Travelogue: New Mexico (Santa Fe to Albuquerque)

In our first four days in New Mexico, we’d covered over 700 miles with stops at Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, and Bandelier National Monument. For the next four, our only home base would be Santa Fe, and we were looking forward to settling in—if not quite slowing down.

I was also, of course, looking forward to seeing Santa Fe for the first time, a city that so many call a favorite. The small city sits among the beautiful foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, and even as you’re walking by galleries and restaurants, you can sense that you’re close to more far-reaching views. You can be out of town in minutes. Within the city limits, you can find history—ancient by our country’s standards—and culture, great restaurants and spas, all in a distinct-looking, walkable core.

Our visit was brief, and a bit off season, but I definitely get the appeal!

It turned out that we didn’t completely settle in, however: we did a little bit of moving even once we arrived. We spent our first two nights at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, and our second two at La Fonda on the Plaza—I’d heard such good things about each one, and was having a hard time choosing, when we realized that we could save on the rooms if we mixed up the nights.

Of course, when we pulled into the Inn of the Anasazi, I could tell we were going to have a hard time leaving. Everyone at the small hotel was so friendly, and the place was beautiful.

The kids were excited when they saw the room: there were some snacks waiting by a small kiva fireplace, and a pull-out sofa right in front of our bed—a new favorite sleeping arrangement. We’d picked up some fast-food for them in between Bandelier NM and Santa Fe, so we were able to tuck them in right away when we got to the hotel. We were able to set up monitors so that we could walk down one flight of stairs to the hotel restaurant for a dinner on our own. This was definitely a perk of staying in a small hotel (with a nice restaurant).

Aron went down first and had a spicy Paloma with serrano chile-infused tequilia waiting for me.

The next morning, after a big breakfast at the hotel, we set out to explore Santa Fe. I’d say we’d made it about five steps before we all took the obligatory chiles-drying-photo, and maybe two more before we realized it was starting to snow. We all ran back inside to grab an extra layer—I to throw some workout leggings on under my dress!—and then tried again.

We walked down the block to the plaza where, under the arches of the Casas Reales (Palace of the Governers), Native Americans from all over New Mexico take turns setting up at one of the lotteried 69 vendor spots to sell wares and jewelry directly. The plaza itself is a lovely public space, fronted by historic buildings on all sides, but we were ready to move back inside fairly quickly. We walked to the back of the Five & Dime General Store where, supposedly, the Frito pie—a combo of corn chips, homemade red chile, onions, and shredded cheese, served directly in the Frito-Lay bag—was invented. The kids were not fans of chile, I’m afraid, so Aron and I got to keep it all for ourselves.

Paying a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum was a priority, so we walked there next. The artist Georgia O’Keefe moved to Abiquiu, New Mexico, in 1949—after many previous visits to the state—and her work is inextricably tied to the landscape.

It’s a very small museum, with very few of her most famous or emblematic works on display, but it turned out to be a wonderful place to take the kids. At the entrance, a docent handed them each sketchpads and pencils (to be returned, less any of their own artwork), and encouraged them to draw what they liked best.

They really took the encouragement to heart, and we ended up spending a considerable amount of time (relatively speaking) in each room.

We also had plans to visit Ghost Ranch, near her studio in Abiquiu, a few days later, so we enjoyed seeing photographs and paintings that depicted that area.

After the museum, we put our names down for lunch at The Shed—a popular, colorful eatery with a small inner courtyard patio (I gather than many of the outdoor patios around here are quite lively when its warmer out), that came recommended heartily for its red chile and long family history. Of course we also had to try the margaritas.

One of the other most notably lovely small hotels off the plaza is the Hotel St. Francis, with its Secreto Bar (a “garden to glass” menu) to one side of the lobby, and a Gruet tasting bar to the other. I remember when Gruet made the news for its top-rated sparkling wines coming out of, of all places, New Mexico, and was happy we’d have a chance to do a tasting.

