It's high season in this long-established summer arts mecca. The opera is humming along. The galleries are bustling. The hotels and restaurants are busy with visitors who have come here to enjoy fine art in the unique setting of a Spanish colonial American capital city. They're likely to have only a partially satisfactory experience because to get a feel for old Santa Fe, you have to go out of town.
I have family here, and after years of coming to Santa Fe as a visitor, I became a resident myself a couple of years ago. Now I'm often the host-tour guide, and I've developed three day trips that I still enjoy taking, seeing Santa Fe through the eyes of newcomers such as my friend Sarah Smith, a recent transplant from Michigan.
On an April morning, we drove an hour or so north of Santa Fe to the town of Ojo Caliente for a visit on horseback into back country rarely seen by outsiders. Our goal this day was to visit ruins associated with the Anasazi, the "ancient ones," as the Navajo call them, a civilization that had vanished before the first Spaniards arrived in 1540. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are their descendants.
There were seven of us who'd signed up for an "arc-ride" with Christine Ponko, an archeologist based in Taos. We left Round Barn Stables, along a pretty, cottonwood-lined creek, under auspicious signs. Early morning clouds with their threat of rain had broken, and a breeze would keep the day from getting too hot.
Our horses climbed into a rugged landscape of juniper, spruce and pungent sage. The majesty of it all--the grandeur of the plateau above the valley, ringed by low-lying hills--momentarily swept over us like the gentle wind.
Soon we were at Posi-Ouingue, which means "Place Over the Hot Springs" in the Tewa language spoken by some of today's Pueblos. The unexcavated site, occupied for two centuries in the early 1300s, has 2,100 rooms, making it one of the largest Anasazi villages.
Standing on mounds of dirt that covered crumbled walls--the inhabitants probably took the wooden post supports with them when they left 400 years ago for their current home in the San Juan Pueblo--we found decoratively painted pottery shards, smooth rock manes for grinding corn into flour, and tools chipped from obsidian and chert littering the ground. Looting of ancient sites is a problem throughout the Southwest, and we were careful not to disturb anything. The stable in Ojo Caliente has a permit to conduct rides on this land, which has mixed ownership, and riders keep an eye on the sites.
After a break for lunch in Ojo Caliente, we resumed our ride.
At a site called Hupovi, also unexcavated and with lovely views of the valley and creek below, Christine showed us an area of a few petroglyphs--Indian rock art--and a circular wall of rocks probably used for special ceremonies.
By the time we got back to the stables after 5 1/2 hours of riding and exploring, Sarah and I were more than ready for a long soak in Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, a no-frills spa.
Trace minerals found in the waters give the various baths their names. We began with the hottest (and purportedly most healing) water of the arsenic pool, then tried the iron and soda tubs.
The resort's historic but funky main bathhouse, minimalist accommodations and restaurant and lack of upscale spa amenities may limit its appeal. On the other hand, reasonable prices, spectacular horseback rides, relaxing waters and a variety of massages, wraps and facials make it a worthwhile detour from the glitz of Santa Fe.
Bandelier National Monument
As much as we enjoyed our Ojo Caliente excursion, neither Sarah nor I had experienced the transcendental spiritual renewal that in the 1920s led the visiting English writer D.H. Lawrence to remark, "From the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul." That would change on our next outing, to Bandelier National Monument, world renowned for its Anasazi cliff-dweller ruins.
Instead of heading straight for Bandelier, which is about 46 miles northwest of Santa Fe, we stopped at Tsankawi, a little-known unexcavated ruin on the way in. It's on New Mexico 4, half a mile before the town of White Rock; look for a parking area on the left with a brown sign, just before the traffic light.
Closing the gate behind us, we picked up the informative trail guide (50 cents on the honor system). Ahead lay the steep orange-yellow cliffs leading up the mesa. As we began to climb, vistas of forest and miles of canyons and ridges spread out around us. We walked alone through volcanic rock so soft that centuries of use have worn the narrow trail as much as a foot deep. Small children and the aerobically challenged may have difficulty here, since the trail ascends, steeply in parts, at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet.
Following the guide, we found a wall of petroglyphs featuring a large human figure with two others and an animal--a domestic scene? Beyond that, we emerged onto the mesa top as if from a sipapu, the gateway from the lower world into the higher, according to Anasazi myth.
Walking in silence and solitude on this sunny spring day, Sarah and I took in the same 360-degree views the ancient farmers had (excluding the highway). Such a landscape, falling away for miles all around us, with its multicolored cliffs and stark beauty, is what kept Georgia O'Keeffe painting here, just up the road in Abiquiu.
As I walked along the second floor of the small rooms in which the villagers lived, centuries of dirt having filled in the lower chambers, a deep stillness began to quiet my mind, making me feel at once like an intruder yet inextricably a part of it all.
