‘Drink plenty of water’, he reassures me, ‘and welcome to Santa Fe!’ With that said, Tenzin, who mans the front desk at the Sage Inn, moves on to the next guest. I’ve just completed a marathon session of travel – 19 hours of flying later, I am 12 and a half hours west of where I started, with a 20C (66F) variation in temperature, and a 7000 ft gain in altitude! My body is in complete shock and begins to offer the first signs of resistance – a stiff headache! But Tenzin probably knows a thing or two about this – after all, he hails from Tibet! I heed his advise, drop my bags off, and head out towards Santa Fe’s newest attraction, which conveniently enough, lies across the street from my hotel.
One track mind
The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway never quite made it to Santa Fe, or at least its mainline didn’t! And nor does its present day successor, the mighty Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Even puny little Amtrak gives it a miss, instead calling on Lamy, some 20 miles south. But regardless, Santa Fe continues to celebrate its place in American railway history through its most recent urban renewal project, the Railyard. This once decrepit railroad yard today boasts contemporary art galleries, performance spaces, a Hispanic cultural centre, a farmers market, boutiques and restaurants, and a beautifully landscaped park designed by New York-based architects. But most importantly, trains continue to roll in to its historic depot! And that in itself is a sight for my very weary eyes..
Flamenco on Canyon
Never mind its modest size, Santa Fe is one of the largest art markets in the US, second only to NYC! Its art district is centred upon Canyon Road, a long, winding and narrow path that leads up to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. With more galleries and studios per square inch than your likely to find elsewhere on the planet, Canyon Road is where you head if you consider yourself an art aficionado. It is also where you head for fine dining!
The ivy-covered, mural adorned back room of El Farol is the setting for my friends’ rehearsal dinner, and his wedding is the primary reason I am here in Santa Fe! Over bottomless jars of Sangria and delectable Tapas, we sit back and watch as a Flamenco troupe takes centre stage.
Ode to the oldest
The Sangria ensures a good nights sleep and the remnants of jet lag ensure an early start to my day. Tenzin, meanwhile, assures me that today won’t be as windy as yesterday – a common spring phenomenon in the high desert – and with that piece of news, and several chugs of water, I set forth into the old town.
Santa Fe’s Native American origins and subsequent Spanish occupation ensured that several ‘oldests’ were left behind, in what is relatively a very young country. For starters, and no pun intended at that, it is the oldest capital city in the US! It is home to the oldest continuously occupied public building, the oldest church structure, and holding its own on De Vargas street, what is rumoured to be the oldest house in the country!
To differentiate it from ‘any town USA’ and to foster tourism, the city passed an ordinance in 1912, mandating a uniform building style. It was to draw on elements from traditional Native American and Spanish colonial construction techniques – adobe walls, earthy tones, flat roofs and exposed beams. And so, Spanish Pueblo Revival, a new school of architecture was born!
A full century later, the results of this experiment couldn’t be any more pleasing. The rustic finish, coupled with all the muted colours blend seamlessly into the surroundings. The absence of steel, glass and concrete, and a refusal to conform to straight lines is a welcome departure from the norm, and soothing as ever to the eye.
They call Santa Fe ‘the city different’ and less than a day into my stay I begin to understand why. A good part of it appears cantonment like to me, what with its uniform colours and materials, and the high level of upkeep that accompanies it all. Canyon Road, on the other hand, is completely reminiscent of a hill station. Meanwhile, some streets look like they definitely belong in an old frontier town. And then there’s the laid back feel all around, which gives one the false impression that they’re in a beach resort!
Its difficult to pinpoint what it is really – could it be that so called ‘southwestern feel’? Having traveled to neighbouring states previously, I think not. In fact, the vibe in Santa Fe feels quite unlike any other city I’ve visited in North America. True to its nickname, it is, the city different 😉
Livin’ large at La Fonda
Of the many storied hotels in Santa Fe, La Fonda is easily the most steeped in history. Although its present structure was built in 1922, the site that the hotel occupies has hosted travelers since the days of the Santa Fe Trail, and if record books are to be believed, even earlier!
Stepping inside, I am instantly transported to a living museum – carved wooden beams, decorative masonry, handcrafted chandeliers and large canvasses adorning the walls, encompassing ancient and contemporary New Mexican art – all this within the goings-on of a fully functional hotel! And never mind the fact that I’m not a guest here, it’s perfectly alright to walk around and explore the building at leisure…
Haggling at the Plaza
The Santa Fe Trail was constructed in the early 19th-century to facilitate trade between Missouri and New Mexico. It started in little known Franklin, MO and ended some 600 miles later at Santa Fe’s Plaza. The Plaza itself predates the trail by over a century and was built by the Spanish as their city centre. It continues to serve that role even today.
Being the true centre of the city, it attracts more than its fair share of tourists, but even so manages to wear a relatively calm, laid back look. There is one place that betrays that sense of peace though – the north portal of the Palace of the Governors. It plays host to a Native American arts market each day, where artisans have the upper hand and good bargaining skills are often put to the test!
