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Santa Fe and Taos: Art, Culture and the Great Outdoors

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: September 2007

This September, Mom and I took our second annual “girls’ getaway.” Last year was Boston; this year it was Santa Fe. As an artist herself, Mom has had this particular destination on her list for years because it’s known as such a vibrant arts community, and I wasn’t about to object! We also decided to visit Taos, another smaller mountain community also known for scenic beauty and a great art scene.

We got up at 3:45 a.m. to catch our 6:30 flight from Philadelphia to Chicago Midway on Southwest. We arrived with no problems and made a smooth transition to the flight to Albuquerque. Having checked in online about 24 hours early, we had A boarding passes for both flights and so were able to snag window seats near the front of the plane.

Once in Albuquerque, we took the free shuttle to the car rental center and headed for the Enterprise counter. I had reserved an economy car, but the guy at the desk pointed out that in driving from Albuquerque to Taos we’d be ascending about 4,000 feet, and an economy car might be underpowered. He offered us a standard-size car for an extra $50 total, including taxes, for the five days. A ploy to get more money out of us? Probably, but we decided to go for it, and Mom said later that the extra horsepower was worth it.

The guy who’d sat next to us on our PHL-MDW flight was, coincidentally, an Albuquerque native, and he’d recommended that we not take I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe but instead go up Route 14, a more scenic route commonly known as the Turquoise Trail. Despite a bit of light rain in the beginning, it was an unquestionably beautiful drive.

Along the way we stopped in the teeny town of Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), which seemed to consist of about 15-20 galleries of various sorts (jewelry, textiles, paintings, pottery) set up in historic mining houses. The products there and the general ambience reminded me a bit of New Hope, PA — beautiful but expensive, and with an artsy, funky feel. We (mostly) stayed in the car for the rest of the truly beautiful drive through the mountains and sagebrush, though we did pull over for quite a few photo ops.

Santa Fe
We took well over two hours to complete the drive with stops, but we did finally arrive at the Santa Fe Hostel on Cerrillos Road, where we’d booked a private room with a bathroom. The place was a bit unprepossessing from the outside, with a faded mural on the wall and several dilapidated vehicles sitting in the parking lot. The woman at the front desk was very friendly, showing us around the communal kitchen and breakfast area, the small common room with internet, and finally our private room — dim, shabby and not exactly gleaming with cleanliness. There were massive cobwebs in the bathroom, the floor hadn’t been swept and the shower looked so scary that we both decided we were already clean enough, thank you very much. Turns out that there’s no housekeeping staff, so each guest is supposed to clean up the shower, empty the trash, etc. before leaving — basically the room is as clean as the previous guests have left it.

I’ve stayed in worse hostels, so I tried to convince Mom to stick it out. After all, it was a great price: $45 a night with no additional taxes. But she wasn’t having any of it, so when we found a two-bed room for $49.95 plus tax at the nearby Super 8, we decided to book that for the next night. (Since we’d already paid for our first night at the hostel, we decided to stick around for that night.)

In the meantime we were starving, so we headed to Wild Oats, a local organic market, to pick up some fruit and some quick carry-out munchies. Then we finally drove into downtown Santa Fe. We eschewed the more expensive public parking garage ($1.80/hour) for $1/hour metered parking on the street and set off on foot for the Plaza, the center of town. I was actually surprised at how small Santa Fe is, at least in the downtown area. (Cerrillos Road, where most of the cheap lodging is, is just your everyday suburban sprawl of chain stores and strip malls.)

Beyond the Plaza were the St. Francis Cathedral (pretty, though not spectacular), Loretto Chapel (known for its “miraculous” circular staircase, built with no central support) and San Miguel Mission (one of the oldest churches in the U.S.). The latter was a beautiful, simple adobe building, almost pure-looking in a way. Across the street were a ton of galleries, peddling Indian blankets, turquoise jewelry, colorful pottery and unique textiles.

Mom and I went in and out of quite a few, with Mom growing increasingly frustrated by the prices (well out of our range) and me simply losing what little patience I already had for shopping. (I’m a frugal soul, and the idea of spending $300 on a handbag is blasphemous to me!)

