New Mexico – The Land of Enchantment

Published: May 25th 2014
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Albuquerque City – ‘Red, Green or Christmas Chile?’

After 4 quite hectic days travelling up and down Route 66 in Oklahoma (and a bit of Texas) and having dropped off the car unharmed, we spend time in The Will Rogers World Airport Lounge till we catch a cab to the Greyhound station (unfortunately the bus system in OKC does not have a service to the Airport! What a second rate City!) as we have an overnight bus to Albuquerque. Firstly, the airport has got air con (it’s 80 degrees outside & we have about 2 hours to kill), the place is clean and secure and we can get a decent coffee here after changing in the clean Restrooms for the trip. And we have charging points to get stuff done. Q.E.D. The Bus station by contrast is small, hot and crowded.

The ‘funny’ thing is that having travelled 100s of miles to and from Amarillo (Texas), the bus will now take us back along the same route past Amarillo to our destination. C’est La Vie!

The Oklahoma Greyhound Bus station is the most disorganised we have come across in all our travels. The guys loading the bags try and rip us off for a tip saying our bags were over the limit and that a tip was cheaper than paying the excess fee. M challenges the guys to weigh the bags – one does and they shut up and load the bags on. No money paid. Result.!

The bus trip is supposed to be direct and with the usual stop overs of a few minutes here and there. However, belatedly we discover that they have a 1hr 20min stop to clean the bus at Amarillo at 1.20am in the morning!! We can’t believe it. Great Customer care! Though the bus is an old model, the good news is that we have a decent coach with Wi-Fi and charging points.

We arrived on time in Albuquerque (Abq from now on) at 7am, at the integrated transport hub which is downtown. A no: 66 Bus is across the way to take us to our abode – aptly named Route 66 Hostel on Route 66 as well. We check in early and a room is available. We get showered and have breakfast provided by the hostel. It’s the cheapest hostel we have stayed at in the US – circa $37 per night. It’s also pretty well located for all the areas of interest and serviced pretty well by the 66 or 766 (Rapid Service) Buses. The city is a mile high(5280 feet) in altitude based in a valley which is supposed to be a desert.

It’s Saturday and we make our way to the ‘Historic’ (a word the US cities/towns/villages use a lot) Old Town about a mile away. We discover that there is a Fiesta in full flow – not quite sure why but it makes for a great atmosphere and the weather is warm. There’s live music on the main bandstand in the middle of the square or Plaza, some cultural dancing in appropriate costumes, a few food stalls & a BBQ van serving up New Mexican delights and the local shops add to the experience.

There has been a community in this area since 1706. The main shops are organised around the square in small adobe style one story Mexican type haciendas. However, they clearly have all had a makeover as they would fit neatly into any Disney Park. This takes some of the gloss off as it feels too new and artificial. Sorry guys!

The San Felipe de Neri Church is across the square and is supposed to be one of the oldest in the US. The Visitor Centre is in an adjacent smaller square – very helpful and with lots of free information. There’s a group of 3 guys playing Andean music here really well. There are Art Galleries, shops, rows of American Indians selling jewellery (really beautiful turquoise inlay work) and crafts in the side arcade and even an International Rattle Snake Museum.

The main square has 2 canons from the civil war which were apparently buried when the Confederate army fled the area. They were later found and 2 based here as a sign of the times. There’s also a plaque to the Confederate veterans – the first we have seen in the southern States. Note: We later find one in Boulder Colorado on a day trip there as well.

As it’s getting on and C is not feeling hungry and M is starving, he skips off to Frontier at 2410 Central Ave (recommended in LP) for some Burrito while C decides that it’s time to catch up laundry duties.

It’s Garcias Café – a local place (5 blocks away) for dinner where we try Red Chile with meat & beans and Green Chile stew. Chile (or Chilli to the rest of the world) is the big deal here. It’s grown locally and prepared fresh each day. Most if not all New Mexican food comes with it plus Salsa and if you can’t decide they throw in a bit of each and refer to this as ‘Christmas’. Quaint!

