This installment in my series of insider guides to wonderful places to visit in the United States focuses on the great State of New Mexico. Written by our New Zealand & Samoa Desk Officer at State Department headquarters, the article below provides personal insights and travel tips about our vibrant, diverse, and stunningly beautiful 47th State.
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NEW MEXICO: THE LAND OF ENCHANTMENT, by Lynda Hinds
New Mexico is an amazing, beautiful place with pure and endless blue skies, mountains that turn watermelon-pink at sunset (the mountain range behind the city of Albuquerque is called by the Spanish name for watermelon, Sandias), rainbows of minerals in the soil and hills, and gorgeous (if sometimes stark) landscapes for days.
Every season is beautiful. The Fall is truly enchanted by ribbons of bright yellow leaves running up and down the bosques (forests) of the Rio Grande river. Winter is especially magical when snow dusts the blue and purple mountains. Spring brings the bloom of desert flowers, and the Summer is most enjoyable for its warm (but not too hot and never humid) long evenings.
I grew up in a New Mexico town with fewer than 4,000 people. The more I’ve experienced living in cities that were more fast-moving and bigger than that, the more I’ve realized just how genuine, friendly, and easy going New Mexicans naturally are. I often miss that open, familial small-town feel.
In terms of geography, New Mexico is the fifth largest State in the U.S., about 20% larger than New Zealand. We are one of the least densely populated States, though, with approximately 2 million residents. New Mexicans certain have plenty of elbowroom, which helps our cheerful disposition.
Our dry, sunny climate also keeps us smiling. The average precipitation rate is about 13 inches (330 mm) per year. Our biggest city, Albuquerque (with a population of about 550,000) , gets less than 9 inches (225 mm) of rain per year. On average, New Mexico has approproximately 330 days of full sunshine per year. Las Cruces, with just under 100,000 residents, routinely enjoys more than 350 days of sunshine each year.
Another special characteristic of New Mexico is the highly diverse nature of our population. We have the second-highest percentage of indigenous peoples in the Americas (after Alaska). We have the highest percentage of residents of Hispanic origin in the United States. We are one of four ”minority-majority” States with no majority ethnic or racial group. (The others are Hawaii, California, and Texas.) That demographic diversity influences all aspects of life in our State.
New Mexico has a rich cultural heritage stretching back a long way. The first inhabitants are believed to have arrived more than 13,000 years ago. Ancient Native American cultures emerged, including the Ancient Pueblo (or Anasazi). When Europeans first arrived the region was inhabited by Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and Ute tribes. Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado first traveled north from Mexico in 1540 in search of the mythical “Seven Cities of Gold,” reputed to be full of treasure. What he found were the golden yellow pueblos (towns) of Native Americans.
New Mexico’s capital city, Santa Fe, is more than 400 years old, having been founded in 1610. It’s the oldest State capital in the United States, as well as the second oldest city in the U.S. (after St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565). Santa Fe is also the highest capital city in the U.S., nestled in the Sangre de Cristo chain of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of more than 7,200 feet (2,200 m).
Designated a world cultural city by UNESCO, Santa Fe has a style all its own, at once both exuberant and steeped in history. Simply hearing “Santa Fe” brings to mind a specific palette, iconic aesthetic, and salutary feeling. The city has carefully preserved its heritage architecture and insured that new developments resonate with both existing structures and the surrounding environment. The result is a true “City Different,” as Sante Fe residents refer to their home.
A wonderful place to visit (or live), Santa Fe (population 68,000) is well known for its artistic and literary culture, art galleries, museums, heritage architecture, nearby Pueblos, and beautiful environment. The rich, vibrant cultural and entertainment scene co-exists with extensive recreational options (including skiing, snowboarding, geocaching, rock-climbing, and awesome hiking).
And if you’re in the mood simply to kick back and indulge, there are wonderful cafés, a great variety of restaurants serving Santa Fe’s own unique version of New Mexican cuisine, more than 20 world class spas and hot spring resorts, and excellent shopping. The city’s most famous offerings are the paintings, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, and other works created locally, including the iconic turquoise jewelry sold in Santa Fe Plaza by Native American artisans.
Most of our cities and towns have long histories and unique characters. Albuquerque, known as the “Duke City,” was founded in 1706 and named after the viceroy of New Spain, Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, 10th Duke of Alburquerque, Spain. (Somewhere along the way, Albuquerque lost an “r.”) The city sits in the mountains at the upper edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, and gets almost 300 days of brilliant sunshine each year (as well as about 9 days of snow).
There’s a lot to do in Albuquerque with its many museums and heritage sites, numerous performance venues and festivals, ghost tours of Old Town, and outdoor recreation options. As a kid, I used to go with my dad to watch the Albuquerque Dukes play minor league baseball. Sadly, the Dukes are no more, but I have happy memories of engaging in the all-American pastime of eating a hot dog in the stands and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while the Dukes played on.
Part of the so-called “Great Southwest,” New Mexico is both a high desert and a mountainous State. Our neighbors to the south are the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora. Our terrain ranges from seemingly endless rose-colored deserts to heavily forested wildernesses (in the north) to wild rivers (including the mighty Rio Grande) to snow-capped peaks.
