THE STUNNING SCENERY, the laundry list of outdoor activities, the world-class culinary scene — none of these things is discouraging people from visiting New Mexico. But there’s more than a checklist of things to do here; this is a place made for those who travel for the experiences. If you’re the type of traveler who wants a story and not just a snapshot, your next trip should be to New Mexico. Leave your itinerary at home, pack your sense of adventure, and prepare to learn some life lessons from the locals.
Because who knows? The lessons we learn from the Land of Enchantment might just teach us how to add a bit of relaxation and appreciation back into our daily lives at home.
1. Always take the long way home.
It may take a while to get used to how a main thoroughfare like Santa Fe’s Cerrillos Rd spontaneously turns into Sandoval St. The layouts of New Mexico’s cities and towns often spiral out from a central “plaza,” though that seems to be about the only rule you can (somewhat) reliably count on. But you’ll soon learn to love the haphazard street grids when you come to understand the deeper philosophy they reveal.
In New Mexico, it’s all about the journey. Case in point: If you’re heading from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, why not take the Rail Runner Express instead of speeding past the mountains at 80mph on I-25? Even better — take the historic Turquoise Trail down beautiful Highway 14 and stop in at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid for a drink and award-winning Mad Chile Cheeseburger. They also often host live music performances from all over New Mexico and beyond. The journey may truly be the destination if you’re lucky enough to pass through while there’s a show running in their “Theater of Death.”
If you’re headed north towards the ski valleys, take the scenic route and detour through the natural hot springs at Ojo Caliente. The mineral waters here are believed by many to have healing properties, and no one can deny that a visit to the resort and spa will leave you beyond relaxed and ready for a day on the slopes.
2. Art is life.
Santa Fe’s Canyon Road is a perfect example of a route you’ll want to set aside time to explore, this time on foot — and maybe for the whole day. While dedicating several hours to a half-mile walk may seem extreme, this narrow, picturesque street is jam-packed with galleries, great eats, and colorful examples of classic Santa Fe architecture. Start at the The Teahouse for a mid-morning snack, and then make the tough decision between The Compound and El Farol for a fabulous lunch after a day of gallery hopping.
New Mexico has been home to and inspiration for the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence, and it remains a land that seems to have some sort of magnetic pull when it comes to international artists. Canyon Road, though now well established, was once a boho-esque artists’ community. Its evolution to being known around the country (world?) just goes to show the quality of art here in New Mexico. And those boho artist communities? They’re still active in the area today, trading energy and ideas between adobes.
Meow Wolf is one such collective that’s definitely worth checking out. Originally started by a group of high school friends, its members have now grown up to create what’s being hailed as “a weirder Disneyland” in Santa Fe’s Siler Arts District. The building is owned by none other than George R.R. Martin, and some consider it a walk-in, real-life science-fiction-novel-meets-video-game. If you’re a little confused, that’s to be expected. That’s also why you should go.
3. You can’t take yourself too seriously.
Don’t be intimidated by the renown of the local artístes, though. Remember that New Mexico doesn’t take itself too seriously — and neither should you. When you call that restaurant with the hard-to-get dinner reservations and ask about their dress code, you can expect to hear something along the lines of, “Oh, don’t worry. We’re casual here.”
New Mexico knows you don’t have to be uptight to put out world-class art and cuisine. State Capital Kitchen embodies this perfectly — you’ll get the full-on fine-dining “experience” by trained, masters-in-etiquette staff…all of whom are wearing dark-wash jeans. To get even more practice lightening up, check out a local improv troupe after dinner at The Box in Albuquerque, or catch the comedy night (“Lulz”) at Skylight in Santa Fe.
4. Culture is alive and well.
Perhaps when you hear the word “culture,” you think of long-dead traditions and stuffy academic jargon. In New Mexico, you’ll learn to leave that prejudice behind — culture is a living entity that changes and grows.
Looking to explore something a little different from artifacts and paintings (not that we don’t love artifacts and paintings)? Behold the beloved lowrider. Española, the little city between Santa Fe and Taos, is the lowrider capital of the world — and not just according to proud locals, but also to MTV and The New York Times. When the band War came to town and performed their hit single “Low Rider,” it was a historic event. In May of 2016, the New Mexico History Museum unveiled an entire exhibit dedicated to “Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods,” giving the longstanding culture of the lowrider some academic legitimacy.
In addition to the vibrant pockets of modern culture in the area, there’s also plenty of carefully preserved heritage from the original Puebloan culture. Feast days in New Mexico are still an opportunity for communities to come together and share their traditional way of life, and they welcome curious visitors.