Actually New Mexican food is pretty good we find and makes a change from the Southern states cuisines. (Sad note – while we are in Taos we hear on the local news that Garcia passes away at age 90 on Good Friday. R.I.P.)

On the Sunday we walk to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre about a mile and a half away as there is no bus (another example of US thinking where it’s assumed everyone has cars & if you don’t tough!) – but we need the exercise. It’s a lovely day and a Sunday Cultural Indian Dance show is on. The entry price is $6 each for the Museum & Dance show. It’s quite entertaining as it’s in formal traditional Indian clothes and a guy gives a commentary to explain the Indian way of life and the importance of music and dance as part of their culture. It’s pretty educational. It’s also surprising how his view of Indian life is today. It’s how Indian beliefs and heritage is now closely wrapped up with the catholic religion and political union with the USA.

The Cultural Centre is set up to represent 19 Pueblos in the area – Native American Indians or Indigenous people as they like to be referred to or as Pueblo people. Their history and culture is fascinating and one of the great undiscovered people for us. As their history is based on oral tradition the origins are unclear but they are a migratory people who came from the North. Mesa Verde is considered as one possible area of their origin which we visit later on our trip.

They are generally a peaceful people with a commitment to living in a sustainable way and in balance/harmony with the earth, the elements and creatures of the world. They are dry farmers (in this area) relying solely on rain for feeding the plants and drinking water, which they collect in large cavities in the rock face.

The Centre includes a gift shop with some great Zuni art & jewellery. There’s a Museum which looks at the language and history of the people and another that reviews the role and of The Indian School (a sort of boarding school regime) that was set up for Indian kids. There’s also a review of 100 years of federal policy and the Impact on Pueblo people. The history of discrimination and cruelty by the US against them is pretty harrowing and appalling.

After our tour of the complex we go to the Pueblo Harvest Bakery & Café for lunch. The stews are pretty good but what stands out is the fried bread recommended by the waitress. They are called Sopapilla which we have a few more time before we leave NM.

Later we go to Nob Hill the trendy part of the city. It even has its logo pressed into the main street. As part of its vision of transforming the area it has decided to turn itself into a mini Route 66 (of 12 blocks). The businesses and their signage are pretty retro and have a look of the 20s to 50s about them. It does look great and we take loads of pictures before stopping for coffee at Winning Coffee by the entrance to the University of New Mexico.

We had hoped to go to Garcias for dinner but we get there at 8.10pm when it actually closed at 8pm, even though its website said 9pm. We are pretty pissed off as its Sunday and most places are closed locally. So out of desperation we try a Wendy’s by default for the first time – the burger and chicken are pretty tasteless and the only saving grace was that they did jacket potatoes which were okish.

The next day it’s pretty cold (20 degrees below yesterday). The Hostel put the heating on – but it’s noisy in our room as the radiators are from the 30s and clearly has air blocked inside. It looks like it snowed on the higher mountains range surrounding the City which adds to the look of ABQ.

We try the Rapid Service 766 (which we were advised to use for the local Mall) and without realising it end up in Uptown – which is miles out of the centre but with the usual all singing all dancing shops and arcades US style. We find an amazingly large Target which you could easily get lost in or spend a whole day shopping in for everything.

For a treat we go to Chillz in Nob Hill and try their Frozen Custard & pecan nuts. Pretty good - though not as good as Memphis. And this time we do go to Garcias Café for lunch – Green Chilli Stew & Tacos – nice.

After it’s off to the Old Town not far away & we visit the International Rattlesnake Museum. Tickets are $5 each. They have a great collection of rattlesnakes – we didn’t realise they were so many colours (white, grey, black etc.). And some are actually non venomous. Most of them are found in the SW USA but some varieties are found all the way to Canada up the west half of the US. Thankfully they seem to keep themselves to themselves and do rattle their tails well in advance to let you know they may strike if you get nearer.