We decided it was a good time to let the kids play a couple of games on our phone in the corner, and take a few moments ourselves, before setting off to explore more.

Santa Fe was established as the capital of Spain’s northernmost territory in the New World, and the attempts of the Europeans to exert religious influence over the town mean that there are some notable examples of Romanesque and Gothic-style places of worship. Both the Loretto Chapel, with its famous spiral staircase, and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi are just off the plaza. Our children, not being regular church-goers, were completely enthralled by the glass windows depicting the stations of the cross and we found ourselves telling Biblical stories on many of the drives thereafter. The San Miguel Mission—the oldest church structure in the United States—is also near downtown, but we didn’t make it there.

The snow picked back up in the afternoon, so we ran back to the hotel and asked after the car—stopping for chocolates at the Kakawa Chocolate house for some warming up. They specialize in hot chocolate based on Mesoamerican and medieval European recipes, although we were surprised to find so much on the menu featured Almond milk. The kids decided they would prefer chocolate truffles for a treat.

From there we drove up to Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style bathhouse and restaurant up in the hills.

I had written a post asking for advice for our trip, and this spa was one of the most-frequently recommended places! I wasn’t sure it would be right for the kids, but I figured we at least might eat there.

We were lucky to get fit in at the very popular sake pub-inspired spot, Izanami, where shared small plates come for the table. Everything was wonderful—including a wagyu burger topped with foie gras! Our server was quite passionate about sake, and seemed to approve of our selection which, he explained, was made by one of the rare female sake brewers, Miho Imada. He was also passionate about sharing, even using the word gauche about those who order for themselves, (ouch!)

Emboldened by the appearance of the crowd, and the how-often-can-you-soak-in-falling-snow moment of it all, we checked into the bathhouse after dinner. There are two big communal pools and seven smaller private ones tucked here and there, and the reception didn’t bat an eye at the ages of our children. They handed us all robes, directed us to the locker rooms, and off we went.

The water was extremely hot, but it was a little too cold to sit out on the edge of the pools, so Hudson and Skyler eased in. Before I knew it, they were getting a little too comfortable and were starting to wade around. Worried they would bother others, we kept our stay brief; it was an experience more than a relaxing event, but I’m really glad we tried it! They talked about it for the next few days, too.

Our breakfast credits were good in the hotel restaurant or in the room, so we opted for the latter on day two of our stay. I think I’ve mentioned before that this is something I never used to do—instead opting to go out for breakfast and try new places—but now one of the best treats, in my opinion, is a room-service breakfast that means no one has to set off with empty stomachs and we can all linger in our pajamas a little longer and enjoy the room. I don’t know about your kids, but ours seem to wake up starving! And then, by the time we all leave the room, they’re usually hungry again!

On this particular morning, we also needed to pack up our bags and drop them down the street at La Fonda, so after that we stopped at Whoo’s Donuts for breakfast number two: locally made treats like Blue Corn Blueberry Lavender and Lemon Pistachio White Chocolate donuts, before getting on our way to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. We both agreed that we’d put Whoo’s on any top Santa-Fe-eats list.

As it turns out, Tent Rocks gets extremely crowded by mid-morning and by the time we’d pulled up, the parking lot was full, and there was an estimated wait time of 90 minutes just to drive past the ranger station. We decided to turn around (sigh) and head back to Santa Fe, vowing to set out earlier the following day.

When we got back to town, we stopped at the Railyard, the terminus for the Rail Runner from Albuquerque. The area is a mixed-use district where one finds SITE Santa Fe—a modern exhibition space—and where the city’s farmer’s market is held. We were sorry that we wouldn’t be in town for the market—I hear it’s a great one!

There also happens to be a fantastic new playground along the old rail lines (the park has a design reminiscent of New York’s High Line), where the kids got some play time in light of our foregone hike. We grabbed (wonderful) coffees at Sky Coffee and then let them burn off some energy while we admired the cool design that riffed off the local environs.

