At 7,000 feet, Santa Fe can be bone-biting cold in winter; adobe walls wear epaulets of snow; the streets are quiet. Never mind, the City Different has ways to keep you warm: farolitos flickering in the old plaza, aromatic fires of piñon wood, hot spas, and all those chili peppers.
Approaching Santa Fe on a bright winter’s day, the flawless sky almost dark purple, you know you’re in for something special. The desert air is like a magnifying lens held up to the Sangre de Cristos, mantled with gleaming snowfields and soaring to 13,000 feet and more above the valley of the Rio Grande. At their feet, the low adobe buildings of the capital are almost lost in the trees. Like a preview of what’s to come, along the Interstate 25 meridian some playful souls have draped the piñon and rabbit brush with ornaments and tinsel. By the time you enter downtown Santa Fe, you’ve seen the ubiquitous farolitos lining the buildings and the chili pepper wreaths on rough wooden doors.
With the throngs of tourists gone, the smell of piñon smoke in the air, winter—especially around the holidays—is a fine time to go calling on Santa Fe. In the setting of a town founded by the Spanish in 1607, Hispanic Christmas traditions flourish. Choirs and orchestras fill the old adobe churches with music of the season. In early December, the farolitos are lit on the plaza—indeed, all over town, flickering on walkways, public buildings, churches, fences, houses, even trees. Christmas shoppers polish their credit cards in the designer stores around the Plaza area and along Canyon Road, that mile-long stretch of boutiques and galleries in oh-so-charming adobes. Traditional holiday dishes appear on the menus of the famed cafés serving that signature southwestern cuisine. Native American pueblos along the Rio Grande Valley—occupied for centuries before the Spanish came—echo with ceremonial drums and dances.
And way above town is a high-altitude ski area with sugar-fine powder.
Santa Fe bills itself as "The City Different." At 7,000 feet, it’s our highest state capital, with an atmosphere thin and breath-taking. Also, Santa Fe looks different. It’s one big theme park of adobe architecture; practically all the buildings are low and brown. It’s a town with 200 restaurants and 250 art galleries, where the native tongue is a mix of English and Spanish, where it’s chic (and costly) to live on a dirt road.
Start at the heart: the Plaza
Whether you’re new in town or a repeat visitor, best place to begin your sojourn is the historic Plaza, almost four centuries old. Stroll around it, visit its renowned museums, shop the shops, hang out. Browse along the north side of the Plaza, where artisans from the Indian pueblos, wrapped in blankets, preside over their work—silver, ceramics, stone fetishes. Drop into the venerable La Fonda Hotel for lunch in its skylit courtyard.
GET OUT OF TOWN
In Santa Fe you feel the powerful presence of that beautiful high desert, the blue mountains, the Indian pueblos, and chances are you’ll want to venture away on day trips. In winter you’ll likely have these places largely to yourself. If the weather’s not stormy, it’s nice to prowl the ruins at Bandelier National Monument, Puye Cliffs, or Tsankawi.
And then there are the Indian pueblos, such as Santo Domingo, San Ildefonso, Tesuque, Picuris, and Santa Clara, each with its distinctive culture and art styles.
I particularly enjoyed the hamlet of Chimayo. Its Santuario, founded in 1817 and sought for its curative earth, is one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the country. In Chimayo you’ll also find weaving studios, good food, and stands selling the wondrous local chili, dried or powdered.
Any time spent in Santa Fe’s museums will enrich your understanding of the area’s traditions—and their shops are great places to look for unusual Christmas gifts and authentic mementos of a New Mexico visit. Most are closed on Mondays. Some of those at or near the Plaza:
Palace of the Governors, north side of the Plaza, was begun in 1610, making it the oldest government building in the U.S. (with the exception, of course, of prehistoric kivas and longhouses). It houses exhibits of Spanish, Mexican, and American New Mexico.
Museum of Fine Arts, northwest side of the Plaza, specializes in 20th century New Mexico painting, sculpture, and photography.
Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, 108 Cathedral Place, exhibits contemporary Native American ceramics, basketry, beadwork, paintings, and sculpture.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson Street, devoted to the artist’s work, opened this summer.
Also near the Plaza: Imposing, gray St. Francis Cathedral was built 1870-1886 in the French Romanesque style by the controversial Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy. Check out its elaborate bronze doors, sculpted in the 1980s with an ecclesiastical history of Santa Fe. Inside, look for the town’s patron La Conquistadora, the Virgin brought from Spain in 1624, and the altar reredos showing guitar-playing saints.
The Old Santa Fe Trail ends at the Plaza; you can follow it south past the Loretto Chapel, with its so-called "miraculous staircase," across the river to the Chapel of San Miguel. Billed as the oldest existing church in the country; its first walls were put up in 1610 by Tlaxcalans from New Spain. This much-modified version was built in 1710.
Up the hill to more museums
On a hillside overlooking town, around a cul de sac called Camino Lejo, are three museums very pleasant to visit—for their setting and design, and their lovingly crafted displays. Two are devoted to Native American cultures, one to folk arts of the world.