One of my favorite mountains is Sandia Peak, just outside Albuquerque, which rises to 3,163 meters. You can take the aerial tramway on a 4-km ride up and/or down the mountain, enjoying panoramic views of the city and the desert beyond. Wheeler Peak, near New Mexico’s popular Taos Ski Valley, is the State’s highest mountain peak (just slightly higher than New Zealand’s Mount Cook) at a dizzying 13,161 feet (4,011 m).
Just as breathtaking as the mountains, our deserts have captivated and inspired writers, artists, and dreamers for hundreds of years. One of the most famous of our artists was Georgia O’Keeffe, who captured the paradoxical essence of the arid surroundings … beautiful, filled with color and life, yet bleak and unforgiving.
Although best known for her paintings of poppies and other flowers, she also created striking interpretations of the mountains and deserts that she treasured around her. While in New Mexico you can visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe as well as see her home and studio in Abiquiu, which is protected as a national historical site.
Among the unforgiving denizens of the desert are coyotes, tarantulas, scorpions, and rattlesnakes (which, incidentally, instinctively move away from rather than toward you). In terms of fauna, I am particularly fond of New Mexico’s official State bird, the roadrunner. Clocked at 26 miles (42 km) per hour and with a taste for dining on snakes (including the rattling kind), the roadrunner is an impressive creature.
Also impressive is the surprising array of plant life in such a dry climate, including our unique State flower, the yucca. Most of the yucca plant is edible, and Native Americans have traditionally used the roots to make soap. Mostly, it’s just pretty. We had one growing in our front yard when I was growing up. It only bloomed once a year, so it was always quite the event (so we took plenty of Polaroid photos to commemorate the occasion each year).
Because of the reliable climate, wide-open spaces, and unique beauty, New Mexico has become home to a burgeoning film industry. Dubbed “Tamalewood” in honor of the popular local food, blockbusters such as The Avengers and The Lone Ranger were made in New Mexico recently, as well as the sci-fi comedy Paul.
The popular television series Breaking Bad, in its fifth season this year, is filmed on location in Albuquerque and elsewhere in the State. I love watching the show, not only because I find it highly entertaining but because I never know what recognizable icon of my youth I will see next. I know that Ambassador Huebner probably sees bits and pieces of his hometown of Los Angeles every time he turns on the TV, but for a New Mexican, it’s a big thrill to see something from home in the background.
The State has a vibrant, highly diversified economy despite its small population. The largest sectors are oil & gas production, tourism, transportation, scientific research, education, and government services. We are home to the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.
One of New Mexico’s most exciting industries is space travel (on the horizon, as it were). The recently completed Spaceport America, near Las Cruces in southern New Mexico, is designed to provide corporations and entrepreneurs with easy access to commercial space flight facilities for their projects. UP Aerospace is already launching payloads from the site, and Virgin Galactic is establishing its operating base there.
If you aren’t quite ready for take-off yourself, you can take a tour the Spaceport and surrounding area. Las Cruces has a lot of historical significance. The legendary Wild West outlaw Billy the Kid grew up in the there. Even farther in the past, the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or “Royal Road,” used by conquistadors to reach the Imperial capital of Mexico City, ran through the region.
Another iconic road, Route 66, traverses New Mexico. Following the path of the Old Pecos horse and wagon trail, and known as the “Main Street of America” or simply “The Mother Road,” Route 66 was built through 2,500 miles (4,000 km) of plains and desert to connect Chicago with Los Angeles at the start of the 20th Century. It facilitated mass migrations toward the Pacific and contributed greatly to the development of the American West.
Although supplanted as a major transportation artery by the modern Interstate Highway System in the 1970′s and 1980′s, Route 66 remains. Central Avenue in Albuquerque was part of the original road, and there you can find the 66 Diner, a very authentic (if not original) 1950’s eatery complete with chile cheese fries, shakes, and a juke box. In other places Route 66 feels like an abandoned ghost road, with its original aura of backroads exploration, uncertain destiny, and raw adventure.
If you visit New Mexico, and I hope you will, everywhere you go you will see our unusual State flag, designed by an archaeologist and officially adopted in 1920. The symbol in the center — called a zia — represents the sun and comes from the Zia Pueblo, which is more than 600 years old and one of the original 19 pueblos of New Mexico. The four lines on the four sides of the zia represent what Native Americans consider to be the Circle of Life – the four winds, four seasons, four directions, and four sacred obligations.
The flag is yellow and red, but the color that represents New Mexico the most is probably green, as in green chile. Hot, spicy, smooth green chile from the town of Hatch is the one thing I miss the most about home. We use the chiles in everything, from scrambled eggs to pizza to enchiladas to topping French fries (along with cheese) to just eating them plain on a tortilla.
The chiles are harvested in late summer, and in September you will smell everywhere chiles roasting on the grill to give them that perfect, smoky, unlike-anything-else taste. They come in mild to hot, but beware. The hot varieties are not for the faint-hearted. Hatch is not the only place that grows green chiles, but it’s considered the best. Pepper growers outside of the State sometimes label their product “Hatch” to attract customers, but we natives are not so easily fooled.
