New Mexico is America's best-kept secret — or, it was until Vince Gilligan revealed it with his pesky Breaking Bad genius. While six seasons of Walter White and co. revealed the unbridled beauty of the New Mexican high desert; you must go there to experience its impact.
Santa Fe Decor
When you arrive at Albuquerque International Sunport, you know you are disembarking at a unique place. The airport's decor pays homage to its rich Native American past, representing the 19 Pueblos of this ancient land while curating works of art from around the state.
The airport is, in equal measure, a travel hub and an art gallery. Not only is the new visitor welcomed with the homeliest airport in the Southwest, but one can get lost enjoying the sculptures, jewelry, earthenware art, paintings, and photographs that decorate the airport — this sets the tone for the rest of your stay.
As you hit the I-40 north above the city, you can't miss the hulking Sandia Peak – that famous broken watermelon-shaped mountain that is now the backdrop to dozens of movies. The further from the city you drive, the more spectacular it becomes. If you are fortunate enough to head north at sunset, you will catch it from a distance in all its dusk-red glory.
Downtown Santa Fe
The drive to Santa Fe takes you on a gradual ascent from Albuquerque's humble 6000 ft altitude through sweeping rust-colored canyons and over vast, prehistoric arroyos – revealing New Mexico's topographical underwater heritage. If you look closely, famous shooting locations from Breaking Bad are visible from the interstate.
There is no better time to see New Mexico's magic than during Christmas, and no place embodies this spirit more than the capital, Santa Fe.
Fresco de Maria
The city has become a dark horse in the modern art world. Santa Fe now boasts over 250 art galleries and several art museums, namely the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Indian American Museum of Contemporary Arts, and the Georgia O' Keefe Museum, named after the state's most famous artist.
They also have SITE Santa Fe, an experimental modern art space near the bohemian Railyard District.
There is a reason artists flock to the state: it boasts the highest capital in the United States — the new laws on recreational cannabis aside — with some of the clearest air and best light in the country. Furthermore, there are more than 300 days of sunshine a year: the visibility on a bright, sunny day is mindblowing.
The day after Thanksgiving, Santa Feans first herald the Christmas period with the switching-on of Santa Fe Plaza's lights and Christmas tree. Following this is the beginning of GLOW at Santa Fe Botanical Garden, in which ambient light displays go up throughout the grounds.
Residents might tell you it is Christmas all year in the Land of Enchantment. Whenever you order a burrito or enchiladas at one of the New Mexican eateries, you will receive a simple question after your order — “Red, green, or Christmas?”
Most tourists are baffled at this coded request, though it doesn't take long before locals tell them what to do. As with most food here, fire-roasted chile (this is how New Mexicans spell it) accompanies many dishes.
In this case, red means red chile sauce; green means green, while “Christmas” means a perfect ration of both. Sidenote: there is no rule enforcing this option over Christmas, though many people do so anyway.
Santa Fe Christmas
New Mexican cuisine is different from its cousin from the south: it draws from the influence of the indigenous Native Pueblo agriculture. Whatsmore, it incorporates more ingredients from the high desert region. Additions such as hominy (dried corn kernels), Hatch green chiles (from the Hatch Valley), and piñon (pine) nuts are notable staples here.
Lights of the Season
Any visitor is spoilt for choice with New Mexican cuisine in Santa Fe, which has the state's highest concentration of New Mexican restaurants. Albuquerque is the largest population center and has a wider range of food options, though nothing like the ambiance of the state capital.
Over the Santa Fe Christmas period, visitors can sample the plethora of local dishes such as posole, chile relleño, or green chile stew, followed by some local wine. They can then even go to one of the state's many wineries, where they will find prize-winning Sangioveses, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Zinfandels to compete with any other region in the country.
If this isn't enough for the adventurous types, Ski Santa Fe is a short drive away. Nestled among the feather-like aspens high above the city in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the ski resort has a good blend of ski runs for all levels and even snow-tubing for kids.
Ski Santa Fe is even open on Christmas Day, with the local staff getting into the holiday swing, dressing as Christmas characters. The Christmas Day ski has become a tradition for many families in the area: A half-day on the slopes followed by lunch is normal in a city that attracts diverse residents united by a love of the outdoors.
For the more relaxed souls, there is a wide array of cultural experiences from which to choose. Santa Fe has an opera house (where The Nutcracker is a Christmas fixture) and St. Francis Cathedral, which has regular carol-singing and Christmas performances in the build-up to Midnight Mass on December 24.
December in Santa Fe
Every weekend is booked on the December calendar page in Santa Fe. On the second weekend of the month, Las Posadas is a reenactment of Joseph and Mary's passage to Bethlehem, while the New Mexico History Museum and the Museum of Modern Art open their doors for free. Something is endearing about a Santa Fe Christmas; local people's kindness and generosity know no bounds.
Lots of Lights
More cultural riches come with the Santa Fe Indian Winter Market, which brings Pueblo Native Americans from across the land to set up a stall selling handmade trinkets and artwork. Talking to the artists and discussing their stories is one of the market's bonuses. New Mexico's 19 Pueblos' artisans are usually happy to talk about their work.
Native American culture is central to much of the landscape in northern New Mexico, and a short drive in any direction from Santa Fe will bring you to one of eight local northern Pueblos.
Throughout the year, feast dance celebrations occur in the Pueblo squares. People are welcome to visit with a reservation and adherence to the customs and rules — no photography, alcohol, or obnoxious behavior. If you book ahead, you may be lucky enough to see this spectacle.
Colors and Lights
This year, the Acoma and the Nambe Pueblos will uphold the tradition of the deer dance, antelope dance, or buffalo dance; others, such as the Ockay Owingeh and famous Taos Pueblo will perform Los Matachines — a dance with its origins in medieval Spain.
For those who wish to unwind, take in the oldest state capital in the land, and enjoy the white winter scenery, there is nothing like hitting Canyon Road in the artistic eastern quarter.
By day, one can mooch around the dozens of galleries, cafes, and artisan hubs scattered among the mellow terracotta-hued lines of the residential pueblo architecture.
However, the time to visit is at night.
The experience of a Canyon Road walk on Christmas Eve is something to behold. Whether you are a Christmas lover or a Grinch, nothing prepares you for seeing the Santa Fe Christmas lanterns – or farolitos that greet you from afar.
The Light Inside
Canyon Road is where the locals flock on Christmas Eve before heading to Mass at their church or St. Francis Cathedral. Those lucky enough to visit during snowfall will marvel at the hearty glow of candle-lit paper lights lining the walls, sides of the street, and trees.
These designs range from uniform lines of brown paper bags to bold, handmade Christmas designs or expensive glassware ornaments. Hanging above the front doors, you will see ristras — bunches of New Mexican red chiles strung together. Ristras indicate a welcome to the adobe dwelling and denote typical New Mexican hospitality.
The greatest aspect of a Santa Fe Christmas is how residents open their backyards or porches, inviting strangers to gather around the fire and share a chorus or two of “Felíz Navidad” before toasting the holiday with hot spiced cider or wine.
Celebrations this magical must happen over Christmas in other parts of the world, but nobody does it quite like Santa Fe.
Christmas in the Midwest or the upper mountain states guarantees snow; Christmas in New York guarantees a spectacle like no other; Christmas in Santa Fe guarantees friendship, warmth, and a community experience that is hard to beat.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.