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Taking the High Road to Taos

New Mexico day ten


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

For breakfast on our last morning in Santa Fe we returned to the Burro Alley Café for more of their delicious pastries, sitting inside this time rather than in the pretty courtyard as the weather had turned cooler. Then we checked out of our cosy casita and left on the next stage of our road trip.

The High Road to Taos

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On the High Road to Taos

As with the journey from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, we had options for our drive today to Taos. There are two possible routes from Santa Fe – the quicker (but still apparently pretty) Low Road, and the more dramatically scenic and historically interesting High Road. With all day in which to make the journey we chose the latter and it proved to be one of my favourite drives of all in this state packed with scenic routes. The views at times were fantastic, and we found some fascinating villages to stop at along the way.

Santuario de Chimayó

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Santuario de Chimayó

Our first stop was Chimayó, where the Santuario de Chimayó has been a place of pilgrimage for almost two centuries. We were disappointed at times on this trip to find a beautiful adobe church sadly closed and to be forced to admire it only from the outside, but that was certainly not the case here. This is a very active and open church, whatever the time of day. Pilgrims make their way here year-round, although there is a special importance attached to making the pilgrimage in Holy Week.

As we made our way from the car park we saw the many crosses made from twigs and attached to the fence by pilgrims and other visitors arriving in this sacred place, each cross representing a prayer. Outside the pretty church were wooden pews to accommodate the crowds that flock here for special masses on festivals. But what that draws people here is inside.

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Santuario de Chimayó

The church was built in 1816 on the site of an earlier chapel, and on the site of a miraculous discovery, or so it is said. In 1811 a villager saw a light shining from a spot in the earth. He dug down at that spot and found a large crucifix, which he named for Our Lord of Esquipulas, also known as the ‘Black Christ’. A local priest, Father Sebastian Alvarez, was called and he organized a ceremony to carry the crucifix back to a church in Santa Cruz about eight miles away, where it was placed on the altar. But the next morning the crucifix was back in the spot where it had been found. The villagers tried twice more to move it to Santa Cruz, before they realised that Our Lord of Esquipulas wanted to stay in their village and built a church to house him.

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The church

However there are variations to this legend, as well as some that pre-date it. According to the neighbouring Tewa, this spot had been sacred to various Indian tribes for many generations. At one time there had been a spring here, rich in iron and other minerals, which gave healing. When the spring dried up, the people still came for the dirt to benefit from its healing powers. Arms and quarrels between different tribes were customarily laid aside whenever they visited this sacred site. Many Tewa also held sacred the mountain behind the church, T'si Mayoh and it is this that gave the village its name.

Some believe therefore that the local Pueblo people were simply forced by a wealthy landowner to build the sandstone church over a site which was already sacred to them. There are certainly other instances where early Christian settlers chose to build their churches right on top of the indigenous people's sacred sites, and to force those people to do much of the building, for example at Acoma Pueblo.

Yet another version of the legend says that the crucifix originally belonged to a priest who had accompanied the first Spanish settlers to Chimayó and who had a devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas. He was killed by Indians and buried here. A flood of the Santa Cruz River in the spring of 1810 uncovered the body and the crucifix, and the villagers, who remembered the priest fondly, built a church to honour him and the Black Christ.

Whatever the truth behind the building of the chapel, it is unarguably a place of sincere pilgrimage for believers. Today the sacred spot where the crucifix is said to have been found is protected in a tiny side chapel to the left of the main altar, in the centre of which is el posito, the little well. Visitors and pilgrims can make a small donation in return for digging up some of the ‘holy dirt’ to apply to injured limbs, parts of the body affected by illness – or even to eat (although I noted on the official literature at the church that this is discouraged). A room next to the chapel houses crutches and gifts brought by those giving thanks for healing received. And on the wall of the chapel are these lines:
‘If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó.’

But although the Holy Dirt chapel is the main draw here, the rest of the church is also very interesting and beautiful. Its walls are lined with reredos, the traditional brightly painted wooden screens, which were restored with the help of Santa Fe's Museum of Folk Art in 2003 and glow with rich colours. There are also several bultos, or statues of saints, including one of Santiago (St. James) on the altar. No photography was allowed inside, unfortunately – I haven’t been able to establish whether that is still the case, but since there are relatively few interior shots posted online, I suspect that it well be.

