A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about church

From outer space to the Badlands, via a pie!

New Mexico day four


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

Sunday morning, Socorro

large_1a69be60-09e1-11e9-9952-3d2c4e957e1d.JPG
San Miguel Church, Socorro

It was Sunday, so we started the day by attending mass at the historic church of San Miguel in Socorro. Or rather, in the church’s very functional parish hall, as unfortunately the church was closed for what is apparently much-needed renovation, as past neglect of the adobe structure has led to extensive water damage. It was a lovely service nevertheless, as one local couple were celebrating a milestone wedding anniversary (their 65th, if I remember correctly) and a big fuss was made of them by the priest and community.

5903846-San_Miguel_Church_Socorro.jpg
San Miguel Church

But it was a disappointment not to be able to see inside the church, as it has a lot of history. The first mission was built here between 1615 and 1626, as Nuestra Señora del Socorro – Our Lady of Succour. But during the Pueblo uprising of 1680, the local Piros and the Spanish settlers fled south, and it wasn’t until around 1800, that a small group of Spaniards resettled Socorro and rebuilt the by-then ruined church.

According to a small leaflet about Socorro’s history which we picked up at the local tourism board, ‘There are 4 sub floors under the church. Records show that four priests & General Manuel Armijo, the last governor of the Territory of New Mexico, are buried under the church. Some descendants of the early settlers say that in the early 1800s, an Apache Indian raid was halted when they saw a man with wings and shining sword hovering over the church door. Shortly afterward, a petition was made to the Bishop to change the name of the church to San Miguel (St. Michael), the Angelic Protector of the people.’

The local history website http://socorro-history.org/HISTORY/smiguel/church.html has a more detailed history and also mentions that the church reopened after extensive work in 2015, in time to celebrate its 400 year anniversary.

5903881-San_Miguel_Church_Socorro.jpg
San Miguel Church

Before leaving this pleasing small town we checked out one more sight. Just south of the Plaza is this odd-looking memorial.

5903843-Jumbo_fragment_Socorro.jpg
Jumbo fragment

This is a fragment from Jumbo, a rather cute name for a rather sinister object. Jumbo was the huge steel vessel designed to contain the explosion of the first ever nuclear device, which was detonated at the Trinity Site 35 miles southeast of Socorro on 16th July 1945. It was 25 feet long, 12 feet in diameter and weighed 214 tons. It was not actually used for that first explosion but as it was just 800 feet from ground zero it did suffer some damage, and in later experiments had its ends blown out. It is thus a slightly disturbing souvenir of those early experiments in atomic warfare. Even today a number of townspeople apparently remember the light of the first atomic blast at White Sands Missile Range.

Magdalena

large_2e01aa70-09c1-11e9-bfec-2f5788a1bba9.jpg
Main Street, Magdalena

In planning our route I could have opted at this point to carry on north up I25 to Albuquerque and the northern part of the state, but their were several sights to the west that had grabbed our attention, so instead we left Socorro on the much quieter Highway 60, heading out onto the Plains of San Augustin. A few miles west of Socorro we stopped at the only real town (albeit a small one) on this stretch of road, Magdalena.

It would be quite easy to miss Magdalena, but we were very glad we had stopped to explore a little. There’s nothing in particular to see but the handful of old buildings scattered along the highway are a photographer’s dream!

Although it is a sleepy place today, like many in the state Magdalena was once a bustling town. A spur of the Santa Fe Railroad terminated here, to serve mines and ranches in the surrounding area. Lead, zinc, and silver miners would ship their ore out from Magdalena, and ranchers throughout western New Mexico and eastern Arizona drove their cattle here. These miners and ranchers bought their supplies from the many mercantile establishments in the town and stayed at its several hotels. During its most prosperous years, 1884-1925, many fine buildings and houses were built in Magdalena, and several can still be seen.

large_5903859-Old_bank_Magdalena_Socorro.jpg
Old bank, Magdalena

The former Bank of Magdalena sits on the corner of North Main Street and US 60. This commercial building was built between 1908 and 1913 and has ornamental brickwork in its arches and along the cornice of the parapets. The old signs, and the tourism website (http://magdalena-nm.com/trails-end/walking_tour.html), suggest that it has also served as a café (and possibly still does?) although when we were there in September 2011 it appeared to be in use as the offices of the local newspaper.

large_5903862-Ilfeld_Warehouse_Magdalena_Socorro.jpg
Ilfeld Warehouse

f7abfd20-09c2-11e9-bfec-2f5788a1bba9.JPG
Old lamp

Another brick building of note is the Ilfeld Warehouse in North Main Street, built in 1913 in the Mission Revival Style. Charles Ilfeld owned one of the largest mercantile companies in New Mexico, having begun his career supplying general merchandise from his store in Las Vegas, NM, during the 1870's. As he expanded, Magdalena became a central warehouse serving ranchers and small businesses across southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. Mercantile outlets such as this were essential to ranchers because they were allowed to buy supplies against receipts from the sale of cattle and sheep each year.

Opposite the Ilfield Warehouse is at the old Santa Fe Depot in North Main Street. The old (1915) railroad building is listed on the National Register and now serves as the Village Hall and Library. It was perhaps unsurprisingly closed on our Sunday morning visit, as was the small Box Car Museum also on the site, but you don’t need to go inside the museum to see this old box car from the Santa Fe Railroad which is on permanent display here.

282633575903864-Santa_Fe_box..ot_Socorro.jpg
Santa Fe box car, Magdalena Depot

The Very Large Array

Further west along Highway 60 we reached one of the main sights that had drawn us to this part of the state. The Very Large Array, or VLA as it is commonly known, is an amazing sight, and one not to be missed if you are anywhere near this part of New Mexico, in my opinion! The huge radio telescopes, 27 of them, rise majestically out of the huge, otherwise almost empty, Plains of San Augustin like visitors from another world altogether. But these are not visitors from another world, but searchers for such a world.

large_eee1f810-09c3-11e9-bfec-2f5788a1bba9.jpg
The Very Large Array from afar

These massive dishes (25 m/82 feet in diameter, and weighing 230 tons) are antennae, arranged in a Y formation and set on equally massive tracks that allow them to be bunched fairly close together (just a kilometre apart) or spread out over 36 kilometres. I don’t pretend to fully understand the science, but the broad principle is that by combining the signals picked up from several antennae scientists can map radio sources from across the universe. Quite apart from their scientific significance I also found the dishes rather beautiful, and incredibly photogenic.

We did the self-guided walking tour which allowed us to get really close to one of the dishes and also taught us all we ever wanted to know (possibly more!) about radio astronomy. The tour was free (I note they now charge $6 which is very reasonable for what you get to see), although we were invited to make a small donation for the accompanying leaflet.

We started in the Visitor Centre, where a short video explained the principles of radio astronomy and the workings of the VLA. Other exhibits covered some of the same ground but also expand on the explanations, and there were some beautiful images of outer space made with the telescopes.

5903883-Antenna_VLA_Socorro.jpg
Dish at The Very Large Array

But for us the main attractions lay outside, so we quickly headed out of the back door, collecting one of the leaflets to guide us. The walking tour covers about half a mile, I would say, and is clearly signposted. There were a number of stops along the way, with information about each in the leaflet, but the main highlight for sure was arriving right at the base of one of the antennae and getting a powerful sense of its huge size. We were in luck as it adjusted its position while we stood there, turning to point towards some new, unseen and distant object.

5903874-The_Very_Large_Array_Socorro.jpg

5903876-The_Very_Large_Array_Socorro.jpg

fd658680-09c4-11e9-bfec-2f5788a1bba9.JPG

Getting close to the dishes

large_7195c9c0-09c5-11e9-bfec-2f5788a1bba9.JPG
A close look at a dish and antenna

From here we looped around to arrive at the main research building, where a terrace gives a general view of the whole array. Photos taken from here show just how tiny people appear next to the dishes.

large_71ffd630-09c5-11e9-bfec-2f5788a1bba9.JPG
View from the Research Centre

Back at the Visitor Centre we bought a couple of postcards and revisited a couple of the exhibits that had taken on fresh relevance after our walk, and got some cold drinks from the vending machine.

