My strategy for ordering dinner in Santa Fe was simple: Get the vegetarian combo platter. After all, why settle for just one entree when you can have a refried bean burrito, a cheese enchilada and a zucchini green chile tamale?
The sampler platter sums up my approach to travel: I want to try a little bit of everything. Santa Fe is an ideal destination to do exactly that, thanks to the New Mexico capital's relatively small size and proximity to attractions. In three days, we were able to tour historic churches and museums, hike mesas and canyonlands, and soak away stress in mineral-infused hot springs.
But the first thing we noticed about Santa Fe was its architecture. Beginning with New Mexico statehood in 1912, authorities encouraged, and eventually mandated, that buildings be constructed in the Pueblo Revival style, to match the existing traditional adobe architecture. Inspired by the mud-brick structures built by the region's Indigenous people, the low, brown buildings give the historic downtown a uniquely cohesive feel.
A few blocks away from the Spanish-inspired central plaza is the adobe San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in all 50 states. Parts were constructed around 1610, with most of it dating to 1710. Visitors can clearly observe the passage of time: The ceiling's wooden beams slope gently to one side, and the elaborate painted altarpiece has faded into muted green and red hues. But the rosaries and milagros (small metal charms left as a form of prayer) that cover San Miguel's bell are a poignant reminder that the chapel is still a place of worship after 400 years.
Besides architecture, Santa Fe has been an arts destination for generations. The city is home to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (the modernist painter lived in New Mexico for decades), as well as Canyon Road, a milelong thoroughfare with over 100 galleries. We started with the New Mexico Museum of Art, where rotating exhibits provide a good overview of the region's art in a relatively small footprint. The 1917 building's indoor spaces are interspersed with open-air courtyards that double as galleries, with sculpture, murals and other works. My favorite find was Charles Simonds' "Dwelling for Imaginary Civilization of Little People," a tiny clay village built into a window sill.
We also visited the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, focusing exclusively on modern Indigenous artists. Rotating exhibits explore cultural themes and current events from a Native perspective. "Exposure," an exhibit about the impact of nuclear testing on Native communities around the world (open through July 10), was especially moving.
Walking in footsteps
On our second day, we headed to Bandelier National Monument, about an hour's drive west. The 33,000-acre park features canyons, mesas and archaeological sites. The Pueblo Loop Trail is a popular hike, with masonry walls, cavates (human-carved caves) and petroglyphs made by the Ancestral Puebloans, who lived in the area from about 1150 to 1550 and are the forebears of the modern Pueblo peoples.
We opted for the Falls Trail, a hike that ends at the 80-foot Upper Falls of Frijoles Creek — an especially impressive sight in the spring, thanks to runoff from the snowmelt. The canyon's walls are striking, composed of alternating light and dark bands of rock created by volcanic deposits.
But our favorite part of Bandelier was the Tsankawi Section, about 12 miles from the main section of the park. The Loop Trail gave us a chance to literally walk in the footsteps of the Ancestral Pueblo — the narrow trail is worn deep into the soft, powdery volcanic rock. Reconstructed ladders brought us to the top of a mesa, with awe-inspiring views of the countryside and the Jemez Mountains. On the way down we spotted petroglyphs, the human figures and symbols still clearly visible centuries after they were carved.
I'm the sort of person who can only relax if it's an item on my to-do list, so that was the plan for the third and final day of our trip. In addition to a vibrant food scene, Santa Fe is home to over a dozen independent coffee shops. Iconik Coffee Roasters on Guadalupe Street has a leafy courtyard that's perfect for lingering over lattes and freshly baked scones.
After a leisurely morning, we drove to Ojo Caliente, a mineral springs spa about an hour north. Day passes are available for the resort's thermal pools, which are fed by natural hot springs. Ojo boasts four types of mineral waters including iron, lithia, arsenic and soda, and many believe the pools have healing effects. Supposedly, soaking in the iron pool boosts the immune system, the soda pool helps digestion, and the lithia pool eases depression. I was skeptical, but spending the afternoon bathing in warm pools nestled into scenic cliffs and dozing off in a hammock certainly promoted a profound feeling of calm.
We wrapped up our vacation at Santa Fe Spirits, a craft distillery with a tasting room in the city's Railyard District. Housed in a converted bungalow, the distillery has an intimate feel, with a cocktail menu highlighting local ingredients like red chile and piñon (pine nuts).
Of course, I couldn't decide between a whiskey-forward drink with chile or a dessert cocktail topped with horchata-flavored cream. So in the spirit of my sampler-platter approach to Santa Fe, I ordered both.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based food and travel writer. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.