Things to do in New Mexico
Dominated by desert and enclosed completely within artificial borders, New Mexico’s 315,000 square kilometres constitute more of a spiritual entity than a political one, even before you consider the complicated history that preceded its 1912 statehood. To be sure, America’s fourth-youngest state belies the identity its name heaps upon it, a timeless landscape that exists much as it did before modern flags—America’s or Mexico’s—flew over it. A road trip exploring places to visit in New Mexico, from natural wonders like White Sands National Monument to manmade ones in Taos, to eclectic Santa Fe where past and present meet, is the best way to discover the aptly-named Land of Enchantment.
New Mexico’s desert much of the year—and the weapons testing that occurs here, including the controversial Trinity nuclear test in 1945
To the naked eye, the vast expanse of whiteness just west of the New Mexico city of Alamogordo appears to be snow. In fact, it is neither snow nor sand, as its official name suggests. Rather, White Sands National Monument is composed of crystalline gypsum, a perpetually-cool substance that is impervious to the relentless heat that pounds New Mexico’s desert much of the year—and the weapons testing that occurs here, including the controversial Trinity nuclear test in 1945. This is easily one of the most fascinating New Mexico points of interest, and well worth a visit.
It might seem strange, after traipsing through White Sands, to drive for just over an hour and arrive in Cloudcroft, a tiny village of fewer than 700 people more than a kilometre higher in elevation than White Sands, surrounded not by any sort of desert, but by the towering pines of the Lincoln National Forest.
As you explore New Mexico, however, you’ll find that these sorts of contrasts are common. On the road from Cloudcroft to Sante Fe via the town of Ruidoso, for example, the landscape shifts from forest back to desert, then to forest again, before rolling down into grassland just prior to your arrival in Santa Fe. There, the New Mexico capital’s art galleries, cafés and scenic railways are as jarring when compared to desolation of the road that leads to it as the Sangre de Cristo mountains surrounding it seem more appropriate for the moon or Mars than they do for Earth.
A pair of scenic roads to and through Taos, a city long regarded as a hub of Native American culture, constitute a microcosm of the rest of the state’s contradictions. Driving along the High Road to Taos, for example, exposes you to many of the shifts in scenery you see on longer routes elsewhere in New Mexico, in spite of its short length, a diversity the longer Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway north of the city amplifies. Taos itself embodies this schism as well, in particular, the millennium-old Taos Pueblo, by comparison, to which the Spanish colonial structures that dot Santa Fe’s city centre seem positively new.
How you organise your New Mexico road trip depends on where you come from. If you drive in from Texas, start in White Sands, then head north to Sante Fe and Taos via Cloudcroft and Ruidoso. From Colorado, begin in Taos, and then continue southward through Sante Fe with White Sands as your final destination. If you arrive in New Mexico via air, it will be in Albuquerque, whose connectedness to all of these destinations gives you the freedom to order your road trip as you please.
“Sopapillas,” my road-trip partner Dora insists to me from across the table at Tomasita’s in Santa Fe, where I’m diving into one, “are only sopapillas in New Mexico.” After taking a bite of her own, she continues by explaining that the dough of these traditional pastries, which can be prepared either savoury or sweet, only rises properly at the high altitudes of New Mexico and almost nowhere else—at least according to her grandmother, who hails from just outside Albuquerque.
I have yet to try Dora’s grandmother’s sopapillas for comparison, but the ones on offer at Tomasita’s (I’m enjoying one stuffed with roast beef and green chile sauce) are among the highest-rated ones those of us without New Mexican family can enjoy.
Beyond this, much of what dominates New Mexican cuisine is the Tex-Mex you find across the Southwest, although there are important regional variations. New Mexican red chile sauce, for example, which tops dishes from sopapillas to enchiladas to burritos, is made by crushing the beautiful dried chiles you frequently find hanging from buildings here. Indeed, it is the addition of this sauce that most obviously differentiates New Mexican carne adovada, a sumptuous serving of marinated pork, from its Mexican cousin adobada.
The Inn of the Turquoise Bear isn’t as overtly gay as its cheeky name would suggest, although it is gay-owned and operated
Although Albuquerque is New Mexico’s largest city, it is not its most charming, outside of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Even here, the short duration and once-a-year nature of the festival make experiencing it (certainly within the bounds of a road trip) impractical unless you plan precisely. Still, since Albuquerque is home to New Mexico’s main airport, it is conceivable you might spend at least one night here.