We notice that there are many people (young, middle aged and old) with alcohol, drugs or mental health problems around the city and on the buses who seem to know each other and openly discuss their problems including stints in jail. Clearly homelessness and rough sleeping is a big issue here as is alcoholism we discover throughout NM.

The city police department is under a lot of pressure as it has a pretty poor relationship with the community and has being accused of being heavy handed and aggressive in dealing with issues that many would not consider dangerous – having killed many people over the last few years whilst investigating cases. The latest incident was that of a mentally ill homeless young man who they were supposed to evict from a hill. They actually ended up shooting him in the back even though he was unarmed and about to give himself up. This only came to light when someone released the video of the incident & it’s on the net. There have been mass demonstrations and The Mayor and Chief of Police are under pressure to resign. They also had to recently pay someone for wrongful arrest for trying to give food to a homeless guy on the street. Interesting attitude down this way!

This all seems at odds with a city that comes across as being pretty chilled out. A sort of New Age haven for folks who believe in a more natural and alternative life style. Organic food growing, self-sufficiency, yoga etc. are all big, topical and popular issues here.

Acoma Pueblo

We decide to go to the Acoma Pueblo as the images of this village on a mesa top are pretty spectacular & the reviews great. It’s about an hour’s drive west. The Visitor/Cultural centre for the village charges $23 each for entry which includes for a camera, the museum & a tour with a guide to the village on the Mesa.

What we learn from our guide is that The Pueblo People are essentially Native Indians who migrated South from the North. The Acoma are one of many Tribes such as Zuni, Hopi, Navajo etc. who have settled in various parts of ‘The Southwest’ of the US. The reason for the migration may have been a need for warmer climes and better lands more in keeping with their spiritual values.

The Spanish initially came looking for the ‘Cities of Gold’ which they thought the Pueblos were. The reason for this is that apparently the Indians used mica for window glass and this glitters in the sun – giving the impression that the place had gold.

There were 2 Spanish incursions into their lands. The first was friendly, however, the second was more hostile and the Indians were treated as slaves & forced into Catholicism. The Church & Spanish government tried to destroy the way of living and belief systems of the Indians – so they kept their culture alive by going underground.

However, the Indians basic spirituality and beliefs were not so far from the Christian system and eventually the two systems co-existed as it does today. The turning point was in a time of severe drought when the Indians prayed for rain to the statue of St Stephen (or Esteban - gifted by the King of Spain) and the rain came. 90% of the Acoma people are now Catholics and the rest Baptists.

The Mission in the village is from1620 and took 12 years to build. It is really simple and the altar is beautifully carved in wood and dyed in some colours. Unfortunately we are not permitted to take pictures of the place. The church is now only used for ceremonies a few times a year.

In front of the Mission is the old cemetery. We are not allowed to take pictures here as well. It is now full and has graves of Indians who fought in various wars that the US were involved in – Vietnam, WWII etc. It’s currently level with the base of the Mission but is 4 layers higher from the original cemetery as the first one was down a hill. However, each time the cemetery filled they put more earth on top to create another burial ground and this continued for 4 generations. It has a wall surrounding it with mud heads looking inwards to guard the dead. It also has a hole in the wall as an open door to Indians from here who die elsewhere so that their spirits can come home.

In 1680 the Indians got fed up of their poor treatment by the Spanish which led to The Pueblo Revolt and the Spanish fled. Later Charles the II King of Spain, recognised the Indians way of life and granted them autonomy to rule their land. The Mexicans did the same later and so did the US under Lincoln.

The Acoma people came south looking for Haa'ku (the name of their village now – which means the place prepared)– to settle down. They used to (like most Indians) live in the valley but after attacks by other tribes such as the Comanche and the Spanish they began to live on top of the Mesas. They initially lived on a Mesa called the Enchanted Mesa (not too far away, but had to move to the new one when the access to the other one was washed away in a storm (which they saw as an omen saying that they were in the wrong place).

