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These days, Santa Fe and Taos may be better known for expensive art, fern bars, and million-dollar homes than Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo heritages. But don't let that scare you away from a family vacation in these first-class cities.
History and culture are still very much alive in scenic northern New Mexico. Settled by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago, and claimed by Spanish explorers in the 16th century, Santa Fe and Taos practically ooze tradition.
Many buildings are made the old-fashioned way -- with adobe (even McDonald's sports the ubiquitous mud-like facade). And several times a year, ancient culture and ceremony go on display in a big way: the Native American deer dance and bonfire at Taos Pueblo around Christmas, and the Indian Market every August in Santa Fe.
Whenever you visit, rest assured no one will be bored. Besides museums, there's skiing, hiking, horseback riding, and visits to Indian reservations for the kids; shopping-until-you-drop for the adults: and don't forget the red and gold, sun-painted scenery that really lives up to the state's license plate slogan, "Land of Enchantment."
Start your exploration at the Plaza, the city's historical and cultural hub. The Palace of the Governors here is the oldest continuously used building in the country -- it was constructed in 1610 -- and now houses the New Mexico History Museum in its adobe walls. Outside, under the building's portal, Native American craftsmen sell handmade silver jewelry, dolls, pottery, and other folk art. Tip: The silver guitar picks are a big hit with older kids.
Two and a half miles up Old Santa Fe Trail at Camino Lejo sits the Museum of International Folk Art with its huge collection of toys and dolls. The nearby Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and Museum of Indian Art and Culture have storytelling and other kid programs. And the Santa Fe Children's Museum offers adobe brickmaking and a climbing wall.
Also not to be missed: The Georgia O'Keefe Museum. A short film about the artist's life explains why artists are drawn to this area. The paintings (more than 130 in the permanent collection) help kids see New Mexico through an artist's eyes. The excellent cafe next door is a good take-a-break spot for kids or adults.
Kids maxed out on museums? Head for the Guadalupe Historical District, an instant pick-me-up. Located four blocks from The Plaza, this restored shopping district and rail yard features two historic train stations; one offers Santa Fe Southern scenic rides on old trains, the other is now Tomasita's Restaurant, a great family place (big, cheap, and noisy).
Most families do Taos as a day trip from Santa Fe. There's both a short route and a long route. We recommend trying each one. Either way, make sure the kids see Camel Rock, on the 84/285 stretch outside of Santa Fe. It's easy to spot the camel; it's located across from a large casino of the same name.
The Long Route (also known as the High Road). This route should be driven during the day since signage can be hard to follow. Take Hwy 84/285 to Hwy 503 to Hwy 76 to Hwy 518 north for about 100 miles. The trip takes a little more than two hours, not including stops. There are several worthwhile stops along the way:
The Short Route. Head back to Santa Fe on Route 68, which reconnects with 84/285. Stop at Rancho de Taos along the way. That's where famous photographer Ansel Adams photographed the San Francisco de Asis church. The route follows the Rio Grande, where you can go river rafting in summer. (Keep your eyes peeled for eagles).
Taos Pueblo. You absolutely cannot miss this World Heritage site, dating back to 1000 AD. It offers kids an excellent introduction to Native American life. Its 150 full-time residents still maintain ancient traditions, living in mud and straw homes without electricity or running water. An escorted tour recounts the Pueblo's history, which includes occupation by Spanish conquistadors in 1540 and later by Franciscan friars in the 1590s (most of the Pueblo's residents are Catholic).
Residents of the Pueblo are noted for their leather work (including moccasins), mica-flecked pottery, silver jewelry, drums, and painting, all on sale at some of the homes. Horseback riding is also offered on Pueblo grounds. Tip: This is a living museum. Warn your kids as they explore that some areas are off-limits.
Type of travel: Educational, historic, outdoor Best ages: 9 and up Ideal trip length: 3 to 7 days Best time to go: Fall, when the Aspen trees turn gold; winter during ski season; and Christmas, when Farolitos (candles in paper lanterns) line streets and rooftops. Weather: More than 300 sunny days a year. 40/20 degrees in winter; 90/50 degrees in summer Lodging cost: Save money by staying on Cerrillos Road. Some hotels provide shuttle buses downtown. Squirm factor: Some to a lot
The Palace of the Governors 105 West Palace Ave., on The Plaza Phone: 505-476-5100
Georgia O'Keefe Museum 217 Johnson St. Phone: 505-995-0785
The Museum of International Folk Art 706 Camino Lejo Phone: 505-476-1200 Note: Closed Mondays in winter
Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and Museum of Indian Art and Culture 704 Camino Lejo Phone: 505-982-4636
Note: Most Santa Fe museums charge admission. Multi-museum passes are available at participating museums -- Fine Art, Palace of the Governors, Folk Art, and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. Most museums are closed on Mondays.Taos
Taos Pueblo 2 miles north on Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Taos Phone: 505-758-1028
Kit Carson Home & Museum 113 E. Kit Carson Rd., Taos Phone: 505-758-4741
Taos Ski Valley 18 miles northeast via NM 64 and NM 150, Taos Phone: 800-776-1111, 505-776-2233 for snow report
Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau Phone: (800) 777-2489
Taos Chamber of Commerce Phone: (800) 732-8267
Santa Fe weather and road conditions Phone: (800) 432-4269
The New Mexico Cultural Treasures For museums, parks and more
Taos Ski Valley
Kids and parents alike will enjoy the weekend Tesuque Flea Market. More than 400 vendors sell Native American, local, and folk art, including pieces from Africa, Mexico, and Asia, antiques, jewelry, furniture, and collectibles. In the summer, come early (it gets quite hot in the afternoon), and bring plenty of water. Food is for sale, including breakfast burritos. 7 miles north of Santa Fe on Hwy 84/285, 505-660-8948.
Another must-do stop is Shidoni Foundry, located 15 minutes from Santa Fe. Watch the pouring of molten bronze into ceramic shells (check schedule). You'll also find a fabulous sculpture garden and gallery (all for sale), and the Tesuque Glassworks glassblowing studio, where you can watch glass artists at work. 5 miles north of Santa Fe on Bishop Lodge Road, 505-988-8001.
Favorite local spot: Santa Fe Opera holds performances in the summer in a semi-enclosed opera house with mountain views. 7 miles north of Santa Fe on Hwy 285, 505-986-5900.
Local food: Green chili stew, enchiladas, tacos, tamales, Christmas sauce (with green and red chilis), Frito pie (a bag of Fritos with chili poured in).
Best souvenirs: Silver jewelry, drums, rock fountains, chili lights, folk art, posters, dried chili.
Annual events: Santa Fe Indian Market on The Plaza draws more than 100,000 collectors and art lovers. Reserve early; hotels can sell out up to one year in advance.
Health alert: Santa Fe's high altitude (7,000 feet) may cause shortness of breath for a few days.
Reviewed April 2004.