I had never been to this part of the country and I wanted to see why it was so popular as a travel destination. Great Sand Dunes National Park was still closed because of the Govt. shutdown, and thinking it might open very soon (which happened) I made the detour down from south-central Colorado last week.
I drove down to the little town of Questa in spitting snow. Camping above the Rio Grande River, I woke next morning to find about 4 inches of snow had fallen. The weather gradually cleared and warmed a bit over the next few days. I made my way first to Taos and then to New Mexico’s capital Santa Fe. Both are chock-full of adobe architecture, some of it very old and restored. This post will give tips for visiting the region and touch on its history. Images of the architecture will take center stage.
Both Santa Fe and Taos are great for strolling and exploring. Santa Fe is the more touristy of the two and is larger. But you’ll find no tall buildings in Santa Fe, and really not much traffic. Both are small enough to walk but Taos is very much a town compared to Santa Fe, which is a small city.
I started in Santa Fe, America’s oldest state capital (and highest at 7000 feet). It was founded by the Spanish in 1607 and played a big role in the early western expansion of the U.S. Many famous people have spent time here, both in historic and more recent times. The artist Georgia O’Keefe lived and painted here in the early 20th century. It also has a world-renowned opera.
There is paid parking throughout the downtown area, in old-fashioned coin meters. If you’re willing to walk into the center, you can find free parking. I visited the friendly Capital Coffee, which is only 5 minutes walk from the edge of the historic center. After coffee, I used their parking lot to strike off into the streets and shoot. I was only a little over an hour doing this. I would not take advantage and spend half the day parked there.
I recommend simply wandering through the streets around the central plaza. The plaza (zocalo in Mexico) is a good landmark to keep circling back to. There are innumerable art galleries to visit of course. The town is a magnet for artists of all stripes. I focused on shooting exteriors here. I photographed mostly when the sun was low but not so low that shadows dominated.
Rather than list places to visit, I urge you to check out Wiki’s travel guide (which includes a walking map) or do your own Googling. For the rich history of this 400+-year old city, you couldn’t do much better than start with the Palace of the Governors. This is the former center of Spain’s colonial government here and is now New Mexico’s state history museum.
While you’re strolling, it’s very worthwhile trying to get access to the placitas (commonly called courtyards in most areas). Placitas characterize the architecture here. Found throughout Latin America as well, here these delightful open-air spaces are surrounded by low-slung adobe buildings. During my travels in Mexico, Central and South America, courtyards have been a favorite place to chill out and soak in the sun: reading, journaling and relaxing.
Traditionally several families would live in the homes bordering the placita, sharing it as an outdoor living and animal husbandry area. Some flowers and other plants were grown but placitas were not traditionally devoted to gardens as they mostly seem to be these days. Modern placitas (courtyards) also differ in being most often surrounded by one single-family dwelling.
I found Taos to be much easier than Santa Fe in terms of wandering in and out of placitas, but you might have better luck than I did in Santa Fe.
I like Taos a little better than Santa Fe. Santa Fe seems a bit strange to me. Maybe it’s because of all the tourism clashing with history clashing with the modern influx of wealthy retirees clashing with the older residents of the area (many Native American) clashing with the new-age types. It seems to me to be a place lacking an identity. Also, real estate prices are way out of whack.
So much of the adobe in Santa Fe looks like it was built yesterday, which I think takes away from the real history of the place. Taos suffers some of the same, but I’ve found this effect to run rampant throughout the world, anywhere history and authenticity gets in the way of modern life and “progress”. At least they keep to adobe construction and style here.
Taos has some of the same vibe as Santa Fe but it’s much smaller and has a definite character. Besides being a gateway to mountain recreation (including great skiing), Taos is a fine place to wander around and photograph. Kit Carson, the famous scout and mountain man lived here. Or I should say his hispanic wife and their kids lived here while he passed through from time to time.
There is a main plaza in Taos as well. In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America these zocalos or plazas seem to be much more “alive” with activity than in Taos and Santa Fe. I think it’s because of all the limitations in the U.S. for people to just set up carts with cheap eats. Here they serve as centers for shopping, much of it high end. In Mexico they’re places for street performers, strolling couples and great street food. The ones in New Mexico look just like zocalos but are not the same at all.
You can park very near the plaza at one of the public parking lots (feed coins into the meters) or look for free spots 10 minutes walk to the plaza. You can just wander through the streets surrounding the plaza. The placita bordered by Kit Carson’s house is interesting, restored to near what it would have looked like. The placita at the Blumenshein Home is a great one too, and the narrow street it’s on, Ledoux, is lined with attractive adobe architecture.
A couple places I neglected on this trip but which are certainly worth checking out are Taos Peublo just north of town and Ranchos de Taos a couple miles south of town. Taos Pueblo has some of the oldest buildings in the area. At Ranchos de Taos, the deservedly famous San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church is an amazing building. I suppose I need to skip some things to have an excuse to return!
This high and beautiful area of New Mexico is certainly worth visiting. The climate is darn near perfect and the Sangre de Cristos Mountains are gorgeous. Also, the Rio Grande River flows through it. It’s a very beautiful stream that runs in and out of rugged canyons. One morning I took a frosty walk along the river and found some fall colors (image below).
As usual, clicking on any of the images takes you to my gallery page, and all the pictures are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission. Please contact me if you are interested in any of them; they’ll be uploaded to my site soon. Thanks for reading and have a superb week!