Back in town, the upside of our changed plans was that we were able to fit in lunch at Café Pasqual’s. Breakfast and lunch are first-come, first-serve (and we were warned that there would always be a line), while dinner reservations fill up quickly. This was probably the other most-often mentioned, not-to-miss spot in town. We penciled in our name and then easily passed the time across the street at Doodlet’s, the corner toy store with something for everyone.

Katharine Kagel opened the restaurant in 1978—and seems to have some local Alice-Waters-esque cred. (Fun fact: she hails from Northern California; her grandfather was a butcher in Sacramento.) Everything was, no surprise, delicious! I continued my taste-test of enchiladas with Christmas chile, while Aron tried the corned-beef hash. But one of my favorite things about our meal at Pasqual’s was actually my Mexican hot chocolate—sooo good!

After lunch, our room at La Fonda on the Plaza was ready, so we strolled the few blocks over to find our room.

We had to laugh a bit when we saw the pool. I’d almost forgotten that one of the reasons we pulled the trigger on switching hotels was that one had a pool. Again, we were clearly not paying attention to weather forecasts as we should have. On sunny days, I can imagine it would be a wonderful midday break. Likewise, there’s a bell tower bar that’s supposed to be a great place for a sunset drink in the summer, with a view looking over town. It, sadly, was closed.

The room was nicely split into a sitting room and bedroom, and had been decorated with handpainted headboards and local or historical art. But the most special part of the hotel were its public spaces.

City records indicate that La Fonda sits on the site of the town’s first inn, established when the city was founded by Spaniards in 1607, though the current structure wasn’t built until 1922. The original outdoor patio, now with skylights, sits at its center—and they’ve put up old photos and ephemera around the lobby that help one put together its storied past.

Comparing the two hotels, we found that we ultimately enjoyed the more boutique, intimate feel of The Rosewood Inn, but both had special elements to recommend them. One particularly nice feature of La Fonda was that they handed the kids little backpacks when they arrived, with flashlights and a scavenger hunt. For the duration of their stay, they filled in their treasure maps and eventually showed them to the reception desk to earn a prize. They each came home with compasses and stuffed rabbits—just in time for Easter.

They also have a little café with a bakery attached—The French Pastry Shop—where I got to try Biscochitos, the state cookie of cinnamon and anise. I tested a few others’ recipes for these later on, and found these ones the best of the ones I sampled. According to Serious Eats, the traditional recipe is “about one part lard to one part sugar to three parts flour, and enough anise seeds, eggs, and booze to bind the dough together.”

Our afternoon took us to Meow Wolf, an art collective that specializes in elaborate installations, in Santa Fe, Denver, and Las Vegas. The House of Eternal Return, their permanent installation in Santa Fe, housed in a 20,000-square-foot former bowling alley, reminded me a lot of the TV show Stranger Things: it’s like going into The Upside Down.

It’s quite hard to explain (so I’m not sure I should really try), but it’s essentially a very hands-on, experiential, sensory-overloading (“immersive”) art exhibit with a mystery component that involves a spice-time anomaly. We saw lots of people looking for clues and taking their time trying to piece it all together, but we mostly just let the kids take the lead and did our best not to lose them in the crowd. We probably spent about two hours wandering through psychedelic rooms, diving head-first into a dryer, and crawling through secret passageways. They loved it; we both felt a little exhausted. It’s a lot to take in!

Local arts patron George R.R. Martin helped Meow Wolf get its funding for the project, and I imagine it was a good investment! The lines are long every day it’s open, I’m told. We bought tickets ahead of time that let you skip ahead, which I highly suggest.

At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate all the good options for food right around Meow Wolf—like Vinaigrette!—so we ended up back in town rushing to find something easy before bedtime. We had a fine meal at Blue Corn Brewery, but nothing special.

So once the kids were in bed, Aron went down to the hotel’s bar to bring back dessert and cocktails.

