A last-second car issue forced us to change what we thought were already last-minute plans. Instead of a 5-day drive through Colorado, Utah and Northern Arizona, we diverted to Albuquerque and Santa Fe and cut the trip down to 4 days. It wasn’t a horrible trade off since our new destination was on our list to visit anyway. That’s the beauty of wandering by car, or even better if we had an RV. Regardless, without planes and hotels to worry about, we simply took the change in stride.
The ride to New Mexico’s largest city (by far) goes by fairly quickly – even after we opted for the slightly longer drive up I-17 and across I-40 (partly due to car worries). Before we knew it, we were checked into our hotel and heading out for dinner.
The state is famous for its food, aptly named New Mexican-style. It’s like Mexican, but leans heavily on the chiles that grow like weeds in the region. They’ve even created the “Christmas-style” sauce with a mix of red and green chilies that top your burritos or enchiladas.
But the Hatch Green Chiles are the ones that are celebrated throughout the state and the region. Everywhere you go, including the rest room, there are signs of the spicy pepper.
With so many restaurant options, we checked Yelp for reviews the Best New Mexican restaurant and found Cocina Azul. It turned out be a gem in old Albuquerque, just past an active crime scene. Nothing special from the outside or the inside, but the food was outstanding. My chile relleno that was stuffed with a creamy green chile chicken sauce was killer. Little did we know this would set the tone for the rest of the trip.
The next morning, we made a quick stop at a local coffee shop before hitting the road. Coincidentally, Little Bear Coffee is located literally where our worlds collide – at the corner of Phoenix Ave and Pennsylvania St. Of course, we had to have the green chile breakfast burrito and a cruffin – a cross between a croissant and a muffin, and filled with vanilla cream. Oh my… we were two for two on meals already.
Instead of taking the highway from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, we decided on the more scenic and historic, Turquoise Trail. Much like Route 66 with its historic sites, the National Scenic Byway winds through the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains through old mining towns turned artist colonies.
The first stop along the way was the Tinkertown Museum.
Tinkertown reminds me of the Mystery Castle in Phoenix, but with an eclectic mix of toys and displays inside. The building sits at the base of the Sandia’s and was built by Ross Ward. Ross moved to the area and began creating the building and figurines that make up a large part of the museum. Room after room houses his wood carvings and artifacts of times past. Part miniature museum, part circus museum, part oddities museum, together make for a worthy stop.
Ross clearly had a fondness for the old west as vignette after vignette included scenes from the 1880s.
Each hallway was decorated with his creations and connected to another room that showcased of his work.
In addition to the old west, he also pays homage to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus..
He even includes some items that are on consignment to him – like these trousers and shoes from the world’s tallest man, Louie Moilanen, said to be 8’1″ tall and wore a size 19 shoe.
Ross even included a sailboat that his brother-in-law used to circumnavigate the globe. The boat is one thing, but the wall-mural that documents the journey, including photos and accounts of “man overboard” is the real treasure.
Tinkertown is a great little stop on your Roadside America trip.
Our next stop was in the old mining town of Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid by locals), population about 200. The town has become an artist colony with several unique shops that are housed in historic buildings.
The Mine Shaft Tavern is supposed to have one of the best Green Chile Burgers you’ll ever have, but we had to pass given our late breakfast.
Instead, we did pick up some chocolates from the appropriately named Shugarman’s Little Chocolate Shop. Nothing more needs to be said when the sign on the door says “Come in. We’re High”. Harvey’s Shugarman’s chocolate creations are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. He uses Fair Trade chocolate and as much organic as possible. He gets creative with flavors and mashes up Dark Chocolate with green chiles, cashews and Thai lemongrass, or white chocolate with hibiscus, lemon and ginger. You get the idea…
Harvey defines Madrid.
We made a quick stop at Cerrillos, another historic town where “Young Guns” was partially filmed. It’s easy to see why they would film an 1880s western in this town. This place hasn’t changed much since then – and there isn’t much to see.
Our final destination for this trip was New Mexico’s capitol city of Santa Fe. Fortunately, we got a room at a boutique hotel within walking distance to downtown.
We decided to grab a snack in the room before heading out to tour the town. Another benefit of driving to your destination – you can bring your own snacks!
There’s no doubt that Santa Fe is an “artsy” kind of town. Art Galleries are scattered throughout the downtown area. While it’s certainly not our style, there were some unique sculptures we saw along the famed Canyon Road – where over 100 galleries exist – within a half mile!
With the low-slung “Santa Fe” architecture, it doesn’t take much elevation to get a decent sunset. We opted for the rooftop bar at the La Fonda hotel. We grabbed a couple of drinks…
and watched the sun set off in the distance.
Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
Santa Fe is known for some of its religious sites, including the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The beautiful church, completed in 1887, sits just off the main square and houses America’s oldest statue of Mary. The wooden carving was brought to America from Spain in 1625.
Santuario de Chimayo
Santuario de Chimayo is also a small Roman Catholic Church about 30 miles north of Santa Fe. The Chapel dates back to 1816 and is a shrine that draws about 300,000 pilgrims each year during holy week – many of whom walk from as far away as Albuquerque (90 miles).
Their attraction is primarily for the “holy dirt” that is believed to provide miracle cures for the ill. The shrine is known as “the Lourdes of America.”
A small hole in the floor called el pocito, or “the little well”, provides access to the coveted dirt.
It was here that a crucifix, believed to be that of a miraculous Guatemalan image Christ on the cross, known as “Our Lord of Esquipulas” was found in 1810. The image is associated with a shrine in Guatemala that was believed have miraculous dirt that could cure illnesses.
It was said that a priest saw light coming from the ground and dug with his bare hands until he found the cross buried in the dirt. They moved the crucifix to another location only to have it mysteriously disappear and then be found back where it was originally discovered. This happened two more times before the people finally agreed that it was to remain where it was found. While the crucifix itself was supposedly moved back to Guatemala, the miraculous dirt and the church that was built around it still remains.
Today, many take the dirt and rub it on their bodies were their illness lies. In the hall just outside the room that houses el pocito, are pictures of loved ones and dozens of crutches – believed to be from those who have been healed.
The earliest instance I could find that wrote about Our Lord of Esquipulas in Guatemala was in the Guardian of London in September 1847.
To be fair, recent leadership at the Sanctuary have stated that they don’t believe that the dirt is holy, but that unexplainable miracle have happened and they give credit to the faith of the believers.
But the highlight of all religious sites has to be the Loretto Chapel.
When construction on the Chapel was completed in 1878, the only way to access the choir loft was via a staircase that jutted out into the chapel and took up much needed space – clearly an architectural failure.
Several carpenters were brought in to provide recommendations on how to solve the problem, but the best solution offered was the use of a ladder.
Legend has it, the Sisters of the Chapel prayed the Novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, asking for a solution. On the 9th and final day of the Novena, a man showed up on a donkey. Carrying a toolbox, he was looking for work and he offered to build a spiral staircase to solve the problem. With the work completed several months later, the man left town, allegedly without collecting his pay – never to be seen again.
The staircase is an architectural wonder. It has no central pole as a means to support itself – as is common in modern spiral staircases. It was built without the use of nails – only wooden pegs and glue. Modern architects had marveled over the work of art.
Believers claimed that the wood was not from this area. Critics, trying to dispel the myths, tested the wood – only to confirm that it was from the spruce family – trees that are not indigenous to the area. This only added to the mystery.
The only conclusion the Sisters could come to was that it was in fact a miracle – that St. Joseph himself had intervened and built the staircase.
Some have debunked the theory of a miracle as it was later determined that a French carpenter named Francois-Jean Rochas was responsible for the construction. The man was later found dead in his cabin some 230 miles away from Santa Fe. Believers still revere the staircase and credit St. Joseph for putting Rochas at the right place at the right time.
We took a ride to Taos, a ski town about 90 minutes north of Santa Fe. On the ride up, we took the “low road” along the Rio Grande River. The road winds through the mountains with views of the mighty river and its many rafters and kayakers.
Once we got to town, we found another dining gem, La Cueva Cafe. Again, nothing spectacular from the outside – in fact, we only saw the outside since we dined on the patio. But the Chips and Guacamole appetizer and Chipotle Shrimp Enchiladas were phenomenal!
With clouds rolling in, we turned around and took “the high road” back to Santa Fe. This route winds through the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the southern most part of the Rocky Mountain Range, and offered spectacular scenery.
After a long day of driving and a late lunch, we settled into another rooftop restaurant/bar and enjoyed a cocktail – and some Mexican Shrimp Cocktail at the Coyote Cantina. Yet again, a simple but tasty way to end the day.
We capped the evening strolling around the town – which closes up shop pretty early.
The next morning we stopped at yet another outstanding coffee shop, Iconik Coffee Roasters, before hitting the road. The iced coffees were great but the Green Chile Breakfast Bagel capped off a weekend of simple but awesome meals we had in New Mexico.
The ride home was a straight-shot. Seven hours and a single tank of fuel made for an easy non-stop run home. We cut through Holbrook and the Mogollon Rim to change the scenery on the return trip.
Overall, while we didn’t get to hit the places we expected in Colorado and Utah, we took the change in stride and enjoyed Santa Fe. The food on this trip, while it wasn’t fancy high-end dining, was some of the best we’ve had – end to end – on any trip we’ve done.
The sign at Tinkertown is a reminder and Will Rogers and Chuck Berry are spot-on.