Monday, April 13, 2009
When Cha and I travel we don't do a lot of planning. We get a vague idea of things we'd like to see and maybe reserve a hotel for the first night and then we hit the ground running, improvising as we go. It usually works well, and although we hit a couple rough patches it worked well in New Mexico.
If you're going or planning to go here are my thoughts:
New Mexico is big and there is too much to see, but you can see a lot in six days if you're willing to drive. Because the scenery changes every half-hour out there, driving a few hours a day is not an exhausting drag, but a pleasurable experience. I except only one area from this generalization about scenery: driving from Roswell down to Carlsbad is a drag, and so of course is the return trip. Flat plains with an occasional cow for hours. But in Carlsbad as you enter the park there are curious and crumbly mountains to liven things up. We drove through the high desert in the northwest, through the forests in the center, and high in the mountains around Taos. There are always interesting effects of light and different flora to see. And sometimes spectacular views of the Rio Grande.
1) Carlsbad Caverns: You need to see this before you die. Don't wuss out and take the elevator down, because the long foot path down from the entrance was my favorite part of the tour. It takes a long time, and it is very dark, but you really get a feeling of the Caverns as an otherworldly, mysterious place. And the swallows sing and swarm around you as you descend. We'd each had this in mind as a must-see when we arrived, but we balked at the distance when folks in Albuquerque said it was a six-hour drive. It was a six-hour drive because we went to Acoma and then headed down and across, but if we'd gone a bit east toward Sante Fe and down the drive would have been less than 4 hours.
2) Chaco Canyon: I've always wanted to see a particular pictogram near these ruins, and the ruins themselves are arguably the most spectacular and well-preserved ancient structures in North America. Some of the big houses date to the 850s, and they are constructed of stone instead of adobe. When we got to Acoma people told us it was another 3.5 hours west to Chaco, so we decided it was too far out of the way if we wanted to go to Carlsbad. I reluctantly ditched the idea of seeing the Anasazi ruins, but then we ended up going on Friday anyhow. The drive isn't that bad from Albuquerque--only 2 hours to the park turn-off, and then a sketchy dirt road which runs for 23 miles to the canyon itself. You need to take your own food and water, and if possible have a couple days. I recommend getting close the night before and staying at the Frontier Motel in Cuba, which we did--it's only an hour drive from there.
We had about six hours at Chaco and it wasn't enough. The pictogram I wanted to see, for example, is about 3 miles off the main route and can only be reached by hiking--I'm always up for a six-mile desert hike, even at 7000 ft above sea level, if there's something I want to see--but because the sky was darkening rapidly with clouds and we had a 7am flight the next morning out of Albuquerque, we stuck to the main sites and missed hikes to the remoter areas. Still, the place is otherworldly and highly recommended. There is a great park facility with an interesting museum, but the recent controversial discovery of evidence of cannibalistic rites at Chaco is glossed over. On the day we visited there was a special event scheduled: park rangers were going to lead a sky-watching tour as the sun set and the full moon rose at the canyon. Given its remoteness I can only imagine how spectacular the night sky is out there, and the ranger station has a little observatory where they take nice photos of nebulae and galaxies to hang in the atrium. (The pictogram above is believed to document the supernova which created the Crab Nebula, visible here in 1054). When the ranger told us about this I thought: leave park @ 10pm, get to Albuquerque @ 1am, flight @ 7am? Still worth seeing! But once heavy dark clouds started coming up the canyon I decided we'd end up there for days if it rained and it wasn't worth staying with heavy cloud-cover blocking the view. The ranger on duty sneered at me. "It's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch a full moon rise here." I'm sure that's true, but simply being there is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Spectacular!
3) Bandelier National Monument: We had planned to chill one full day at a desert resort with hot mineral springs and massage, and had some time to kill the afternoon before. We ran up to Chamayo from Santa Fe and saw a really spectacular little church and pilgrimage site (we'd planned to go on Good Friday but heard that there were thousands of pilgrims coming on foot from as far away as Mexico City to visit the Well of the Holy Dirt at Chamayo--traffic would have been a drag). After Chamayo I suggested we go over to Bandelier for a couple hours because I'd seen a cool photo in our guidebook featuring a kiva high up on a cliff face. This was one of the greatest places I've been. You hike back a beautiful forested trail for about 1.5 miles, passing cliffside pueblo ruins and cave dwellings and pictographs, and seeing deer, lizards, squirrels, and a variety of birds. There are amazing volcanic rock formations and picturesque streams and shady coves. At the end of the trail is the money shot: a 140-ft climb up steep ladders and stairs to the kiva and sacred site in a cave at the top of the cliff. It's a wonderfully preserved spot and you can climb down into the kiva and get a feel for the spirituality of native peoples a thousand years ago. Not for the faint-of-heart or the unfit, I'm afraid. Hiking 3 miles at 6000 ft above sea level is not the same as hiking it at sea level.
4) Ojo Caliente: This is the resort we spent 24 hours in. We paid for a "couple's special" which included a night in a very nice cabin, a 50-minute massage each, and unlimited soaks in a variety of mineral hot spring pools: soda, arsenic, lithium, and iron, plus a one-hour "private hot spring" appointment with a nice view of the mountains and a fireplace. We arrived, we soaked in the pools for a couple hours, we ate lunch, we hiked along a desert trail to the site of a melted adobe pueblo where there were pottery shards everywhere in the scrub, and then returned for our massages. Typically I like a vigorous deep tissue massage, but my Native American masseuse gave me a Reiki massage. Sometimes she'd just hold her hands on me at different points for minutes at a time, chanting. I saw peculiar things! We ate dinner, got a special foot treatment, and then had our time in the private pool, where we CENSORED and CENSORED and finally CENSORED and relaxed after hundreds of miles on the road and lots of hiking. I recommend Ojo Caliente; it's a nice facility and one of the managers went to JHU.
5) Three Rivers Petroglyph Site: Not much is known about the Mogollon people who carved designs in the rocks along a snakespine series of hillettes, but that mystery only makes this site that much more interesting. You work your way back along a path of black rocks covered in white carvings (many of which have been cut out over the years by overzealous collectors) towards the ruins of an old and barely excavated pueblo and kiva. The path is rugged and there are two substantial mounds nearby which to my eye are obviously hiding something spectacular--they ain't merely hills! Another place we didn't have sufficient time to fully appreciate.
6) Acoma: Acoma is an ancient pueblo, continually inhabited for a thousand years, on top of a mesa a couple hours west of Albuquerque. You go to the visitor's center and wait for the tour, and a bus takes you up to the pueblo and a native guide tells you about the history of his people and their traditions, and about their troubles with the Spaniards and the Navajo and Apache raiders. For most of its history Acoma was only accessible via a treacherous stairway cut in the rock, but John Wayne changed that in the 50s when he built a road so he could make a half-dozen forgettable films up there. The views from the mesa are spectacular, and you can choose to ride the bus back down or climb the old stair--if you're fit enough, do the latter. It was one of the highlights of our trip!
A note on the museums:
Skip the Santa Fe Fine Arts Museum. It's a rip-off, and the collection is weak. Much better is the Georgia O'Keefe Museum, right around the corner. We also visited the Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, which is well worth the price of admission-they had a fantastic show about Indonesian shadow puppets, which I find endlessly fascinating. The Roswell Fine Arts Museum was also rather good, and has a room with Goddard's rocket lab reconstructed inside, with some of his handiwork on display. We didn't visit the UFO museum, and unfortunately didn't have time to see any other museums, but saw some cool galleries in Taos.