Albuquerque lacks luxury in most senses of the word, but there are some notable exceptions. Dating back to 1939, Hotel Andaluz spotlights Andalucian architecture and is without a doubt Albuquerque’s most posh property, with rooms, suites and penthouses that evoke Spain and Morocco as much as Mexico—new or old. On the other hand, while the name of the Executive King Room at Hotel Parq Central is perhaps misleading, its proximity to the airport and its charming, rooftop Apothecary Lounge, make it a fitting place for a one-night stay.
The Inn of the Turquoise Bear isn’t as overtly gay as its cheeky name would suggest, although it is gay-owned and operated. The Inn is one of many Sante Fe accommodations that combine ancient adobe-style construction with decidedly modern service. A more opulent version of this exists at the nearby Inn of Five Graces, while El Farolito B&B Inn offers a homier experience, one notable for its close proximity to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, itself a celebration of queerness.
Residents of the Taos Pueblo live modestly, but you needn’t give up any comfort whatsoever to spend a night—or two—here. From the outside, the Inn on La Loma Plaza seems to mirror the pueblo’s architecture, but inside—and particularly, inside the sprawling penthouse suite—an intoxicating combination of artistic embellishments, rustic touches such as an in-room fireplace and warm hospitality swirls makes you feel like you own the town. For an even more exclusive experience, visiting one of the vacation homes on offer at Casa Milagro, which, as its name suggests, provides a miraculous place to rest from your New Mexico road trip.
No camping is allowed in White Sands (and obviously, no hotels exist here), so if you’re looking for a place to sleep that isn’t your back seat, you’ll need to drive farther afield. It’s difficult to find bonafide high-end properties anywhere in southern New Mexico, although the rustic authenticity—and forested setting—of the Apache Village Cabins in Ruidoso boast a certain five-star flavour, albeit one that has more to do with the skies in the dark sky above you at night than any on a ratings website.
We gays don’t make up a large percentage of the population here, but New Mexico loves us just the same
Another advantage of spending at least a night in Albuquerque is that it’s home to New Mexico’s most pronounced gay scene—in a way, it’s only one. Bars and clubs like Albuquerque Social Club and Sidewinders Ranch might seem provincial, but the welcomingness of local patrons makes a night out in the city one to remember.
Smaller Santa Fe, on the other hand, has only one officially gay bar—or, I should say, had. The Blue Rooster closed in 2015, and it’s uncertain whether or when it will re-open. The good news is that many other Santa Fe establishments, such as the hipster-filled Matador and Vanessie Piano Bar, are gay-friendly.
In fact, whether you’re in Albuquerque, Sante Fe or elsewhere, it’s important to remember that although New Mexico might lack the gay infrastructure we take for granted in many large cities, the state is far more liberal than you might assume. It legalised gay marriage in 2013, two full years before the Supreme Court decision made it legal throughout the U.S., and votes Democratic in most presidential elections. We gays don’t make up a large percentage of the population here, but New Mexico loves us just the same.
The name “Turquoise Trail,” both when used to describe the highway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as its general ascription to New Mexico, is not coincidental: The state is one of the best places in the world to buy turquoise. Buying from artists who sell in the northern reaches of the Santa Fe Plaza ensures both that the turquoise jewellery you buy is authentic and made by hand but also, that you support the economies of the small pueblos to which all of the registered sellers here belong.
The variety of fine native art is even greater further north in Taos, whether you’re in search of jewellery, musical instruments or even ceremonial objects. Native Peace Pipes, for instance, sells a variety of handmade pipes for both smoking and sacrament, with ready-made items as well as special orders available.
If all else fails, follow your curiosity into the shops that line highways and byways throughout New Mexico. You won’t always make priceless discoveries or even find something worth buying, but you’re sure to emerge with a story to tell—and, yes, enchantment—to take home with you.
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Santa Fe | Photo: Robert Schrader
Photo: Robert Schrader
Santa Fe | Photo: Robert Schrader
Chimayo | Photo: Robert Schrader
Photo: Robert Schrader
Chimayo | Photo: Robert Schrader