As we crest La Bohada hill headed north from Albuquerque, it is almost sunset. The sky turns lazy shades of rosy pink and dusty orange as I catch my first glimpse of the Sangre de Cristos and the sun has painted the mountains their namesake, characteristic red. Below, the lights of Santa Fe wink in the dusk, and the city looks like a handful of jewels spilled glittering into the sand. I take a deep breath, inhaling the dry, cool desert air, and I feel like I’ve come home.
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I spent four formative years in Santa Fe, got my education there, met the love of my life and fell in love with the unique high dessert atmosphere and attitude of northern New Mexico, but I rarely ventured beyond the edges of my adopted home. Like many outsiders, I thought Santa Fe and maybe Taos were pretty much the extent of what the area had to offer. So when I was given an opportunity to get reacquainted with my former high-desert home, I jumped. Little did I know that I would fall in love all over again. The Santa Fe plaza and the galleries of Taos are fine for a first visit, but I discovered other gems just beyond the next bend in the road.
Santa Fe makes a perfect home base for exploring northern New Mexico and a perfect introduction to this land of enchantment. Streets lined with art galleries wend their way through the city with little thought of destination or direction, like a lazy Sunday stroll. Artists, musicians and chefs flock to the area, hoping to carve out a niche for themselves. Restaurants pop up one day to wild acclaim, only to be shuttered the next; the ones that last are the local hangouts. World-class museums, opera, ballet and music belie the town’s size, and everything—even the most urgent of matters—is treated with an attitude of utter Zen: Everything can be done mañana.
But the smart visitor will venture beyond the Plaza and learn a bit more about the history and culture of the city. A great way to acquaint yourself is with a walking tour focusing on history, literature, art, architecture, food or pretty much anything that tickles your fancy (for a list of tours, visit santafe.org). I signed up for a quick history tour that helped me orient myself in both time and space. Santa Fe feels like an ancient place, and no more so than when you realize you can see the architecture of native puebloans and Spanish settlers; the La Fonda hotel, occupying the same site that has held a hotel since the early 1600s; and the office where Oppenheimer directed his recruits to head “up the hill” to Los Alamos in the 1940s, all mere steps from one another downtown.
A literary walking tour of the city brought to life the likes of Bishop Lamy, about whose life Death Comes for the Archbishop is based, and then indulged in what felt like a long gossip session when we reached the Inn of the Turquoise Bear. The owner knows all the dirt on the various literary and artistic legends who have stayed there—including D.H. Lawrence (who spent his first night in an American home in this house), Willa Cather, Ansel Adams, Igor Stravinsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost and many more—and is happy to sit and dish as long as you care to listen. It truly brought the characters of the past alive, as though they had only just stepped out, and we had mere minutes to chat before their inevitable return.
My mind and soul well nourished, I turned to the task of nourishing the body. In Santa Fe, this is no mean feat, for while there is a never-ending parade of restaurants from which to choose, choosing could occupy the better part of your day. Better to let the experts decide, and so I left myself in the capable hands of the Santa Fe School of Cooking and their culinary walking tour, which is the ultimate vacation indulgence (santafeschoolofcooking.com). In a single afternoon, our guide took us into the kitchens and private rooms of four top-shelf restaurants to hobnob with the chefs and taste whatever tidbits they’d chosen to cook up for us. I sampled bison burgers with braised bison spareribs at Rio Chama, seared sea scallops at Amavi, mussels in a spicy chile sauce at La Boca and squab with polenta at Coyote Cafe. It’s pretty much my idea of what a walking tour in heaven might look like, and an excellent guide for the visitor looking to sample the best Santa Fe has to offer—without the guesswork of interpreting stars, thumbs up and fickle reviewers.
While there’s enough in Santa Fe to keep many people occupied for days (if not weeks or years), I soon discovered just how much I was missing by not getting on the road a bit. Less than an hour’s drive north and west of Santa Fe up into the piney green Jemez mountains is the quirky, quiet town of Los Alamos, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and one of the US’s best kept secrets. In 1943, the National Laboratory was conceived for a single purpose: to design and build an atomic bomb. So secret was the work taking place that scientists were not allowed to leave the base, and children born to families stationed there had only a Santa Fe post office box listed on their birth certificates. The excellent Bradbury Science Museum (lanl.gov/external/museum) keeps kids and parents enthralled exploring the work that took place in the 1940s, the defense implications and some of the research that is ongoing today. But the jewel of this intriguing history mystery is the tiny Los Alamos Historical Society museum, adjacent to Fuller Lodge, which brings the history and secrecy of the city’s birth to life in captivating detail (losalamoshistory.org).
