New Mexico, the large, square state bordering Texas in the southwest USA, isn’t a well-known destination for most British travellers. But it’s a strangely familiar place when you arrive. Landscapes filled with vast open spaces, sculpted rocks, sizeable cacti and long, straight roads heading off into the horizon, are straight out of a Hollywood film. It’s also the countryside where you expect a cartoon roadrunner to drop a fizzing bomb onto a coyote from one of the red rock precipices above!
I visited the state capital, Santa Fe, and discovered a beautiful town, rich in history and art. John Feins of Santa Fe tourism explained that the city’s slogan is ‘The City Different.’ It may sound like a generic marketing line but in this case, it’s spot on. Every local with whom I spoke had his or her own view on what that difference was. But the thing that stood out for me was the architecture. The whole of the old town looks like it’s been formed from sandcastle buckets filled with dark sand. Tour guide John Lorenzen told me he felt the brown buildings had the look of mud – but don’t let that put you off! It’s actually an ancient form of building called ‘adobe’ – pronounced ay-do-bee.
“Most of it is modern, but it’s based on real adobe architecture, which is made of straw, dirt, water and sand,” he explained. “They put it into moulds and stack the bricks, which have to be less than two feet thick. They are then covered in a layer of mud.”
While the city centre buildings appear ancient, most are modern constructions made to look like adobe. “That style took off like a rocket in the 1920s,” he added. The city has worked hard to preserve its distinctive appearance. And it remains a place built for walking rather than cars. Streets and passages lead to a tree-lined central plaza. There are no skyscrapers or flyovers.
John Fiens explained that buildings are kept lower than three storeys in order to preserve the beautiful skyline eastwards toward the mountains. It also protects the western view towards the incredible sunset. “We don’t let taller buildings take away who we are as an adobe town,” he said.
Santa Fe is very old in American terms and has been settled for over a thousand years – first by Native Americans, then Spanish colonists. Trade developed with Mexico across the border to the south and the rest of the states. There was even a saying that, ‘all trails lead to Santa Fe.’
Santa Fe’s historic credentials include the oldest state capital on the continent, the oldest church and the oldest house in the USA. “There are some questions as to whether it is the oldest house,” cautions John Lorenzen. “There are properties in nearby Taos that could be older. But it does gives you a chance to go into a massive, thick-walled house that was owned by Spanish citizens in the 1700s.”
With its rough, brown walls and wooden beams protruding out the front, this building appeared very old. Inside, Carl was managing the gift shop. He explained that the building rests on the 800-year-old foundations of an ancient Native American property. The current building dates from 1646. Once, twelve families lived inside the small home, which had originally been larger – an upper floor was removed for safety reasons.
There’s also another resident – a ghost. “A young colonial Spanish soldier was in love with a woman but she wasn’t interested in him,” Carl explained. “The house was occupied by three witches who used to cast spells for cash. He asked them to make a concoction so the woman would fall in love with him. It didn’t work so he returned and demanded his money back. When the witches refused, he pulled his sword but slipped and lost his balance. One of the witches snatched the weapon and chopped off his head. He still wanders the property as a headless soldier.” Carl paused for effect before adding, “I’ve never seen it myself.”
If you are interested in the unexplained, John Lorenzen operates a ghost tour on Wednesday and Saturday nights for three hours from 7pm. “There’s lots of ghosts here,” he roars. “Not as many as the Tower of London,” he adds, “but more than you think.” John is one of the drivers of the Loretto Line Tour Company, which offers 60-minute tours of the central area, up the arts district and around the museums in an open-air trolley bus. I’m told the length of tours vary, not because of traffic but, “because some guides talk more than others.” You can join the tours next to the Loretto Chapel, where a small arts market takes place.
The stone-built Loretto Chapel is certainly not adobe in style. It wouldn’t look out of place in Paris and I wasn’t surprised to learn that it had been designed by French priests. Renee Holmes took me to see inside the building. Chatting to Renee, she told me it had been her goal to relocate to Santa Fe following a career in the military and judiciary. “If you believe in her, it will happen. She just holds out her arms and pulls you in,” Renee said. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone discuss Santa Fe as a person – a living, breathing spirit.
Renee’s the marketing officer for the chapel, which was deconsecrated in 1971 and is now used as a wedding venue. It was built in 1872 by the Sisters of Loretto, who responded to an appeal from church leaders wanting to spread the faith around the new territory of New Mexico. They travelled from Kentucky and oversaw the construction of the chapel.