Outside of course there was no reason not to take photos, and the little church is very photogenic, although the number of visitors at first made it a little hard for me to capture it to best advantage. On this Saturday morning a Mass was just starting, so we hurried our visit of the interior and then had time to take our pictures when everyone had gone in. A local attending the Mass encouraged us to still enter and visit the Holy Dirt chapel, but it did mean that we couldn’t linger and explore the whole church as thoroughly as we would have liked.

Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

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The Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

A short walk from the Santurio is another beautiful chapel – in fact, I found the interior of the Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha even more lovely than its (slightly) more famous neighbour. It holds a statue of the Christ Child (El Santo Niño de Atocha), brought here from the shrine dedicated to him in Mexico in the mid nineteenth century. As with the crucifix in the Santurio, there is a story attached to this statue, one that draws believers from all over the country, and beyond.

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Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

The story starts in Spain in the time of the Moors. They had captured and imprisoned many men in Atocha, near Madrid. The jail did not feed the prisoners, and the caliph ordered that only children could visit and bring them food. The wives and mothers of the men prayed to Our Lady for help, and soon word spread that a small boy had been visiting and feeding the prisoners. His basket was never empty of bread, and his water gourd was always full. He was seen as the answer to the women’s prayers – the Virgin had sent her own son to help them, the Holy Child or Santo Niño.

In 1492 Catholics drove the Moors out of Spain, and the country’s strength and power started to grow. As the Spanish started to colonise the New World, they brought their religion with them, and to the village of Plateros, Mexico, they brought worship of Our Lady of Atocha and her Holy Child. There was a statue here of the Virgin with the Holy Child in her arms, and the child was often removed and brought to help with difficult births. Over time, stories spread about the miracles he performed. It was said that he wandered the countryside at night bringing help to the imprisoned, the poor, and the sick.

It was from this Mexican shrine that the Chimayó statue of El Santo Niño was brought, and this chapel built to house it. The statue now stands on an altar in a side chapel, wearing a pilgrim’s clothing and carrying a bread basket and a pilgrim's staff to which is tied a water gourd. Worshippers believe that as in Mexico, he leaves his shrine each night and roams the local countryside, performing miracles and wearing out his little shoes. Pilgrims therefore bring him baby shoes, and these now line the walls of his chapel, along with photos of children and prayers for his intervention on their behalf. It is all very moving, regardless of your beliefs.

But as with the Santurio, there we also found much to admire in the main body of the church. This had been recently restored when we visited. It is decorated with colourful modern wood carvings and banners, but again no photography was allowed so you will have to take my word for that!

‘Holy chile’

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'Eat more chili'

As well as visiting the two chapels in Chimayó, we also spent a little time exploring the various shops and galleries. Several nationally known weavers live and work here, members of the Ortega and Trujillo families, and both have workshops which can be visited. But there are also several other galleries and craft shops, selling a diverse mix of goods. We liked the two on either side of the road through the village, Santuario Drive, just at the point where it rejoins County Road 98. On the right of the road is ‘Lowlow’s Lowrider Art Place’, selling ‘Chimayó Holy chile’, reasonably priced jewellery and work by local artists.

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Painted car

This intricately decorated car, parked outside, caught our eye, and while photographing it we got chatting to one of the owners who told us that they have been promoting this idea of holy chilli for years via a succession of colourful signs like the one in my photo above.

My photos below were taken outside the gallery on the opposite side of the road. We didn’t go inside this one, but the eclectic assortment of art works and found objects in the front yard kept our cameras busy for a while.

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'Lady Liberty', and the Good Shepherd

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Gallery entrance

Truchas

Our next stop was in Truchas. This village lies just off the main highway, and was built in a square with an entrance just wide enough for one cart to pass through, for defensive purposes. Today it’s a pretty sleepy place, or so it seemed to us, especially after the relative bustle of nearby Chimayó. Like the other villages along and just off the High Road, it is notable mainly for its church, dedicated to Nuestra Senora dei Rosario.

