Santa Fe, New Mexico-We purchased city tour bus tickets with trepidation. Though we’d walked only a block from the swanky Inn of the Anasazi, the vehicle parked in the official tour bus spot at the edge of Santa Fe Plaza looked a bit dodgy. The converted open air van with faded paint and seats covered with Mexican beach blankets did not inspire confidence. However, the passengers already seated, four American women of middle years with nice hair and jewelry, turned the tide.
Our Pueblo Indian driver/guide pulled smoothly around the plaza, which had not yet come to full life at mid-morning. She introduced herself on the loudspeaker and began her spiel, often an uncertain moment on a tour bus. As seasoned tourists know, the quality of your experience relates directly to the guide’s ability to entertain and inform.
In short order we learn that Santa Fe Plaza, the south terminus of the Santa Fe Trail and a national historic site, has been the hub of the city for four centuries. It’s fronted on one side by the oldest government building in continual service in the United States, a block-square one-story adobe structure flying the Stars and Stripes over a veranda that runs its length and looks like it should have hitching posts in front.
The Palace of Governors, circa 1610, with its attached museum of New Mexico history, is a working reminder of the old west. Legendary frontiersman Kit Carson passed through its doors. Territorial governors and army generals no doubt plotted campaigns against marauding Indians while taking a turn around this sun-dappled plaza. All of them-Spaniards, Mexicans, Americans and even the Apaches and Navajos-were latecomers compared to the Pueblo Indians selling their turquoise and silver creations in the shade of its veranda.
Our guide informs us that Pueblo villages in the region date back a thousand years. Unlike the nomadic tribes that ranged the surrounding mountains and red rock canyons, the Pueblo lived stationary lives, cultivated crops and were more able to adapt to the Spanish. But it is her comment about shopping that creates a stir.
Guaranteed quality without a middleman. Only authentic Native artists are able to sell under the veranda. Friendly and low-key, they lay their work on blankets and rugs-a dazzling array of intricately worked silver, copper and brass jewelry inlaid with turquoise and precious stones for which they are world famous. Before we leave the plaza it’s clear to all aboard our guide is up to the job.
Santa Fe is a low-slung city of rounded mud walls, flat roofs and inviting courtyards reflecting the sun. Of hanging bundles of dried red peppers popping brightly off desert rose walls. Of zero landscaping and juniper pole coyote fences.
We pass the Basilica Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi. Finished in 1886 on ground that was the site of a church as early as 1626, it houses the oldest Madonna statue in the U.S., for which local Catholic women have sewn hundreds of outfits. We pass the Loretto Chapel and Miracle Staircase. An engineering oddity, the spiral stairs were built for nuns to access a choir loft by a mysterious stranger believed by many to be Saint Joseph. The chapel is now owned by the adjacent Inn and Spa at Loretto, an upscale pueblo-style hotel with courtyard dining. No word on who does the maintenance.
With its camera-clicking passengers peering this way and that, the unsightly but serviceable van turns onto tony Canyon Road, a winding stretch of old Santa Fe that is home to a hundred galleries. Our guide pulls to a stop for a photo op of the Three Dancing Sheep. It’s all I can do to stop myself from vaulting out and shaking a leg with the woolly threesome.
Canyon Road is known throughout the world art community. Artists of every medium inundate the 100-odd gallery owners with portfolios, hoping for a chance to sell their work on the fabled stretch. No wonder. Canyon Road, with its magnificent bronze sculptures, variety and eye-popping colour, is itself a work of art. I could sense the pulses of my female companions quicken as we passed art installations selling in the hundreds of thousands.
“Ooohh! Aawww!” I didn’t know what else to say.
Laid-back Santa Fe, population 68,000 is the second largest art market in the United States in terms of money spent, behind only New York City.
Our route took us along a desert lane lined with adobe compounds that start at $750,000; past Saint John’s College, founded in 1696, one of the oldest colleges in America; by scrubby forests where locals pick prized pine nuts off the ground; to the high point where Fort Marcy once stood, built 650 yards from the plaza in 1840 during the Mexican-American war to command “a view of the entire town.”
Santa Fe, at 7,000 feet above sea level, is the highest state capital in the U.S., as well as the nation’s oldest. Like all of New Mexico, it’s often misunderstood. Tourists have been known to step off the plane in February in shorts, having confused the region’s temperate climate with neighboring Arizona or Mexico. Locals claim 300 days of sunshine a year but the city is cool on spring nights and blanketed in snow in winter.
The plaza is fully awake when our van pulls back into its official space. Shoppers line the sidewalks on all sides and the city’s characters have assumed their places on park benches. Tanned locals in western shirts and wide-brimmed hats amble about their business. As we’re squeezing out of the van, after smoothing our Mexican beach blankets, one of the women asks another for her first impression of Santa Fe in a single word, to which she instantly replies: “Charming!”
She could as easily have said artsy, laid-back, historic or romantic.
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