Finally, with our 3:45 wakeup call catching up to us, we headed back to Wild Oats for more provisions and then to the hostel for some much-needed shuteye.

The next morning we had breakfast in the communal kitchen. There we found various types of breads/rolls/muffins, as well as peanut butter, jelly and apple butter. There were also a few boxes of cereal, but when Mom went to the large fridge for milk, she found it at room temperature. Turns out they have to defrost the fridge once a week, and today was that day. We stuck to bread instead.

Bandelier National Monument and Surroundings

After a quick stop at Wild Oats for bottled water, we were off to Bandelier National Monument. Once we turned off the interstate the ride was beautiful — deep canyons, craggy rock formations, the muddy red Rio Grande River, mountains in the distance and a huge clear blue sky arching overhead.

When we got to Bandelier, we paid a $12 entrance fee for our car and then stopped at a scenic overlook before we reached the visitor center. There we found an amazing view of Frijoles Canyon, where a tribe of Native Americans once built a whole pueblo of cliff dwellings.

After snapping a few photos we continued down into the canyon, where we bought a little guide and headed out onto the main loop tour, which includes many of the ruined cliff dwellings. You could actually climb up into some of them via wooden ladders. They were like adobe caves, cool and dim. We hurried through parts of the trail because we were right in front of a huge tour group and didn’t want to have to share the teeny tiny caves with them!

The crowds thinned out a bit when the main loop branched off into the Alcove trail. This part went through the woods along a little stream, and the air smelled incredibly fresh and woody. Half a mile later we arrived at a kiva (ceremonial room) on a cliff some 140 feet up, via three 30-foot ladders and some steep steps.

Many folks, including Mom, weren’t sure they were up to the challenge, but it didn’t look too bad to me, and so I encouraged Mom along. It was a little nerve-wracking if you’re afraid of heights (which I am), but the view of the canyon from the top was worth it, not to mention the peacefulness of the kiva and the sense of accomplishment we felt when we got back down. (Incidentally, I thought the descent was actually harder than going up…)

We walked over a mile back to the visitor center via the forest trail, picked up a very average lunch at the little canteen there, and then headed back the way we’d come toward Santa Fe. En route we stopped at an amazing scenic overlook — the name of the town escapes me, but there was a brown sign right off the main road that said “Scenic Overlook” maybe ten minutes down the road from Bandelier.

Our next stop was the San Ildefonso Pueblo, an Indian reservation. I’m not sure what I expected, but it was both larger and smaller than I’d pictured. We drove in for about a mile past the occasional house before we reached a small visitor center, where we registered and paid a fee for parking and for permission to take photos. We were given a detailed map of the parts of the pueblo we were and were not permitted to visit.

The center of the pueblo consisted of a wide, dusty plaza, a small adobe church, and some adobe houses. Pickup trucks, small cars and a Coca-Cola truck kicked up dirt as they rode by, but otherwise the town was eerily quiet. We checked out the small museum about the pueblo’s traditions and the local artists’ specialty, “black on black” pottery. There were several “shops” (basically sections of people’s homes) where we were hoping to find some affordable pottery. Unfortunately, small pots typically ran at least $100 — way beyond what we wanted to pay, even to support Native American artists who clearly needed our help.

To be honest, I found the experience rather depressing on several levels. First, to see what was once a vibrant culture reduced to this tiny reservation was very disturbing, even if I felt encouraged by the fact that certain traditions were still being passed on. And I always have a hard time with this sort of tourism — gawking at people’s homes and livelihoods as though they’re items in a museum. Of course, visitors help to support them, so NOT going isn’t the answer either. But it feels very invasive.

