Settled in turn by Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans and Yankees, NEW MEXICO remains hugely diverse. Each successive group has built upon the legacy of its predecessors; their histories and achievements are intertwined, rather than simply dominated by the white American latecomers.
New Mexico’s indigenous peoples – especially the Pueblo Indians, heirs to the Ancestral Puebloans – provide a sense of cultural continuity. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced a temporary Spanish withdrawal into Mexico, proselytizing padres co-opted the natives without destroying their traditional ways of life, as local deities and celebrations were incorporated into Catholic practice. Somewhat bizarrely to outsiders, grand churches still dominate many Pueblo communities, often adjacent to the underground ceremonial chambers known as kivas.
The Americans who arrived in 1848 saw New Mexico as a wasteland. Apart from a few mining booms and range wars – such as the Lincoln County War, which brought Billy the Kid to fame – New Mexico was relatively undisturbed until it became a state in 1912. Since World War II, when the secret Manhattan Project built the first atomic bomb here, it has been home to America’s premier weapons research outposts. By and large, people work close to the land, mining, farming and ranching.
The mountainous north is the New Mexico of popular imagination, with its pastel colours, vivid desert landscape and adobe architecture. Even Santa Fe, the one real city, is hardly metropolitan in scale and the narrow streets of its small historic centre retain the feel of bygone days. The amiable frontier town of Taos, 75 miles northeast, is remarkable chiefly for the stacked dwellings of neighbouring Taos Pueblo.
While most travellers simply race through central New Mexico, it does hold isolated pockets of interest. Dozens of small towns hang on to remnants of the winding old “Chicago-to-LA” Route 66, long since superseded by I-40. Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, sits dead centre. The area to the east, stretching toward Texas, is largely desolate, but the mountainous region west offers more – above all Ácoma Pueblo, the mesa-top “Sky City”.
In wild, wide-open southern New Mexico, deep Carlsbad Caverns and the desolate dunes of White Sands are the main attractions, and elsewhere you can still stumble upon mining and cattle-ranching towns barely changed since the end of the Wild West.
The single most defining feature of New Mexico is its adobe architecture, as seen on homes, churches and even shopping malls and motels. A sun-baked mixture of earth, sand, charcoal and chopped grass or straw, adobe bricks are set with a similar mortar, then plastered over with mud and straw. The soil used dictates the colour of the final building, so subtle variations are apparent everywhere. These days, most of what looks like adobe is actually painted cement or concrete, but even this looks attractive enough in its own semi-kitsch way, while hunting out such superb genuine adobes as the remote Santuario de Chimayó on the “High Road” between Taos and Santa Fe, the formidable church of San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos or the multitiered dwellings of Taos Pueblo, can provide the focus of an enjoyable New Mexico tour.
Few visitors to the Southwest are prepared for the awesome scale and beauty of the desert cities and cliff palaces left by the Ancestral Puebloans, as seen all over the high plateaus of the “Four Corners” region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah now meet.
Although the earliest humans reached the Southwest around 10,000 BC, the Ancestral Puebloans first appeared as the Basketmakers, near the San Juan River, two thousand years ago. Named for their woven sandals and bowls, they lived in pits in the earth, roofed with logs and mud. Over time, the Ancestral Puebloans adopted an increasingly settled lifestyle, becoming expert farmers and potters. Their first freestanding houses on the plains were followed by multistoreyed pueblos, in which hundreds of families lived in complexes of contiguous “apartments”. The astonishing cliff dwellings, perched on precarious ledges high above remote canyons, which they began to build around 1100 AD, were the first Ancestral Puebloan settlements to show signs of defensive fortifications. Competition for scarce resources became even fiercer toward the end of the thirteenth century and it’s thought that warfare and even cannibalism played a role in their ultimate dispersal. Moving eastward, they joined forces with other displaced groups in a coming-together that eventually produced the modern Pueblo Indians. Hence the recent change of name, away from “Anasazi”, a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemies”, in favour of “Ancestral Puebloan”.
Among the most significant Ancestral Puebloan sites are:
Magnificent cliff palaces, high in the canyons of Colorado.
Large riverside pueblos and cave-like homes hollowed from volcanic rock.
The largest and most sophisticated freestanding pueblos, far out in the desert.
Superbly dramatic cliff dwellings in a glowing sandstone canyon now owned and farmed by the Navajo.
