specialists were visiting for the week to instruct the preservationist crew on methods of conserving this early art, much of which has been desecrated over the years by visitors unable to resist the urge to mark their territory in more permanent ways.    (Speaking of which, the visitor brochure includes the following admonitions:  1) Do not collect pottery, plants, or rocks.  2) Do not deface, add to, or alter petroglypshs, pictogrpahs, or rocks. 3) Do not walk, climb sit, or lean on fragile walls. 4) Pets are not permitted to enter cultural sites. 5) Stay on designated trails. 6) All trails close at sunset. 7) Watch out for rattlesnakes. Nothing there yet about pissing on the trail.)

After the Pueblo Bonito tour, I strolled over to visit the adjacent great house, Chetro Ketrl.  As I drifted toward the parking lot I ran into  Jane Kolber and Dabney Ford, the rock art expert in the Southwest and Chaco’s chief archaeologist, respectively.  (Next time I’m in Tappahannock, Virginia, I’ll be sure to look for Dabney Ford Tractor.)  We had a lively conversation about their project, vandalism control, and the visitor experience at Chaco.  They invited me to stop by Jane’s housing unit that evening for dinner.

When I arrived (30 minutes late, at 6:30), I discovered there’s a living Chaco culture of group meals with great food and abundant wine.  I had been prepared to eat a dinner of peanut butter and jelly and was abundantly thrilled to be able to enjoy the nice spread and a couple of glasses of Italian vino.  Equally appealing was the conversation among the shifting cast of characters around the dinner table.  So, as Dabney Ford and Roger Moore left, Don Whyte popped in.  He, like most of the crowd, had a biggie-sized personality and a love for Chaco.

As he enthusiastically ate his dinner, Don entertained us (or at least me) with some stories about his job.  Don is qualified in firefighting (both structures and wildfires), lifesaving, interpreting, and law enforcement.  (Apparently he is the only ranger at the park so qualified, which, I noted, makes him the lone ranger. Don, like many park employees, is Navajo.) To maintain some of these qualifications he must annually prove himself with physical tests.  Right now he is readying himself for these tests by taking daily early morning hikes with 45 pounds of weights strapped to his chest.

He explained how he is adept at multitasking. While taking care of his many duties, Don will occasionally pause for a moment to observe suspected distant vandals, pot shard and rock collectors, and other miscreants.  After he described his logic for watching these potential perps, it occurred to me that he is effectively performing what has become know as behavioral profiling.  I recalled my tour at Logan Airport with the security director who had been schooled by Israeli profiling expert Raffi Ron. Whyte said that his behavioral profiling skills are a direct result of growing up hunting on the rez, where one is constantly looking for things that a bit askew from normal.

Park housing.


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