But most people come to view the centrepiece – an incredible wooden, spiral staircase featuring two, full 360-degree turns. It’s known as the ‘miraculous staircase’ because the nuns believe that their prayers were answered when it was constructed. There are no nails or screws holding it together and no visible central support.
Renee explained, “They couldn’t find anybody to build the stairs without creating a staircase that would occupy most of the interior of the chapel. The sisters prayed for nine days for somebody to come and help them. A carpenter arrived and built the staircase in just over four months, leaving without payment. The sisters believe that it was St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.”
Religious ties remain strong in this city and form an important part of the annual celebration, which I was lucky to experience. Santa Fe has hosted fiestas since 1712, to celebrate Spanish colonists peacefully regaining the city from Native Americans in 1692. I’m not sure what the Indian community makes of this. One of the church services includes prayers for reconciliation.
Theresa Johnson is on the fiesta committee and she remembers the event being an annual highlight from childhood. “My favourite part is the religious candlelight procession, which starts following a mass at the cathedral and climbs up to the Cross of the Martyrs. The line of candles flickering up to that promontory, overlooking the city, is a beautiful sight.” Other events include the re-enactment of the Spanish colonists’ leader returning to the city. There’s a procession of children with pets and plenty of food and drink in the main plaza square.
Leonard Mays was busy manning a tee-shirt stall as the music and dancing continued on the Saturday afternoon. “It’s the oldest community celebration in the United States,” he told me, adding yet another longevity claim for Santa Fe. Leonard was struggling to be heard over the Mexican-influenced trumpets and guitars of the band. “There are lots of bands playing mariachi music – the regional folk music of Mexico – during three days of partying. Performers travel from all over New Mexico, California and even from Mexico itself,” he added.
One of the unusual rituals is the burning of ‘The Old Man of Gloom’. 50,000 people usually attend to see the 50-foot effigy of Zozobra being sent up in flames. It’s rather like a massive British Guy Fawkes burning, although this event could prove cathartic. “Zozobra means ‘anxiety’ in Spanish,” Renee told me. “We write down our sorrows and wishes and throw them in the body of the effigy. Negative feelings will go up in smoke,” she says. I just wish we could import this custom to Britain.
There are lots of great places to eat the filling and delicious New Mexican cuisine. The fantastic climate makes Santa Fe a city that’s perfect for outdoor dining, with many bars and restaurants offering you the chance to see the sunset and stars from pavement tables or terraces. John Lorenzen told me what constitutes the true taste of Santa Fe, “Blue corn enchiladas stuffed with shredded cheese, and ladled with red or green chilli, topped with Spanish rice and beans and served with a margarita.” He also recommended the onion loaf in ‘America’s finest piano bar’, Vanessie’s Lounge.
Santa Fe is high. The city sits at an altitude of 7,200 feet so it’s not all dry desert. It’s a fertile fruit and vegetable growing area. You can see that yourself at the farmers market held on Tuesdays and Saturdays between May and November. A speciality is chillies, roasted fresh from late August to October. “We have the best chilli peppers in the world,” said John Fiens, “and once you’ve smelled that aroma you’ll be intoxicated for life. It’s a wonderful smell. And the taste is fantastic.” As you walk around the city you’ll see red chillies strung up on columns and pillars or walls. These chilli ‘ristras’ are there to dry in the sun.
Nobody knows who invented the margarita and, to be fair, locals don’t claim it’s a Santa Fe drink. But Santa Fe was the first city to receive exports of tequila from Mexico. So if you like the taste of this lime or lemon and tequila-based cocktail, you’ll be in for a treat. 31 bars have signed up to the ‘Margarita Trail.’ Each establishment on the route has created their own signature margarita – some spicy, some traditional. John Fiens explained how it works: “You can purchase a passport for $3. It entitles you to $1 off each drink. You’re encouraged to get your passport stamped in each venue and those stamps could win you prizes, like T-shirts and books. The passport also contains the recipe for each margarita.”
John was keen to encourage responsible drinking. “Some people have visited all 31 bars, but you’re only allowed two stamps per day, so you don’t get carried away!” The idea is that you will return to the city and complete the trail. “Come and stay for a month and get them all,” he suggested.