A ladder led us down from the mesa top to an area of cliff dwellings where the lack of signs or a uniform trail gave us a sense of discovery, and of immersion into a world dominated by rock and slowly passing time. Nearby was a cave where my father, who once worked as a guide here, found a sharp, saw-toothed stone cutting tool. We sat inside the cave opening and looked out over the vast, dry land of scrubby juniper forest, wondering how the early people sustained themselves.
On the loop back, we passed numerous petroglyphs: antelope, people, figures in ceremonial costumes, various plants, hands, geometric designs. Anthropologists debate whether such etchings in the rock tell stories, depict life or represent sacred art. We could see all the possibilities.
By the time we reached the car, having taken more than two hours of leisurely exploration instead of the 1 1/2 hours the trail guide said we'd need, we had seen a total of four other people.
In White Rock, a sign at the traffic light pointed to "Overlook." We followed it past the fire station where we made a left onto Meadow Lane, then another left onto "Overlook," parking at the end of the road.
The view, largely hidden until we reached the canyon rim, suddenly opened up into a spectacular vista of the Rio Grande winding far below, of canyon walls banded by layers of multicolored primeval rock, and of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in the distance. The scale overwhelmed me with its sweep of geologic time and human history. The detour to see it took 10 minutes.
After our quiet morning together, Bandelier's packed parking lot, with its cafeteria, gift shop and visitor center, came as a shock. The museum probably is worth more than the 15 minutes we gave it, but we were anxious to get out on the Ruins Trail.
Even though the number of people alongside us dispelled the magical mood we had felt at Tsankawi, the world of Bandelier created its own spell. Some of the buildings have been excavated and reconstructed--a large kiva (ceremonial chamber), the floors of cliff dwellings, anterooms. In the main village, walls stand partially erect. What we could only imagine on the mesa came to life here.
A few days later, I persuaded Sarah to go with me to Chimayo, a tiny village steeped in colonial and Hispanic history. It is a center of traditional weaving and a place of pilgrimage.
Local inhabitants built the peaceful and charming Santuario de Chimayo in the second decade of the 1800s, to house a crucifix to which cures had been attributed.
Several souvenir shops, food stalls and cafes create a carnival atmosphere around the busy parking lot of the chapel. But as soon as we entered the courtyard, leaving behind the external world, we felt a harmonious tranquillity. Although not Catholic, we sensed ourselves in a holy place where, just as on the Tsankawi mesa, we could be part of the divine.
Back on County Road 98 we turned to more tangible manifestations of the merging of Indian, Spanish and Mexican cultures. We stopped first at the Severo Jaramillo Weaving Shop, where the seventh generation of Jaramillos works at this craft. You can watch them at their looms and purchase their work, as you can in other local shops, but Jaramillo's also sells work from Navajo and Zapotec (Mexican) craftsmen.
Down the road, we looked in at Ortega's Weaving Shop, the best known, most commercial and my least favorite in the area. With its piles and piles of identical sizes and endlessly repeating patterns in slightly different colors, the pieces have a mass-produced feel to them. However, the quantity means you'll probably find something you want to buy.
Just a hundred feet past Ortega's, a right turn on Route 76 takes you to Centinela Traditional Arts, which represents several weavers in the area. Sarah and I were captivated by the bold designs available, departures from traditional Chimayo patterns.
We kept in the spirit of the day with lunch at Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo, also on County Road 98, built by the Jaramillos in the late 1800s. The rambling adobe has an apple orchard out front and beautifully terraced dining in back. With its eclectic local decor and hearty New Mexican fare, the restaurant alone is reason enough for the half-hour drive from Santa Fe.
The combined attractions of the Santuario, the weaving shops and lunch or dinner make a full afternoon. To extend the mood, plan to stay at Rancho de Chimayo's little hacienda across from the restaurant. Waking up in the embrace of living history may be the best way of experiencing the vastness that is New Mexico.
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A Grounding in Old New Mexico
Getting there: United flies from LAX to Santa Fe with one plane change; round-trip fare starts at $254. Southwest, United and America West have service to Albuquerque, N.M., starting at $194 round trip.
Getting around: Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, telephone (800) 222-9162, at U.S. 285 and New Mexico 414, about an hour north of Santa Fe. A half-day of guided horseback riding and use of baths is $55 per person. Archeologist-led rides are $65 and require reservations. Rooms for two start at $89.95.
Double rooms in Hacienda Rancho de Chimayo, County Road 98, tel. (505) 351-2222, run $75 to $115.
In Santa Fe: Hotel Santa Fe, 1501 Paseo de Peralta, tel. (800) 825-9876, is well regarded; doubles from $159.
Adobe Abode, tel. (505) 983-3133, is a pretty B&B; doubles run $120 to $160.
For more information: New Mexico Department of Tourism, 491 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87503; tel. (800) 545-2070, Internet http://www .newmexico.org.
Santa Fe Accommodations Hotline: tel. (800) 338-6877; Internet http://www.sfdetours.com. Convention and Visitors Bureau: Internet http: //www.santafe.org.