5. It can be Christmas all year round.
In New Mexico, whether you’re ordering a burrito, a plate of enchiladas, or a salad, you can expect to be asked the same question every time: “Red or green?” Tip: The answer doesn’t have to be either-or. Your response, no matter what the time of year, should always be “Christmas, please.” Thank us later, when your food arrives smothered in Christmas colors and doubly delicious.
Hatch green chiles are an excellent source of vitamin C and one of the major food groups in a New Mexican diet. Come harvest season in August, pop-up green chile roasters appear outside grocery stores and at the corner of intersections. Fresh green chiles mixed with their delicious red counterparts? Merry Christmas.
Head over to Tomasita’s on Guadalupe just off the Santa Fe plaza to get your chile fix. The family-owned Santa Fe staple is a fantastic place for authentic New Mexican food. There’s a sign when you first enter that succinctly spells out what you’re in for: “The Chile is Hot.” Bonus: They have a Mariachi group that performs tableside.
If you prefer something a little more low-key and away from the main tourist drag, check out the local favorite La Choza, located behind the railroad tracks at the intersection of Alarid and Cerrillos. “La Choza” is Spanish for “The Shed,” which is the name of the very successful and centrally located alter-ego of the restaurant. If you want to avoid the crowd, and get the great food for local prices, head over to La Choza.
6. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle…
Whether you’re a mountain climber or a gentle stroller — or anything in between — New Mexico has some of the greatest trails you’ll find anywhere. While big draws like Chaco Canyon and Cebolla Mesa above the Rio Grande are excellent routes to aspire to, you don’t ever have to look that far to find a memorable hike. Just take the Atalaya Mountain Trail to the base of Atalaya (at St. John’s College in Santa Fe) for a six-mile hike with several lookouts along the way and plenty of picnic spots. The scrubby-but-beautiful landscape, the boulders, the views for miles — plan to spend a day so you can take it slow and enjoy.
If mountain biking is more your speed, start on Atalaya as a mid-morning warmup, and then take the one-hour scenic drive out of town to the village of San Ysidro and graduate to the White Mesa bike trails.
7. …but it’s all downhill from here.
In the months of winter and spring, northern New Mexico is all about skiing and snowboarding. The lift tickets are generally much cheaper than you’ll find in Colorado, so it’s doable to hop from one set of slopes to the next whether you’re just passing through or planning to spend significant winter time here.
Taos Ski Valley is a great place to “home-base” if you’re looking to score as many snow days as possible. From Taos, it’s easy to get to Angel Fire or the Ski Santa Fe, or head further north out of Carson National Forest and spend a day at Red River. You can make the whole loop in a season or come back and really get to know a new spot every year.
8. History is what you make of it.
Sure, for the history purists out there, there’s plenty of so-called “real” history in New Mexico. Founded in 1610, Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the US, far predating the founding of the nation itself, and Albuquerque was established not long after, in 1706. And if you want to go past American history and get full-on anthropological, national treasures like Bandelier National Monument make for an unforgettable day trip.
But in New Mexico we like to say that history, much like culture, is a living thing in which living people participate. To understand how the state’s colonial past continues to be translated to new generations, check out the annual burning of Zozobra. For one night, New Mexicans flock to Santa Fe to burn the effigy of Old Man Gloom and symbolically send their struggles up in flame.
There’s also a rich tradition of oral storytelling here. Albuquerque and Taos are just two cities that host storytelling conventions; you can find many more meetings of storytellers all over New Mexico throughout the year. Check the community billboards at any coffee shop to find out where you can next practice your personal histories and allegories at the storyteller’s equivalent of an open-mic night.
9. Mañana is a state of mind.
You’ll hear it said in all sorts of contexts during your stay in New Mexico: “Mañana, eso.” Of course, mañana (tomorrow) mentality, like meditation, may take some time to really master — but when your goal is to savor life, discover the inspiration around you, and learn a thing or two while you’re at it, the chant “mañana, mañana,” should be your new mantra.
Stressing out about the emails piling up in your inbox? Mañana. Worrying over tomorrow’s to-do list? Mañana. Putting your creativity on a deadline? Mañana. Today, you can take the time to breathe in deep and be inspired.
Planning your trip to New Mexico? Don’t put that one off until mañana, but do keep in mind the mañana mentality while you’re sketching your itinerary. Be prepared to sit back and enjoy yourself, knowing that wherever tomorrow takes you, it’s going to be an unforgettable experience.