On our way back to the main road we stopped at the point where Highway 52 crosses the railroad, as there are good distant views of the VLA and of the railroad stretching into the distance across the plains.

large_5885655-Near_the_VLA_New_Mexico.jpg
Our hire car near the VLA

5903878-Railroad_crossing_near_VLA_Socorro.jpgDSCF0229.jpg
Railroad crossing near the VLA

Pie Town

When I saw Pie Town on the map I knew we had to go there! Any town named after food has to be worth a visit, yes? And while getting to Pie Town involves a long drive across empty plains, for us the effort was well rewarded.

large_5906170-For_pies_and_more_Pie_Town.jpg
Pie Town sign

The town really is named after the humble pie! It got its name in the 1920s when an entrepreneur got the idea of opening a restaurant and serving pies to homesteaders and to early cross-country motorists. But the coming of the interstate (I40 cuts across the state a little to the north of here) meant that the traffic dried up and the pie market collapsed.

It was only revived in 1994 when a disappointed visitor to the town took matters into their own hands and opened the Pie-O-Neer Café. Soon afterwards a second pie-selling establishment followed, the Pie Town Café, and today pies are firmly back on the menu in Pie Town; there is even an annual Pie Festival (http://piefestival.org/).

large_657032305906140-A_great_plac..s_Pie_Town.jpg
The Pie-O-Neer Café

In truth, calling Pie Town a town is a bit of a misnomer. It has just 45 inhabitants and a handful of other buildings in addition to the two cafés. But it’s a quirky, photogenic spot, just the sort of place that epitomises back-roads Americana. Old rusting cars, equally rusty signs, the aforementioned windmills, the fading paint-work on the cafés ...

These may not be exactly beautiful but they have a certain faded charm and are very photogenic.

5906145-Outside_the_cafe_Pie_Town.jpg

12546835906138-A_great_plac..s_Pie_Town.jpg

708015395906137-A_great_plac..s_Pie_Town.jpg

In Pie Town

We couldn’t come to Pie Town and not eat pie! The cornily-named Pie-O-Neer Café is closed at weekends, but fortunately we found the Pie Town Café open for business and doing a roaring trade with passing tourists like ourselves, bikers and a few locals. Luckily there was a small table free on one side of the room, which was simple but welcoming in appearance, dominated by a large counter displaying, naturally, a large selection of pies.

852701345906141-A_great_plac..s_Pie_Town.jpg

5906143-Pies_pies_and_more_pies_Pie_Town.jpg

794482635906139-A_great_plac..s_Pie_Town.jpg

Stop here for pies

It was lunch-time and the menu had a variety of tempting dishes, both New Mexican (burritos, tacos) and classic US staples. But we’d had a fairly meagre ‘complimentary’ breakfast at our hotel in Socorro, so we both decided a second breakfast was in order – eggs, great fried potatoes with a touch of chilli (this is New Mexico!) and crispy bacon, plus an orange juice each.

5906144-Cute_salt_and_pepper_pots_Pie_Town.jpg
Cute salt and pepper pots

Then it was time for pie. The slices looked very generous, so we decided to share one, and of the many on display opted for cherry. We had to wait a little while to taste it however. The one negative about this café was the slow service – there was just one harassed waitress (possibly the owner) and a girl bussing tables, who helped out a bit by carrying out plates of food but didn’t seem up to the task of taking orders. With all the tables full inside, a few outside, and people coming and going all the time it was perhaps not surprising that we sat for quite a while after our eggs and bacon waiting for the plates to be cleared and our pie order taken. We were enjoying watching all the bustle, but we still had a long way to drive, so in the end I got up and placed our order at the counter, which worked fine.

Apart from eating pie the main sight here is the DanCyn' Windmill Museum. This is one of those eccentric personal projects that dot the roadsides of the US and make touring here such a delight! Dan and Cyndi Lee apparently created their DanCyn' Windmill Museum (get the pun on their names?!) in order ‘to capture the rich heritage of the area’. There are seven vintage windmills standing on the site, and since our visit they have developed the museum further by erecting an old log cabin on the plot. Although they seem to no longer have the website I consulted at the time of first writing about this trip on Virtual Tourist, I am confident that this is the cabin referred to there, which they were in the process of restoring and which was Dan’s boyhood home:

‘Dan's father worked on the York Ranch north of Pie Town, too far away for the children to attend school, so Dan's mother stayed near town in various houses so that she could keep the children in school. She drove the school bus and each day they hauled water in a large milk-can for the family. Dan was let out on the road before reaching home to gather firewood for the evening. At the time they stayed in the cabin, there were six in the family. Weekends were spent on the ranch with his father.’

5906164-DanCyn_Windmill_Museum_Pie_Town.jpg

5906154-DanCyn_Windmill_Museum_Pie_Town.jpg

5906163-DanCyn_Windmill_Museum_Pie_Town.jpg

DanCyn' Windmill Museum

The museum is open ‘when Dan and Cyndi are home’ but we didn’t like to bother them on a Sunday and in any case were able to get plenty of photos from the roadside. I hadn’t read about the cabin before our visit or I might have been tempted to disturb their Sunday in the hopes of finding it now installed!

Quemado

large_5906167-Church_in_Quemado_Pie_Town.jpg
Church of the Sacred Heart in Quemado

From Pie Town Highway 60 continues westwards towards the border with Arizona, and twenty miles down the road is the next little town, Quemado. Here the small stone Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart, with its tiny graveyard, is very photogenic, from the outside at least. I would have loved to have seen the inside too, but it was Sunday and a Mass was in progress, so I didn’t enter.

El Malpais National Monument

large_8eb27e90-09d4-11e9-ae7b-476ae0392a92.JPG
View from Sandstone Bluffs, El Malpais National Monument

Quemado was the furthest point west that we came on this trip, as here we turned north on Highway 36 and branched off on Highway 117 which runs through one section of the El Malpais National Monument – the other lies further west and was a bit too far off our route. But although we were only here for an afternoon it was long enough to do a couple of short walks and to drive up to the Sandstone Bluffs to see the awesome vista above.

El Malpais is Spanish for Badlands, and you can easily see how the area got this name, as much of it is formed from the outpourings of lava from McCartys Volcano. It is bleak in a way, but also ruggedly beautiful, and that view from Sandstone Bluffs is one that will stay with me for a long while.

Lava Falls

Entering the park from the south we weren’t able to stop off first at the Visitor Centre, which is on the outskirts of the city of Grants (where we would spend the night) so we relied on the information in our Moon Handbook to New Mexico and my pre-holiday research.

Our first stop was at the Lava Falls trail-head, just inside the park, where a trail leads across the McCartys flow, the result of a series of eruptions of nearby McCartys Volcano around 3,000 years ago. Here you can pick up a leaflet about the trail. We decided against doing the full length of it as we had only limited time in the park. Although this trail is only a mile in length you do need to take your time here as the route is marked out by cairns and you have to navigate carefully, only leaving one cairn when you are sure you can see the next ahead of you.

5911393-The_lava_field_Grants.jpg5911392-Lava_with_wildflowers_Grants.jpg
The lava field

But we did walk the first few hundred yards in order to really appreciate this unreal landscape. As soon as you get beyond sight of the small parking lot you are surrounded by lava and it can seem quite disorientating. The lava here is relatively ‘young’ in geological terms, having been deposited just 3,000 years ago. Even in a short stretch of the trail you can see various formations which are described in the leaflet – Ropy Pahoehoe (smooth basalt with lines like rope), Lava Toes (small lobes of lava formed when hot lava breaks out of semi-hardened lava), A’a (rough broken basalt), pressure ridges and more. As the leaflet explains:

‘Cracks, ripples and bubbles tell a more intricate story. When lava spilled out of McCartys crater, it did not just settle over the ground in a smooth, even layer. It was a dynamic force that took on distinctive features as it flowed over the land. Pressure ridges collided and cracked; collapses sunk into empty cavities; squeeze-ups pushed their way to the surface through weak spots.’

large_5911395-Daisies_and_lava_Grants.jpg
Daisies and lava

What fascinated me more than the different formations, however, was the way in which plants had made a home in what seemed to be a totally inhospitable environment. There was no sign of soil, yet grasses and flowers peeked from every crevice, and lichens crept across bare rocks. These also served to make my photos more interesting (I hope!) as black lava alone can look very dull.