The next day, with breakfast to-go, we hit the road early to make it to Tent Rocks before the crowds. This time was a success! We were happy to have the trail on the way up mostly to ourselves. I’ll share more details and photos of this sidetrip, and of one to Ghost Ranch in a separate post.

Because we’d postponed our Tent Rocks hike, we ended up visiting on the same day that we went out to Abiquiu, and so we passed right back through the Railyard area of Santa Fe on the way. There, we tried Shake Foundation—an outdoor burger joint with 4-0z. patties and wonderfully soft (and buttered!) potato buns that reminded me a little of Shake Shack. However, they have a green chile version.

They also had a really appealing ice cream menu—flavors like salted caramel and lavender—with interesting mix-ins like piñon nuts. We’ve decided that we are definitely going to be serving vanilla ice cream with caramel and pine nuts to friends after dinner one day soon.

Adjacent to Shake Foundation are two other worthy stops: Modern General (like a mini Shed, if you’re familiar with the one in Sonoma) with its fun shop and mod pancakes; and Vinaigrette, a well-regarded salad bistro owned by the same folks.

It made no sense in terms of efficiency, we but drove up to Abiquiu the same day to go on a hike at Ghost Ranch. As I mentioned, I’ll include this is separate post on side trips from Santa Fe. (This post is too long as it is!)

We never made it to many of the upscale restaurants recommended—one reader’s raves for Sazon had me very sorry to miss it; but one of my favorite dinners was at a popular local chain, El Parasol. The no-frills diner was just perfect for us, and everything we ordered was wonderful. I think I may have audibly ooh-ed at my first bite of chicken taco, and I tried to steal all of Aron’s chicharron (pork-rind-and-bean) burrito.

Poor Hudson had a heck of a time chewing anything on this trip: he lost one tooth while we were driving the previous day, and one tooth over dinner at El Parasol!

For our last morning in Santa Fe, Aron helped the kids finish up their scavenger hunt and I went out looking for an hour on my own. Part of the pleasure of being in the town is simply appreciating the unique architecture in the historic district, but I was hoping I’d get to do a bit more than just window-shopping.

I was told that if I only had time for one store, I should let it be Shiprock. I was not disappointed. Museum-quality pieces made up the beautiful displays and I had such a nice time talking to the salespeople—who answered all of my questions, from the colors of Navajo rugs, to the uses of certain baskets. Apparently, fifth-generation art dealer Jed Foutz, who was raised on the Navajo Nation in a prominent family of Indian art traders, curates their collection: “historic and contemporary Navajo rugs and blankets, Native American jewelry, Pueblo pottery, sculpture, basketry, folk art and fine art by leading Native American artists.”

And even though I went without the kids at first, they were kind enough to suggest I bring them back with me—they loved looking at some of the New Mexican folk art on display.

We were sorry we didn’t have time to make it to all of the wonderful museums in Santa Fe—the Museum of International Folk Art in particular—so this stop helped with that in a small way.

One of my other favorite diversions that morning was into O’Farrell’s Hat shop, where they hand-make custom fur felt hats, and have been doing so for 30 years. Each hat takes about six months to make.

As long as you promise to pick up the hats by the brim and not by the crown, you’re welcome to try anything on. I loved getting a lesson in the different materials they use—rabbit or beaver or a blend. At one point a woman who worked there explained that rarely do you really need the most expensive—beaver fur—because “you and I are not going to be standing out in the rain.” That sort of blew my mind—these are $500-$1000 hats and it didn’t even occur to me that, if I had one, I’d go near water with it. But of course! If you’re out riding, your hat is an investment; it’s a practical tool that needs to be water repellant. Beaver fur is tough and tight, and touching it made me appreciate the difference between this and my fashion-hats, even if one might still opt for wool for other reasons.

If you’re curious, watch this video narrated by Scott O’Farrell, who talks about the process of hat-making. You can see them measuring a head with this funny contraption about two minutes in, and he actually measured my head for me while I was there! I couldn’t pass up the experience. I’m shaped a little like the Planter’s peanut, it would appear. And I have to add that Mr. O’Farrell called me a hat girl, which was pretty cool.

