In October, the Esotouric gang set off to enjoy four days of adventuring in northern New Mexico, in search of Mission-era adobe churches, dilapidated neon signage, hot springs, horned toads, piñon coffee, funky graveyards, folk art environments and chiles relleño. (We found everything except the horned toads, much to said lizards’ relief.) This is the first of two blog posts in which we’ll share some of the gems we found on our travels. Check out our first New Mexico photo set here.

We flew into Albuquerque, rented a car and immediately hit the road, bound for the high country and one of the oldest North American towns, Santa Fe.
The magical late afternoon light on the Spanish Colonial architecture made for some stunning vistas, and the cold air was most refreshing after L.A.’s endless summer.
We stayed at La Fonda on the Plaza, which was central to everything and charming.

La Fonda on the Plaza

One of the first things we did was to find a cowboy hat for Richard.
He took it off when visiting the (desanctified) Loretto Chapel, whose supposedly gravity-defying spiral loft staircase is a favorite topic on television shows about “unexplained mysteries.”
After perusing the stair for a spell, Richard announced it not atypical of the work you’d expect to see imported in sections from France for a regional American chapel, noting that the French stained glass arrived the same year as the mysterious carpenter who supposedly erected the strange stairs, then vanished without asking for payment.


So it’s not really all that mysterious, but still a handsome building and worth the small price of admission. We particularly admired the unusual capital decorations, which seemed to be inspired by honeycomb or the mineral called Desert Rose.

Over the next few days, our dance card was positively packed with church visits, since Northern New Mexico is flush with ancient worship sites. We admired the fresh coat of straw-flecked adobe on the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos…
… its well-cared for flanks a striking contrast to the melting homestead just across the path.
At the otherwise captivating Taos Pueblo…
…we found the San Geronimo Chapel, while very handsome, to be an unsettling space…
…perhaps some psychic holdover of the community’s bloody struggles with Spanish Catholic colonization and American rule.

So we were glad to get back on the road, for a long ramble over winding Highway 76, bound for the Lourdes of America, the pilgrimage site Chimayó.
Passing through Las Trampas, the massive old roadside Church of San José de Gracia demanded we stop to admire its fine walls and towers.


Richard was examining the vast wooden door when he heard movement inside, knocked, and was rewarded when a group of gentlemen on a Catholic pilgrimage welcomed us inside to see the place.

Our new friends, who were preparing for an evening ritual recreating the Stations of the Cross, asked us not to take photographs inside. It was no great sacrifice, as pictures could not have captured the astonishing time capsule of this holy place, which seems not to have changed significantly since it was built circa 1770.


Happily, the Library of Congress holds a number of fine photographs of the church and town from the 1940s. This is, miraculously, the very church we saw.

The rough-hewn floor clearly showed the outlines of burial crypts, reminding us with each step deeper into the space of the faithful souls who had constructed the church in this remote mountain hamlet.
Its heavy walls were lined with powerful, primitive paintings of saints and the family of Christ, and one small altar held long, bright metal nails, clearly intended for use during the evening’s ritual. We wondered if one of the gentlemen bustling around the church intended to be crucified in emulation of his lord, a practice which has long been a part of the culture of rural New Mexico. But one doesn’t ask such impertinent questions.

At the back of the church, the brightly colored main altar was framed with an adobe arch, a theatrical touch which lent even greater power to the assemblage of religious paintings and sculpture against the wall.

On the way out, we were instructed to look up to the roof beams, where our penlight bulbs illuminated the primitive drawings of the town’s long-dead children, their contribution to the building of the church.

If you’re hungry in this neck of the woods, we recommend a stop at  Sugar Nymphs Bistro, where the nicest ladies in the world will bring you delicious gourmet treats. It’s a little bit of San Francisco bohemia in the midst of the mountains, and if you’re lucky, the kids circus camp will be in session when you visit.


At Chimayó, which was nearly deserted, the fences leading up to the shrine were hung with hundreds of crucifixes made from bits of wood or other found objects.
We made the slow passage through the nautilus shell of the shrine, past hundreds of photographs of people whose families sought prayers for their healing, up a ramp, into the church, then into a side chapel hung with crutches left behind by those that were healed, and finally into the little room containing the miraculous hole in the ground, which the priests of the place keep topped up with blessed dirt from the surrounding hills. It was from this hole, it’s said, that a statue of Christ mysteriously appeared, and to which it returned every time its discoverer sought to take it away. After the third time, the small church was built around the holy spot, and the statue hung on the altar.

It is a strange and powerful place, which on holidays is thronged with the faithful, some of whom crawl for miles in hopes of divine intercession.
There were no such faithful here today, but at the base of the hill, a handsome horse gorged on a feast of fresh apples.

Sagebrush Inn

Back in Santa Fe (we stayed at the wonderful old Sagebrush Inn) Richard built a fire.
While Chinta documented the folk art decorations of the ladies lounge off the hotel lobby.
And soon we were on the highway back toward Albuquerque, stopping along the way to admire neon signs both well-loved…


… and sorely neglected.
Thus concludes part one of our New Mexico adventures. Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring our visit to the Tinkertown folk art environment, one of the most delightful spots on earth.

Here’s a wee teaser to whet your appetite. There is much more to come!
(photos by Chinta Cooper)