There’s lots of music and theatre in Santa Fe, including an opera season. I missed that (I’m delighted to say) and if you can still see straight after 31 margaritas, there’s plenty of art to enjoy too. Many professional artists have relocated to the city, inspired by the palpable arty vibe. The city’s most famous adopted daughter is the influential 20th century American artist Georgia O’Keeffe and there’s a museum here dedicated to her work.
John Fiens told me that the city’s art economy has been ranked third after New York and LA in terms of the size of its professional artist community. Santa Fe also has the largest number of artists per capita of anywhere in the United States. The Canyon Road area draws art lovers (pun intended) from all over the USA. It was originally a farming district with one adobe house and corn and bean fields in between. But since the 1970s it’s been transformed into a glamorous arts district, with over eighty galleries in just over a mile. There are also contemporary art galleries in the Rail Yard art district and in mid-town.
The House of Eternal Return is an art experience created by a group of young local artists who go under the name of Meow Wolf. The collective approached Santa Fe resident and novelist George RR Martin for help in realising their goal. He is the author behind the hugely successful TV series, Game Of Thrones, so he’s not short of a bob or two. He bought an old bowling alley and has leased the 20,000 square-foot space to the artists.
The artists have built a Victorian home inside. A family is meant to live in the house and as you wander around you will see their personal effects and signs of habitation. John Fiens explained, “There’s unread mail and food in the fridge but it’ll soon dawn on you that the family is missing. The whole art installation is a mystery. It’s a new form of storytelling.” John says you’ll see something new on every visit and he’s aware of visitors who have returned eight times. “People fall in love with it because you can engage with it on multiple levels. You can treat it as a children’s museum or a theme park or a light show.”
Santa Fe is also the perfect place to learn more about America’s original inhabitants. More Native Americans live in northern New Mexico than the entire area east of the Mississippi. There are no reservations – instead there are pueblos or towns and they’ve been inhabited by the ancestors of today’s residents for hundreds of years. You can visit these communities to see their artwork including traditional media like painting, as well as bead, glass and metal sculpture. A lot is also found in Santa Fe’s galleries, where it is on sale.
Once you’ve exhausted the arts scene, there’s some unusual shopping on offer in Santa Fe. I found a shop that only sells items made of cork. Queork offers bags, dog collars and even briefcases and shoes. I had no idea that the material was so flexible. The entire shop smelt of cork – such a distinctive aroma. John Lorenzen recommended the Pueblo of Tesuque fleamarket each weekend – a seven mile drive or cab ride from town. It’s famous for art, baskets, beads, clothing, paintings, textiles and turquoise.
Further out, you’ll find dozens of caves which were inhabited by Native Americans and which would have been useful as a hideway if a more recent experiment had gone wrong. I drove the 33 miles, through canyons and wide, sweeping rocky plains, to the town of Los Alamos. There you’ll find a museum devoted to the work of Robert Oppenheimer in the place where he created the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project.
It’s a weird and creepy town. Most buildings are new and the centre is dominated by huge, and completely empty, parking lots. I was a little concerned that there was nobody around, especially as the area is known for it’s use of radioactive materials! What did they know that I didn’t?
The big attraction in this strange town is the Bradbury Science Museum. You’ll learn about the work undertaken in the nearby Los Alamos labs to develop the first atomic bomb. There’s a video and hands-on interactive displays as well as replicas of the first atomic bombs, ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man.’ It’s a patriotic, propaganda-filled place, that’s very positive about the development and retention of nuclear weapons while not dwelling too much on the downsides. Bear that in mind if you’re attending with anyone who holds strong views about this form of defence.
If you prefer your attractions to be less hi-tech, you can catch the Atomic City Transit – that really is the name of their bus service – for the thirty-minute ride to Bandelier National Monument. Here you’ll find small caves carved into the soft rockface around 20 feet above the bottom of a deep, steep-walled canyon. So many of these ancient homes have been scooped out that the cliff face looks like pinkish-orange Swiss cheese. It’s thought people lived in these recesses around 1,400 years ago. The site also hosts petroglyphs or rock carvings. You can climb wooden ladders to reach the caves and take a look inside. I enjoyed the cooler temperatures, imagining what it would have been like to live in a cave with a view across this stunning valley.
Santa Fe is a great place to visit and an interesting option for escaping the British or Irish winter. Average high temperatures range between 7°C in January to the high 20s in summer, but it can fall below freezing at night in winter.
The easiest way to reach Santa Fe is to take a 10-hour flight from Heathrow to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport and then catch the two-hour connecting flight.