La Ventana Arch

La Ventana is the second largest natural arch in New Mexico, at 135 feet, and was eroded from sandstone deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.

It actually lies not in the National Monument (incidentally, as a Brit I always find it odd that a large area of land can be called a ‘monument’, which to us is usually a statue or other stone structure!) but in the neighbouring El Malpais National Conservation Area. The arch is very accessible (just a short walk along a gently climbing trail) and is a very impressive sight, although having seen the arches in Arches National Park some years ago we were a little disappointed that it wasn’t possible to get to a position where this arch can be seen silhouetted against the sky. Well, maybe it is possible, but it would involve a lot of scrambling across a rocky hillside dotted with warning signs about not going off the trail!

5911398-La_Ventana_Arch_Grants.jpg

5911397-La_Ventana_Arch_Grants.jpg

345555995911399-La_Ventana_A..get_Grants.jpg

La Ventana Arch from the trail - the last photo taken at the closest accessible point

The first part of the trail was paved and could be easily followed by someone in a wheelchair. After a while however, the paving turned to a rougher stony track, but not before we had seen the arch in the distance. From here it ascended slightly but it was a very easy walk which most people will manage in about 10 minutes or so.

Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

large_5911403-Sandstone_Bluffs_Grants.jpg
Sandstone Bluffs

This was probably my favourite of the three stops we made in El Malpais, towards the northern end of this section of the park. An easy drive on a gravel road (fine in a 2WD) brought us to a ridge of sandstone high above the lava flows. From here we had a magnificent view of the El Malpais lava flows below and the sweeping expanse of the landscape beyond. Standing here our feet were on 200-million-year-old sandstone formed by ancient seas, while below us were the beds of much younger (3,000 year-old) lava that swept through and around the bluffs when McCartys Volcano erupted, and beyond lie the distant range around Mount Taylor.

There are no marked trails here, you simply park in the large parking lot and explore wherever you want to. We just walked along the edge of the bluff to get a variety of views, but you can, if you don’t mind heights and have the time that we lacked, walk further out on to the jutting peninsula of sandstone. You need to be aware though that there are no rails or walls here separating you from a very steep drop here, wherever you choose to walk.

large_461970925911402-El_Malpais_S..ook_Grants.jpg
View from Sandstone Bluffs Overlook

Unfortunately, soon after our arrival here the sun decided to dip behind the late afternoon clouds, and showed no sign of revealing itself again (we were to have a storm later in the evening). This made the landscape a little flatter than I would have liked in the photos, especially my panorama shot above which really doesn’t do justice to the amazing vista. But it does give a really good sense of the scale from the tiny figures just visible on the outcrop on the right. In the distance in this photo you can see a range of mountains, with Mount Taylor towards the left-hand end of the range and Gallo Peak towards the right. Taylor was named for the 12th American President, Zachary Taylor. It is the highest point around here at 11,301 feet and is known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people, who believe it to be the home of the Rainmaker of the North. Gallo is also known as Ram Peak by the Acoma and is 8,664 feet high.

Overnight in Grants

That disappearing sun was our cue to leave the park in search of accommodation for the night. We hadn’t pre-booked accommodation in Grants and had originally intended to look for something near the centre to take advantage of a local restaurant or bar, but when we drove into town everything looked pretty quiet, late on this Sunday afternoon, and the Mexican restaurant recommended in our guidebook was very decidedly closed, so there seemed no point in staying here.

5911411-Our_bedroom_Grants.jpg
Our nice big bedroom!

While we’re not enamoured of the motel strips found on the outskirts of US towns as a general rule, on this occasion it seemed to be the most obvious choice, and with what looked like a storm brewing we opted for a motel with its own restaurant, the Best Western. It proved to be a good choice, starting with the undeserved discount we received on check-in – the receptionist asked if we were AAA members, we said not, and she gave us the discount anyway!

Our room was one of their standard ones but was more than adequate for our needs – a good size, with two queen beds and located at the back of the building in a quiet corner. We couldn’t really hear any traffic at all here, and although we could hear the trains whistling now and then during the night, I had no complaints as I love to hear them blow. We also got a great view of that approaching storm, as a bonus!

large_5911412-Comfortable_chain_hotel_option_Grants.jpg
Stormy Grants sunset

5911414-Chris_in_the_restaurant_Grants.jpg
Chris in the restaurant

We ate in the motel’s restaurant that evening, the New Mexico Steakhouse, and I have to say that we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here. The décor wasn’t bad for a hotel restaurant either, if not particularly imaginative: faded textiles, large booths around the edge, and lots of old Western paraphernalia attached to the walls. There were saddles, stirrups, rifles, but also assorted household items such as jugs and enamel bowls – the sort of stuff we’d been seeing piled high in so-called ‘antique’ shops (aka junk no one else had a home for) but which worked well in this setting. The service was friendly, and the sole waiter coped well with a reasonably busy room. We were pleased to be shown to one of the booths even though there were just two of us, and he immediately offered to bring beers from the bar across the lobby if we wanted a larger selection than the few on the menu, which we did!

5911415-Pollo_Santa_Fe_yummy_Grants.jpg
Pollo Santa Fe

Chris decided to keep things simple and went for the traditional cheeseburger (he could also have had one served New Mexican style with green chilli). I chose the Pollo Santa Fe, a chicken breast covered with melted cheese and green chilli sauce, served with rice and beans, and in a fit of guilt at how unhealthily I had been eating, added a house salad. This latter came with a good blue cheese dressing (yes, I know I said healthy, but ...) and was a generous enough size for us to share. My chicken dish was delicious and I really enjoyed it.

We then decided on a night-cap in the sports-themed Rookies Bar which was very large and very empty – just us and the barmaid! It seemed that most of the people who’d been eating in the restaurant were staying in other nearby motels and had come over to eat here as it was probably the best choice in this rather uninspiring strip. So after one drink we left and relaxed in front of the large TV in our room before another fairly early night. It had been a busy day, with our longest drive of the trip so far.

Incidentally the Best Western seems now to be a Red Lion Hotel, and both it and the steak house restaurant get much less positive reviews than I gave them eight years ago on Virtual Tourist.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:12 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes buildings architecture road_trip history views church photography national_park science space new_mexico Comments (8)

A place prepared

New Mexico day five


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

We took advantage of the breakfast included in our room rate at the Grants Best Western, where the buffet was more extensive than in some other places we stayed on this trip, with reasonable eggs and bacon alongside the usual juice, muffins, yoghurts and weak coffee. Then we checked out and drove east on I40, heading for our first major stop of the day.

Acoma

large_DSCF0297.jpg
Landscape with mesas, Acoma

This was definitely one of the highlights of our whole trip! Acoma Pueblo is built on top of a sheer-walled, 367-foot sandstone mesa in a valley dotted with sacred, towering monoliths, and is the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. While most Acoma people no longer live there, preferring a home with a few more ‘mod cons’ elsewhere on the reservation land (houses in the pueblo have no electricity, no running water and no toilet), it is still home to about 30 people year-round, and to many more during festivals when everyone returns to their ancestral home on the mesa.

To visit Acoma is to be transported to a time and place that has existed for centuries. We turned off busy Interstate 40, drove a few miles across an empty, dusty land, and suddenly we were in a different world. In a landscape dotted with sandstone columns and mesas it was hard at first to pick out the one that has a pueblo on its summit. The only giveaway sign was the twin adobe towers of the church of San Esteban on one side of the village, but even they blended into the warm hues of the sandstone and only became distinct when we were just a couple of miles away.