What we learnt was that it is a very Matriarchal society – everything is in the woman's name e.g. Land, property etc. Yet the villages are governed by men due to the Spanish being unable to cope with dealing with women! However, this doesn’t explain why this tradition has not changed since as the Spanish gave up a long time ago?! Their way of life is quite spiritual and they believe in the power of animals, the elements and are generally peaceful and community orientated.

The modern Indians are more enterprising; as their traditional forms of employment disappeared they decided to set up and run large casinos, hotels and businesses. They have their own rules and police on their land. This goes hand in glove with their traditional art of pottery & jewellery making. The former is quite intricate and the latter tends to be in silver and Turquoise – which is mined locally.

We learn that it was the Spanish that taught them the adobe method of building with straw bricks which is common today. Prior to this they used just mud and water. The Spanish also introduced horses to the US.

After our very entertaining 2 hour tour we have lunch at the café in the museum - Naana’s Wrap – a vegetarian meal of courgette, squash & red chile in a wheat wrap – awesome. Then it’s back in the car & all the way to Santa Fe.

Santa Fe

After about 2 hours we get to Santa Fe – the capital of New Mexico. There’s snow on the mountains surrounding the city which sits in a valley. Its 7,000 feet above sea level and it’s the oldest capital city in the US. The hills surrounding the city seem quite arid – semi dessert.

The Silver Saddle Motel we are booked into is on the main road into the city. It’s a quirky place with a Cowboy theme. Signed photos of Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, and a few other Hollywood types are on the reception wall with personal messages.

As it’s late we go for dinner at Café Castro across the street (recommended to us by Wendy on reception) to try the day’s special – Fajitas and a Santa Fe special – Green Chile Cheeseburger – both outstanding in taste and value. We even treat ourselves to 1 (between 2) glass of Agave wine Marguerita – fabulous. It’s pretty amazing value for the whole meal at $20 (that’s £12). Good recommendation Wendy!

The motel also provides awesome breakfast and the staff are very helpful and knowledgeable. We decide to tour Santa Fe city and take the no: 2 bus from outside the motel to downtown. Its $2 for a day pass – great value. We are dropped off near The Plaza which is at the centre of the city. Santa Fe is the only city we have come across in the US which hasn’t been overtaken by very high skyscrapers. Most buildings are in the adobe fashion and only 1 or 2 storeys high.

We make our way to the Plaza/Downtown area. It’s lively with some craftsmen selling gear, there’s a performance by a brass band later and the area is surrounded by cafes, museums and souvenir shops.

Nearby is the impressive St Francis of Assisi Cathedral. It’s been around since 1610. Not far is the San Miguel Mission the oldest historic church in the US and the oldest house dating back to 1600 is 50 yards away – now an estate agents. A sign of the times!

We next go to the Visitors Centre and learn about the 500 year history of Santa Fe. It’s has been influenced by many people: - Native Indians, Spanish colonists, the Santa Fe Trail riders, outlaws (one such was Billy the Kid who they seem to have an obsession with. There is so much literature and tourist information on a 21 year old murderer - amazing.). There were the railroad workers – and it was the railroad that killed the Santa Fe Trail (which actually ended in the centre of the city where the Plaza is today), artists, scientists (Los Alamos where the US built the Atomic Bomb in secret is not far from here!), hippies and more. This should give you a sense of the place that M describes as the New Age New Mexican generation.

Native Indian Artisans sell their handcrafted works of art each day beneath the Palace of the Governors Portal by the Plaza. Next we walk to Canyon Road (the Art & Soul District of SF!). It’s a long road which is full of Art galleries on either side. The Art ranges from amazingly creative to modern and classical including small & large sculptures, fabulous paintings to quirky art made of colourful plastic. The thing that grabs us most are the wind chimes in all shapes and sizes which together look awesome.

After the long walk we decide to take the free Pick Up Bus service which ferries tourists from one interest spot to another. Great idea! Next we stop at The Railyard/Guadalupe District which is “funky, fab and friendly” according to the brochure. It’s by the main train station where the local service between Abq and SF called ‘The Rail Runner’ operates from. A mini Amtrak! Being mid-week it’s really quiet, at weekends they have a farmers market here. We also visit the Santuario de Guadalupe which is nearby. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico.

