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DESTINATION: NEW MEXICO

Beyond the Santa Fe Scene

Three day trips that take the visitor into lost worlds, ancient and merely old

July 25, 1999|BARRY FIELDS | Barry Fields is a writer in Santa Fe

SANTA FE, N.M. — It's high season in this long-established summer arts mecca. The opera is humming along. The galleries are bustling. The hotels and restaurants are busy with visitors who have come here to enjoy fine art in the unique setting of a Spanish colonial American capital city. They're likely to have only a partially satisfactory experience because to get a feel for old Santa Fe, you have to go out of town.

I have family here, and after years of coming to Santa Fe as a visitor, I became a resident myself a couple of years ago. Now I'm often the host-tour guide, and I've developed three day trips that I still enjoy taking, seeing Santa Fe through the eyes of newcomers such as my friend Sarah Smith, a recent transplant from Michigan.

Ojo Caliente

On an April morning, we drove an hour or so north of Santa Fe to the town of Ojo Caliente for a visit on horseback into back country rarely seen by outsiders. Our goal this day was to visit ruins associated with the Anasazi, the "ancient ones," as the Navajo call them, a civilization that had vanished before the first Spaniards arrived in 1540. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are their descendants.

There were seven of us who'd signed up for an "arc-ride" with Christine Ponko, an archeologist based in Taos. We left Round Barn Stables, along a pretty, cottonwood-lined creek, under auspicious signs. Early morning clouds with their threat of rain had broken, and a breeze would keep the day from getting too hot.

Our horses climbed into a rugged landscape of juniper, spruce and pungent sage. The majesty of it all--the grandeur of the plateau above the valley, ringed by low-lying hills--momentarily swept over us like the gentle wind.

Soon we were at Posi-Ouingue, which means "Place Over the Hot Springs" in the Tewa language spoken by some of today's Pueblos. The unexcavated site, occupied for two centuries in the early 1300s, has 2,100 rooms, making it one of the largest Anasazi villages.

Standing on mounds of dirt that covered crumbled walls--the inhabitants probably took the wooden post supports with them when they left 400 years ago for their current home in the San Juan Pueblo--we found decoratively painted pottery shards, smooth rock manes for grinding corn into flour, and tools chipped from obsidian and chert littering the ground. Looting of ancient sites is a problem throughout the Southwest, and we were careful not to disturb anything. The stable in Ojo Caliente has a permit to conduct rides on this land, which has mixed ownership, and riders keep an eye on the sites.

After a break for lunch in Ojo Caliente, we resumed our ride.

At a site called Hupovi, also unexcavated and with lovely views of the valley and creek below, Christine showed us an area of a few petroglyphs--Indian rock art--and a circular wall of rocks probably used for special ceremonies.

By the time we got back to the stables after 5 1/2 hours of riding and exploring, Sarah and I were more than ready for a long soak in Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, a no-frills spa.

Trace minerals found in the waters give the various baths their names. We began with the hottest (and purportedly most healing) water of the arsenic pool, then tried the iron and soda tubs.

The resort's historic but funky main bathhouse, minimalist accommodations and restaurant and lack of upscale spa amenities may limit its appeal. On the other hand, reasonable prices, spectacular horseback rides, relaxing waters and a variety of massages, wraps and facials make it a worthwhile detour from the glitz of Santa Fe.

Bandelier National Monument

As much as we enjoyed our Ojo Caliente excursion, neither Sarah nor I had experienced the transcendental spiritual renewal that in the 1920s led the visiting English writer D.H. Lawrence to remark, "From the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul." That would change on our next outing, to Bandelier National Monument, world renowned for its Anasazi cliff-dweller ruins.

Instead of heading straight for Bandelier, which is about 46 miles northwest of Santa Fe, we stopped at Tsankawi, a little-known unexcavated ruin on the way in. It's on New Mexico 4, half a mile before the town of White Rock; look for a parking area on the left with a brown sign, just before the traffic light.

Closing the gate behind us, we picked up the informative trail guide (50 cents on the honor system). Ahead lay the steep orange-yellow cliffs leading up the mesa. As we began to climb, vistas of forest and miles of canyons and ridges spread out around us. We walked alone through volcanic rock so soft that centuries of use have worn the narrow trail as much as a foot deep. Small children and the aerobically challenged may have difficulty here, since the trail ascends, steeply in parts, at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet.

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