Old ones

Driving to Puye Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico

Most of the drive is on US Route 550, followed by 24 miles of unpaved road; that's what Google Maps says anyway. Those 24 miles at the end are listed as taking almost an hour and you will soon understand why. The gravel road is full of rocks jumping left and right every time you try to drive a bit faster.  Later the rocks are gone and replaced by tall ditches -- from a previous rain -- that are even harder to navigate with your small car. After a while the wide open space narrows and curves into what resembles a canyon making you believe you're almost there,  when a sign announces that you are leaving federal land and throws you off into a panic. You look anxiously at your phone, but Google maps also does not know where you are anymore. It's very quiet,  just your car, the blue sky, and the road ahead. A few more miles. Finally back on asphalt roads and federal land, an open gate, and a little bit further away a big sign. You can relax now.  You have arrived at Chaco Culture National Heritage Monument.

Chetro Ketl Kiva, Chaco Culture National Heritage Monument
Ancestral pueblo civilizations inhabited Northern America between 100 a.d. to 1600 in an area of about 25,000 square miles known as Four Corners, where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet (if you look on a map you'll understand the name). It's a beautiful part of the Colorado Plateau -- the landscape varies from complete desert in Monument Valley, to green mountains in Mesa Verde. They lived on top of mesas (flat-topped hill with steep sides) and farmed the land around.  At the peak of their development they carved dwellings into mountains, many of them still standing today, as the ones at Mesa Verde in Colorado or Bandelier in New Mexico. There are around 100 different pueblos today that can be traced to the ancestral ones, some are still inhabiting their 1000 years old villages such as Taos Pueblo in New Mexico or Walpi Village in Arizona.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The most well-know and photographed ancestral pueblo constructions are the dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. They are the best preserved and easily accessible. Two of the most interesting attraction points are the Cliff Palace which in the afternoon sun is just unreal. You have beautiful views of it from a distance, but you can go close by and walk around the tall walls and perfectly preserved kivas.  The other one is Balcony House, which, as the name suggests, is located high in the mountain wall, you get in by climbing a very tall wooden ladder (not recommended if you have fear of heights), and after walking through a maze of rooms, you get out by crawling through a tunnel.

Puye Cliff Dwellings, near Espanola, New Mexico
Such ladders are present at several other dwellings such as the ones on Bandelier and Puye Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico. Both these settlements are in driving distance from Santa Fe.  Bandelier is accessible by bus and is very green, seems almost like a vacation place in the mountains -- the sites are spread out, with many paths, and many opportunities for hiking. It is quite popular and it can get busy. Puye Cliff, the ancestral home of the nearby Santa Clara pueblo, is accessible by car and less popular (so less busy). It is just one mesa, with dwellings in the mountains and well preserved artifacts on top of the mesa.  The drive to Puye Cliff, it is through one of my favorite landscapes in New Mexico.

Taos Pueblo, Taos, New Mexico
While most of these settlements were abandoned, there are a few still inhabited such as Taos Pueblo, located outside the city of Taos in Northern New Mexico and Walpi Village located near Flagstaff, Arizona,  on Hopi tribal land. I could not imagine two places with two more different feelings. Taos Pueblo is on flat land nearby a creek, it was open, friendly, where even if on tour I could move freely and chat with people. The main construction in the village is as impressive in real life as it is in pictures. Walpi instead, is on top of a mesa, and the space is much narrower, it was a very closed universe to visitors, we were not allowed to take picture and nobody would talk with us. We went into kivas and also one of the houses. The house felt so familiar to me,  it smelled like my grandmother's house.  The Hopi are considered the oldest of the native people in North America; they are very spiritual and have many religious ceremonies throughout the year; they also are a matrilineal society where women own the houses and  land.

Chaco Culture, Pueblo Bonito

Where does Chaco Culture stand among all the ancestral pueblo civilizations? I read once that Chaco Culture National Heritage Monument is the closest that North America has to the Pyramids. The statement was meant to capture that Chaco society was the largest and most complex of all ancestral pueblo civilizations, and the settlement they built was the closest to what one would call a city today. It consists of several multi-tier, complex, multi-use houses, which are the largest and best preserved prehistoric structures in North America. Several pueblo civilizations flourished in the Chaco Culture area from the 9th to the 13th centuries, and they are believed to have reached their peak between 1020 and 1110. The entire area  was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.  "Chaco is remarkable for its monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture – it has an ancient urban ceremonial centre that is unlike anything constructed before or since.'' (from Chaco Culture, Unesco World Heritage.).

I discovered the ancestral pueblo cultures by accident, a canceled trip forced me to rethink my plans, and instead I went to the Hopi reservation without knowing anything about Hopi, maybe a sign of how much the information we get in school and media is filtered.  While Chaco is the most recent place I visited, Walpi village was  my first encounter with the ancestral pueblo cultures.  It opened for me an entire world, still waiting to be acknowledged.


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