We find a few places to go shopping for Camping Gear and find some real bargains at Big 5 Sporting Goods a block away from the motel. They have a host of stuff we need, in their sale – serendipitous or what!

We decide to go to the Cowgirl Smokehouse to have something different and it has come recommended. There’s live music there every night and the act on is pretty good. We try the mixed BBQ and a Chile cheese baked potato – the BBQ was a bit disappointing but after Texas this may not be too surprising.

Abiquiu, Ghost Ranch, Echo Amphitheatre, Santa Clara Pueblo & Chimayo

After a good Skype with Louise and Olive about the wedding plans and a great breakfast (no cinnamon bread but great bagels this time) we head out for the day. Having read about the beauty of the countryside around here we decide to go to take a trip to the NW of the city. We start at Echo Amphitheatre which is about 1.5 hrs drive away. After Abiquiu, the landscape gets pretty spectacular with reds in the rocks and the rocks & mesa formations quite outstanding. It is also the former home of the painter Georgina O’Keefe & there is a Museum to her memory here. We later hear that Shirley MacLean the actress (Warren Beatty’s sister & character in Downtown Abbey!) also has a ranch here and has just put it on the market for sale after consulting psychics .

The Echo Amphitheatre is a bit underwhelming. It’s a large cave in the rock landscape which gives off echoes. The place was deserted but really clean and well maintained. Even the restrooms were spotless with everything in working order. There’s a $2 charge for a car or $1 per walking visitor to be left in an envelope on a honesty basis. After a few pictures we move on to The Ghost Ranch.

The Ghost Ranch (a few miles away) is a lovely area and is a huge tract of land left to the Pentecostal church who administer it for conventions, retreats, weekend breaks etc. and provide various programmes of activity e.g. Painting, Archery, Hiking etc. They also have a Museum, Gift shop and Dining hall. The public are welcome to drop in or stay for some time or a whole day and participate in activities at a cost ranging from $5 to $30. The place has been used in various Hollywood movies the latest being The Lone Ranger (Johnny Depp as Tonto), Cowboys and Aliens – Daniel Craig, The City Slickers – Billy Crystal and Raiders of the Lost Ark – Harrison Ford.

Driving in there are spots where it looks exactly like a Ghost Ranch – it’s very picturesque with red rock hills surrounding it and one could easily chill out here for a while. However, we are keen to see the Santa Clara Pueblo (and their Puye Cliff Dwellings) so we move on.

The internet gives us conflicting information about whether or not it is open as it’s Holy week. We think never mind if it’s closed we can at least see the cliff dwellings from afar. However, as we are making our way there – 7 miles from the place, a pueblo ranger informs us at the gates that we can’t go any further. We are pretty disappointed but make do with the thought that tomorrow we are off to Taos another Pueblo – more famous and the only one recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Thanks to a small section in the LP guide we had read about El Santuario de Chimayo – it’s a small church where the ground is considered by the faithful to possess healing powers. The church was set up in about 1816 following the finding of a holy cross on the site by Don Bernardo Abeyta. It’s considered the ‘Lourdes of America’ as every Holy Week, thousands of pilgrims come here to pray or be healed, and leave photo’s of loved one’s.

The church is stunning, in a great valley location and has a simple pueblo style alter with the cross still there. They are many people passing through collecting in small containers some earth from a hole in the ground near the main chapel. One thing we have noticed about the Indian way of life, their missions or churches are simple but striking. Their cemeteries are even more simple with just a cross and the earth – no fancy tombstones etc.

When we started our journey from Santa Fe we did wonder why so many hikers were walking by the main freeway rather than hike cross country. Now we know, they were pilgrims making the 34 or 60 odd mile trip to the church (depending on who you talk to about the distance and the route they take). We see them all along the way to Chimayo. Families with young kids included. We can’t but admire their faith and dedication.