New Mexican red chile varieties are also delicious, popular, and used in everything from enchiladas (you know how tasty those are) to carne adovada (marinated pork chops) to posole (delicious hominy stew served during the winter holidays).
When you order food in a New Mexican restaurant, be prepared to answer the question “red or green?” It’s part of our culture to always provide a choice of chile. As a counter to the spiciness of the chile, we also provide sopaipillas (deep fried, hollow, triangle-shaped bread) on the side. Often served as dessert in other States, sopaipillas are eaten by New Mexicans with everything. We particularly like opening them up while piping hot to fill them with honey.
Other than chile roasting season, one of my favorite times of the year in New Mexico is October, when the skies over Albuquerque fill with color and shapes for the international hot air Balloon Fiesta. Featuring races, a “balloon glow” at night, a “rodeo” of unusually shaped balloons, and a mass ascension of hundreds of balloons in the sky at once, the Fiesta attracts people from all over the world.
Last year New Zealand’s only flying kiwi, named Iwi the Kiwi, made a big splash at the event. This year actor Neil Patrick Harris participated and tweeted from the event. If you can, I encourage you to attend. There’s nothing quite like seeing many hundreds of large balloons lift into the air, soar across the city, and toward the watermelon hills. From what I heard, there were almost 800 balloons this year. I was sorry to miss it.
As you can probably tell, there’s a lot to do in New Mexico … some of it expected, some of it wholly unexpected, but all of it personally rewarding, exhilarating, and great fun. I’ll mention just a few more examples of what I mean.
For current native cultural offerings, you can visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center with its excellent museum and packed schedule of traditional performances and workshops. There are regular cultural festivals, performances, and exhibitions elsewhere throughout the State, as well as easy opportunities to visit pueblos.
If you like history and ancient cultures, there is much to explore along our various heritage trails (including the Sante Fe, Old Pecos, and Old Spanish Trails) and at our many historical sites, indoor and open-air museums, and archaeological parks.
I particularly recommend the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, the pictographs at Bandelier National Monument and Petroglyph National Monument, and the Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument. (You can also easily visit the impressive cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, just over our northern border in Colorado.)
If you are an outdoors type, there’s world-class hiking, cycling, boating (yes, there is enough water), camping, hunting, fishing, rock-climbing, spelunking or roadtripping around the State to enjoy the scenery. As the Ambassador previously noted on his Travel USA board on Pinterest, about 700 miles (1,125 km) of the Continental Divide Trail (which is part of the Triple Crown of North American long-distance trekking) runs through New Mexico including past the Gila cliff dwellings.
I highly recommend the fishing at Conchas Lake, or going to see sandhill cranes and Arctic geese wintering at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. We have millions of acres of protected national forests, 35 beautiful State parks, and 16 iconic national parks and monuments. Among my favorite are the stunning Carlsbad Caverns, the otherworldly White Sands National Monument, and the Capulin Volcano National Monument.
And, of course, there are special-interest options. New Mexico has been the epicenter of UFO culture since the infamous incident in July 1947 when a public information officer at the Roswell Army Air Field notified the press that Air Force personnel had recovered debris from the crash of an extra-terrestrial spacecraft. Intense media attention ensued, and the Air Force retracted the original statement and identified the debris as a weather balloon.
Whatever your view of UFO’s, you might enjoy attending Roswell’s annual UFO festival, scoping out the crash site for yourself, visiting the Roswell International UFO Museum and Research Center, or attending one of the Museum’s regular programs. You could also temporarily join the ranks of folks who camp under the clear desert skies and keep watch for galactic arrivals.
New Mexico’s State motto, memorialized on all of our vehicle license plates, is the “Land of Enchantment.” With so much beauty, diversity, creativity, and heritage within our borders, I think that New Mexico wears that mantle exceptionally well. It doesn’t disappoint. After just a short time in the State, you’ll likely agree.
You’ll probably also find the answer to the zen-like question posed in the State tourism office’s New Mexico Manifesto: “We are all travelers. We seek what is true and we push past what we know to be false. The question is: where do we go? What place is true and good and real? Where is the place that will speak to us, crystal clear, in a voice that is familiar and kind? Where is true found … and false forgotten? Where? … New Mexico True.”
It seems odd in hindsight, but when I was a little girl growing up in New Mexico, I always thought it was too brown and too remote. I remember longing to go somewhere green and lush. Though I wasn’t so convinced as a child, as an adult I see just how special New Mexico’s natural beauty, friendly atmosphere, vibrant cuisine, rich multi-cultural heritage, and even its focus on space and future technology truly are.
My home State is truly an enchanted and enchanting place. I hope you have the chance to see it yourself someday.
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For more information about all that New Mexico has to offer, as well as for tips on how to plan your trip, please see www.newmexico.org and the excellent city tourism sites for Santa Fe and Albuquerque. If you’re hoping to stay longer-term, take a look at NewMexico.com for information about living and working in the State.
If you still have questions after browsing the net, feel free to send me a note. I’d be happy to ask Lynda to provide supplemental advice or information.