On the way out of town, we caught glimpses of a few things we’d missed: there’s a narrow, one-way street called Canyon Road that’s famous for its ever-extending lineup of art galleries—and its popular summer Fridays, I’m told. We drove down it, just to take a look, but didn’t make it into any of them.

We also drove down de Vargas street to look at the “Oldest House” before driving up the eastern side of Old Santa Fe Trail. The historical association notes that the vigas in the ceilings of the lower rooms show cutting dates of 1740-67. For us, it was fascinating to compare the old, real adobe with newer “adobe” constructions of plaster and stucco nearby and see all the plant material in the mud.

From Santa Fe we followed the Old Santa Fe Trail to get onto the Turquoise Trail Scenic Byway. The area’s turquoise and lead deposits were critical to the jewelry and pottery making of the prehistoric Indians, and these mines largely influenced Spanish settlement. Our first stop was in Cerrillos, one of the oldest and most marked of the Old Spanish mineral developments in the Southwest. In fact, turquoise is still being mined here on several private claims, but the peak of its mining activity was in the 1880s.

Today Cerrillos, with its dirt streets and old saloon, may be most famous as the setting for movies like Young Guns (1988)but we stopped to look around in the small shop adjacent to the mining museum.

One other really cool activity out this way is Astronomy Adventures. We didn’t think our kids could stay up late enough to appreciate the night-sky tour, but it sounds like it would be an awesome addition to a New Mexico itinerary.

Further along the trail we came to Madrid, a town built by the local coal mining company back in 1906 that was abandoned when natural gas became the norm. Since the 70s, however, the town has come back as an arts community and the main street is lined with shops and galleries—and motorcycles with nods to the movie Wild Hogs, which was set there.

We made a point to stop and eat at the Mine Shaft Tavern where we’d heard we’d find one of the best Hatch green chile burgers. Apparently the mining has made the local water very sulfuric, so it was margaritas and Shirley Temples to drink.

We reached Albuquerque in the afternoon, just in time to catch the last opening hour at the Rattlesnake Museum. I’m always a little worried that these small animal museums will be sad, but this one was wonderful. The director, Bob Myers, is a passionate conservationist and the focus is education and appreciation rather than shock-value. I never knew there were so many kinds of rattlesnakes. (Funny: I wrote that and then checked out the museum facts page, and apparently that is, verbatim, the most common comment made there.)

After the museum, we went to Duran’s Central Pharmacy for dinner—where, yes, the counter is actually in the back of a pharmacy. Everything is made in-house, by hand, including fresh tortillas, and it was so good! The chile was the spiciest yet, so I had to order a side of sour cream and a local beer to help me out. I got the stuffed sopaipillas, and then we ordered another with honey for dessert!

That night we checked into Hotel Andaluz downtown—where we rode the elevator up with Dr. Sam Bello from Grey’s Anatomy, and an actor I couldn’t place at first, until I realized they were both in Bunheads! For our last night, Aron brought us up nightcaps once again, and we sat in this little foyer (watching a terrible movie) while the kids fell asleep.

We’d planned to check out the ABQ Bio Park gardens the next morning, but Hudson had an upset stomach (he should’ve had the chile!) so we took it easy in the room, enjoyed the hotel breakfast, and just stopped for one more Sweet Roll at Frontier on the way to return our rental car at the airport. We were sorry not to see more of Albuquerque, but it had been an exceptionally full week.

New Mexico was absolutely beautiful and offered so much to do and see—we will definitely be back!

Have you been to New Mexico? I realize this is a monstrously long travelogue, but any tips to add? 

Previously: Southern and western New Mexico—Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands, Jemez Springs, and Bandelier NM

Up Next: Daytrips from Santa Fe—Tent Rocks and Ghost Ranch

P.S. Thank you so much to those who offered advice on Instagram and in this post’s comments! I printed them all out and carried them with us and they were such a help!

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