Next to the main church is a smaller church dedicated to children, which is similarly simple but with tree and bird decorations done by local schoolkids. Again, the walls of the sanctuary are covered with babies & children’s photo’s.

Next its lunch at the Rancho de Chimayo which has been going since 1934 and the food is as fabulous as is the service. We enjoy Green Chile Stew – again, and then try Carne Adovada – a sort of beef stew with Mexican rice and their awesome Sopaipillas (light fried bread). The latter can be dipped in honey if you find the Chile too hot or eat it as a desert – this is common for all New Mexican meals. Its so good we buy their cookbook from the café bookstore in town.

Driving back we have clear blue skies and notice that many of the higher hills around the area are still white with snow, making the scene more spectacular. We pass the Santa Fe Opera Building 5 miles out which is also spectacular on the hill side (open air) where they have world class performers and you can do a guided tour of the place.

Back to more mundane stuff at the motel; Blogging, more camping gear with discounts – thanks Big 5 Sporting Goods, Insurance claims from Memphis etc. We spend our last night in Santa Fe chilling out. We have really enjoyed it here, the atmosphere is so good and the place is serene, arty and welcoming with great food – what more can you ask for. There’s skiing in the winter on your door step as well. There are some awesome places to buy here for about £300K to £350K – quite a tempting prospect.

Taos & Taos Pueblo

We have come here to visit the Taos Pueblo, though having visited the Acoma Pueblo we expect we will see & hear more of the same about the history of the native Indian story – obviously with a twist which takes in the experience at Taos which apparently has been continuously inhabited since 1410. That’s some history.

The Pueblo is about 2 miles from the town. It’s $16 each to enter the village. It’s located in a lovely valley with snow covered hills and a river of fresh water from the mountains running through it. It’s very clean and peaceful with folk walking around enjoying the experience or talking to the locals who live or operate from here.

Unlike Acoma, the visit is based on a self-guided tour where they provide an information sheet and you just walk around the village. The only place that no photos are allowed is in the church. The village does run very short guided tours every 20 mins starting in front of the Church. The guides are volunteers and you give a donation – there is no fixed price. We join one of these groups. The history here is largely the same as the Acoma people.

There’s a new Mission (Church) called San Geronimo by the entrance to the village – it’s been here since 1850. The remains of the original church destroyed at the time of The Pueblo Revolt still exists and is actually the old cemetery – where unlike Acoma you can take pictures but not enter the area. The original bell of the church has been put back on the still standing bell tower.

The village is set out in a sort of square. Some of the homes are now shop fronts from where you can buy their arts and crafts or pies, sandwiches, pop or bread baked the traditional way ($6 each), so you get to look inside a home. There aren’t as many portable toilets (as in Acoma) here suggesting that many of the traditional owners now live in town & return only for ceremonial reasons.

The original villages had no toilet or electric facilities. In Acoma where more folk actually live there are a host of ‘Portaloos’ or Free standing Temporary toilet structures by the homes and the church – which does make the place look odd.

Taos on the other hand is a lovely town – a chilled out place (even more than Santa Fe) but seems to lack the soul of the bigger city. It’s quite cute and has essentially an adobe style ‘historic downtown’ around a square (Plaza). There are mainly hotels, eateries, boutique clothes shops, outdoor clothes and equipment shops and some Museums. The big name around here is Kit Carson a frontier man famous for fur hunting, riding cattle, being a soldier and Indian Agent. His home is now a Museum to commemorate his life.

The church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is nearby and we visit it just when a service is in progress. As its Good Friday it’s interesting to observe the way they do things here. The priest carries a large cross with a figure of Christ on it down the aisle.

The Sun God Lodge motel we are staying at have recommended 2 local places to eat and we choose the Guadalajara – great choice as we have Chile Rellenos for the first time and a Chile Verde – both fantastic washed down with one of their Margeritas – a nice way to end our trip in New Mexico.

Next we day we are off early to Colorado for the big Road Trip………. Denver here we come!

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