Not just desert, down New Mexico way
Breathtaking landscapes combine with ancient pueblos and art, burning effigies and a bloody past for an unforgettable trip
Chimney Rock, overlooking Chama Basin at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. Photograph: Getty
The burning Of Zozobra, Old Man Gloom, at the start of the Fiesta De Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photograph: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
The Santuario de Chimayo pilgrimage site where. Photograph: Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images
New Mexico, the 47th state in the union, is many things. A land of sun and shadow, of 1,000-year-old pueblos and Wild West towns, of Georgia O’Keeffe vistas and the Santa Fe trail. The Rio Grande is everywhere, turquoise jewellery is everywhere, and all is reflected in a lavish – and expensive – art scene. But the desert is what makes New Mexico unique.
It is the state’s seductive siren. This is not desert as you’ve imagined it, arid and limitless under a broiling sky. The northwestern New Mexican desert is wildly varied, rising as scalding red mountains from high plateaus, rolling out in sandy hills gently spotted with sagebrush or, at a height, covered in forest and wilderness.
New Mexico is a land of many peoples, too: Native Americans, Spanish-Americans, Caucasian Americans, Mexicans, would-be cowboys and New Agers, artists and wannabes, and year-round tourists – all of whom eat chili peppers. Red, green or both together (when they’re called Christmas) there is no escaping chili peppers. They’re on your breakfast plate with coffee and eggs, at lunch with coffee and a burrito, for supper with sizzlin’ fajitas, and at all times in between. Ubiquitous as the sun.
No other state in the union can claim a history so long and unbroken, nor one so replete with the blood, bones and greed that have shaped the southwestern US. It’s a living history, too, seen in soothing adobe architecture, in 19 ancient Native American pueblos across the land, in thriving colonial Hispanic communities, in the timeless beauty of Native American art and in signposts indicating the Santa Fe trail.
The land that is today’s New Mexico has been home to Native Americans for more than 12,000 years. The collapse of that civilisation’s major cities, in the 1200s, led to the foundation of the 19 ancient villages still inhabited today.
The disruption in the 1400s, when the tribes of the Navajo (Dine) and Apache moved in from Colorado, was nothing compared to the affray when the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, claimed the territory and called it New Mexico. Spain ruled for 200 vexatious years, founded La Villa de Santa Fe in 1609, set up a thriving agricultural sector and annihilated those Native Americans who practised their own religion.
The Pueblo Indians revolted in 1680 and, with a cleverly conceived battle strategy, took and held Santa Fe for 12 years. After 1693 the region became more divorced from Spain, subject to Comanche, Apache and Navajo attacks and ineffective against illegal trade along the Santa Fe trail by a newly independent USA. Briefly taken over by their newly independent neighbour, Mexico, Santa Fe was claimed by the US, in August 1846, and New Mexico became part of the union in January 1912.
And none of this is forgotten: New Mexico is every bit as committed as Ireland to keeping its heroes and villains alive, in story, song, myth and monument.
SANTA FE, WHICH claims to be the oldest capital city in the US, sits more than 2km above sea level and is a bit of a tourist trap.
That said, it’s relaxing and wonderful, with rust-coloured adobe buildings and a leafy 400-year-old central plaza. Rigorous height restrictions mean there’s not a skyscraper in sight, just plenty of world-class museums, restaurants and shops selling expensive western gear. Take an evening walk along the tree-lined Alameda river for a peace that is rare in a city.
The Inn of the Turquoise Bear, with its dark beams and shining wooden floors, has a lively history, its former guests in the abandoned good times including DH Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe and Igor Stravinsky. Life outside its acre of walled gardens stops daily for a “refreshment hour” that stretches to two or three, depending on the gathering and the gossip. Here, I learn a lot that’s unprintable about the city, and pick up a guide for a few days: Em, a long-time Santa Fe resident.