From the Los Alamos area, we made our way back down to the valley floor and headed toward Abiquiu, made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, who had a home here. The town is tiny, but worth a visit if you’re a devotee and have an appointment to view O’Keeffe’s home; the scenery is fantastic, even if you don’t. Continue on to the Ghost Ranch (ghostranch.org) and prepare to be moved by the magical red dessert landscape. With towering rock walls and chimneys reaching toward the endless blue skies, you cannot help but feel like an artist the moment you set foot here. Bring your cameras, your paintbrushes, your pens and pencils and bask in the fabled dappled light artists around the world covet. We took an enlightening O’Keeffe tour, highlighting some of the landscapes she painted again and again. Even as someone with only a passing familiarity with her work, I found it fascinating to compare the barely changed landscapes of her “back yard” with her paintings. If you have time, book a course here; topics are incredibly wide ranging, with courses in everything from art, music and writing to personal health, environmentalism and theology with retreats, day courses and family programs. Trust me when I say that you will not want to leave here in a hurry.
From the red, orange and lavender hills of Abiquiu, we followed the road to Chama, near the New Mexico-Colorado border, down into the lush, green Rio Grande Valley and took a detour to find the Tierra Wools shop (handweavers.com). Take this detour and take a step back in time to see the love and craftsmanship that go into these woven works of art. This tiny cooperative was started to give farmers and weavers who wanted to preserve their traditions a way to make a living. Here we met many farmers and weavers descended from Spanish immigrants who settled the Rio Grande valley as early as the 16th century and who today faithfully reproduce the traditional weaving that produces fabrics known as Rio Grande blankets. Watch a weaving demonstration and marvel at the work that goes into these handcrafted pieces of art.
Once in Chama, we hopped the Cumbres and Toltec railroad for a scenic journey through parts of New Mexico and Colorado that are so far off the beaten track, they cannot be reached by car (cumbrestoltec.com). This scenic railroad has barely changed since it was built in 1880, and neither has the vast landscape through which it travels. The train stops at the top for a hot lunch, which is included in the price of your ticket. Keep your eyes open for wildlife all along this peaceful journey that feels like a step out of time.
You can easily make your way from either end of the Cumbres and Toltec line to either Red River or Angel Fire. Although best known as ski towns, these communities offer excellent summer getaways and are perhaps even more charming without the ski season crowds. These two towns make up part of the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway—an 85-mile self-guided driving tour that encompasses some of the most dramatic scenery in northern New Mexico (enchantedcircle.org). A black stallion named King took me on a trip through the rugged mountains around the picturesque hamlet of Red River before dropping me off at an indulgent cowboy dinner at the Bobcat Pass ranch, which also offers guided pack trips, elk hunting trips and more (bobcatpass.com). A less rugged experience, we also luxuriated at the Angel Fire Resort, perched at the foot of the mountains, which get their name from a mystical flash seen only at sunset. Take the driving tour through the Taos Canyon of the area’s art galleries; the drive is just as breathtaking as the art in each destination. You can pick up a brochure detailing the route in Taos or Angel Fire. Be sure not to miss the Enchanted Circle Pottery studio, and ask the artist owners for a tour of their unique kiln. Before you leave, take a ride on the ski gondola, the longest chair lift in the US. From the top, catch your breath; this is New Mexico, all her enchantments spread out below you like a quilt, just waiting to be discovered.
As we neared the end of this trip, I could feel a sense of melancholy descend; I never wanted it to end. I didn’t believe it was possible, but I had fallen even more deeply in love with New Mexico than my time in Santa Fe could ever have prepared me for. It seemed only fitting, then, to end my journey on a spiritual note, with a bit of a pilgrimage to the sacred Sanctuario de Chimayo (elsantuariodechimayo.us). This classic adobe mission church draws thousands of visitors a year because the dirt within its walls is said to have miracle healing powers. You don’t have to be a believer to understand that this charming place is special in a way words can’t quite describe.
In New Mexico, chile comes in two varieties: red and green. It’s become the eternal question. But the dichotomy isn’t limited to your plate; the landscape seems to fall into similar categories, with the red desert stretching out for miles in places like Georgia O’Keefe’s beloved Ghost Ranch and the green forests of the mountains hiding treasures like Los Alamos and Chama and the Enchanted Circle from Taos to Angel Fire. As with chile, I learned that the best answer to the question “red or green?” is “both.”
More Ways to Get On the Road
Visit the Farmer’s Market, santafefarmersmarket.com
Shop at the Pueblo of Tesuque flea market pueblooftesuquefleamarket.com (weekends, March–December)
Take a tour by llama, elpaseollama.com
Stay in a tipi at the Abominable Snow Mansion hostel, snowmansion.com
Drive the High Road between Taos and Santa Fe to see quaint churches, historic sites and unique shops, taos.org
Visit the Taos Pueblo, a living Native American community, taospueblo.com
Attend a monthly Star Party with El Valle Astronomers, elvalleastronomers.com
Take a historical walking tour; maps available at the Los Alamos Historical Museum, losalamoshistory.org
Take a tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s home, okeeffemuseum.org
Stop in the tiny library for a first-hand taste of local history
Visit Abiquiu Lake and the natural amphitheaters etched from the rock
Eat at The Roasted Clove, roastedclove.com
Be inspired at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, angelfirememorial.com
Soak your troubles away at Ojo Caliente mineral springs and spa, ojocalientesprings.com
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