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If I had to use one word to describe Santa Fe, it would be friendly.
Strolling past the earthy coloured, mud-brick buildings on a chilly winter morning with the burning pinon aroma wafting in the crisp air, I felt like I had stepped back in time to a frontier past, right out of the Wild West setting at Movie World. When I saw locals waving to me from their cars, I instantly knew that I would like this place.
While the mountainous playground of the rich and famous enticed me to “The City Different”, I soon discovered that Santa Fe’s charms extended beyond its majestic scenery and friendly locals. At 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe is the highest capital city in the United States. It is also the oldest. This city’s rich history is weaved into its culture through its distinctive architecture, unique art and delicious cuisine.
Arriving at my motel just before lunch and feeling peckish, the receptionist recommended Tomasita’s located at the Railyard district. The Railyard can’t be missed; just head towards the large wooden water tank with the words ‘Santa Fe Railyard’ written in large white letters. Tomasita’s is located in the old station master’s building, built in 1904 and oozed with ambience. Chillis adorned the ceilings and window sills and the bar was crowded with men in business suits mingling with locals wearing cowboy hats, large silver belts and suede vests with tassels. I loved it! It felt like another world. Exposed wooden beams jutted out of the ceiling and black and white photos lined the walls. To top it off the Quesadilla was delicious and only cost $10.
Keen to experience more of Santa Fe’s charm, I ambled to the Plaza admiring all the buildings I passed. Each house is unique although all have the same contoured adobe walls, flat roofs, vigas and arches while some have chillis, called Ristras which are supposed to bring good health and good luck or animal bones hanging at the entrance.
The Plaza is the heart of Santa Fe. Shops, museums, churches and the Palace of the Governors surround the square. The Palace of the Governors is one of the oldest public buildings in the United States. Built in 1610 it has since been converted into a museum housing artifacts from Santa Fe’s Indian, Mexican, Spanish and American history. It’s also the perfect place to buy a souvenir as Native Americans sell their wares outside including sand paintings, jewellery and pottery. Each piece is original and the ballot system means that the pieces change daily.
A visit to the Loretto Chapel is a must. Located one block from The Plaza, the chapel boasts a “miraculous” spiral staircase which rises to the choir loft, making two full turns without the support of a central pole. Held together by wooden pegs and glue, the staircase was built between 1877 and 1881. According to the Sisters of Loretto, the nuns prayed for a solution to access the choir loft and on the ninth day of prayer, a mysterious stranger appeared and offered to build the staircase. The Sisters of Loretto viewed the construction as a miracle.
While I wanted to check out the shops, in my usual style, I crammed my three days with fun activities so had to get ready for my first tour: Chimayo. Sue from Santa Fe Walkabouts, now named Santa Fe Mountain Adventures, picked me up in a black SUV. As we headed north, she imparted many interesting facts about Santa Fe and Chimayo like that Santa Fe’s elevation meant that one glass of alcohol consumed elsewhere equates to approximately three glasses in New Mexico.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sange de Cristo mountains, Chimayo is home to 6000 people. While it was quiet when I travelled, come Easter it is bursting at the seams with thousands of people, some barefoot while others carry crosses who make the pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo.
I was here to visit Santuario de Chimayo. Not knowing much about the church or its history, other than it was cute and would be impressive to photograph, I soon discovered that this church was famous.
Situated inside a walled courtyard, the church has a bell tower on each side. Made out of mud, water and dry straw, this Spanish Colonial architectural church is known as a healing church and this was made clearer as I stepped into a rectangular room where photographs of people who needed to be healed lined one wall and on the opposite wall there were approximately 50 discarded crutches hanging, where supposedly people came on crutches and were healed so didn’t require them any more.
Ducking to enter a small room at the back I noticed a small hole full of dirt with a red plastic spade. Sue informed me this was the ‘Holy Dirt’ and that visitors were free to touch the dirt or fill up a container. I could also buy some in the gift shop.
On the way out we also passed another church, the Santo Nino Chapel. This one was dedicated to children and I was told when people visit they bring children’s shoes to place at the alter. In Summer, the Chapel is bustling with tourists, however on my visit the gates were locked.
Strolling down by the river, I noticed several large crosses placed in a row before Sue showed me a room that housed three sand paintings. These were impressive. The largest depicted the Last Supper.
Chimayo was peaceful. I could have stayed there for longer but time was getting on. Walking back to the car, Sue pointed out, Mr Medina, the ‘Chilli Man’ riding a bicycle. The Medina family have been living in Chimayo since the 1570’s and the ‘Chilli Man’ shows people how to eat chilli. New Mexico is known for its chillis and restaurant wait staff have been known to ask “Red, Green or Christmas?”
Back in Santa Fe, I enjoyed a relaxing dinner at the Blue Corn Café, ensuring that the wait staff left off the “smothered with chillis” part off my Shepherd’s Pie.
I was heading out of town again this morning, another private tour with Santa Fe Walkabouts, approximately one hour north to Ghost Ranch. The Wild West was calling and it did not disappoint. Our first stop was Plaza Blanca, a canyon flanked by towering limestone cliffs and pinnacles. The incredible rock formations are definitely worth the visit.
The road to Ghost Ranch was breathtaking. The raw scenery, vast vistas and flat topped mountains were from another time. Ghost Ranch encompasses 21,000 acres and people come here to paint, write, hike and horse ride. I only explored a tiny fraction of this massive Ranch. We stopped briefly at a low set ranch built for the City Slickers movie before visiting the museum. Ghost Ranch is an archeologist’s playground. So much has been found including spear tips, pottery, an Indian settlement and even a dinosaur!
Santa Fe exudes art, whether it is from archeological artifacts or more modern pieces. Boasting 100 fine art galleries and artist studios, Canyon Road is located just four blocks from the Plaza and deserves exploration. Hours can be spent absorbing the vast array of art on this old Indian Trail including pottery, contemporary and Native American fine art, antiques and sculpture gardens.
Tom, my walking guide introduced me to more art at the Round House, the State Capitol. Approximately $7 million dollars worth of artwork hangs on these walls. As we walked through the doors, Tom said he was going to take me to meet the Governor. I thought a statue, however I found out that Tom has contacts everywhere and wanted to introduce me to the actual Governor. The Governor was in legislature so unfortunately, couldn’t meet me so Tom showed me around The Governor’s Gallery. It is an art gallery in itself with works rotated every three months. On my visit, the gallery was filled with historic Spanish woodwork including old chairs and chests. He then showed me the Bison artwork. This was a great piece, made out of every day household items including plastic spoons and fishing rods.
Inspired by the amazing art, I signed up to a glass blowing workshop with Elodie Holmes from Liquid Light Glass. If you have the opportunity to try glass blowing – do it! It was so much fun and the perfect way to unleash your creativity. Combining art and science, and requires constant movement and glass blowing. I dipped an amber mass into coloured crushed glass before carefully rotating the rod in the furnace, trying to keep the molten glass dripping off like honey. The twisting, stretching and manipulation then began. In one hour, I created three glass flowers, a paperweight and a drinking glass.
Now there was just one more thing on my list – cooking school. I headed to the Santa Fe School of Cooking to learn some chili cooking tips. This small family owned business offers a range of classes promoting regional cuisine. I indulged in smoked pork tenderloin with red chilli cider glaze, apple-pinon chutney, corn chowder with green chilli croutons and pumpkin cheesecake. Being not much of a cook, this was my style of cooking school. I sat back with a glass of wine and watched the chefs cook up a storm before indulging in the unique southwestern cuisine. This was the perfect ending to an amazing trip.