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A palpable sense of Wild West, enchanting history and red-hot chillis: Why New Mexico should be your next US trip

A state of contrasts: Sweeping canyons and historic highways    (New Mexico True/Tourism Santa Fe )
A state of contrasts: Sweeping canyons and historic highways (New Mexico True/Tourism Santa Fe )

Ancient arrow heads are being sold by members of the Taos Pueblo Native American tribe on the banks of the Rio Grande gorge, New Mexico’s most dramatic beauty spot. The sheer drop is dizzying with the hidden ravine 800ft deep and slit-narrow as if the desert land has been slashed by a hunting knife. The desert landscape around Taos is mesmerising and the Native American trinkets and jewellery quietly indicate how Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque are still the beating heart of the once very Wild West, or to be precise, the Southwest.

This enthralling natural scenery with the Rocky Mountain snowy peaks glittering on the horizon in the spring sunshine has always been alluring. It attracted DH Lawrence in the 1920s, Hollywood icon Denis Hopper in the 1990s and fashion titan Tom Ford at the start of the 21st century, all choosing to move to this vast and ancient land with its signature pink adobe dwellings everywhere, including ruined ones cut into cliffs more than 700 years ago.

Sandia Crest watches over the city of Albuquerque (Visit Albuquerque)
Sandia Crest watches over the city of Albuquerque (Visit Albuquerque)

The fifth-largest state, New Mexico also has the least dense population with just 2.1 million people spread over more than five million square miles – a smaller number than in the whole of Manchester. It is also one of the most popular destinations with 35 million visitors a year; a discerning place to find high and low culture, exotic food and adventure – and to experience travelling in the unrivalled variety that is the USA.

Think lavender margaritas, the biggest hot air balloon fiesta at Albuquerque, the international UFO museum in Roswell, or just motor along Route 66 in a Chevrolet as the cacti-strewn sandy-soiled landscape turns orange at dusk. Also think super friendly, welcoming and safe. New Mexico is increasingly a popular destination that offers a perfect combination of traditional downtime relaxation with museums and local galleries and bars – or if your taste is slightly macabre, there is even a once-a-year chance to see the Trinity Atomic Bomb Site, the location of the first nuclear test, detonated by the US government in 1945. Quiet and quaint, enchanting and extraordinary, New Mexico is starkly modern but also steeped in prehistoric times.

Chillis can be seen everywhere, hanging drying in the street (www.kipmalone.com)
Chillis can be seen everywhere, hanging drying in the street (www.kipmalone.com)

Making a road trip between Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque is to embrace the American highways and is best done in a rental car. The roads are long and quiet, and the pace of life in the towns on the way is slow and easy. This is a quiet tempo where ordering a cup of coffee can mean a languishing, take-it-easy 10-minute wait in traditional artisan cafes. No one is in much of a hurry. Petrol for your car is for anyone from Europe cheeringly cheap. Hot chillis, cold beer, history and fast-moving modern cultural changes collide. Gambling casinos sit alongside warm springs. New Mexico is also a new Hollywood, as Netflix and other film producers make movies here year-round. It is somewhat surreal as cannabis shops vie with vast road posters offering $52m truck collision insurance, as well as adverts for perfect bagels by the Einstein brothers.

And nowhere does history and natural drama combine so magnificently as at the Bandelier National Monument, which consists of more than 33,000 acres of rugged and beautiful canyons; this is desert country with a human presence going back over 11,000 years. There’s perfect hiking and the brave can take the cliff ladders to the dizzying tip. See relics from the ancient Pueblo tribes that built dwellings here for thousands of years. Petroglyphs, Flintstone-like dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs are evidence of the early days of a culture that once defined America, especially its Native American past.

The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (Tourism Santa Fe)
The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (Tourism Santa Fe)

New Mexico is vibrant and enticing, and a three-day break gives time to experience great cuisine culture. This is the land of the green and red chilli. They hang drying from rafters, window sills and in the street, and are a signature of this southwestern state. Breakfast is defined by huevos rancheros: home-fried potatoes, black beans, home-made red chilli and tomatillo salsa fresco. This may not be for those garishly dieting, but definitely for those who like it hot, hot, hot. It all signposts an experience entirely American.

Hot chillis, cold beer, history and fast-moving modern cultural changes collide

We find ourselves driving on legendary Route 66, past signs for Comanche Road as the sense of a Wild West is never far with the Native American past and present. Always there is a reminder of the indigenous Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived here from approximately AD 1150 to 1550.

They built homes carved from the volcanic tuff and planted crops in mesa top fields. Corn, beans, and squash were central to their diet, supplemented by native plants and meat from deer, rabbit, and squirrel. Domesticated turkeys were used for both their feathers and meat while dogs assisted in hunting and provided companionship. By 1550, the Ancestral Pueblo people had moved to pueblos along the Rio Grande. After more than 400 years, the land here could no longer support the people and a severe drought added to what were already becoming difficult times. Oral traditions tell us where the people went and who their descendants are. The people of Cochiti Pueblo, located just south and east along the Rio Grande, are the most direct descendants of the Ancestral Pueblo people who built homes in Frijoles Canyon.

Cuisine, history and culture fill the streets of New Mexico’s towns and cities (New Mexico Tourism Department)
Cuisine, history and culture fill the streets of New Mexico’s towns and cities (New Mexico Tourism Department)

New Mexico has long been a magnet for those seeking the peace of nature and seclusion. America’s greatest female painter Georgia O’Keeffe reinvented the language of art with her exotic canvases. You can retrace her footsteps with a night in the Mabel Dodge Luhan House where she and DH Lawrence both stayed in Taos. It is the original home of an American heiress who married a Native American, and feels unchanged and authentic.

Today, the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is one of the most remarkable galleries, enthralling and inspiring, whereas the Millicent Rogers Museum is a less sophisticated and eccentric reminder of powerful women who found sanctuary in this ancient territory. The air is light and the experiences memorable. There are pockets of high luxury such as the hotel surrounded by lavender fields with 100 different whiskies at the bar. The art of making visitors feel they are in wild but welcoming territory is potent and patent.