Ristras and cattle skulls for sale in downtown Santa Fe.
SANTA FE — Wintertime tourists who brave Santa Fe’s high desert climate during colder months are rewarded with a wallop of wonder for all the senses.
The smoky fragrance of pinon firewood cuts through the sharp, dry air. Patches of white snow on mountaintops contrast with a brilliant blue sky. And when the chilly temperatures drive a hungry traveler inside one of the scores of restaurants in the city’s historic downtown, a bowl of green chile stew or hearty posole will thaw the feet and warm the soul.
The frigid winter weather of the southwestern state might surprise some unfamiliar with this high-altitude region of New Mexico. Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in the nation, sits 7,000 feet above sea level. High temperatures in December, January, and February range in the 40s, though the bright sunshine is a welcome change from the Midwest’s perpetually gray winter skies.
American Indian vendors outside Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.
A four-day weekend gives visitors time to explore this art-filled, history-rich city and allow day trips to nearby destinations, particularly Taos, a mountaintop town with nearby skiing and the thousand-year-old Taos Pueblo, and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, where hikers climb a slot canyon trail to take in expansive vistas.
The trip satisfies all the senses and pleases travelers interested in a plethora of activities — from shopping, dining, and museum-going as well as more rugged pursuits like hiking and photographing awe-inspiring nature.
It’s most affordable to fly into Albuquerque, roughly 60 highway miles from Santa Fe. Renting a car is recommended, and the northeast drive introduces visitors to the area’s mountainous terrain and wide open skies.
Lodging in Santa Fe is plentiful, and visitors are best served by choosing one of the many hotels and inns located in the historic downtown center, anchored by the Saint Francis Cathedral. Camouflaged among blocks of fawn-colored adobe buildings, outlined during the holiday season with glowing luminarias, are unique accommodations, such as Las Palomas Hotel. Its apartment units feature kitchenettes and large living rooms covered with hide rugs and stocked with kindling, firewood, and matches for lighting a toasty fire in the beehive fireplace.
A chocolate doughnut with red chile from Santa Fe Espresso Co.
Downtown Santa Fe can be easily explored on foot. The city’s more distant sites — such as the can’t-miss complex of folk, Spanish Colonial, and American Indian art museums known as Museum Hill — are best reached by car.
Some hotels provide shuttle service. Get a lift to the end of Canyon Road, where a famous stretch of world-class art galleries lines each side of the road, and then amble back to the downtown center. Many galleries are located in converted adobe homes, and popping in to appreciate the beauty of the interiors is fun even for those low on art funds.
Blocks of downtown stores also keep shoppers happy for hours, though several are chock full of cheap souvenirs. Skip those and traipse up the stairs to the second-story Shiprock Santa Fe gallery, located above the city plaza. Here, beautiful and costly vintage Navajo rugs decorate the walls with geometric grace, and the shop boasts a nice selection of silver and turquoise jewelry.
Along another side of the plaza, the early 17th Century Palace of the Governors hosts American Indian vendors, who sit outside and sell hand-crafted jewelry and other items. Inside, museum displays detail the history of the building, which claims to be the oldest continually occupied public building in the country.
Painter Georgia O’Keefe made New Mexico her home and was inspired by its landscape. The small Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe is worth a visit, but check first as the site is partially closed for much of this month. Numerous photographs on display show the artist in her studio and in nature — images nearly as interesting as her original works. Two videos describing her life and connection to New Mexico run regularly and provide helpful context.
Dining options in Santa Fe are numerous, from casual to elegant. Southwestern staples — such as blue corn tortillas — are not to be missed. When ordering, be prepared to answer the official New Mexico State Question: “Red or green?” The answer means either red or green chile; or respond with “Christmas” to get a bit of both.
The state legislature in 1996 declared “red or green?” the official query of New Mexico. (The state boast other quirky symbols: The bolo tie is the official neckwear).
Look for twists on food favorites, like chocolate doughnuts sprinkled with red chile at Santa Fe Espresso Co. or loaded nachos and imaginative cocktails at the chic Agave Lounge.
Several historic churches offer intriguing looks into the community’s early faith life. The Loretto Chapel boasts a stunning spiral staircase known as the Miraculous Staircase because of the mysterious carpenter said to have built the design-defying twisting structure.
The cathedral and its grounds, prominently placed in the town center, is a magnet for photographers seeking to replicate a Santa Fe street scene featured on many postcards.
A day trip to Taos gives visitors a chance to drive through Ranchos de Taos and stop to admire the iconic San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, depicted in Ansel Adams’ photographs and O’Keefe paintings. The way shadows play across its soft, rounded lines is mesmerizing, especially from the church’s rear side.
While in Taos, a visit to the Taos Pueblo is a must, though travelers should sure the village, where Native Americans continue to live, is open. It closes at various times throughout the year.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark is a highlight of any trip to the region and brings a full perspective on the region’s history and beauty. Picture-taking is limited and photography fees apply, but the ancient adobe structures with aqua doors will make a lasting impression, as will a trip Santa Fe and this enchanted region.
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