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Nuestra Senora dei Rosario de Truchas

The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary is a classic adobe structure built in the early 19th century at the heart of this tiny village. Apparently it contains two large altar-screens (reredos) by a renowned santero, Pedro Antonio Fresquis, and other fine examples of early santero art. These were preserved during the Bishop Lamy led modernisations of churches in this area, by Truchas residents who hid them in their houses during the late 19th century. I say ‘apparently’ because unfortunately today it was closed. Not that I was surprised – our Moon Handbook had warned that it was usually only open from June to August. Nevertheless it was well worth the detour to see it, as it’s a very photogenic church.

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In Truchas

Of all the villages we stopped in on the High Road to Taos, Truchas seemed the most closed in on itself, even slightly hostile to visitors. This is not to say that anybody was rude to us – indeed the only person I spoke to, the owner of Hand Artes studio (a small gallery), was friendly and welcoming. But there was a slightly brooding atmosphere, or so it seemed to me. Maybe it is the fact that it lies a little off the main road, and until thirty years or so ago had no paved access? Maybe it is the way it is constructed, with most of the older buildings having their ‘backs’ turned to the road, facing into the central plaza? Maybe I was affected by the somewhat aggressive barking of an invisible dog in a nearby yard?

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Bones of Truchas

Or maybe my impression was created by the seeming obsession with the bones of dead animals. Not only were these skulls slightly artfully arranged on a ladder propped in a corner of the plaza, but there was also a somewhat bizarre heap of bones, bleached white by the sun, stacked against one of the adobe walls that surround the little church. We weren’t quite sure what to make of this ‘arrangement’ but it certainly gave the village a distinctive touch!

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Peering into Truchas general store

On the road near the entrance to the plaza where the church lies is Truchas General Store. This too was closed when we visited – a shame, as peering through the window we could see a place seemingly untouched by the passing of the years. I would love to have gone in and ferreted about!

San José de Gracia, Trampas

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San José de Gracia, Trampas

About seventeen miles further down the road from Truchas we came to Trampas (sometimes referred to as Las Trampas), with another gem of a colonial church. Like other traditional villages in New Mexico, Trampas (or Santo Tomás del Río de las Trampas to give it its full name) was built around a plaza, dominated by the church, which during times of war could be blocked to serve as a fortress. The sleepy plaza was almost deserted when we visited, apart from a dog and young child kicking a ball around, and one other tourist taking photos of the church. We didn’t stay long, but the beauty of this church made an indelible impression on me nevertheless, even though we weren’t able to go inside (unfortunately the church is apparently only rarely open).

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San José de Gracia

When the village of Trampas was established around 1751 it was initially considered too small to have its own resident priest, so Franciscans from the nearby Picuris Pueblo ministered to the faithful here. But around twenty years later a new church, dedicated to Saint Joseph, was built, being completed around 1776. It is considered possibly the finest example of early mission churches in New Mexico and has even been called ‘the most perfectly preserved church in the United States’. Unsurprisingly it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

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The bell towers

The church is well maintained, with its thick adobe walls coated with a fresh coat of mud every year, and its chunky bell towers recently restored. Its most striking external feature is the balcony that runs across the front, above the main door. Experts disagree as to its purpose. Some say it was for the choir to perform during outdoor ceremonies, but others are less sure. The reason for the ladders propped on it is also uncertain.

Picuris Pueblo

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San Lorenzo de Picuris Mission Church

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By Tu-Tah Lake

A few miles north of Las Trampas Highway 76 meets Highway 75 and turns to the right. We decided to make a short detour at this point and so turned left to see Picuris Pueblo, one of the more open pueblos in the area. Visitors are welcomed to a small museum telling the story of the pueblo, although this was closed on the day we were there – possibly because it was already quite late in the season.

But even with the museum closed the village was still worth the detour. It has a pretty lake, Tu-Tah Lake, and we found a few picnic tables set out on its shore. Here we ate our picnic lunch while watching a couple of local men, and a small boy, fish on the far side.

There is also an attractive church, dedicated to San Lorenzo. This collapsed in 1989 due to water damage (to which adobe is prone if not properly maintained) but has been painstakingly rebuilt over an eight year period by hand by pueblo members, who followed exactly the form of the original 1776 design.