One of the best of its kind anywhere, the Museum of International Folk Art displays more than 100,000 objects in delightful village and folk scenes from a hundred countries. On view through January 4: a fanciful exhibit on recycling (castles made of pop-tops, quilts stitched from old overalls). Hispanic folk and religious art are in a special wing.
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian is built in the style of a giant hogan and features ceremonial and ritual objects as well as contemporary works.
Galleries of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture resound with videos and recordings of Indian chants, dances, storytelling, drumming. The collections focus on Southwestern Indian prehistoric and historic ceramics, textiles, basketry, and jewelry.
Oh, that cuisine
With all that chili, blue corn, squash, range-fed flesh, sage and mesquite to work with, Santa Fe’s chefs have created one of the country’s tastiest and most imaginative cuisines. You’ll find it at several tony restaurants around town—among them Anasazi (four AAA diamonds), Coyote Cafe, Geronimo, Santacafe, Cafe Escalera. Ask at your hotel for what’s new and hot. You’ll probably need reservations.
For terrific Hispanic food—posole (a hominy stew traditional at Christmas), quesadillas, fajitas, rellenos, green chili stews and cinnamon pudding—we loved Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen out on Cordova Road. It’s one of the few places in the world with a long list of assorted margaritas made with anejo and silver tequilas.
But my most memorable meal was a standup lunch at Léona’s of Chimayo, in the parking lot beside the Santuario. Léona ships her famed flavored tortillas all over the world—raspberry, pepper, etc. I gobbled up the savory, messy chicharrones burrito, followed by a dessert of apple cinnamon tortilla.
Learn to cook it yourself: One morning I sat salivating with a roomful of wannabes watching Deborah Madison, chef-founder of Cafe Escalera and San Francisco’s own Greens, chop and peel under a huge mirror, all the while keeping up a running monologue on such things as black bean broth and juniper berries. We were all students in the two-hour demonstration class offered by the Santa Fe School of Cooking, a block from the plaza on San Francisco Street. These classes are popular with visitors as a glimpse into the mystique of Southwestern cooking. Among the things you might learn to prepare are posole, chipotle polenta, blue corn muffins, pecan bread pudding. Prices start at $30, including lunch (drinks are extra). For a schedule of classes during your visit, call (505) 983-4511, or, better yet, check out their Web site.
Ski the high desert, soak in a spa
If you’re a downhiller, don’t miss the heady, heart-pounding experience of high altitude desert skiing at the city’s own resort atop the Sangre de Cristos. It’s Ski Santa Fe, and it reposes at the end of Highway 475, 16 miles up from the plaza.
Best you should go, as I did, on one of those dazzling winter days so common in New Mexico. I found the snowpack a desert-dried cloak of velvet, the runs webbing through the dense forests, the valley of the Rio Grande spread below, the Jemez mountains violet in the distance. Eight chairlifts truck the skiers to the heights; one of these goes to 12,000 feet on the crest of the range. From there you can gaze off to the east, toward the Great Plains. ("Straight on for St. Louis!" a local skier called to me.)
Ski Santa Fe has slopes for skiers of varying skills. As I puttered down the "Sunset" trail, which meanders along a shelf on the mountain, I glimpsed a few young daredevils dropping onto the chutes through the dark woods, yelping like hounds.
Ski Santa Fe traditionally opens on Thanksgiving. Adult all-day lift tickets are $39; rentals $15. A busy ski school offers classes for adults and children; there’s day care for toddlers. Ski/hotel packages available. Phone (505) 982-4429.
On the way down the mountain, late that afternoon, muscles burning, I stopped at Ten Thousand Waves, a woodsy Japanese-style spa, for a hot soak and massage. Its open air hot pools, private and communal, are scattered on a hillside of piñon and chamisa. Its other offerings include saunas, cold plunges, salt glows, herbal wraps, assorted massage and facials, and overnight lodging. You’ll be a basket case when you leave. Reservations advised; phone (505) 982-9304.
A city for all seasons
In the early darkness of a winter morning, I was on the Interstate, bound for the Albuquerque airport, already pondering my next visit to Santa Fe. A slash of orange light in the east announced the beginning of another clear winter day, illuminating peaks of the Jemez and Sandia ranges, and others far off, toward Arizona.
The skies of New Mexico are so big and full of spectacle—rainbows, storms, stars, armadas of clouds sailing. In summer around Santa Fe, one likes to be out under those skies—exploring the ruins left by the ancients, walking in the mountains, dining al fresco in the courtyards of town. The renowned Santa Fe Opera is performed in the open air, with a backdrop of real lightning and the bright desert moon. In the Pueblos, the ceremonials are danced in the local plazas, the drumming and chants rising like spirits into the great blue.
But at the approach of the Christmas season and the winter beyond, Santa Feans are drawn inside. They gather around the hearth where the piñon flames, around the board spread with foods of the season, in the song-filled churches, around the little fires in the streets. These traditions must have bound the early colonists in the strange wild desert with their families in Spain and Mexico, with an occurrence even farther away in another desert, the one at Bethlehem.
I like to think they turn even further inward, to contemplate the warmth of their own hearts.
Photography by Eduardo Fuss
This article was first published in November 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.