5914824-At_the_Cultural_Centre_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
At the Cultural Centre

To visit the pueblo you have to take a tour, which starts from the very attractive and informative Cultural Centre, so we parked there and went in to look round and purchase our tickets. The fee included permission to use one camera, which was tagged to show we had paid (we would have had to pay extra to have additional equipment tagged, if needed).

But the Cultural Centre is not just the starting place for tours, it’s also worth a visit in its own right as we discovered while waiting for our tour to leave. I loved the building itself, with its heavy doors (carved to resemble 19th century textiles) and restful interior. The Haak'u Museum displays not only traditional Acoma wares, especially pottery, but also hosts changing exhibitions of more modern art and crafts. When we were there in September 2011 there were two excellent photography exhibitions, one of photographs taken across New Mexico by Craig Varjabedian and the other, which we found the more interesting, of photographs by local Acoma residents. The latter, although amateur, were very accomplished and in some cases powerful works. There was also a very interesting display of modern interpretations of traditional native art.

When it was time for our tour, we joined the small group (we were seven in number) in a minibus for the short ride to the top of the mesa with our guide. We were then escorted around the pueblo – the tour lasts about an hour and a half and is accompanied throughout, so there was no wandering off on our own, much as I might have liked to do so.

5923819-Our_guide_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Our guide

There are strict etiquette rules for visitors to Acoma, and it is important to read and abide by these. Think of it as a visit to another country, whose laws must be upheld and whose traditions respected. They include:

~ You must register for a guided tour in order to visit the Pueblo, stay with your tour guide at all times and not wander off the designated tour route
~ Restrain your children at all times. Absolutely no pets are allowed on tour.
~ No Smoking
~ Permits for cameras must be purchased at the Sky City Cultural Center prior to photographing on the Acoma lands. No photography is allowed inside the Church, within the cemetery courtyard, and during feast days. Permission must be obtained prior to photographing tribal members or their artwork.
~ Use of tripods, go pros, video cameras, digital video cameras, binoculars and audio recording devices is prohibited.
~ Commercial use of a photograph depicting Acoma imagery for personal gain (profit) is prohibited.

There is also a dress code:

‘We encourage you to dress comfortably however out of respect for our religious leaders who reside on the mesa year round we ask that no revealing clothing be worn (short shorts, short skirts, halter tops, tube tops, spaghetti strap tanks, and tank tops etc). We do have limited clothing pieces available that may be borrowed at the time of your visit. If we feel that your clothing is inappropriate we will ask you to cover up. Thank you for your understanding and respect for our home.'

All guides come from the pueblo and really know their stuff – ours was excellent, and we learned a lot from her, and although some details I later forgot, I was able to piece them back together again with some subsequent research.

The story of Acoma

The name of this place, Acoma, is derived from the native word ‘Haak’u’ which means ‘a place prepared’. The people believe they are descended from the one-time inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, forced to leave their home by a prolonged drought. Their ancestors had been told by the spirits ‘at the time of emergence’, that is from the very beginnings of their existence, that a place had been prepared in which they would live. So the tribe left their lands in Chaco and wandered through the American Southwest, pausing from time to time to call out ‘Haak’u’. When they arrived in this particular valley, their call reverberated off the mountain peaks and returned to them in an echo, telling them that they had at last found their ‘place prepared’.

large_5914862-View_from_the_mesa_top_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
View from the mesa top

But their first home in the valley was not on this mesa but on nearby Enchanted Mesa, seen to the right of centre in the background of this photo and more centrally in the photo higher up this page. According to their legends one day, when all but a few elderly women were down on the valley floor below tending the crops, a terrific storm blew up and destroyed their only path up to the top of this mesa. Those left above were trapped and sadly died (some say that they jumped to their deaths rather than face a slow starvation), and the larger part of the tribe abandoned this mesa and moved to one nearby, where they remain to this day.

Life here has been touched only superficially by the twenty first century, and indeed by all the other centuries that have passed since the village was founded in around 1150. Houses may have been modernised (although only a little) and access improved (one road now ascends to the mesa’s top), but the traditions, the sacred beliefs and much of the life-style of the Acoma people is as it has always been.

large_DSCF0305.jpg
In Acoma Pueblo

Of course there have not always been tourists here but others have come, some much more invasive than the current bus-loads of visitors. The first white visitor to the Acoma Pueblo was Francisco Vasques de Coronado on his 1536 expedition to the Indian pueblos. He and his soldiers were in awe of the seemingly impenetrable fortress at the top of the mesa, and left the Acoma people alone. But that could not last.

In 1598, the Spanish conquistador Don Juan De Oñate, under orders from the King of Spain, invaded this region and raided the native American pueblos, with his troops looting anything of value. They tried to steal grain from a granary and the Acoma fought back, killing several Spaniards in the defence of their crops. De Oñate ordered his soldiers to conquer the pueblo, and in the ensuing battle the indigenous population, which had been approximately 2,000 people before the Spanish attacked, was reduced to just 250 survivors. These were herded to Santo Domingo Pueblo, which the Spanish had previously defeated and were now using as a base. There children under the age of 12 were taken from their parents and assigned them to Spanish missionaries to be raised. Most of the adult Acoma were sold into slavery. Of the few dozen Acoma men of fighting age still alive after the battle, Oñate ordered the right foot chopped off each one.

As we toured the pueblo and listened to our guide we learned that although such injustices may, we hope, have been confined to the pages of history, they are not forgotten. The past has shaped this people and in this almost mystical place past, present and future seem largely indistinguishable from each other.

Acoma houses

large_5923829-Street_in_Acoma_Pueblo_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
A street in the pueblo

The tour wound through the village streets where we saw the traditional houses, ovens, water cisterns and more. There are about 275 houses in the pueblo, although only around 30 people live here year-round. These are mostly older people and pre-school children, who are often sent to live with grandparents so that they can learn the culture and traditions of the tribe from them. But all the houses are owned and cared for by an Acoma family, and the family will visit and stay there during festival times. Many of the houses we saw therefore had been extensively restored – this is very much a living village, not a museum.

large_5914829-Street_in_Acoma_Pueblo_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Another typical street

The houses are made of adobe, like so many buildings across New Mexico (and indeed across the south-west). The Spanish invaders, on first encountering these structures, saw the straw glinting in the sunshine and believed the houses to be made of gold! The thick adobe walls keep the homes cool in summer and warm in the winter, and sharing walls with neighbouring houses adds to the insulation effect. The roads too were carefully planned, each exactly the right width to ensure that even the long shadows of winter would not fall on the houses opposite, so that all could benefit from the warmth of the sun’s rays.

5924037-Typical_houses_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg

5914844-Typical_house_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg

DSCF0287.jpg

Typical houses

Traditionally all the houses were of three stories, but the use of each floor varied with the season. In the winter the ground floor would be used for cooking. Heat from the fire would rise to the floor above, which was used as living and sleeping space year-round, and food would be stored on the top floor away from that heat. In the summer the ground and top floor usage was reversed; cooking would be done on the top floor so the heat could escape through the roof without overheating the inhabitants, and food was stored on the ground floor.

Some of the houses have window frames painted in the traditional turquoise colour, symbolising the sky. In the past windows were made of mica, letting in some light but no view, but today almost all are of glass. But modernisation has only gone so far. To those of us used to ‘all mod cons’ it may seem strange to us that the Acoma choose not to fully modernise their houses here in the pueblo. They could easily do so. Those elsewhere in the reservation, on the plain below, have all the facilities we might expect. There is a school, a fire station, offices for the tribal government, a hotel and casino for visitors. But here there are only the bare necessities. There is no running water and no electricity. Coolers not fridges keep food fresh, although a few houses do have a generator.