Enigmatic towers poised above a canyon.
Several small pueblo communities near the edge of the Painted Desert, built by assorted groups after an eleventh-century volcanic eruption.
Numerous homes set into the canyon walls above lush Walnut Creek, just east of Flagstaff.
Canyon-side community set in a vast rocky alcove in Navajo National Monument; visible from afar, or close-up on guided hikes.
The first Spaniards to explore what’s now New Mexico encountered 100,000 so-called Pueblo Indians, living in a hundred villages and towns (pueblo is Spanish for “village”). Resenting the imposition of Catholicism and their virtual enslavement, the various tribes banded together in the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and ousted the entire colonial regime, killing scores of priests and soldiers and sending hundreds more south to Mexico. After the Spanish returned in 1693, the Pueblos showed little further resistance and they have coexisted ever since, accepting aspects of Catholicism without giving up their traditional beliefs and practices. New Mexico is now home to around forty thousand Pueblo Indians; each of its nineteen autonomous pueblos has its own laws and system of government.
The Pueblos celebrate Saints’ days, major Catholic holidays such as Easter and the Epiphany and even the Fourth of July with a combination of Native American traditions and Catholic rituals, featuring elaborately costumed dances and massive communal feasts. The spectacle of hundreds of costumed, body-painted tribal members of all ages, performing elaborate dances in such timeless surroundings, is hugely impressive.
However, few pueblos are quite the tourist attractions they’re touted to be. While the best known, Taos and Ácoma, retain their ancient defensive architecture, the rest tend to be dusty adobe hamlets scattered around a windblown plaza. Unless you arrive on a feast day or are a knowledgeable shopper in search of Pueblo crafts, visits are liable to prove disappointing. In addition, you’ll be made very unwelcome if you fail to behave respectfully – don’t “explore” places that are off-limits to outsiders, such as shrines, kivas or private homes.
Fifteen of the pueblos are concentrated along the Rio Grande north of Albuquerque, with a long-standing division between the seven southern pueblos, south of Santa Fe, most of which speak Keresan and the group to the north, which mostly speak Tewa (pronounced tay-wah). Visitors to each are required to register at a visitor centre; some charge an admission fee of $3–10 and those that permit such activities typically charge additional fees of $5 for still photography, $10–15 for video cameras and up to $100 for sketching. There’s no extra charge for feast days or dances, but photography is usually forbidden on special occasions.
If you do ever plan to motor west, there’s still one definitive highway that’s the best. Eighty-five years since it was first completed, 75 since John Steinbeck called it “the mother road, the road of flight” in The Grapes of Wrath and 65 since songwriter Bobby Troup set it all down in rhyme, what better reason to visit the Southwest could there be than to get hip to this timely tip and get your kicks on Route 66?
The heyday of Route 66 as the nation’s premier cross-country route – winding from Chicago to LA – lasted barely twenty years, from its being paved in 1937 until it began to be superseded by freeways in 1957. It was officially rendered defunct in 1984, when Williams, Arizona, became the last town to be bypassed. Nonetheless, substantial stretches of the original Route 66 survive, complete with the motels and drive-ins that became icons of vernacular American architecture. Restored 1950s roadsters and the latest Harley Davidsons alike flock to cruise along the atmospheric, neon-lit frontages of towns such as Albuquerque and Flagstaff, or through such empty desertscapes as those between Grants and Gallup in New Mexico or Seligman and Kingman in Arizona.
Still home to one of the longest-established Native American populations in the USA, though transformed by becoming first a Spanish colonial outpost and more recently a hangout for bohemian artists, Hollywood exiles and New Age dropouts, TAOS (which rhymes with “mouse”) is famous out of all proportion to its size. Not quite six thousand people live in its three component parts: Taos itself, around the plaza; sprawling Ranchos de Taos, three miles to the south; and the Native American community of Taos Pueblo, two miles north.
Beyond the usual unsightly highway sprawl, Taos is a delight to visit. Besides museums, galleries and stores, it still offers an unhurried pace and charm and the sense of a meeting place between Pueblo, Hispanic and American cultures. Its reputation as an artists’ colony began at the end of the nineteenth century, and new generations of artists and writers have “discovered” Taos ever since. English novelist D.H. Lawrence visited in the 1920s, while Georgia O’Keeffe stayed for a few years soon afterwards.