“Did you see what the license plate of our car rental says?” I asked Julia as we were pulling out of the parking lot of the Albuquerque airport.
“Land of Enchantment.”
“Well… that’s promising…” Julia said, but I could tell that she wasn’t sold yet.
For many people, New Mexico is the place of UFOs and aliens and where Breaking Bad characters cooked meth in the desert. But we discovered that the state has everything to be considered a premier travel destination and without a doubt, it is one of the most underrated states in the U.S. It puts on an unexpected show and offers a visual cornucopia and a profusion of colors, smells, and tastes.
The realization that New Mexico is quite different from other states came immediately after we left the car rental office and started to drive toward Santa Fe. Driving the Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway, the landscapes at first were barren. But somehow the towns we were passing did not strike us as depressing, dusty desert towns; rather, there was some artistic spirit in them. Following the High Road connecting Santa Fe and Taos, we stopped for lunch in Chimayo, a village that can be described as “New Mexico in miniature”. Simple adobe houses were colorfully decorated with garlands of chili pepper hung to dry outside and bleached cow skulls (some of which were also creatively painted). Galleries, artisan shops, and restaurants; the creative vibe permeated the air in this arty village. The local church, El Santuario de Chimay, a pilgrimage site, was also ridiculously photogenic.
If you hear the word “adobe”, and the first thing that comes to your mind is a computer program allowing you to open a .pdf document, you are not alone. However, adobe is also Spanish for a “mudbrick”. Made from earth and organic materials, such as straw and dung, the local Native American tribes were building adobe houses long before the arrival of the Spanish. With easy access to clay and enjoying a dry climate allowing such structures to endure, New Mexico is one of the few places in the world where to find this unique style of architecture.
The center of Santa Fe is filled with adobe buildings housing government offices, museums, and galleries. Here, we managed to find the oldest house and the oldest church in the U.S., both built in adobe style. And by the oldest, I mean the early 1600s, more than 100 years before the U.S. won its independence from Britain and almost 300 years before New Mexico became a U.S. state. These “mud” buildings feel worlds away from the glass and concrete of modern architecture. Their design is simplistic, and the earthy color makes the structures appear to be a continuation of nature. The lack of sharp angles also creates a surrealistic impression as if the buildings were melted and created by Salvador Dali for his paintings.
The best place to visit in New Mexico for adobe architecture is Taos Pueblo, an ancient town of Puebloan Indians, today designated as a UNESCO site. Built like a giant beehive, the mud houses are stacked on top of each other. We strolled around this ancient housing project, popped our heads inside an adobe church, and learned a little bit more about the local tribe. The visit was entertaining and eye-opening, and we even bought jewelry from local gemstone craftsmen (something that almost never happens as we do not wear jewelry). We just couldn’t walk away without this gorgeous teal necklace, which we later decided to gift to my mom. Outside the town, there was another impressive adobe church – San Francisco De Asis - painted and photographed by legions of artists and photographers.
If you love art, New Mexico is a must place to visit. Arguably, the best promoter of the state was Georgia O’Keefe, who lived here and painted the local scenes, now found in museums across the world. Seeing O’Keefe’s art in New Mexico felt especially appropriate as we were surrounded by the landscapes represented in her works. After visiting Georgia O’Keefe’s Museum in Santa Fe, we wanted more of her and drove to the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu to get up close to some of her favorite landscapes. Climbing the Chimney Rock that appeared in so many of her paintings and looking at the Pedernal Rock in the distance with which O’Keefe also had a special connection was particularly profound. Sitting atop Chimney Rock, it felt as if we were in one of her paintings.
O’Keeffe was not the only artist who fell in love with New Mexico. Artists still flock in droves to the state! Walking down Canyon Street in Santa Fe one afternoon, we stopped by more than a dozen galleries. In some of them, we were greeted by artists themselves who were eager to tell us about their works and their love for New Mexico. Kicking in the back of one of the galleries with a can of beer, one of the artists admitted that he moved to Santa Fe because the sunlight here was different. That and cheap rent, he added.
In addition to architecture and art, New Mexico is also an exciting place to visit for its natural landmarks, including the White Sands National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, and the Bandelier National Monument, as well as some historical sites, such as Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was developed as part of the infamous Manhattan Project.
Finally, New Mexico is a foodie destination. For five straight days, we did not get tired of and were happily downing tasty Tex-Mex dishes that were almost always offered with two options: salsa rojo (red) or salsa verde (green). And when we could not decide with which sauce to go, there was also an option to have a dish split between both salsas (Christmas-style). New Mexico was also the place where we had the best tacos outside of Mexico. While waiting for our turn at an unassuming taco stand El Parasol in Española, we stood in line with a family of Sikhs, with bright daggers hanging from their waistlines, and a bunch of bikers rocking leather jackets with skulls and bones and displaying their holstered guns in the open. We were probably the only ones who didn’t have any weapons on us. Despite all our differences, everyone patiently waited for their turn and enjoyed munching on lip-smacking tacos right by the taco stand. In the end, we got back in the line and bought the second round of tacos. They were simply delicious!
All in all, New Mexico is hands down one of our favorite states in the U.S. On our way back to return the rental car, Julia and I agreed that this Land of Enchantment warranted another visit. Or two.