5923862-Building_work_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Building work

5923861-Restoration_in_progress_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Restoration in progress

Water, or rather the shortage of it, has always been a challenge for those living on the rocky mesa. It has almost no soil, so almost nothing of any size grows here, apart from a single tree. It is thought that this survives because of its proximity to a deep pool of water or cistern. In the past the inhabitants of Acoma relied on these cisterns for all their water supplies. They would collect rainwater during the wet summer months and this was carefully conserved and used in dry periods. To keep the water pure it was forbidden to wash or play in the cisterns.

large_5914882-Cistern_and_lone_tree_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Cistern and lone tree

These days however water is brought up to the pueblo in tankers. But the houses don’t have any running water. The Acoma people prefer to keep things as they always have been here in the pueblo (we were to find the same preference for traditional ways later in our trip when we visited Taos Pueblo). Admittedly many choose not to live here year round, but some do – and all believe that a resistance to modern development is essential to preserve their traditions and to remind them to value what is important in life: family, tribe and the continual thread of their culture and beliefs that anchors each generation to the ones that came before and those to follow.

large_5923879-Portaloos_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Portaloos

There are no toilets in the houses either – instead you will see communal Portaloos around the edges of the village which are used by everyone and which are regularly emptied by a commercial firm. Our guide explained that in the past they had drop toilets, and also told us that there are plans to introduce new ones with a compostable system – but not to install them in the houses.

large_5914849-Horno_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Horno at the mesa's edge

Dotted around the pueblo you will see ovens shaped like beehives and known as horno. These were introduced by the Spanish, who in turn had adopted them from the Moors, so if they look like something you have seen in North Africa it is not surprising. They are used for cooking the traditional bread. A fire is built in the oven and left until the walls are red hot. The fire is then raked out, rounds of dough stuck to the oven walls, and the small hole at the front is sealed with mud until the bread is cooked. The result is a light fluffy bread, not dissimilar to pizza dough.

Kivas

large_5924277-Typical_street_in_Acoma_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Street with kiva

In the photo above you can see the distinctive ladders resting against the houses. The double ladder near the centre of the photo indicates that the building is a kiva or sacred building. Kiva ladders also have pointed tips, believed to pierce the clouds and bring rain. The ladder below illustrates this belief, with a stylised cloud-shaped bar across its three poles.

large_5914847-Kiva_ladder_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Kiva ladder

These kivas would once have been round but our guide told us that after they had been destroyed by the Spanish invaders they were rebuilt with square walls to look more like normal houses and fool the enemy. [I have also read a more practical explanation – that square buildings make better use of the very limited space here on the mesa top]. But you can spot a kiva as it has no door; entry is only by the ladder, whereas in the case of the houses the ladders are used just for access to the upper floors. Look at the photo above carefully and you will see on the far right the tips of the second ladder that leads down into the kiva itself.

No visitors are allowed in the kivas and guides are not permitted (even if they would want to) to share anything of what goes on in them. Their use is sacred and even to tell outsiders about them would be seen as a threat to the integrity of the tribe’s culture and beliefs. It is essential to respect this and not to push the guides for information they are unable to provide.

One of the interesting things I learned on the tour was that the Acoma have a matriarchal society; that is, the women are the more powerful sex. It is they who own the land, make the major family decisions and maintain the traditions of the tribe.

The land and the family home are passed down to the youngest daughter, as it is thought that she will have stayed closest to her parents and have the most respect for the traditions. The matriarch will pass on her role to this daughter at what she feels is the right time, not necessarily waiting until she dies. At that point the matriarch loses her role in the family, moves out of the home in the pueblo (if indeed she has been inhabiting it full-time) and relinquishes all claims on the family property and possessions. She will never live on the mesa again, but may return for visits and celebrations. If she dies before succession, the title of matriarch passes automatically to her youngest daughter or, if there is no daughter, to the youngest grand-daughter.

And so it is the women who have kept alive the traditions of the Acoma, they who have made this pueblo the magical place it is, and they who hold the responsibility to continue to do so for generation beyond generation to come.

The Church of San Esteban

large_5911422-San_Esteban_Grants.jpg
San Esteban

Our tour finished at the pueblo’s church, its most prominent building, dedicated to Saint Stephen. It was built between 1629 and 1641 by the Acoma people under the direction of their Spanish conquerors. Some accounts say that the Spanish forced them to build the church, others that the people were grateful to the Catholic friar, Juan Ramirez, after he saved the life of a local child, and thus built the church willingly. A legend tells that just as Friar Juan arrived at the mesa this child fell from its edge and was assumed to be dead. But as the people grieved for their loss, the stranger arrived at the top of the stone steps carrying the lost child in his arms, safe and well. The people took this as a miracle and a sign that they should welcome this man and the new religion he preached.

5924255-_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg

5914880-San_Esteban_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
San Esteban

The adobe structure remains largely unchanged over the centuries. The left-hand of its twin towers contains an ancient bell (the one on the right is newer). According to the Spanish account, the Acoma people traded four children for this older bell, but according to the people of Acoma, the Spaniards gave the bell as reparation after stealing four children from their families.

Photography of the beautiful interior of San Esteban is not allowed by tribal rules. Its stand-out features include a traditional viga ceiling, with the characteristic parallel rows of heavy timbers, and a wooden altar carved by the Acoma in the 1630s, its twirled columns painted red and white – red, the colour of sandstone and adobe, to symbolise the Acoma and their traditional beliefs, and white to symbolise Catholicism, the two intertwined here as they are in the spiritual lives of the people. Most Acoma believe in and practice both religions, but a few only one or the other.

DSCF0295.jpg
At the edge of the mesa

In this photo of Chris and me at the edge of the mesa you can see behind us Mount Taylor, known as Kaweshtima to the Acoma people. It was from this distant and sacred mountain that the Acoma were forced by the Spanish to bring wood to construct the church, including the large logs of the traditional viga ceiling. The wood was not permitted to touch the ground between Kaweshtima and Acoma – if a log fell or was dropped it had to be left where it was rather than be used for the building.

Mass is celebrated in the church on special feast days. One of these is the feast of St Stephen, after which the statue of the saint is paraded around the village. Another is on Christmas Eve, when Midnight Mass is said. On these and on other feast days all the people return to the pueblo from their homes elsewhere as it is important for the tribe to celebrate together. As the church was built on the pueblo’s former plaza (lending credence I think to the version of the story that claims the people were forced to build it here), its dirt floor is kept largely bare and is used on native feast days for dancing.

I have no pictures of the adjoining cemetery, as all photography of it is strictly forbidden, but it is too interesting a place not to mention it here. It lies in front of the church and is even older than it. It was not part of the Acoma tradition to bury their dead, but with the adoption of some of the Spanish conquerors’ Catholic beliefs came also the introduction of burials. There is of course no soil on the mesa top, so earth for the cemetery has had to be carried up from the plains below in woven baskets. There are now five layers of graves here, and when this one is full no more will be added. Places in the cemetery are reserved for tribal elders and for those who have made the pueblo their year-round home – most Acoma are now buried elsewhere in the reservation, in the churchyard they share with the neighbouring Laguna tribe.

At one end of the cemetery, in front of the church, is a raised area with a large cross, a memorial to all the unknown ancestors buried here in unmarked graves. The walls around the cemetery have humps, which in the inside can just be made out to contain faces. These are the guardians of the dead. One wall has a hole in it, to allow the spirits of the deceased an exit route out into the afterlife.

A souvenir of Acoma

5914885-Pottery_seller_Acoma_Acoma_Pueblo.jpg
Pottery seller

During our tour we had numerous opportunities to purchase the traditional Acoma pottery. There were tables set up at strategic points on the tour with a local potter displaying their creations, and our guide encouraged us all to examine these and waited patiently for a few minutes at least while we did so. We were tempted at several points, but I’d read that if you’re serious about buying it’s best to wait till the end of the tour and then ask to be escorted back to the one whose work most appealed to you.

The traditional Acoma style is very striking, usually in shades of black and red only, though some other colours are included in non-traditional designs in order to appeal to tourists. They didn’t appeal to us however, as we much preferred the simplicity of the traditional colour scheme which contrast well with the intricacy of some of the designs. These designs reflect the landscape around the pueblo and the legends of the people, so you will see triangular shapes for mountains, lines showing rain, and spiritual animals such as the lizard. We were also (rather incongruously it seems) shown designs featuring parrots. Of course there are no parrots in New Mexico! But there is an Acoma legend that tells how traders from the tribe visited rainforest areas in South America and brought back a parrot in the hope that the presence of a bird from that region would bring much-needed rain to the parched lands of their home.