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San Lorenzo de Picuris Mission Church

According to our Moon Handbook the pueblo maintains a herd of bison but sadly none were in evidence when we visited, or at least not within the area immediately around the village.

Ranchos de Taos

Just south of our destination, Taos, we made our final stop in Ranchos de Taos, one of the places that was high on my ‘must see’ list when were planning this trip. Why? Because its church, dedicated to St Francis of Assisi, inspired one of my favourite photographers, Ansel Adams, and I was keen to see the place for myself.

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San Francisco de Asis, Ranchos de Taos

The San Francisco de Asis Church may be made of adobe like many others in the region, but its appearance is very different. Its thick walls with their jutting buttresses look more like a fortification than a place of worship, and its massive bulk seems completely out of proportion to the small community it was built to serve. But this becomes less surprising when you understand its origins, as it was built to resist unwanted attacks from aggressive tribes such as the local Apaches. The tamped-earth buttresses were further added to in order to strengthen the walls when threatened by floods and erosion. San Francisco de Asis has stood for over 250 years (having been built around 1772) and is still an active church. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and is also a World Heritage church.

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San Francisco de Asis

This church provokes a range of responses in observers. Some find its so-solid bulk and heaviness off-putting. But for many, especially artists, it has been a source of inspiration. Georgia O’Keeffe painted it several times, and Ansel Adams photographed it – brilliantly. For those who like me admire the latter’s work, following in his footsteps and attempting to capture San Francisco de Asis on camera is quite a challenge, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. The light was great when we were there, with just a few white clouds and the sun low enough (at around 3.30 pm) to create some interesting shadows.

Unfortunately we were less successful in our attempts to see inside the church. A sign said that it was closed for cleaning and would re-open later in the afternoon. So we spent some time taking photos of some pretty houses in the area immediately around the church, visited an interesting shop which had a display of photos taken when ‘Easy Rider’ was being filmed in the area, had a cold drink in one of the nearby cafés, and came back – only to find it still closed.

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In Ranchos de Taos

A couple of New Zealanders were also trying to get in and one of them had the idea of going into the Parish Centre opposite the north side of the church, but although that was open we couldn’t find anyone there to ask. With time getting on, and still not checked into our Taos accommodation, we decided reluctantly that we would have to give up, so we left without ever getting to see the interior. A shame, but to be honest it was the exterior I most wanted to see, having seen it already through Adams’ eyes, so at least I was happy to have done that much.

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San Francisco de Asis

Arriving in Taos

Taos is sometimes seen as a mini Santa Fe, but that is to do both towns an injustice. Sure they are both arty, adobe-rich epitomes of the Southwest, but scratch the surface and they are very different. In comparison to its larger neighbour to the south, we found Taos to be more relaxed, less self-conscious, and a little rougher around the edges. There was a bit of a hippy vibe in the air, with crafts on display in its galleries and at the stalls in the Plaza showing something of a New Age sensitivity – scented candles, imaginative modern interpretations of traditional santos, wind-chimes and colourfully flowing clothes. With a rootsy coffee shop at its heart, this was for us a place in which to sit back, chill, and watch the world go by, rather than rush around ticking off the sights.

I had pre-booked accommodation (essential in this small but busy town). My challenge in choosing where to stay here in Taos was similar to that in Santa Fe – find something central, within walking distance of the Plaza, but that doesn’t cost the earth! Now no one could call my choice, La Doña Luz Inn, cheap, but by Taos standards it was certainly reasonable, and we loved our cosy room here as soon as we saw it. All the rooms are different and are decorated to a theme, and I had selected Los Angelitos, mainly because it was the cheapest one still available at the time I booked. You can guess the theme by the name – the room is full of angels – a little over the top but cute just the same. But what we really liked about the room was the semi-separate seating area, with a comfy couch and large flat screen TV, which made for cosy evenings (once we could drag ourselves away from the excellent bars that we discovered in town!)

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La Doña Luz Inn - bedroom area in Los Angelitos

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La Doña Luz Inn - exterior and our seating area

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Angels even in the bathroom!

