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Santa Fe and Taos: Art, Culture and the Great Outdoors

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: September 2007

This September, Mom and I took our second annual "girls' getaway." Last year was Boston; this year it was Santa Fe. As an artist herself, Mom has had this particular destination on her list for years because it's known as such a vibrant arts community, and I wasn't about to object! We also decided to visit Taos, another smaller mountain community also known for scenic beauty and a great art scene.

We got up at 3:45 a.m. to catch our 6:30 flight from Philadelphia to Chicago Midway on Southwest. We arrived with no problems and made a smooth transition to the flight to Albuquerque. Having checked in online about 24 hours early, we had A boarding passes for both flights and so were able to snag window seats near the front of the plane.

Once in Albuquerque, we took the free shuttle to the car rental center and headed for the Enterprise counter. I had reserved an economy car, but the guy at the desk pointed out that in driving from Albuquerque to Taos we'd be ascending about 4,000 feet, and an economy car might be underpowered. He offered us a standard-size car for an extra $50 total, including taxes, for the five days. A ploy to get more money out of us? Probably, but we decided to go for it, and Mom said later that the extra horsepower was worth it.

The guy who'd sat next to us on our PHL-MDW flight was, coincidentally, an Albuquerque native, and he'd recommended that we not take I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe but instead go up Route 14, a more scenic route commonly known as the Turquoise Trail. Despite a bit of light rain in the beginning, it was an unquestionably beautiful drive.

Along the way we stopped in the teeny town of Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), which seemed to consist of about 15-20 galleries of various sorts (jewelry, textiles, paintings, pottery) set up in historic mining houses. The products there and the general ambience reminded me a bit of New Hope, PA -- beautiful but expensive, and with an artsy, funky feel. We (mostly) stayed in the car for the rest of the truly beautiful drive through the mountains and sagebrush, though we did pull over for quite a few photo ops.

Santa Fe
We took well over two hours to complete the drive with stops, but we did finally arrive at the Santa Fe Hostel on Cerrillos Road, where we'd booked a private room with a bathroom. The place was a bit unprepossessing from the outside, with a faded mural on the wall and several dilapidated vehicles sitting in the parking lot. The woman at the front desk was very friendly, showing us around the communal kitchen and breakfast area, the small common room with internet, and finally our private room -- dim, shabby and not exactly gleaming with cleanliness. There were massive cobwebs in the bathroom, the floor hadn't been swept and the shower looked so scary that we both decided we were already clean enough, thank you very much. Turns out that there's no housekeeping staff, so each guest is supposed to clean up the shower, empty the trash, etc. before leaving -- basically the room is as clean as the previous guests have left it.

I've stayed in worse hostels, so I tried to convince Mom to stick it out. After all, it was a great price: $45 a night with no additional taxes. But she wasn't having any of it, so when we found a two-bed room for $49.95 plus tax at the nearby Super 8, we decided to book that for the next night. (Since we'd already paid for our first night at the hostel, we decided to stick around for that night.)

In the meantime we were starving, so we headed to Wild Oats, a local organic market, to pick up some fruit and some quick carry-out munchies. Then we finally drove into downtown Santa Fe. We eschewed the more expensive public parking garage ($1.80/hour) for $1/hour metered parking on the street and set off on foot for the Plaza, the center of town. I was actually surprised at how small Santa Fe is, at least in the downtown area. (Cerrillos Road, where most of the cheap lodging is, is just your everyday suburban sprawl of chain stores and strip malls.)

Beyond the Plaza were the St. Francis Cathedral (pretty, though not spectacular), Loretto Chapel (known for its "miraculous" circular staircase, built with no central support) and San Miguel Mission (one of the oldest churches in the U.S.). The latter was a beautiful, simple adobe building, almost pure-looking in a way. Across the street were a ton of galleries, peddling Indian blankets, turquoise jewelry, colorful pottery and unique textiles.

Mom and I went in and out of quite a few, with Mom growing increasingly frustrated by the prices (well out of our range) and me simply losing what little patience I already had for shopping. (I'm a frugal soul, and the idea of spending $300 on a handbag is blasphemous to me!)

Finally, with our 3:45 wakeup call catching up to us, we headed back to Wild Oats for more provisions and then to the hostel for some much-needed shuteye.

The next morning we had breakfast in the communal kitchen. There we found various types of breads/rolls/muffins, as well as peanut butter, jelly and apple butter. There were also a few boxes of cereal, but when Mom went to the large fridge for milk, she found it at room temperature. Turns out they have to defrost the fridge once a week, and today was that day. We stuck to bread instead.

Bandelier National Monument and Surroundings
After a quick stop at Wild Oats for bottled water, we were off to Bandelier National Monument. Once we turned off the interstate the ride was beautiful -- deep canyons, craggy rock formations, the muddy red Rio Grande River, mountains in the distance and a huge clear blue sky arching overhead.

When we got to Bandelier, we paid a $12 entrance fee for our car and then stopped at a scenic overlook before we reached the visitor center. There we found an amazing view of Frijoles Canyon, where a tribe of Native Americans once built a whole pueblo of cliff dwellings.

After snapping a few photos we continued down into the canyon, where we bought a little guide and headed out onto the main loop tour, which includes many of the ruined cliff dwellings. You could actually climb up into some of them via wooden ladders. They were like adobe caves, cool and dim. We hurried through parts of the trail because we were right in front of a huge tour group and didn't want to have to share the teeny tiny caves with them!

The crowds thinned out a bit when the main loop branched off into the Alcove trail. This part went through the woods along a little stream, and the air smelled incredibly fresh and woody. Half a mile later we arrived at a kiva (ceremonial room) on a cliff some 140 feet up, via three 30-foot ladders and some steep steps.

Many folks, including Mom, weren't sure they were up to the challenge, but it didn't look too bad to me, and so I encouraged Mom along. It was a little nerve-wracking if you're afraid of heights (which I am), but the view of the canyon from the top was worth it, not to mention the peacefulness of the kiva and the sense of accomplishment we felt when we got back down. (Incidentally, I thought the descent was actually harder than going up...)

We walked over a mile back to the visitor center via the forest trail, picked up a very average lunch at the little canteen there, and then headed back the way we'd come toward Santa Fe. En route we stopped at an amazing scenic overlook -- the name of the town escapes me, but there was a brown sign right off the main road that said "Scenic Overlook" maybe ten minutes down the road from Bandelier.

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