Prices aren’t cheap, as everything is hand-made (if you think you’ve found a bargain, it won’t have been made by hand), but they are better value than in tourist shops elsewhere in the state, so if you like the work this is a great place to buy. We purchased a very small plate (about two inches across) decorated with lizards which cost us $20 – we wanted a souvenir of our visit but were concerned about carrying anything larger and heavier (and breakable) having already bought our ceramic horse in Hillsboro a few days earlier.

DSCF0314.jpg
Pottery for sale

Our visit to Acoma occupied most of our morning and has filled a lot of blog space, so I’ll stop here for now and continue with the rest of today in the following entry …

Posted by ToonSarah 09:15 Archived in USA Tagged art people architecture road_trip culture history church village houses new_mexico crafts customs Comments (5)

Arty Santa Fe

New Mexico day nine


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

5979815-Autumn_colour_Cathedral_Park_Santa_Fe.jpg
Autumn colour, Cathedral Park

Where the locals go

5980470-Waiting_for_breakfast_Santa_Fe.jpg
Waiting for breakfast

When we were exploring the small park next to the cathedral on our first morning in Santa Fe morning some local women, who were working on a small archaeological excavation there, recommended breakfast at Tia Sophia’s, saying that it was where the locals would choose to go, so we decided to give it a try one morning. We found a cheerful, bustling, traditional Mexican-style homely sort of a place, with a steady stream of diners eager to try its legendary breakfasts. We were lucky only to have a wait a couple of minutes, and to get a nice booth near the counter. The service was friendly, with the staff coping well with a full café and managing everything with good humour.

5980474-_Santa_Fe.jpg
Omelette

The menu has all the regular breakfast items, some with a New Mexican twist, and all the local favourites. We were both in the mood for omelette, and chose the one with cheese and guacamole. It proved to be a generous size, well-stuffed with its spicy filling. We both opted for a side of potatoes (we could have had the local stew, posole, beans or tomatoes instead) and drank juice (orange for Chris, cranberry for me) and coffee. The latter was the only disappointing part of the meal – after a couple of days when I’d been able to get good espresso, here I was back to the ‘brown water with a hint of coffee flavour’ filter stuff that passes for coffee in too many US establishments. Despite that though Tia Sophia’s certainly delivered an excellent local-style breakfast in one of the more casual and friendly places in downtown Santa Fe.

New Mexico Museum of Art

large_5979834-New_Mexico_Museum_of_Art_Santa_Fe.jpg
New Mexico Museum of Art

This morning we decided to see more of Santa Fe’s devotion to art, starting with one of its major museums, the New Mexico Museum of Art, which back in 2011 was known as the Museum of Fine Arts. This proved to be possibly the best of the museums we visited in Santa Fe – not that we managed to get to anything like all of them!

5918383-New_Mexico_Museum_of_Art_Santa_Fe.jpg

360627715918378-New_Mexico_M..e_Santa_Fe.jpg
New Mexico Museum of Art

To start with, I thought it was worth a visit for the building itself, which is a beautiful example of what is commonly known as ‘pueblo revival architecture’ (a style based on a mix of Native American mud buildings and Spanish mud-brick churches). It was built in 1917 and originally designed to be the New Mexico pavilion for a world expo in San Diego two years earlier. The wonderfully curvaceous building ‘borrows’ motifs from pueblo mission churches, such as the bell towers seen in several of my photos. It has a lovely tranquil inner courtyard, festooned with ristras (the distinctive strings of chillies).

DSCF0574.jpgDSCF0572.jpg902067075979833-New_Mexico_M..a_Santa_Fe.jpg
Chilli ristras in the courtyard

5979832-New_Mexico_Museum_of_Art_Santa_Fe.jpg
New Mexico Museum of Art

The museum hosts both permanent and temporary exhibitions. We were originally lured in by posters promoting a major photography exhibition, ‘Earth Now’, with a focus on photographers who highlight environmental issues in their work. But with a few exceptions we both found these more didactic than inspirational. However there was plenty that appealed to us more, in particular another temporary exhibition of New Native Photography 2011. There were some really excellent images here, by 19 photographers from across North America.

The other exhibition that I really liked was ‘How the West is One’, which was described as a more or less permanent one. Although it no longer seems to be running in that form, I imagine many of the art works have since found their way into the permanent collection.

The website explained that the exhibition,
‘organizes key objects from the museum’s collections so that they outline an intercultural history of New Mexico art, from the arrival of railroads in 1879 to the present. This long term exhibition presents 70 works by Native American, Hispanic, and European-American artists which illustrate the changing aesthetic ideals that have evolved within southwestern art over the last 125 years. The exhibition allows viewers to discover the one-ness of New Mexico Art. Unique, unpredictable, often contradictory unity developed from the interactions of the Native American Hispanic, and mainstream American aesthetic traditions.’

Gallery hopping

5979831-Outside_a_Santa_Fe_Gallery_Santa_Fe.jpg
Outside a Santa Fe Gallery

We devoted the second part of the morning to some gallery hopping in the smaller establishments in the streets immediately around the Plaza. Our favourites included the stylish Blue Rain Gallery on Lincoln Avenue, with a fascinating mix of paintings, sculpture, pottery and more, and the Galerie Züger on W San Francisco Street which had devoted most of its space to an awesome display of bronze sculptures by Gib Singleton (who also did the Stations of the Cross which we were to see a few days later at the Sancturio de Chimayo). Gib Singleton was the foremost Western and Biblical bronze sculptor in the late 20th and early 21st century in America and his pieces can be seen in many of the major world museums. Have a look at the gallery’s website to see some examples of his work and read more about him.

5980258-Blueberry_crepe_Santa_Fe.jpg
Blueberry crepe

After visiting several galleries we decided it was time for an early lunch before moving on to the next part of our plan for the day, and for a change visited the French Pastry Shop, part of the historic La Fonda Hotel complex. While Santa Fe’s buildings are a homogenous group of light brown adobe structures, the interiors occasionally surprise, and none more so than this cosy little place. Step through the doors and you might almost be in an English, or at least European, tea shop, with dark wood furniture and a glass case displaying tempting pastries. Chris had a grilled cheese sandwich, but unusually for me at lunchtime I decided that the dessert menu was the more tempting, especially the sweet crepes, so I chose the blueberry one to go with my very good cup of coffee.

Now, having spent most of our time in the centre of Santa Fe, it was time on this last afternoon in the city to go slightly further afield and see another aspect to the city. So we returned to the casita to pick up our car and drove south, stopping on the way to check out one more of the city’s churches.

Santuario de Guadalupe

This church, Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe to give it its full name, lies just south of the downtown area. It is the oldest shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States and was built in the 1780s; the exact date uncertain, though some guidebooks appear to think that they know! Certainly our Moon Handbook let us down on this point, and on its description of the church, which it says in the late 19th century ‘got an odd makeover, with a New England–look wood steeple’ and ‘tall neo-Gothic arched windows’. This is not strictly true, as we discovered that there were in fact two church buildings on the site – one the original (and now restored) 18th century adobe one and one more modern (although not really New England style) church which was built as a new parish church and opened in 1961.The 18th century church was restored in 1976 as part of the US Bicentennial celebrations. Although decommissioned for a while, the church was reintegrated into the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in February 2006 and is now used again for a monthly Mass and for choir performances etc.

large_5918489-Santuario_de_Guadalupe_Santa_Fe.jpg
In the Santuario de Guadalupe

Inside the church is relatively plain in some respects, with its three foot thick adobe walls painted white and hung with simple paintings of the Stations of the Cross. The dominating features are the beautiful viga ceiling and the large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe above the altar. is considered one of the finest oil paints of the Spanish Southwest. It is dated 1783 and signed by Jose de Alzibar, who was one of Mexico's most distinguished artists. It is the largest painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States and presents a central, full-body image of the Virgin surrounded by four illustrations of the main events of the 1531 apparition story. The painting made the journey north by cart and in sections, up the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

5920624-_Santa_Fe.jpgDSCF0585.jpg
Our Lady of Guadalupe, and another of the church's paintings

Elsewhere there are some of the typical New Mexican santos, carved images of the saints. To the left of the altar a small doorway led us to a little museum, which was well worth visiting. A series of old photos shows the various appearances of the church over the years. This is where I learnt the facts about the neighbouring white-steepled building (maybe the author of the Moon book should make a visit here?!) I also learnt that the church was built originally as a mission church, to mark the northern end of the Camino Real from Mexico City, and only later became the parish church for this part of the city.

