Santa Fe – America’s Famed City of the Arts

In one of our family trips to the United States to visit one of our children and his family in California, we all flew from San Francisco to Albuquerque, the largest city in New Mexico, in the south-west of that country. The journey took 3 hours with connection at Denver. We chose this state because it is quite unique and would be a refreshing change from the more familiar parts of this enormous land.

We hired a comfortable eight-seater mini van at the airport there and headed for Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, about 100 km away. The drive along the freeway was fast-moving with a steady flow of traffic, framed in the background by some awesome expanses of uninhabited land. The starkness of the desert landscape reminded me of the Australian Outback.

Americans drive on the right and the speed limit of 120 km/h on the freeway is enforced strictly by the highway police armed with radar guns. Keeping to the required speed limit, we arrived at Santa Fe in a little over an hour.

There are not many cities that can attract visitors from all over the world mainly because of their reputation for the arts, and the romanticism surrounding their history and heritage.

One such city is Santa Fe (“Holy Faith” in Spanish), which has a population of only 60,000. The town is dominated by tourists from all over the world.

Despite its diminutive size and small population, Santa Fe has many claims to fame: It has more galleries and artists per capital than Paris, the earliest church in US and the second oldest town there, having been founded by the Spanish 13 years before the pilgrim fathers landed in Plymouth in 1620.

This tiny town was officially designated the capital of New Mexico, which formed part of Spain ‘s colonial empire in Mexico. However, the Spanish era came to an end when Mexico won its independence in 1821. It was later ceded to the United States and became one of its states in 1912.

From then onwards, Santa Fe began to grow rapidly. Attracted by its Indian and Spanish ambience, growing business opportunities and unique blend of architecture and arid desert landscape, merchants, adventurous tourists, artists and writers began to flock there. They helped to transform this place from a backwater town into a thriving and vibrant one.

Many of these artists, both American and European, were delighted with what they saw and decided to make their permanent home in Santa Fe. One of them was Georgia O’ Keeffe, a world-renowned American painter, whose many works, such as the famous Red Hills, have become instantly recognisable icons of the New Mexico landscape.

Today, Santa Fe’s reputation is built solidly on its high attainments in the arts, both visual and performing, not to mention its historical relics of considerable variety and antiquity.

From our hotel in the outskirts of the city, we took a ten-minute drive to the town centre. The traffic there was congested and curbside parking difficult, but we managed to find a pay public car park nearby.

With experience, one learns that the city is best explored on foot; most of the places of interest are conveniently located within easy walking distance from the historic Plaza, which forms the heart of the old town. A stroll on its streets immediately unfolds a fascinating world of art, starting from the Indian and Hispanic periods to the eclectic array of contemporary international art.

It may surprise many that Santa Fe has one of the largest art markets in the world. There are no less than 150 fine art galleries there. In historic Canyon street alone, 90 galleries congregate cheek-by-jowl alongside several restaurants and motels in a previously residential stretch.

Several of these galleries have delightful gardens where one can sip coffee and relax amidst sculptures of various shapes and forms. There are also open-air art shows where the exhibits were selected by a panel of judges. The standard is reputedly high and the prices are reasonable. These shows are well supported by both art enthusiasts and tourists.

There are eight international-class museums to cater to varying tastes. One of the most popular is the Palace of Governors, a history museum specialising in Indian and Spanish periods exhibits. The Museum of Fine Arts will impress those interested in modern art with its fine collection.

Santa Fe’s achievements in the performing art are also quite remarkable. It has a highly acclaimed opera company, a good symphony orchestra, a reputable choral group, as well as a lively theatre scene. It also boasts a year round programme of festivals and other vibrant public celebrations. The most well-known are the celebrated Indian Market (August 15-19) and Spanish Market (July 27-28), which showcase the pick of their respective cultures and arts and crafts. These two events create a carnival atmosphere and attract numerous visitors from all over the world.

New Mexican architecture is unique as it creates an ambience and a complete aesthetic experience that seems to harmonise with its environment and cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Most of the public buildings are in the Spanish pueblo or town design, while the houses, which are distinguished by its red–earth tone, are built using the traditional Indian adobe construction method, with sun-dried mud-and-straw bricks.

From Santa Fe, we made several enjoyable side trips by car to several other places of interest, all within easy driving distance from the city.

After Santa Fe, we took the more scenic road to Taos, instead of the more direct but boring freeway. Traffic was relatively light and the road winds through the heart of northern New Mexico, with historic churches and charming Hispanic villages nestled among  the cultivated fields and mountains. We were able to make several leisurely stops at scenic spots to take a closer look at the picturesque valleys below, or to gaze at the distant vistas. We finally arrived at the quaint village of Chimayo. We visited El Santuario de Chimayo, a beautiful 19th Century church known as the Lourdes of America, reputed for its healing powers.

Taos, a small town of some 15,000 residents, is a miniature Santa Fe and also noted for its fine art scene. It has fifty galleries, an artist colony, seven fantastic museums and many historic houses and public buildings. We toured the somewhat commercial Taos Pueblo, a settlement in the outskirts of Taos, and the traditional home of the Tiwa Indians for more than 800 years. It features the oldest and largest multi-storey native adobe-type structure in the US. Nearby is Martinez Hacienda, a large fortified Spanish colonial house dated 1804. It displays varied items of spanish culture and the history of the town.

On our return journey from Taos to Santa Fe by the freeway, we made a detour to see two Indian villages between the towns of Espinola and Abiquiu where life has hardly changed for several hundred years.

About one-hour’s drive west of Santa Fe is Los Alamos, where the first Atomic bomb, which so sadly devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II with horrendous loss of lives, was created and tested secretly.

One should visit the Bradley Science Museum and Los Alamos Historical Museum to view exhibits ranging from laser to nuclear fusion. A short distance away is the Valley Grande and our reward was a blissful dip in the refreshingly cool water of Jemez Springs.

The network of roads in this region are superb. The drivers are disciplined and traffic jams are rare, except in Santa Fe and Taos during peak tourist season.

The best time to visit New Mexico is September when the average daily temperature is around a comfortable 23 degree celsius. A stay of at least six days is recommended for leisurely enjoyment of the delights that these wonderful places have to offer.

Lam Pin Foo

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2 thoughts on “Santa Fe – America’s Famed City of the Arts

  1. From your travels and description, Santa Fe certainly has made itself into the list of ‘places to visit’. The architecture seems most interesting.

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