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Most people think New Mexico is called the “Land of Enchantment” because of its breathtaking scenery. I was most enchanted, however, by the state’s unique heritage and culture. Many people in the state retain their Native American culture while others still honor their Spanish or pioneer roots.
And no wonder -- New Mexico is relatively a newcomer to statehood. It’s celebrating only its 100th anniversary as a state in 2012, but its Pueblo heritage dates back thousands of years. Santa Fe itself is more than 400 years old, and there’s no better place to experience the fusion of Pueblo, Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and American cultures.
To truly appreciate New Mexico’s uniqueness, it’s important to understand the heritage and traditions. The best place to begin is Santa Fe’s Palace of Governors, built in 1609 and the nation’s oldest government building. Today, the small rooms and long galleries contain exhibits that tell the stories of early contacts between Native Americans and Europeans. The premier exhibits are the Segesser Hides, a battle depiction painted on bison hides in 1720 and “rediscovered” in 1983, and the chapel containing Tesoros de Devocion (Treasures of Devotion), which are art forms stemming from the days when Spanish missionaries came to convert the natives. Be sure to walk through the courtyard to the Palace Press, where the first “Songs of the Cowboys” was printed in 1908 and where a permanent exhibit recreates artist Gustave Baumann’s original printing studio.
If you want to buy authentic turquoise and Native American jewelry, be sure to stop at the Palace Portal where artisans sell handcrafted items that have met standards of authenticity from the Native American Artisan Program. The market closes promptly at 5 p.m. and vendors can change daily. If you see something you like, buy it because it may not be there the next day.
Attached to the Palace of Governors is the New Mexico History Museum, which opened in 2009. The 96,000 square foot building is filled with interactive and multimedia exhibits that take visitors through more than 400 years of history beginning with Spain’s first expedition to the area in 1540. Highlights include the “Talking Hands” exhibit featuring replica petroglyphs. Place your hand on one of the metal casts and hear an Apache, Navajo, or Pueblo voice that brings history alive. “The story of my people and the story of this place are one single story,” a Taos Pueblo elder says and you realize just how much history took place on the very spot where you are standing.
A four-day pass to Santa Fe’s state museums -- The New Mexico History Museum and the Museums of Art, International Folk Art, and Indian Arts and Culture -- is available for $20. Exploring Santa Fe and the surrounding areas can easily take more than four days, especially if you want to linger at the world-class museums.
With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Santa Fe is a walker’s paradise. The downtown area is easy to navigate and has hundreds of interesting shops, galleries and “The Plaza,” which is considered the heart of the city and the place where the Santa Fe Trail ends. Anchoring the east end of West San Francisco Street, is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, who is considered the patron saint of the city. The cathedral and the adjoining sculpture garden can be peaceful rest stops during a day filled with sightseeing.
Spend some time exploring the historic Canyon Road just across the Santa Fe River. The winding road is filled with galleries and centuries-old adobe homes, and its place in history is indisputable. Canyon Road was used by Native Americans as a principal route between Pueblo tribes, followed by Spanish conquistadors looking for gold and later by soldiers of the Confederacy attempting to gain control of the Southwest in 1862.
Finally, nothing else illustrates the melding of cultures in New Mexico better than its farm-to-table cuisine. Skip the chains and experience the true culture of the area with chefs like Estavan Garcia, a native New Mexican and a former Franciscan monk, who has popularized Southwestern nouvelle cuisine. At his Tabla de Los Santos restaurant, just off the lobby of the Hotel St. Francis, Garcia uses only fresh local ingredients and combines Native American spices, such as the hard-to-find Chimayo Chiles, to flavor his signature dishes.
The history and culture stirs the soul and explains why so many artists, writers, and transplants from around the world have put down roots here. Santa Fe residents will tell you that to truly appreciate the present, you must understand the past.
Getting there: Fly into Albuquerque and hop aboard the New Mexico Rail Runner express train that runs daily to downtown Santa Fe with one-way fares as low as $6 for seniors. [nmrailrunner.com]
Where to Stay: The newly renovated Hotel St. Francis [hotelstfrancis.com] reflects the calmness of its namesake with an uncluttered décor and simple design. For a more resort-type environment, check out The Lodge at Santa Fe [lodgeatsantafe.com] near the Santa Fe Opera.
Other Area Highlights: The Georgia O’Keefe Museum; the High Road to Taos for spectacular mountain views; and the Taos Pueblo, the first living World Heritage Site.