The Railyard

large_5920626-_Santa_Fe.jpg
The Railyard

And now it was time to see a different side of Santa Fe. The railroad came to Santa Fe in 1880, with an 18 mile spur from Lamy to the south (named for the eponymous bishop who left such a mark on the city’s cathedral). On February 9th of that year, the very first train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company pulled into the Santa Fe depot, accompanied by grand speeches and much celebration. No longer would people have to travel the Santa Fe Trail by stagecoach or wagon; at last the city was properly connected with the rest of the world. And connection meant tourism – the city has the railroad to thank for the boom in visitors at the end of the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Artists came to see and to paint its distinctive adobe buildings; holiday-makers came to wander its picturesque streets and buy souvenirs of Native American crafts, much as they do today. The railroad also brought growth to the city, as it expanded southwards to surround the depot with new buildings to service the needs of those arriving by train. For decades this was one of the liveliest parts of the city, but just as the railroad had meant the end of the old Santa Fe Trail, so the explosion in car use in the 1950s meant the end of the railroad. The trains stopped coming, the depot fell into disuse and the area around it declined.

5979837-In_the_Sanbusco_parking_lot_Santa_Fe.jpg
In the parking lot

In the 1980s the city council developed a plan, in partnership with residents, for its revival. The concept was to reflect the original rugged, industrial look of the old rail complex while at the same time provide local business opportunities. Visiting the area we could see that they have achieved this. The tracks still dominate, and indeed are still used – for tourist trips on the Santa Fe Southern Railway, along the old spur to Lamy and back, and for commuters (and visitors) to and from Albuquerque on the Rail Runner. But around them are a number of carefully restored and modernised buildings which contain shops, galleries, cultural spaces and cafés. There is also a park laid out alongside the tracks at the southern end.

large_5920633-Graffitti_on_old_train_Santa_Fe.jpg
Graffitti on old train

5920629-_Santa_Fe.jpg
Santa Fe Railroad train

We spent an enjoyable hour wandering round here – taking photos of the old trains, checking out one of the galleries and enjoying an iced coffee in a café. With more time in the city we could easily have spent longer – we didn’t get to ride the Southern Railway or to check out the modern art in the Site Art Space (these days there are many more galleries in the area, including the Blue Rain Gallery which we had visited this morning and which has since relocated to the Railyard area).

But even in that hour or so we found it a refreshing change from the undeniably attractive but at times a little artificial adobe (and pseudo-adobe) world of downtown Santa Fe.

Canyon Road

large_5979841-Gallery_in_Canyon_Road_Santa_Fe.jpg
Gallery on Canyon Road

After spending a bit of time exploring the Railyard area we returned to the car and drove over to Canyon Road to the south east of the centre, the acknowledged heart of Santa Fe’s art scene. If you think there are a lot of galleries in the downtown area (in some streets, every other building it seems), wait until you see Canyon Road, where just about every building in a half-mile strip is one! And even though we enjoy visiting galleries, we did find it all a bit too much – there are only so many you can go in on one trip, or at least in a single day! But we did spend a pleasant couple of hours popping in and out of some of the galleries near the northern end, without ever making it down the full length as we had originally thought we might.

5979838-Canyon_Road_art_Santa_Fe.jpg
Canyon Road art

We had deliberately chosen to come here quite late on the Friday afternoon, as I’d read that many galleries have openings then or in the early evening. Often you get a chance to meet the artists and there are also sometimes refreshments on offer to lure you in. We were a little early for the latter but did enjoy chatting to one gallery owner who had just finished hanging and was happy to tell us about the various artists who were exhibiting.

5979839-Canyon_Road_art_Santa_Fe.jpg5979840-Canyon_Road_art_Santa_Fe.jpg
Canyon Road kinetic art

My favourite gallery was probably Karan Ruhlen, at 225 Canyon Road (now known as Owen Contemporary). This was showing some striking abstract landscapes by Kurt Meer. There’s no way I could afford the price tags (between $2,440 and $5,250) but I did bring away a free postcard from the gallery to remind me of the works. Checking the gallery’s website (https://owencontemporary.com/kurt-meer) I see that they still have some of his paintings, and the prices have gone up considerably, so maybe I should have invested!

Last evening in Santa Fe

5979854-_Santa_Fe.jpg
Appetisers

While enjoying our pre-dinner drinks yesterday at the Marble Brewery we had spotted the Rooftop Pizzeria, part of the same complex. Chris loves pizza, and we thought it would make a change from the (excellent) New Mexican food we had been enjoying most evenings. The same menu is served in the bar at one end on the first floor of the shopping complex where the two properties are located, and in the restaurant at the other, but we decided to eat in the latter as its interior looked very attractive with stylish furniture and art work on the walls. Both bar and restaurant also have an outdoor terraces but after dark in late September it was a little chilly for us to want to eat outside, although plenty of others were doing so.

5979855-_Santa_Fe.jpg
Pizzas

Our meal started well as we shared the excellent antipasto of ‘Mediterranean vegetables’ and a selection of very good breads. Unfortunately though, the pizzas didn’t live up to the hype bestowed on them by the menu: ‘It has been said that the label “Pizzeria” is not adequate to describe the culinary experience awaiting you at the Rooftop ... From the first bite of our thin crust gourmet pizza you will be one step closer in your quest for pizza perfection.’ But no, this was not pizza perfection, although mine was not at all bad – a very good crust made with blue corn (a speciality here) and a reasonable topping of sundried tomatoes, goats cheese, artichoke hearts and olives. But Chris found that his mushroom pizza had far too many garlic cloves, even for someone who does really like garlic, as they totally overpowered all the other flavours. Maybe if we hadn’t been looking forward to our pizzas so much, and if they hadn’t been so over-hyped, we would have enjoyed them more, but as it was, we came away rather disappointed and wishing we had instead returned to one of our favourite restaurants from earlier in our stay for this last evening in Santa Fe.

large_444444985918363-San_Francisc..t_Santa_Fe.jpg
San Francisco Cathedral at night

For an after dinner treat we decided to have a drink in the lounge bar of the rather upmarket La Fonda hotel, situated on the south side of the Plaza, to experience its sense of history. We were carrying a box of left-over pizza as, although they had been disappointing, it seemed a shame to waste the remaining slices which we thought would do for lunch the next day. It didn’t seem appropriate to take these into the rather smart bar, so for some reason we decided to ‘hide’ them beneath a seat in the lobby. We enjoyed our Jack Daniels (our customary night-cap when touring in the US, although we never drink it anywhere else!) and returned to retrieve our pizza box, only to discover that it had gone – presumably tidied away by one of the very smart-looking security staff on duty there. We scuttled away, hoping that no one who saw us go would associate us with our disreputable baggage!