Back to Santa Fe

We drove back to Santa Fe and took a quick peek at the wares outside the Palace of Governors, right on the main Plaza. It was mostly jewelry, which neither of us was really interested in. We had dinner just a block away at a Mexican restaurant called the Shed, as suggested by a woman we met on the street. Apparently their green chile is amazing, but spicy foods tend not to agree with me. Instead, I had mushroom soup and a chicken/walnut/blue cheese salad — yummy. Mom had a chicken dish with an enchilada and Spanish rice. After one bite of the green chile on the side, she decided it was too spicy for her and she just ate the rest of her meal without it.

We checked into the Super 8 that night and it seemed quite luxurious after the hostel — two beds, TV, hair dryer, coffee machine…heaven!

Ghost Ranch and the Drive to Taos
We woke up early on Wednesday morning to hit the road for Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe spent many of the later years of her life. We were hoping to do some hiking there, so we called ahead to see what was available. The person told me that there were quite a few trails there, some short and others as long as four to five miles. Perfect! (Or so we thought.)

The drive there took about an hour and a half, and wasn’t quite as scenic as some of our other drives had been until we got very close to Ghost Ranch, where there were some dramatic red rock formations as well as a couple of small, veryblue lakes. The ranch itself (today a conference and education center) was lovely, with a welcoming dirt drive lined with wildflowers and a sprawling landscape of layered red rocks.

We checked in at the office to pick up a copy of the trail map and decided to do the most popular hike, a three-mile trail up to Chimney Rock. Bottled water and some cashews in hand for a snack, we sallied forth…

…only to turn back within two minutes after being attacked by dive-bombing mosquitoes. Not quite ready to give up, we searched the gift shops in the office and museum of the ranch until we found some bug spray. Once lathered up, we headed back on the trail.

At first the bug situation seemed a little better, but before long we were making a continuous swatting motion with our arms as we walked. To add insult to injury, we came upon a gate barring what we thought was our path. Hmm. At this point, with time ticking away and our trail seemingly blocked off, we decided to skip the hike altogether and just check out the museum instead. It was okay — local pottery and textiles, and an exhibit on some dinosaurs found on Ghost Ranch in the mid 20th century. The woman working the register in the gift shop told us it was an unusually bad year for mosquitoes — just our luck.

So at that point we had two choices for a route to Taos, our next stop: back down 84 to Espanola, then up 68 (the “fast” way) — or go further up 84 to 64, the “scenic” way through the mountains. In the interest of time we probably should have taken the fast way, but the lady in the gift shop told us that the scenic way wasn’t actually that much slower. (This assumes, of course, that you’re not stopping for photos, meals, cute little galleries along the way, etc. — all of which we were rather susceptible to! I figured we were in for a three-hour trip, and I was pretty close.)

We proceeded north and made our first detour to Tierra Wools, in the teeny town of Ojo Caliente. It was on a dusty back street off the main road, but there were several other visitors when we arrived, and the place had a really friendly vibe to it. They were selling tapestries, woven rugs and even organic yarns made from locally raised sheep. You could go back into the main work room to see the huge looms where the weavers did their work. There was a sign up that said they tried to hire low- to middle-income employees, which I thought was a nice thing to have as part of their mission statement.

After that we headed east on Route 64, which was truly breathtaking in some spots and rather boring in others. The road passes through Carson National Forest, and the landscape changes dramatically from red rocks and arid valleys to green mountains covered in conifers and what looked like aspens shivering in the breeze. Lots of photo ops there! As we descended we saw ranches and farms, with some cattle and a few horses, before we got to Tres Piedras — a tiny and rather grim town that seemed to consist only of an intersection with a blinking traffic light.

The road flattened into a broad plain as we approached Taos and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. We paused at the Rio Grande Bridge for a quick photo — the river (which seemed very narrow and shallow) has carved a dramatic 600-foot gorge into the land there. We parked and walked out onto the bridge to look down at the dizzying sight. I felt okay, but Mom seemed a little freaked out. When a truck rumbled past us, making the whole bridge vibrate, Mom decided it was time to move on!

