Chaco Canyon – Ancient Pueblos and Fine Indian Jewellery

Handmade Indian silver jewelleryIf you should find yourself, like the Solo Lady Traveller, travelling across the great dry heartland of the USA along Route 66 (now known as I40) in a tomato-red convertible, and you reach Milan, New Mexico, take a pause. There are things to see here which are not obvious when you fly through the dusty little town strung out along the railway line. Not at all obvious! Pull up at the Chaco Canyon Trading Company and have lunch. For under $10 you can have a Reuben sandwich stacked with 2" thick of corned beef, with sauerkraut and mustard, or a vast plate of huevos rancheros, or mountainous enchiladas dripping with cheese and chile, with all you can drink iced tea. But the real treat is when you walk (quickly!) through the tawdry tourist gimcracks beside the cafe, into an enormous room of handmade Indian silver and gemstone jewellery. Glass cabinets line the walls, each dedicated a particular stone or combination of stones; cascades of turquoise, amazonite, coral, jet, lapis lazuli, charoite, amethyst, oyster shell, malachite and azurite, all skilfully set by Navaho, Zuni and Hopi Indians in styles distinctive to their pueblo. This is the largest collection of fine Indian jewellery that I have found anywhere in New Mexico, and at prices far lower than those in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Map to Chaco CanyonWith inner person fed, the outer person decorated, and the warm glow that comes from knowing you have contributed to a local pueblo economy with the purchase of your new turquoise necklace, you can travel up to Chaco Canyon which is the most important pueblo architectural site in the USA. The connection between the Chaco Canyon Trading Company and the Chaco ruins is not as tenuous as you may suppose; crafting and trading turquoise was carried out there for at least several hundred years. Head north  from the store for about 2 1/2 hours along roads which are partly dirt and can be in poor condition, so ask at the Trading Company before you set out. Do not trust your GPS as some of the roads shown are not readily passable. The structures at Chaco Canyon lie within the Chaco Culture National Historic Park which was proclaimed in 1907 to protect the largest collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico, one of the most important pre-Columbian areas in USA.  Ruins at Chaco Cultural Centre Nw MexicoThe buildings are not thought to have been towns, but to have been some sort of ceremonial or trading centre which was used from time to time and which formed the cultural centre of life for the Anasazi people from about 850 to 1200AD. Crafting and trading turquoise and other items was widespread, and archaeologists have found 200,000 turquoise pieces. The fifteen major complexes were built with stone and with great logs hauled from as far afield as Colorado, distances of up to a hundred kilometres, by hand, impossible to imagine the effort and commitment required to do this; it compares to the transporting of stones to Stonehenge. Stone walls Chaco Canyon cultural centreThe structures lie along a tarred 9-mile loop road, and all are an easy walk from the road on decent gravelled paths. However the July day that I was there was ferociously hot;  the climate is extreme with temperatures ranging between -39 and +39, and there is virtually no shade. The largest of the Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito, which had at least 650 rooms and stood 4 storeys tall. The walls are built of rubble faced with beautifully crafted stone veneer, and have remained standing for a thousand years. The alignment of the buildings to north-south lines and to various equinox lines indicates a technically advanced, as well as architecturally skilled, society, and this lends an air of tragedy and lost past causes as you wander amongst the fragments of grand buildings, along dusty paths through an arid and uninhabited landscape. Once there would have been water and green things, throngs of people walking, carrying bags and baskets of goods to trade, food, cloth; but about 1200AD the climate changed, and the massive and vibrant centre was abandoned to the desert wind. Kiva at Chaco Cultural Centre New MexicoOne of the most interesting features are the kivas, circular meeting rooms cut down into the ground, and roofed with timber beams and a sort of thatch. Notches for the poles forming the roofs are precisely spaced, curving around the walls of the kivas.  To enter, you would have climbed down a ladder into a space lit by a fire which would have burned in the centre of the kiva. Perhaps travelling craftsmen and traders slept here, protected below the ground from the harsh summers and the bitter winter wind and snow. *********** If your interest has been piqued by Chaco, and a sense of adventure on unplanned paths calls you, then instead of returning to the I40 and on west to Arizona, or east to Albuquerque, drive north about 4 hours through Farmington to Durango, Colorado. After a good night's sleep in Durango you are close to Mesa Verde and the famous Cliff Palace. How good is that! And Durango is an extraordinarily charming town, but that will be the subject of another post.   NOTE: Entry to the Chaco Culture National Historic Park is $8 per car valid for 7 days, but this very cheap rate is being slowly increased over the next few years. There is a museum, information centre and shop, but it is a good idea to bring anything you want to eat or drink. A map of the loop road is available at the information centre. Camp grounds are available for $15 per night but must be booked at least 3 days in advance, phone 1-877-444-6777.      
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