Posted by ToonSarah 06:04 Archived in USA Tagged art food road_trip restaurant church museum new_mexico Comments (8)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


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

White Sands National Monument

large_DSCF1121.jpg
Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

large_6063124-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

large_5923675-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

6063196-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg

6063289-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg

6063284-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg

Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

large_6063197-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

large_6063195-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

large_6063120-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

6063248-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

large_DSCF1158.jpg

large_6063247-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg

large_6063227-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

large_6063194-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Lone plant on Alkali Flat

large_6063242-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

large_6063212-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

DSCF1160.jpgDSCF1163.jpg
df22d2e0-263e-11e9-9532-1120819edc12.JPGdf605110-263e-11e9-be83-352c37b3de54.JPG
White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

6063221-_White_Sands_National_Monument.jpg
Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

large_5923689-_Alamogordo.jpg
Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

large_DSCF1205.jpg
The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

DSCF1206.jpg
Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

6067047-Emilias_Mesilla.jpg
Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

6067048-Avocado_Swiss_sandwich_Mesilla.jpg
Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

large_6067070-Gazebo_in_the_Plaza_Mesilla.jpg
Gazebo in the Plaza

6067072-Paper_flowers_on_the_gazebo_Mesilla.jpg
Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

large_dd941530-2641-11e9-9532-1120819edc12.JPG
Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

large_DSCF1216.jpg
The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

5923694-Basilica_of_San_Albino_Mesilla.jpg
The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

large_5923698-_Mesilla.jpg
Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

5923697-_Mesilla.jpg

5923696-_Mesilla.jpg
Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

6067075-Meson_de_Mesilla_Mesilla.jpg
The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

6067076-Veranda_queen_room_Mesilla.jpg6067077-Our_bathroom_Mesilla.jpg
Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

6067023-In_Peppers_Mesilla.jpg
In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

6067024-Carne_Asada_Tacos_Mesilla.jpg
Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

6067025-Traditional_margarita_Mesilla.jpg
Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

6067010-Chris_plus_muffin_plus_coffee_Mesilla.jpg
Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

IMG_0207.jpg
Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

To Mass in Mar Lodj

Senegal day seven


View Senegal 2016 on ToonSarah's travel map.

large_Souimanga_..6__08_40_45.jpg
Sunrise at Souimanga Lodge

Our second morning at Souimanga Lodge, and again we awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the lagoon.

37180740-69a6-11e9-b0b2-4108cfc95718.jpg

3647e600-69a6-11e9-b0b2-4108cfc95718.jpg

375892b0-69a6-11e9-a34d-4bc765272432.jpg

Souimanga sunrise

Learning from yesterday’s experience with our resident mouse, and Chris’s damaged earphones, we had tried to make sure there that was nothing so tempting within reach. But we didn't think to remove the fruit bowl, and discovered this morning that he had helped himself to more apple. Oh well, there was enough to spare – but we resolved to hide the fruit bowl too on subsequent nights!

The journey to Mar Lodj

After another lovely breakfast we were off on today’s activity. Perhaps unusually for a hotel, one of the offered excursions here is to Mass in a nearby village, Mar Lodj, which is on an island in the delta. Many of the tourists here are French and therefore I would assume many are practising Catholics, so that might be a reason the hotel offers this activity – or it could be in part because it is a fascinating experience for any European or other first world visitor. Either way, as Chris is a Catholic and we often do go to Mass when on holiday (and have had some equally fascinating experiences elsewhere as a result), this activity was a must for us, and indeed had been one of the things that attracted us to stay here.

7580230-CFA_notes_Fimela.jpg
CFA notes

Our driver picked us up straight after breakfast. He introduced himself as Cheikh and said that he would also be taking us on the various excursions we had booked for later in the week. We asked about changing money – so far we hadn’t needed any local currency as we’d been on full board at Fathala, but today we would want some for the collection at Mass and later in the week no doubt for shopping in the markets we hoped to visit. So Cheikh suggested a stop in the local village, Fimela, where a shop doubled as a currency exchange.

The currency in Senegal is the West African CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) Franc which is pegged to the Euro. Many hotels and tourist-oriented establishments accept the latter, and in any case it is easier to exchange Euros than Sterling or US Dollars, so it makes sense to travel with these. Our transaction was quickly and satisfactorily concluded (we were offered 13,000 CFA per €20 note, which was a fraction under the then-official rate of 660 CFA to the Euro, but with no exchange fees or interest seemed a good deal) and of course a few photos were taken!

large_7580231-Fimela_Fimela.jpg
Locals shopping in Fimela

large_7580229-Inside_the_store_Fimela.jpg
Inside the store where we changed our money

We then drove to Ndangane, a major fishing village in this region. Here we boarded a pirogue for the 20 minute ride across the creek to Mar Lodj, which was an opportunity to see and photograph life in this fishing community from the water.

large_7580210-Ndangane_Fimela.jpg
large_98aa2df0-69a9-11e9-8c1e-0def7732b101.jpg
Ndangane from the water

large_98ceccf0-69a9-11e9-97f2-c9a7f7a01a9a.jpg
Great Egret near Ndangane

Mar Lodj

Arriving at the island we moored by a sandy beach a short walk from the village.

large_P1160445.jpg
The coastline of Mar Lodj island

We were early for the service so there was time for a stroll around the village first. The main ‘sight’ here, apart from the rather attractive church which draws both locals and tourists, is a tree, or rather group of three trees – a kapok, mahogany and palm (although it has to be said that the latter has seen better days!) These have become intertwined, which locals like to say reflects the way in which the three religions of Islam, Christianity and Animism co-exist peacefully here.

35ecac00-69b9-11e9-8905-9538c3897af1.jpg
Sacred trees in Mar Lodj

7580207-In_the_village_Fimela.jpg
In Mar Lodj

P1160453.jpg

P1160456.jpg
Local family on their way to church

Mass at Mar Lodj

The church itself is a striking round building, its design echoing local houses. By the time the Mass started it was packed – mainly with locals but also a sprinkling of visitors such as ourselves.

large_7580204-Church_in_Mar_Lodj_Fimela.jpg

7580205-Church_interior_Fimela.jpg
The Church of the Holy Family in Mar Lodj

I think anyone, whether a strong believer, or any believer at all, or none, would find this experience interesting, although you have to be prepared for a lengthy service with a long sermon in French. I speak a little, but I found this hard to follow as the accents are different to European French and the microphone was dodgy. I was so impressed by the excellent behaviour of the young children who sat quietly together at the front throughout, neither fidgeting nor talking.

The music and singing was beautiful, and I made a video of part of it, as a few other visitors were doing so and no one seemed to mind.

After the service we lingered outside for a while, taking discreet photos of the locals. I had of course dressed respectfully, but there was no way I could compete with the wonderful dresses worn by some of the local women for whom Sunday best clearly means exactly that.

7580206-Locals_after_the_Mass_Fimela.jpgP1160459.jpg
Locals after the Mass


On the way back to our pirogue we were invited to visit the local ‘market’, which was really just a group of local women who had spread their goods out in a strategic location on the walk up from the jetty. We didn't bother to look as we had a visit to a much larger market planned for a few days later. Instead we headed back to our boat and retraced our journey back to the hotel.

P1160464.jpg
Chris on the pirogue leaving Mar Lodj

Birds, birds, birds

We decided to skip lunch as we’d had a decent breakfast and knew that dinner would be another four course affair. So we made coffee in our suite to drink on the deck (once we’d mastered the intricate Italian ‘pod’ system machine) and then spent another relaxing afternoon with a mix of pool time and bird-watching by the lagoon. The stars of today’s show were Spur-winged Lapwings, Great and Little Egrets, Black-headed Heron and Western Reef Herons, Whimbrels and various gulls.

large_7580236-More_bird_photos_Fimela.jpg
Herons, Egrets and Gulls

7580249-Spur_winged_Lapwings_Fimela.jpg
Spur-winged Lapwings

The day ended with another excellent dinner on the decking among the trees, with more explorations slightly further afield to look forward to tomorrow.

Before going to bed we remembered to move our fruit bowl to the safety of the fridge and hide all cables etc. in our suitcases, well away from the munchings of our resident mouse. But about 30 minutes after going to bed I heard the scrabbling noises and realised I'd left a silk bead necklace, bought the previous year in Tallinn, on the coffee table. I got up to put it away but too late - it had already been shredded! Yet another casualty of our room mate's insatiable appetite!

Posted by ToonSarah 03:47 Archived in Senegal Tagged people birds boats hotel church village africa customs senegal Comments (7)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 5) Page [1]