The Millicent Rogers Museum was just down the road, so we stopped there to see a collection of Native American jewelry, textiles, pottery and other crafts — including the famous black-on-black pottery of Maria Martinez, a former resident of the pueblo we visited the day before (San Ildefonso). It was cool to see samples of her work and learn about her life and family (many of her family members helped her with her pottery). The museum’s namesake was a wealthy collector who traveled all over the world, married three times, and designed her own jewelry. Photos of her were all over the museum — a very tall, slim woman with frighteningly thin eyebrows and an aloof expression. It seemed like she lived a fascinating life, though I’m not sure if I’d actually like her very much!

We continued into Taos and checked into the Laughing Horse B&B, which was FABULOUS — funky and colorful and friendly. It was sort of a cross between a B&B and a hostel. There was a nice library of books, CD’s, and piano music, as well as a homey kitchen and living area. Our room was very small with a single bed on the lower level and a double bed in a loft reached via wooden ladder. We had a sink, but the shower and toilet were in a shared bathroom down the hall. (No one was in the room next to ours, so we had the bathroom to ourselves.) Outside our door, the hallway was a mini-solarium lined with plants, and several small dogs ran freely in the common areas. This was my kind of place — informal and charming, with a bit of a hippie vibe (our room was called Earthship 3).

The woman at the front desk recommended the Apple Tree restaurant for dinner, so we drove into town to check it out. There was plenty of seating available in the lovely outdoor courtyard, with each table lit by a tall candle. Mom and I both really wanted something healthy, so we ordered salads and some warm almond-crusted brie. (Okay, so maybe the brie wasn’t so healthy.) The food was delicious and the atmosphere nice and laid back.

Before and after dinner we strolled through the historic part of Taos, which looked quite similar to Santa Fe — pretty plaza, adobe buildings, tons of expensive galleries. Most places were closed (it was after 5:00), but we did find one place that was open until 8:00 and actually offered affordable pottery. The lady was very sweet, keeping the place open past closing time and reducing the prices on a couple of pots ($69 –> $50, $48 –> $40) for Mom. She bought both.

The next day started at 6 a.m. when I awoke to the sound of pouring rain. It continued unabated all the way through breakfast. We chatted a bit with Bob, one of the innkeepers (and a real cutie, if I may say so), and petted his dogs as we ate. On the menu: various cereals (some organic), organic milk, bread, yogurt and a nice selection of fresh fruit — cantaloupe, strawberries, bananas, oranges, etc.

The rain was still pouring down when we got to Taos Pueblo, so we wandered around the muddy streets for a bit taking pictures from under our umbrellas. This pueblo was larger and prettier than the one we visited a few days before — and its spectacular location in the shadow of Taos Mountain didn’t hurt! We stopped to tour the lovely adobe church and wound up talking to a local named Lawrence, who was born and raised in the pueblo. He told us that the church was about 100 years old and was actually the youngest building in the pueblo. He and some other residents of the pueblo were currently working on installing new doors on the front of the church in time for their upcoming feast day on September 30.

The weather started to clear up and we even saw the sun for a bit as we poked around the rest of the pueblo. We spent a long time in one shop eyeing some really lovely Navajo pottery — and I finally nabbed my first souvenir for myself, a vase that was brilliantly blue on top and had an intricate multicolored design on the base. We also checked out a few other galleries, which were all a bit more sophisticated than those at San Ildefonso — which is both a good and a bad thing, I suppose.

We hit a weaving shop on the way out of town called Weaving Southwest. There were some pretty tapestries (very expensive) and unique yarns. Then we made a stop at the San Francisco de Asis church, just outside of downtown Taos — it had a pretty adobe exterior, and was surrounded by yet more galleries.

The High Road to Santa Fe

Finally, we were on our way along the so-called “high road” between Taos and Santa Fe. Unfortunately the rain had returned, so the lovely scenery — the road passes through Carson National Forest — was all a bit sodden. The clouds and fog rolling over the mountains had their own sort of beauty, though.

The road took us through some very, very small towns before we reached Chimayo, which Mom was eager to see because of its weaving industry. First, however, we had lunch at the Rancho de Chimayo. To be honest, it was a total tourist trap. There are very few eateries in the area and this one is right down the road from a famous shrine (more on that later). The restaurant was packed with our fellow tourists chomping down on Southwestern staples like huevos rancheros and enchiladas. Mom and I both had the chicken fajita salad, which was tasty.