Indeed the entire building was full of character – a fascinating hotch-potch of the artistic and kitsch covering every possible surface of the old adobe walls. But perhaps the best thing of all about this place for us was its location, just yards from the main drag in the very centre of town. There is parking reserved for guests at the end of the unpaved lane that leads here, so we could leave our car here all day while exploring (except when we visited out of town sights such as Taos Pueblo). This was a real bonus at night especially, as we were just a short stagger home from a margarita-fuelled evening in the Adobe Bar, or even closer to the beers of Eske’s Brewpub!

Talking of which …

The Taos Inn

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Taos Inn sign

The Taos Inn is one of two historic hotels in the centre of Taos, and has bags of character. We did briefly consider staying here but the budget wouldn’t stretch! However that didn’t stop us enjoying an excellent evening in the hotel’s Adobe Bar. This serves the same menu as the more formal restaurant (as well as a simpler bistro menu), but in a more casual setting. This suited us fine, as did the fact that we could get a table immediately whereas there would have been a 30 minute wait for one in the restaurant.

We found a table in a side room off the main bar, which was an attractive space and relatively quiet. Our server was very friendly and made a great recommendation on the margarita – the signature ‘Cowboy Buddha’ was excellent!

I chose the blue corn chicken enchiladas with red chilli (as in most places I could also have had green), Spanish rice and pinto beans. Chris had a green chilli cheeseburger which came with French fries. Portions were good, but we managed to squeeze in a shared helping of dessert – fruit cobbler with cinnamon ice cream. The margarita and a couple of beers for Chris pushed the bill up a bit, but we’d thoroughly enjoyed the meal and felt it was reasonable value for the setting, service and quality of food – and drink!

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Blue corn chicken enchiladas

To make an evening of it, we then moved to the main part of the bar where there was live music. This was pretty full, but we secured seats up on the balcony, where we had an excellent view of all the activity below. I just had to have another Cowboy Buddha, and Chris another beer. The band were very good, playing Western and folk-influenced music which might not be my usual listening at home but fitted perfectly with the atmosphere in this historic spot. What a great evening!

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The Adobe Bar from the balcony

Posted by ToonSarah 11:30 Archived in USA Tagged churches art trees shrines food road_trip restaurants music new_mexico taos

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Comments

Great as usual. Bob's grandfather was also a photographer and exhibited with Ansel Adams and other famous photographers like Alfred Stieglitz. He died relatively young.

by greatgrandmaR

That's interesting Rosalie - would I recognise his name?

by ToonSarah

I sincerely doubt that you would recognize him. His day job was in a bank and he died at age 46. (his name was Hewett Anderson Beasley.)

by greatgrandmaR

What fun. The Santuario didn't used to be nearly so crowded . . . and didn't have the nice parking lot. I can't find my oldest photos (predigital) to see if I have any inside photos. I looked at the most recent ones and there are no pictures inside. So sad.

You missed our very favorite New Mexico restaurant. Rancho de Chimayo is fabulous. It's out in the country but always full and there food is superb. I'm addicted to sopapillas and can't find them anyplace except New Mexico.

In Taos we ate at Bella's Mexican Grill just off the Plaza. A lady in a jewelry shop sent us there and it was terrific. It would be fun to spend the night there. We're always visiting from Santa Fe and it's a drive. Your hotel sounds like great fun. I loved all the angels.

I painted a picture of the church at Truchas and you're right, the place is a bit off-putting. There is something closed off about it. We felt it too. Strange.

by Beausoleil

Would you describe these churches as modern pueblo architecture?

by Easymalc

Hi all, and thanks for all the comments. Sally, I think the Santuario crowds were due in part to the Mass just starting - once those attending that were in the church it was much quieter outside and in the Capella. We were in Chimayo too early in the day to be looking for a meal so yes, we missed that restaurant. We didn't eat at Bella's in Taos either, but we found great food there on both nights - you'll see where we ate on night two in my next entry ;) And I would recommend La Dona Luiz if you do decide to stay over in Taos some time - it's still going and is relatively reasonable given the location.

Malcolm, no, they're not modern - these are original pueblo architecture I would say! OK the church at Picuris was reconstructed quite recently, but only because of the water damage, so I don't think that rebuild, which was a faithful copy, would qualify it as modern!

And Rosalie, I'll message you :)

by ToonSarah

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