Papa Felipe's was the first place I headed when my flight landed in Albuquerque. Known for making the "meanest margarita in town," the restaurant also has been praised for its spicy pork carne adovada -- and I was craving a little of both.
Later, when I found out that a ghostly raven-haired "angel" occasionally visits the room at the historic Hacienda Antigua where I was staying, I was glad I'd had that margarita. Not that I wasn't aware that the Land of Enchantment has attracted its share of intergalactic visitors. New Mexico has always been loaded with mysticism, spirits and creative characters who have been visiting for years, searching for something, often finding it and then never leaving.
Maybe it's the sunshine (approximately 300 days a year). Maybe it's the margaritas (they affect your brain differently in the high altitude). Perhaps it's the colors (who can forget a New Mexico sunset, when the blood-red sun turns the biscuit-colored mountains watermelon pink).
My theory (after one of Papa Felipe's margaritas) is that it's a transcendental mix of all three -- light and spirits and color -- swirled together until everything (including the food) seems enhanced.
Whatever it is, it's some powerful mojo.
Most folks fly into Albuquerque, get their rental car and hightail it immediately an hour north on Interstate 25 to Santa Fe. You can't blame them. Santa Fe has always been the pretty and charismatic one -- Albuquerque, the wilder, quirkier cousin.
But making my home base in Albuquerque at the Hacienda with a nightly hot tub soak beneath a sky full of stars, I managed to enjoy the best of both towns on a somewhat smaller budget.
Serene, calm Albuquerque
The first morning, after an uneventful night (no raven-haired visitors in white dresses showed up), I opened the heavy wood shutters in my room to pink-tinged clouds, azure sky and the Southwest scents of juniper and rosemary. Looking into the Hacienda courtyard, with its flowers, fountain, even a wild little kitty asleep in the sun, I could easily have been in Mexico. In fact, not that long ago, I would have been. New Mexico didn't become part of the United States until 1912, when it officially became the 47th state.
You have to love a state that even elevates a cookie -- its anise-flavored biscochito -- to official status, as I learned at the Golden Crown Panaderia later that morning. When I walked into this cozy Albuquerque neighborhood bakery (looking for a cappuccino and pumpkin empanada), I was barely in the door before the owners offered me a complimentary taste and explanation.
Pratt Morales and son Chris run this independent father-son operation, and they exude the Southwest spirit. When they took a break from the ovens, they came out on the homespun patio in their flour-dusted aprons and chatted with the locals (and me).
Not far from the bakery is Albuquerque's historic Old Town, the most popular tourist destination in the city. The Spanish-styled central plaza is anchored by the small Church of San Felipe de Neri. Inside, vibrant "retablos" (religious paintings) sparkle in the ethereal light. Outside, shops sell goods like the ubiquitous bright red chile ristras (if you pack one very carefully in your suitcase you can get it home in one piece), to glassware etched with the Kokopelli -- a mystical spirit in the form of an Anasazi flute player -- that you see everywhere in New Mexico.
Native Americans sell their wares on the sidewalks, as they do in Santa Fe. Over on Church Street, a Native American drummer drew a small crowd with his performance.
The area has its share of galleries, restaurants and museums -- including the tiny but weirdly fascinating American International Rattlesnake Museum. Besides hundreds of snake-related artifacts (including real snake oil), I ogled two dozen live snakes behind glass. Afterward, proprietor Bob Myers handed me my free "Certificate of Bravery" for the visit.
At lunchtime, I opted for a local favorite on Central Avenue (once the famous Route 66), Duran's Central Pharmacy. In the back of this drugstore, an old-fashioned lunch counter serves up great green chile stew plus homemade tortillas -- and waitresses always ask: "You want your tortilla buttered or not?" Say yes. (On your way out, you can purchase the suntan lotion you forgot to pack for your trip.)
Cosmopolitan Santa Fe
Another day, I drove the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe, passing through old mining towns like funky Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) and wide-open vistas of rugged beauty -- the kind that encourages serious soul-searching and has provided numerous Hollywood movie backdrops (Jeff Bridges' recent "Crazy Heart" was filmed in New Mexico). Distant mountains, sage and sand, aromatic piñon against that expansive blue sky give it a haunting aura of another era.
Cultured and cosmopolitan Santa Fe, celebrating its 400th birthday this year, seemed almost surreal after my drive. Around the main plaza, upscale restaurants and high-end stores abound: In one of them a skirt (more like a piece of wearable art) that caught my eye cost nearly $300. On the corner, a brightly painted food stand sizzled up fajitas and tamales -- adding a spicy scent to the air and attracting both silver- and turquoise-laden tourists and teenagers in faded jeans and flip-flops. I walked over to the St. Francis Cathedral with its beautiful architecture, then back to the Palace of the Governors, the nation's oldest public building, dating from 1610.
Years ago I bought two silver bracelets that I still wear from Native American artisans who sold their goods in front of this historic structure. The market is still there, along with a recently opened New Mexico History Museum. Besides voice-recorded stories, there are hundreds of artifacts and beautiful artworks from Native American, Hispanic and New Mexican artists.
Of course, for those who want to buy (or just lust after) some fabulous art, Canyon Road's famous galleries are also a tourist magnet. Depending on your interest and stamina, plan to spend at least half a day to do them justice.
Chile lovers, on the other hand, could spend weeks sampling the hot stuff in this country where red and green sauces are almost a religion. I got my fix at Bobcat Bite, on the outskirts of town. I loved the setting as much as its acclaimed cheeseburger, topped with a pile of green chiles and blanketed with melted cheese.
The place is a small adobe diner, five tables plus a counter that looks out on the desert. I sat at the counter and the waitress informed me that a customer the week before had seen a rattlesnake out the window. "He jumped up on a chair and shouted 'Rattlesnake' and everyone got pretty excited -- they thought it was in the diner."
I couldn't leave Santa Fe without sampling a margarita, so later when I saw the sign at La Posada on the Plaza, stating "the inn at the end of the Trail," the landmark seemed an appropriate place to check one out. Before I realized it, I was sipping my second. That's when it occurred to me the real reason the Santa Fe Trail ended here. Nobody wanted to leave the place.
Donna Tabbert Long is a Minneapolis writer. Her last story for the Travel section, "Dancing through Cajun Country," won second place in the 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Awards for a newspaper article on the United States or Canada.