Winter 2004 Forward to a Friend

Photographer: Jack Parsons

I didn't begin to understand the unique identity of Santa Fe until I heard a native pronounce its name. After I said "Santa Fe" with a typically flat Midwestern intonation, the man corrected me with a charming smile.

"Santa Fe," he said, his lilting pronunciation making the words' Spanish origins clear.

Then he added, "Actually, our full name is La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi, the
Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Photographer: Jack Parsons
If there's any city that can live up to such a distinguished title, it is magical, magnetic Santa Fe. Three cultures – Native American, Hispanic and Anglo – blend here in unexpected and captivating ways. Santa Fe is an Old World town with a cutting-edge artistic community, a city filled with gourmet restaurants and sophisticated shops, surrounded by millions of acres of scenic wilderness. This community of 63,000 is also home to one of the nation's most vibrant cultural scenes, with a dozen museums, 250 art galleries and the world-renowned Santa Fe Opera. Small wonder the city is consistently ranked as one of the nation's top tourist destinations.

On a recent visit, I found myself most intrigued by the Hispanic patterns woven into the city's cultural tapestry, for the Spanish have left their mark here in countless ways. Spaniards founded the city in 1610 (a full decade before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock), laying out a central plaza and building the Palace of Governors that is still in use today. Relations between the Spanish and the local native population were often tense in the early years, but the soldiers, aristocrats, tradesmen, farmers and priests who came to Santa Fe were a hardy and tenacious group. Isolated from their home culture, they re-created their own customs and traditions here.

The intermingling of ethnicities continued with the arrival of Anglo settlers in the early 19th century. As Spain loosened its hold on the region, American traders made Santa Fe the western terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, a route of 800-900 miles (depending on which parts of the Trail were chosen) that brought a stream of goods and people from the East via western Missouri.

The complex mix of cultures continues to define life in Santa Fe, as I discovered as I began to explore the city. One example of the city's Spanish influence is in its architecture. The winding streets are filled with adobe buildings constructed in the Spanish Colonial style, a blend of Spanish and Pueblo Indian techniques. The soft, rounded structures seem as if they have grown right out of the earth, providing cool havens from the bright sun that shines here 300 days a year. And because Santa Fe prohibits buildings more than three stories tall, the surrounding piñon- and juniper-covered Sangre de Cristo Mountains form a dramatic visual backdrop throughout the city.

Photographer: Jack Parsons
Eager to learn more about the Hispanic culture of Santa Fe, I toured the city's new Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. This is the world's largest museum devoted to Spanish Colonial Art, with a collection featuring items from the Middle Ages to the present. The museum's nine galleries provide a fascinating tour of the artistic traditions of the far-flung Spanish empire. Through an array of artifacts that include paintings, textiles, tinwork, straw appliqué, ironwork, ceramics, silverwork, goldwork and furniture, I witnessed how this dazzling artistic tradition spans many centuries and continents.
Wandering through the shops and galleries that border the plaza and line Canyon Road, I could see clearly that the traditions represented in the museum continue to flourish. Everything from charming Hispanic folk art to exquisitely crafted furniture decorated with Spanish Colonial tinwork can be purchased in Santa Fe. I was particularly taken by the retablos, images of saints painted on wood and other surfaces. Seeing my interest, a shopkeeper told me that I must return for the Spanish Markets held in Santa Fe during July and December. These juried shows feature the finest in Spanish Colonial art.

Photographer: Wendy McEahern

Photographer: Jack Parsons
The stark desert landscape and vivid light of northern New Mexico have inspired many artists, but none are more closely linked with the region than Georgia O'Keeffe. The artist made her home here for nearly four decades, producing hundreds of paintings of the red rock canyons, whitened animal bones and the high desert of the Southwest. Today, Santa Fe is home to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
(, the world's largest collection of her work. With advance reservations, you can also visit her home in the small village of Abiquiu, 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe.

While I wasn't close to exhausting the pleasures of Santa Fe, I was lured out of the city by another site – the village of Chimayo, located 25 miles north of Santa Fe. Local artists are known for their textiles, with some of the finest on display at Centinela Traditional Arts, a gallery owned by Irvin and Lisa Trujillo
( . The textile artists specialize in using natural dyes and handspun yarns to create products in the traditional Chimayo/Rio Grande weaving styles. Their award-winning work has been shown in museums across the United States, including the Smithsonian.

Thousands of pilgrims make their way to Chimayo each year to go to El Santuario de Chimayo, a small adobe chapel. The pilgrims seek the soil from the floor of the chapel, dirt that is said to have miraculous properties. Sacred to local Indian tribes even before the coming of Christian missionaries, this tierra bendita (sacred earth) has been healing hearts – and perhaps bodies as well – for centuries.

Surrounded by rustling cottonwoods, the chapel was as peaceful and serene a place as could be imagined. Here it was easy to sense the Spanish roots of northern New Mexico and the ways in which those roots have intertwined with other traditions.

Photographer: Lois Frank

Emerging from the cool interior of the church back into the bright sunshine, I remembered a tale I had heard from a Santa Fe guide about the Pueblo Indian people of New Mexico. Their creation story says that their ancestors emerged from underground, and that when they first saw the sunlight above, they named the earth the "glittering world."

Maybe it is only at sacred sites like this one, and in magical cities like Santa Fe, that we have glimpses of how the world glitters if we only had eyes to see.

For more information, contact the Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 777-2489 or

The best way to learn about a culture is through the taste buds, and Santa Fe has several exceptional Hispanic restaurants in which to try local specialties. Among the best are La Casa Sena and Café San Estevan. La Casa Sena is a former hacienda in Sena Plaza, with millions of dollars of artwork on its walls and a menu of innovative Southwestern foods. Café San Estevan is a local landmark located in a historic adobe building five blocks from the central plaza.

The secrets of Southwestern cuisine are revealed at
the Santa Fe School of Cooking in downtown Santa Fe. Daily cooking classes give visitors the chance to learn
the difference between red and green chilies, the
proper way to make tortillas and the newest ways to
blend southwestern flavors. Classes last from two to five hours, and at the end you can eat the fruits of your labors. (For hours, recipes, a catalog and more, go to

Lori Erickson is a freelance writer who has written about destinations ranging from Costa Rica and Ireland to Japan from her home in Iowa City, Iowa.

Photographer: Julie Dean