After lunch we proceeded to El Santuario de Chimayo, the aforementioned shrine. There’s a little well in a chapel off the main sanctuary filled with “holy dirt” that’s supposed to have miraculous healing properties. (Mom filled a bag with some to take home.) The place is apparently a major pilgrimage site — think Lourdes on a smaller scale. I’m a bit of a skeptic about that sort of thing, but I couldn’t help but be moved by some of the handmade shrines in the courtyard — like a handwritten plea for a soldier to come home safely from Iraq, or a pair of child-size shoes affixed to a crucifix.

Afterward we stopped in several galleries in and around Chimayo before driving to Espanola, about ten miles west. Mom wanted to visit the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center to see some weavings and tapestries (she was a bit disappointed by the selection in Chimayo). The place was tricky to find but definitely worth it, at least for Mom; it’s an education and community center, and she found very reasonable prices on yarn there.

And More Santa Fe!

Back in Santa Fe, we wandered up and down Canyon Road a bit in the drizzling rain. It was about 6 p.m., so everything was closed, but we were able to take pictures of colorful doorways and nifty sculptures. We grabbed a quick take-out dinner at our favorite spot, Wild Oats, and then checked back into the Super 8 for the night.

The next morning we went back to Canyon Road to explore a little more thoroughly. It’s a seemingly endless street of one gorgeous gallery after another, each with exquisite works of art and charmingly colorful facades. Many also had sculpture gardens or flowerbeds. None of the art was in our price range, of course, but I basically treated each gallery like a museum and really enjoyed looking at the amazing stuff on display.

We left Canyon Road late in the morning and drove across town to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Parking was very difficult to find, but it was worth it to finally see her work up close and in person. Her colors truly seem to fly off the canvas. We also appreciated the little twelve-minute film about her life, which was captioned in nice big letters so that Mom, who has a hearing impairment, was able to follow it. The museum was a bit smaller than we expected, but we made up for lost time in the gift shop!

We ate lunch not far from the museum at the Cafe Paris, which was a bit overpriced but had a nice outdoor terrace. Mom and I both ordered quiche, which came with salad and potatoes.

Then we were off in search of an internet cafe where we could check in and print boarding passes for our Southwest flights the next day. We couldn’t find one, but we were able to use the free internet access at the public library and print for only $0.10 a page.

We left Santa Fe around 3:00 and made our way back down the Turquoise Trail to Madrid again, where Mom wanted to visit a couple of weaving galleries. We spent at least an hour in town wandering from one gallery to the next.


We pulled into Albuquerque a little after 6:00 and made our way to the historic district. The main plaza there looks almost exactly like the ones in Santa Fe and Taos — green in the center, surrounded by adobe buildings and gift shops, etc. When we arrived there was actually a little mariachi-style band playing for a small, mostly elderly/family crowd. We grabbed dinner right on the plaza at a place called Hacienda. I got a respectable taco salad and Mom had an excellent steak tampico.

We went back to the plaza after dinner and listened to the band play a bit before heading to our last hotel, the Howard Johnson Express Inn. We somehow passed it the first time but had better luck on our second try. It was nice enough — two double beds, a pool, hot breakfast, etc. for about $80 a night with taxes.

On our last morning we headed to Petroglyph National Monument, which is just minutes away from downtown Albuquerque. The park itself is very pretty, with rocky cliffs covered in ancient Native American petroglyphs, but the effect is ruined slightly by the fact that it’s surrounded by suburbs — houses and cul-de-sacs are encroaching from several directions. Still, we enjoyed hiking a bit in the park before we had to return our rental car and head home. We had two very smooth flights and then touched down in Philadelphia around 10 p.m.

Mom and I agreed that it was a great trip. I’d never been out west, so I was truly amazed by the scenery — the wide openness of it, the freshness of the air, and the beauty of the mountains. I definitely want to go back soon!

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