By Wilson Calvert
I started my trip to New Mexico in Albuquerque, which is served by several daily flights non-stop from both George Bush Intercontinental as well as William P. Hobby into the uniquely named Albuquerque International Sunport. It's only a quick two hour flight before you are touching down in the “Land of Enchantment”.
I stayed at the Hotel Albuquerque (www.hotelabq.com), which is located immediately next to Old Town, the historic district of Albuquerque. The Hotel Albuquerque features just over 200 rooms and is styled with a wonderful blend of southwest style furnishings and art. After dropping my bags off in the room, I wandered back down to Cafe Plazuela & Cantina in the first floor of the hotel where I sampled some of the local cuisine. Eating New Mexican food is like meeting Tex-Mex's cousin for the first time. The menu may look similar, but you get a whole new palate of flavorings, which definitely perked up my taste buds that had been worn down from the synonymous flavorings in Houston.
I ordered enchiladas off of the menu and I got a whole new spin (to me) on the classic dish. The individually rolled and prepared tortillas are replaced with a layered dish that reminded me of enchiladas prepared in the style of lasagna. Instead of enchilada sauce you choose either a red or green chile sauce, or get it the way most people enjoy it (myself included) and order it “Christmas style” which means you get both on top. To continue sticking with the New Mexican way, be sure to add the fried egg on top. The chile sauces are spicy at all, but have a nice warm flavor. It definitely competes with Tex-Mex style enchiladas!
The Old Town is just a few blocks walk down the street and you are shopping and sightseeing in no time. Old Town is focused on a square that is surrounded by shops as well as museum like The Albuquerque Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. The Old Town is one of the best attractions in all of Albuquerque and it is really close to the hotel. Once you get back to the hotel, you can go swimming in their Olympic-size swimming pool or grab a drink at the bar in the hotel.
My next stop was an hour up the road in New Mexico's capitol, Santa Fe. While I would recommend renting a car, downtown Santa Fe is very walkable and there is train service between Albuquerque and Santa Fe on the Rail Runner Express. One way tickets are $10 and it can be a fun way to see the New Mexico countryside between the two cities.
In Santa Fe, I stayed at the Hotel St. Francis (www.hotelstfrancis.com) which is only a block from the historic Santa Fe plaza and offers a very refined and beautiful hotel experience. It is smaller than the Hotel Albuquerque at only 81 rooms and has a little bit more intimate feel as a result. The restaurant in the Hotel St. Francis, Tabla de los Santos, continues the feeling of refined luxury as well. I had another New Mexico favorite, the Chile Relleno ($21). Our group was able to meet with the chef, Estevan Garcia and he told us about
how he is using fresh and local ingredients and his culinary ability to refine some classic dishes for modern times. My Chile Relleno was a perfect example of that which combined a non-fried poblano chile and local vegetables and a delectable local goat cheese. My Chile Relleno was definitely a success!
After dinner we moseyed over to the restaurant bar, Secreto, which was staffed by one of the friendliest and liveliest bartenders I've come across, Chris Milligan. Secreto (www.facebook.com/SecretoLounge) is easily the best hotel bar I've ever been to, and the first night I wasn't able to pull myself away to sample the rest of Santa Fe's bar scene. Secreto offers a fantastic cocktail menu that featured a wonderful cocktail called the Agave Way ($12, Red Grapes, New Mexico Green Chile, Espolon Reposado Tequila, lime juice, and agave nectar) but the highly trained bar staff can mix you a drink just based off of a hint of a suggestion. Tell them a liquor and a flavor and they'll be bac k to your table in a few minutes with a one-of-a-kind custom creation. Secreto alone was worth the journey to Santa Fe!
Fortunately for the non-cocktail lovers out there, Santa Fe has plenty else to offer. The New Mexico History Museum (www.nmhistorymuseum.org) is right on the square in downtown Santa Fe and offers several exhibitions including the Palace of the Governors, a 1610 era building that is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the US. The New Mexico History Museum is a top-notch facility that will really bring alive the history of New Mexico. It offers an un-paralleled teaching experience for you to learn about
the region, which has only been a US state for 100 years.
Another wonderful Santa Fe museum was the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art (www.spanishcolonial.org). The museum is home to nearly 4,000 pieces of traditional art in all form
s including pottery, tinwork, wood carving, hide painting, and many others. Tours are available daily or by appointment, and I would highly recommend one. Art is very important to the culture of New Mexico, so embracing that on your visit will give you more insight and understanding into the people of New Mexico. Santa Fe has the reputation of an art town, and a visit to the museum will put you in the right mood.
Our group took a day trip to Chimayo, NM, which is about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. Chimayo's main attraction is the chapel referred to as el Santuario de Chimayo which is believe to be the location of miraculous healings about 200 years ago (which is why the chapel was built here). Every year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Chimayo, and the visitors peak on Good Friday. People make a walking pilgrimage from as far away as Albuquerque (90 miles) to visit a round pit inside the chapel which contains holy dirt. Pilgrimages are not something that are as common in the US as in other countries, so it was very enjoyable to learn about such a historical action. The chapel is owned by the Catholic Church, who takes no position on whether any miracles have occurred on site. Chimayo the town has a few great little shops that offer anything from original art to original weavings to local chiles.
We stopped at Ortega's Weaving Shop (www.ortegasweaving.com) and got to see a demonstration of a blanket being made by hand. Most every family was a weaving family, and the Ortegas date back to the area for 300 years. Again, you see how integrated the art was to their clothing and furnishings and how important it is to them. Making the trip up to Chimayo is absolutely a great use of your time to see the chapel and to see Ortega's. New Mexico is truly the 'Land of Enchantment' and that comes across in everything about their culture, from their food to their art and definitely in their history.
New Mexico may seem far from southeast Texas, but with such great regional air coverage you can get there without much of a hassle. Even for those that love the road trip, Albuquerque or Santa Fe is easily drivable in a day. Our neighbors to the west have such a unique history and culture, but I really felt like I was getting to know a long-lost Texas relative. Give New Mexico a chance, you won't leave without being enchanted!