On the surface, Santa Fe lives up to its stereotype. As if on cue, a tumbleweed rolls past the car as you pull into town, much like something off of “The Truman Show.” Each low-slung beige adobe house is adorned with a lacquered ristra. Behind the windows of the Historic Santa Fe Plaza, there are an abundance of expensive turquoise jewelry, clay pots, and Native American rugs. Green chile is on the menu. All of the menus. And, to reiterate that you’re in the Southwest, the large orange sun, which silhouettes the juniper trees, sets in unison with a hee-hawing burro. (OK, that part didn’t happen.)
This is not to dismiss the Southwest traditions that formed Santa Fe’s identity. The turquoise is stunning, the adobe is practical, and the green chile is delicious. But behind the terracotta, there is a fresh layer to the big-little city, one that is worth exploration. The 200-mile drive through the San Juan and Carson National Forests makes the destination a fitting location for a weekend summer getaway for many Durangoans. You can see the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, buy the artisan jewelry at The Palace of the Governors, and then put down the hotel pamphlet and see the stranger side of Santa Fe.
On the wayThere are multiple ways to get to Santa Fe. You can take Highway 550 South, or you can cut through Pagosa Springs to Highway 84 South. We opted for 84 in hope of more views. Once you start the 150-mile southbound stretch, the trance of the drive ensues. To boost the effect, be sure to play the most psychedelic sounds in your library as a soundtrack for the passing scenes of fluffy clouds over brilliant green fields, the sorrel colt trotting next to his mom, old barns and abandoned buildings, and large crows enjoying a late-morning snack of hot roadkill.
Earth’s tonsils can be found off the highway, about an hour north of Santa Fe. Echo Amphitheater is a canyon with natural acoustics, surrounded by red sandstone cliffs. Five minutes south, you hit the village of Abiquiu, which is Georgia O’Keeffe country. Ghost Ranch is the site of her old home and studio (and where many films were shot). You can see the sombrero shape of Cerro Pedernal, the subject of many of her paintings. It’s easy to understand why O’Keeffe fell in love with the geography here. The surreal landscapes of New Mexico are coated in spirituality, and you’ll want to trip your face off under a mesa’s moonlit shadow.
Take, for instance, Plaza Blanca, which is also in Abiquiu. The strange formations of white limestone spires and hoodoos are otherworldly. The site is a little difficult to find, and that’s a good thing. Coloradans, who are used to sharing nature with large swaths of walking, self-absorbed selfie-sticks, will have a deeper appreciation for the solitude you can find in New Mexico, even under the harsh light of mid-afternoon desert sun. Exposing the location seems like a betrayal to the Earth.
StayThere are plenty of places to sleep in Santa Fe. The challenge is choosing one. While many play to the Southwest aesthetic, not all are authentic. There is a little bed and breakfast row off West Manhattan Avenue. El Paradero is the oldest inn in the area and, while it is very Southwest, it has a lot of history, and is full of character. The 200-year-old adobe farmhouse consists of 12 rooms, all originally decorated. The whole bnb is decked out with authentic Spanish and Mexican art (including one painting of a flirtatious-looking angel, who seems to be asking Mary, “What WOULD he do?”) hand-picked by the owner, Sue Jett. Jett’s husband, Paul Elliott, is a photographer. His black-and-white landscapes line the hall that leads to the dining area, where from-scratch breakfast items, like green chile breakfast casserole or lemon pancakes, are made each morning and served by the warm staff.
The back patio is surrounded by potted plants and flowers, also hand-chosen by Jett. The outdoor area makes for a peaceful spot to have a cup of coffee or read a book until the sun goes down.
Once that happens, walk across the parking lot to one of Santa Fe Brewing Co.’s Taprooms, the Breakroom. On the weekends, the darker it gets, the livelier it gets. Order a pint (we suggest the Sunsetter saison) poured by a bartender who is the life of the party. We had some interesting conversations with a few geoscientists in town for a conference, and saw a park ranger on a Bumble date twerking on a barstool.
For a hip and affordable stay, look into El Rey Court, a white adobe boutique hotel, with on-site bar La Reina, or splurge at La Fonda. It’s a Santa Fe mainstay, but it also has some ghosts you won’t find other places.
Eat “Red or green?” has to be written on the state seal because it’s a question every New Mexican must ask themselves on a daily basis. The question is referring to chile – the anchor ingredient in the cuisine, which blends Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and American flavors, due to the state’s territorial history. It is blasphemous to go to New Mexico and not eat New Mexican food – Plaza Cafe and Tia Sophia’s are popular tourist stops for Southwestern food – but we tend to be a little profane.
Jambo is an African-Caribbean fusion restaurant that is well-known to locals. So well-known that it’s in your best interest to make a reservation during dinner time. Upon walking through the doors, it’s clear why. The mouthwatering smells make it impossible not to order an appetizer. The jerk chicken wings are powerfully seasoned without being overwhelming. It is going to be a challenge to decide what to eat. The best thing to do is uncomfortably stare at fellow diners’ plates until they make eye contact with you. See what looks good, maybe the coconut chicken curry or fried plantains, and order that. The kabobs are a solid fall-back for the most indecisive.
