Ask about “Chihuahua” tourism and you’re likely to hear in response, “El Chepe” – and maybe nothing else. The train ride into the Copper Canyon and the Rarámuri territory is indeed breathtaking, but the state has much more to offer.
Although many start or end their “Chepe” experience in the Pueblo Mágico of Creel, I strongly recommend you add a day or two to your itinerary to take the train from the state capital of Chihuahua city.
A mixture of laid-back charm and modern development nestled into mountains and arid grassland, Chihuahua city has an identity all its own, as well as aspirations for its future.
Let’s start with a little history
An abundance of silver, rivers and lush pastureland drew the Spanish to Chihuahua as early as 1534, but the city was not established until 1709. Local peoples such as the Rarámuri and Apache fought the European incursion fiercely and would not be completely defeated until 1880.
During the colonial period, the city and state were part of the huge northwestern province of Nueva Vizcaya (New Biscay). Over time, a distinct Chihuahua identity would emerge, reflected by the evolution of the city’s name: from San Francisco de Cuellar to San Francisco el Real de Chihuahua to just Chihuahua.
One reason is that the city played an important political and economic role. Mines and ranching made it a wealthy state, and by the 19th century, Chihuahua became a bulwark to its northern neighbor. Many of the city’s iconic buildings date from the nearly 30-year regime of Porfirio Díaz (1884-1911), including a section of former mansions and, yes, the “Chepe” train itself in 1903.
Díaz’s policies brought both economic growth and tyranny, resulting in the Mexican Revolution. Pancho Villa himself would be governor of the state for a few years, with his memory remaining an important part of the city and Chihuahua’s identity.
However, the civil war took a heavy toll on the city, which would not really recover until the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, maquiladoras (factories with special status to export) and a rail line linking Mexico and the United States brought the city and state back to prominence. Ranching and mining are the city’s heritage, but manufacturing and logistics are the city’s economic backbone. Their boom has spurred the growth of a modern Chihuahua city on the north side, filled with upscale shops, restaurants and more.
Getting the lay of the city
As impressive as the glitzy north side is, Chihuahua city tourism is best enjoyed in its historic neighborhoods.
The heart of the old city stretches from the cathedral northeast to the Plaza del Ángel, with a pedestrian-only commercial center in between. Chihuahua’s connection with central Mexico is reflected in the cathedral’s ornate Baroque facade, which was built starting in 1725. The plaza at the front is generally filled with people enjoying the foliage and cultural events. The commercial center has shops, restaurants and bars, but even on Friday and Saturday nights, the vibe is still laid back. The opposite end is marked by monumental state government offices and the informative Casa Chihuahua, a good stop to get a glimpse of just how vast the state is.
Just to the southeast was once a highly exclusive residential area, and important mansions from the 19th century still survive here. The most impressive of these is Quinta Gameros, now the cultural center of the state’s public university. But the main attraction is the relatively modest former home of Pancho Villa, now a museum in honor of the general and the revolution he fought. It boasts the country’s largest collection of the general’s possessions, including the car he was assassinated in.
One notable aspect of Chihuahua city is how much nature adjoins the city proper. One good example of this is only 15 minutes from the cathedral. The Nombre de Dios Caverns are so close that the local trolley tours travel to it. Carved by the water flows of the Sacramento River, the cavern’ formations can be seen via a 1.3-km walkable trail.
How to eat like a chihuahuense
Like that of the U.S. west, traditional Chihuahua food is simple, hearty, and based heavily on meat and cheese. Street vendors selling burritos are everywhere, and an overstuffed taco called a “montado” is also popular. You should try both at least once, and a popular local joint to do this is El Arrancón, just a little ways from the historic center.
Another important gastronomic element is sotol. Made by the same process and with a similar flavor to mezcal, the main difference is that the sotol plant is the desert spoon (Dasylirion sp.), not the agave. Though still overcoming a moonshine-like reputation, sotol is starting to get the recognition it deserves, both locally and internationally. You can try the spirit, straight or in cocktails, at La Sotolería and El Mágico bars, only a few blocks from the cathedral.
Being arid, Chihuahua’s cuisine heavily features meat (especially beef), cured meats and cheeses. Central Mexican influence can be seen in beef versions of birria and barbacoa, but the offerings do not stop there.
International trade and proximity to the U.S. have fostered an evolving restaurant scene. At El Gardenia a craft beer brew pub located only a few blocks from Pancho Villa’s home, the menu features pub stables found north of the border, but care is taken to feature food products produced in the state. Sulāwe in the exclusive Distrito 1 commercial center takes this a step further and uses traditional Chihuahua products in international haute cuisine.
One curiosity I encountered was the relative abundance of seafood restaurants and offerings. “El Chepe” created a connection to the Pacific that endured a century later, and the growing economy has drawn people from other parts of Mexico, most notably Veracruz. Either could explain this phenomenon.
While the “Chepe” train provides stunning scenery to riders, just a short visit to the capital proves the state has so much more to offer. Whether you are going to or from the “Chepe” station in Chihuahua city, or doing a border trip, Chihuahua makes for a breathtaking (and yes, safe) alternative that just might put you ahead of the game as the region gains relevance.
Leigh Thelmadatter arrived in Mexico over 20 years ago and fell in love with the land and the culture in particular its handcrafts and art. She is the author of Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019). Her culture column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.