The American West is a place of scale and grandeur, where soaring peaks fall to slickrock canyons and the high desert stretches to an endless blue sky. It is a place imbued with its past: the Native American tribes who still honour and live on the land of their ancestors; the cowboys and pioneers who settled here; the wilderness that has still not been tamed, nor ever will.
But when we think of the American West, we tend to think of its famous sites: the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains. But if that’s all we do, if we simply pass through the rest, we sell the region short. For hidden in the shadows, obscured by the glare of those brighter stars, are some of the West’s most treasured spots – with Northern New Mexico perhaps the greatest of all.
Colonised by Spain, and pressed up against the USA’s southern border, there is a distinctly Spanish-Mexican influence here unlike anywhere else in the States. You can see it the architecture, taste it in the food, feel it in the lightness of the air. It has inspired artists for centuries. Native American culture is thriving. The chance for adventure limitless.
They call New Mexico ‘the Land of Enchantment’, but the locals have another name for it too – ‘the Land of Entrapment’. Once you visit, you may never want to leave.
The heart of this distinctive city is the historic downtown. Santa Fe is the second-oldest city in the country, founded in 1609-1610, and unlike most modern American metropolises there is a grounded presence here, as if its roots have long settled.
Native American ruins, etched in petroglyphs, are on its doorstep. Old Spanish pueblo-style homes and churches still stand. Everywhere you look, adobe buildings, which hark back to the city’s indigenous heritage, soften the eye – edges smooth and rounded, baked in warm earthy tones to harmonise with their surroundings. Climb one of the nearby peaks, look down and you’ll hardly know Santa Fe is there.
Perhaps most striking of all, though, is the art. Creativity pours out of every corner. There are more galleries per square mile than just about anywhere else on earth. It is a place to wander, to slow down and absorb the colours in the air.
If Sante Fe is cultured and classy, then Taos is its slightly more raucous and bohemian cousin. Tucked into the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, it began as an artist colony at the turn of the 20th century, the first of its kind in the American West. Drawn by the mythical light and colours of this high desert, artists from around the world began moving here; in doing so, they put the town on the map.
The spirit of expression they brought still survives today – Taos has dozens of galleries, festivals, live music venues and more. But with those artists came something special too. The town has become a haven for alternative beliefs and left-of-centre lifestyles. It’s the kind of place where you can be anyone you want and create anything you dream. And people do.
But it’s also a place for adventure: 2,500 square kilometres of public wilderness land surrounds this mountain town. In winter, the skiing is some of the best in the country. Rock-climbing, mountain-biking, hiking and white-water rafting are on its doorstep – and all of it is bathed in 300-plus days of sunshine a year.
New Mexico is home to the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, the Navajo Nation and 19 pueblos, or Native American settlements. These small villages are living communities. Visiting them is one of the most satisfying opportunities to learn about authentic Native American culture and history in the region, and the northern part of the state is home to eight of the finest examples.
Taos Pueblo is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in North America with a history dating back over 1,000 years. It is made almost entirely of adobe, with many of the original buildings largely unchanged since they were first constructed more than 500 years ago. These striking multi-layered homes have been drawing painters and photographers since the early 20th century, including the great Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe.
The picturesque Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, around 50km north of Santa Fe, is a Tewa village and renowned for its skilled artisans, especially potters and woodcarvers whom visitors can see at work. Numerous dances and festivals, which are open to the public, take place throughout the year. The Deer Dance, held in January or February to ensure prosperity for the coming year, is regarded as one of the most vivid and dramatic.
Artists and innovators have long been drawn to New Mexico. Here are three creative spots not to miss.
One of the most important artists of the 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract modernist style helped define American art. New Mexico was her muse. She visited for the first time in 1917 and eventually moved to the state in 1949, where she stayed until her death in 1986. Her paintings capture the soft colours and stark beauty of New Mexico in a uniquely captivating and fragile way. See a wide array of her works, ranging from childhood pencil portraits to watercolours made in her 80s, at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. www.okeeffemuseum.org
Part mad art installation, part insane playhouse and all-out unbridled fun, Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe is what happens when 135 contemporary artists are given free rein to create the world’s most imaginative walk-through experience. Featuring over 70 rooms, each one a uniquely designed, fully immersive art assault, visitors explore a labyrinth of twisting tunnels, secret doors and neon forests, each one crazier and more surprising than the last. www.meowwolf.com
Earthships are fully sustainable off-grid homes built into the ground from upcycled materials packed with mud and dirt. Utilising solar and wind power, thermal heating and cooling from the earth, and a revolutionary watercapture system that uses rain and snowmelt to produce lush gardens of organic produce, they are the future of eco-housing and about as Taos as you can get. This visitor centre, just out of town, has a walk-through example house and the opportunity to stay the night in one too. www.earthshipglobal.com
Legendary rivers, rugged mountains, weird rocks... New Mexico has a varied wilderness in which to play.
Flowing more than 3,000km from Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico, the legendary Rio Grande must have been the subject of more cowboy campfire tales than just about any other river on the planet, and the section around Taos is recommended. La Vista Verde Trail is a 4km out-and-back hike along the inner gorge with views of the winding river throughout. The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which looms almost 200m above the water, is one of the highest bridges in the country. It offers a bird’s eye view – walk to the middle, look deep into the snaking ravine below and you’ll know why they call it New Mexico’s Grand Canyon.
Hike among these strange rock formations, just outside of Santa Fe. Dozens of cone-shaped pinnacles, the product of volcanic eruptions that occurred six to seven million years ago, jut out from the cliffs like a surrealist painting; the largest are almost 30m high. But unlike most similar geological formations, known as hoodoos, these rocks have little conical hats on top, making them appear like a field of precariously balanced circus tents. The 5km Canyon Trail leads through the rocks to end at a dramatic slot canyon.
Featuring 40km of interconnecting trails, this network of trekking and biking paths will take you up into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe, with options for both beginners and more advanced hikers. Try the 5.3km hike up Picacho Peak for the view – it’s only a stone throw from the city, but you’ll feel a million miles away.
For culture buffs looking to stay in the heart of Santa Fe’s downtown district, try La Fonda on the Plaza: it has gorgeous Pueblo-style architecture, plentiful local art and a cool cocktail bar and restaurant, all within walking distance of the main sites. In Taos, the adobestyle Taos Inn has well-designed rustic-modern décor and one of the best restaurants in town.
For a budget option in Taos, the Sagebrush Inn & Suites is a good bet, with a large courtyard, mountain views, and generous servings of south-western charm.
There is no better way to sample New Mexico’s signature drink than this trail linking 45 bars and restaurants (download the app to guide you). Each place offers its own signature mix, from chilli infused to cotton candy-topped – it’s like a pick-n-mix cocktail crawl for grown-ups. Try Del Charro’s Hatch chilli special and the Thunderbird Bar & Grill’s classic Margarita, served with one of the town’s finest views.
New Mexican cuisine is acclaimed throughout the West for its delicious blend of Mexican, Spanish and Native American flavours and cooking styles. Specialties include fry bread sopapillas, pozole soups and New Mexico’s legendary green chillies fried, baked, put in burgers and burritos, and mixed with plates of delicious beans. In Taos, Orlando’s family-run Mexican eatery is a local favourite. The Shed in Santa Fe is a James Beard award winner (the USA’s culinary Oscars). It specialises in northern New Mexico cuisine – its red chilli enchiladas are among the greatest you’ll ever eat.
For more information, visit www.newmexico.org
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