Santa Fe is also considered to have some of the finest museums in the United States, and relative to its size, their sheer number is staggering! Within walking distance of the Plaza itself there are 5 museums, and so deciding which one to see – especially if your strapped for time – is always a tough choice!
After much consideration, I settle upon the New Mexico Museum of Art, the state’s oldest art museum. Its collection is enormous and runs the gamut from historic to contemporary southwestern art. As an added bonus, there is a local orchestra performing in its auditorium, for free! But really, one of the deciding factors for me is the building that houses the museum itself – a splendid example of the Pueblo Revival style, with a charming courtyard to boot!
One palace, many governors
Tenzin’s prediction about the wind today has been spot on! It is as calm as can be, as we take our seats in the well tended lawns of the Federal Court House, to witness the wedding ceremony of my friend.
A Mariachi band takes over proceedings after the ceremony has concluded, and leads the marriage party – in true Indian baraat style – across a few city blocks to the venue of the reception, the Palace of the Governors courtyard.
Built in 1610, the Palace of the Governors has served as the seat of governance for the Spanish, the Mexicans, and more recently for the United States, when it was annexed to their territory! In its present day avatar, it dons many hats too – the State History Museum, a history library, a venue for exhibitions and so on. On this fine evening, however, the quaint space is taken over by family and friends of the newly weds, who continue to be serenaded by the Mariachis..
The long road to Taos
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the southernmost sub range of the Rockies. Originating in southern Colorado, they terminate just south of Santa Fe. Their highest elevations are in the mid-14000s, with Santa Fe itself clocking in at 7200 feet, making it the highest capital city in the US! Not surprisingly, the drive north out of Santa Fe is characterized by gorgeous vistas of the high desert – extensive plains capped by rugged mountains.
At Espanola, I peel off US route 84 to join New Mexico route 68, which will take me on to Taos. A few miles into NM-68 I am joined by the storied Rio Grande river, and the narrow 2-lane highway matches it curve for curve. The Rio Grande, in these parts, is known for its white water rapids, and there are plenty of launch points along the way. I pull over at one such and survey the scene. Its hard to imagine, but minutes away from here the Rio Grande will veer west and disappear beneath a deep gorge!
Within the Adobe walls
Taos is a town of less than 5000 people that lies some 75 miles to Santa Fe’s north. It is best known for its thriving art community and boasts no less than 3 art museums! It gets its name from Taos Pueblo, the Native American village, which is located 3 miles away.
Of the 21 Pueblos that exist today, 19 are in New Mexico, with one each in Arizona and Texas. The most notable among them is at Taos, with its multistoried adobe houses, some of them dating back to 1000 AD. A World Heritage Site since ’92, the Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years! Not only is my visit here a lesson in history but also puts into context just how young a country the United States, as we know it today, really is!
Pit stop at Cowgirl
Santa Fe has a lot going for it – great architecture, plenty of art, world-class museums, and if I haven’t mentioned so already, very good food too! In my short time here, everything I’ve savored so far has been great – from the Tapas at El Farol to the New American cuisine at La Boca.
I decide to make one last stop in Santa Fe, to get lunch, and to fetch my bags from the Sage Inn. Guadalupe St. is walking distance from the hotel and features plenty of hip boutiques, bars and restaurants, including a southwestern BBQ place called Cowgirl, which comes highly recommended! I seem to get my order right and the Jerk Chicken turns out to be the best I’ve eaten in a while, the hot sauce simply addictive!
South to Kasha-Katuwe
My route south out of Santa Fe follows I-25 for about 20 miles, and then its local routes for another 20. I’m headed for the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument – one of the country’s newest such monuments, established during the last years of the Clinton regime.
I lose some altitude along the way – a couple of thousand feet, at least – but the topography is no less remarkable. Rolling plans, desert shrub, plenty of dips in the road, and craggy peaks forming the backdrop to it all. Closer to Kasha-Katuwe, even the 15 mph limit isn’t slow enough to take it all in – I’m forced to come to a complete stop!
In the Pueblo language of Keresan, Kasha-Katuwe means white cliffs. The colour is a result of volcanic ash deposits from a few millions years ago, and the ‘tent rocks’ owe their shape to subsequent weathering by wind and water. The cones themselves are made up of solidified lava (pumice) and protected by harder cap rocks, which in some cases resemble boulders, balancing precariously on top!
But those are just semantics. To really appreciate this riveting geological formation, you have to see it up close! A couple of trails get you there and I choose the simpler of the two, the Loop Trail. In part because its a shorter hike, but mostly because I feel they deserve to be looked up to with a lot of awe!
With the 1.3 mile loop almost complete, and my shoes looking more white then brown, I turn around to take one last look at the vast, undulating stunningness that is the high desert of New Mexico..
A full set of pics can be seen here.