India is even further away from New Mexico than Africa, but that is no reason not to eat at Paper Dosa. The restaurant is owned by a husband and wife team. The menu consists of a variety of South Indian curries and weekly dosa (similar to a pancake) specials made with clean and vibrant ingredients.
For more casual bites, order a proper burger from the counter of Tune-Up Cafe’s scratch kitchen. The large menu offers extensive breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch menus. And, if you must have Southwestern, they have plenty of options, such as banana leaf-wrapped tamales, mole, and chile rellenos.
Taco Fundacion is a quick and affordable choice for respectable tacos. Each a la carte taco is around $3 to $4. The beef cheek is a local crowd-pleaser, but you can’t go wrong with the chicken mole, barbacoa, or veggie options. Take them out on the patio with a Mexican Coke and listen to some true-blue honky tonk play over the outdoor speakers.
DrinkFor drinks, Matador is so out-of-place from everything else on the Plaza that they put it underground. A denim-vested burly bartender missing a front tooth mans the bar at this punk dive. TSOL’s “Sex and Violence” is the soundtrack as “The Three Amigos” plays on the TV screen, and beer drinkers shoot for triple 20s on the dart board. The only disappointment is this dive does not offer dive prices. Five boners for a Dos Equis? Maybe that’s what you get for not ordering a PBR. Watch out for bum stools, too. Another option is to check out local fixture Tiny’s for karaoke on Saturday nights. The restaurant and lounge has been around for almost 70 years.
See Santa Fe is dense with galleries, and any square-rimmed glasses-wearing proprietor in a pencil skirt will be eager to share this bit of information: “Santa Fe is second to New York in galleries.” Until recently, Santa Fe has been all O’Keeffe and Gorman. Their magical Southwestern scenes cultivated a hub for artists who visit to be inspired by the mystical ethos of the region.
But, between red poppies and Native women, there are sweat prints stamped by a naked man’s ass, like at Gallery Fritz. This 5,000-square-foot gallery, which opened this summer in the Railyard Arts District, feels more like a museum. The edgy, avant-garde art space is a departure from the landscapes one might see on Canyon Road’s famous row of galleries. The sweat prints by Clayton Porter are made by the artist sitting naked on a bicycle with a copper seat, and then sitting on paper, leaving behind a behind outline, with some other biological material mixed in.
Gary Goldberg’s process for his wool tapestries mimicking the details of walls he photographed in Oaxaca, Mexico, may be more insane. Luckily, he recruited a team to participate in the tedium. The Taller de Afelpado is a group of artisans from Oaxaca who specialize in making felt textiles. After being dyed, the wool is embedded into felt by using small, barbed needles. The result is monumental tapestries that envelop your entire field of vision. Each tapestry has an easter egg on the inside with a photo of the team who made it. All the other work on the walls at Fritz is pushing physical processes and conceptual ideas.
Across the street, curators at Site Santa Fe, a contemporary museum that opened in the mid-’90s, are preparing for the August 3 opening of the new biannual, Sitelines.2018: Casa Tomada. Site is home to the very first biannual in the country, and 2018 marks the third year focusing on contemporary art from the Americas.
Other galleries worth pursuing in the Railyard District include Blue Rain for contemporary Native works, and Evoke for both prominent and emerging artists.
Contemporary galleries can also be found sprinkled throughout the Plaza, and they’re easy to spot. Brandon Maldonado’s surreal Dia de Los Muertos work and Trent Mann’s futuristic glass jewelry at Pop Gallery are a stark contrast to the surrounding earth tones.
True to its name, Pop showcases current cultural art forms, from graffiti, tattoos, cartoons, and pop art. Antieau features the childlike embroidery of Chris Roberts-Antieau. Her work is odd, relatable, and really funny, like the patchwork scene depicting her experience on a turbulent plane ride, where the man next to her started loudly confessing his sins to God before things smoothed out.
Immersive art experience Meow Wolf art director Nicholas Chiarella suggests checking out No Land, an experimental art space that is part of Strangers Collective, which holds and produces exhibitions, residencies, and events. No Land is found on the Plaza, but the other DIY spaces are more off the beaten path. Chiarella suggests Zephyr Community Art Studio, Ghost, Radical Abacus, 5., and Etiquette.
Experience It’s apparent Meow Wolf has become a destination for visitors to Santa Fe since it opened in 2016. It’s crowded. Consider going at night during one of the live shows to explore the space with more elbow room, and the chance to uncover the surprising discoveries The House of Eternal Return has to offer. While still a blast during peak hours, those hidden rooms and secret passageways are revealed for you because people are everywhere.
For arts just as immersive, although not as accessible, Ra Paulette’s hand-carved sandstone temples are actual hidden treasures. For the past quarter-century, Paulette has tirelessly chiseled away intricate underground psychedelic caves, moving on to the next as soon as one is finished.
While many of the caves are on private property, his first commissioned work, “Wonders of the Earth,” is available to tour through Origin of New Mexico, but it will cost you $87.
For those who are willing to take a drive to Albuquerque, another prime stop would be at Tinkertown, a mini-wood-carved museum housed in glass bottles. Tinkertown started as Ross Ward’s hobby in the early 1960s, and from there, it exploded into an entire world.