New Mexico  is a state in the American Southwest. A Spanish and then Mexican colony until the Mexican War of the 1840s, New Mexico still has a large native Spanish-speaking population, as well as many Native American communities.
Understanding New Mexico starts with grasping the overpowering importance of two of its geological features: the Rio Grande, which bisects the state north to south, and the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains, southernmost range of the Rocky Mountains and a part of the same large-scale geological structure that produces the Rio, the "Rio Grande rift." The eastern third of the state is an extension of the Great Plains both geographically and culturally and has more in common with the western parts of Texas and Oklahoma than with the rest of New Mexico. The western third, beyond the Rio and the assortment of minor mountain ranges (Nacimientos, Magdalenas, and the not-so-minor Jemez Mountains) to its west, is part of the same "basin and range" geography as comprises much of Arizona and Nevada, with a little Utah canyon country thrown in toward the northwest corner.
It's the area in between these two sparsely inhabited regions that gives the state much of its identity, houses the majority of its population, and contains many of its travel attractions. The "Rio Grande Corridor" starts at the Colorado state line and includes (from north to south) such well-known places as Taos, Los Alamos, Santa Fe (one of the world's great travel destinations), Albuquerque, and Las Cruces at the southern end of the state. Travelers who have seen only the flat emptiness of the eastern side or the rugged desolation of the western third simply do not expect this region, with its snowcapped mountains, fertile riparian habitat along the Rio, and a population density that, while not high by the standards of the United States (let alone Europe), is still unusual in the Southwest. Most of the state's many American Indian reservations are here (Navajo Nation, however, is in the northwest region), as are the most conspicuous remnants of the Spanish influence resulting from the state's ties to Mexico that persisted into the 19th century. At the same time, the relative prosperity of this area (although no part of New Mexico can really be considered "wealthy" except in isolated neighborhoods) is making several of its communities into high-tech centers, for example the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho that houses a great manufacturing plant for computer components. The Sangre de Cristos and Jemez also create a relatively cool and moist (at least compared to the rest of the state) climate zone in which snow can persist in the highest mountains nearly year-round.
There is also a more subtle north/south dichotomy to the culture and geography that breaks basically along the route of Interstate highway 40, which follows the historic Route 66 across the state. Most of the north/south differences (apart from the observation that the north is higher and cooler than the south) are political in nature and affect residents more than travelers, but they lead to the state self-identifying the six regions given under the "Regions" heading of this article. Note that there is no "South Central" region; the Rio Grande Corridor narrows toward the southern end of the state, and features along the southern Rio are treated in the southwest region.
This said, when you encounter an apparently Spanish place name or surname, as you will in almost all parts of the state, it's wise to pronounce it as Spanish. Anglicizing the pronunciation may be acceptable in some parts of the United States, but is likely to be considered rude here. The Wikitravel Spanish phrasebook can help with this; particular things to be on the alert for are "ñ" (e.g. Española and other place names), double "ll" (e.g. Valles Caldera National Preserve), and double "rr" (e.g. Rio Arriba County in the North Central region, which incidentally is a particularly good place in which to avoid Anglicized Spanish).
The state's only major airport is in Albuquerque, in nearly the exact center of the state. Santa Fe has limited service connecting to Denver. Several of the state's minor cities such as Carlsbad, Farmington, Roswell, Hobbs, and intermittently Gallup and Taos have commuter air service.
For travel to the southern part of the state, particularly the southwestern region, consider flying into El Paso in extreme west Texas. For example, Las Cruces, the state's second largest city, is only 45 miles from El Paso compared to 226 miles from Albuquerque.
Interstate highways 10 and 40 cross the state east/west, the former entering between El Paso and Las Cruces and paralleling the southern border, and the latter following the route of historic Route 66 through the middle of the state. Interstate 25 enters the state in its northeast corner near Raton, passes through the eastern plains, crosses the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, then follows the Rio Grande south through Albuquerque to its terminus at I-10 in Las Cruces.
Although New Mexico has a fairly long border with Mexico, there are few ports of entry. Most traffic inbound from Mexico enters the United States at El Paso and then continues to Las Cruces and beyond. In addition to the usual Customs, etc., at the national border, there are checkpoints along the major highways out of Las Cruces at which vehicles may be searched for illegal immigrants. (If you're considering bringing an illegal in, don't; penalties are serious and enforcement is stepping up, if still uneven.) The small town of Columbus has a border crossing with Mexico that is open 24 hours a day. Santa Teresa NM, adjacent to El Paso and south of Las Cruces also has a port of entry. Although this border crossing is only open from 6AM-10PM, it forms a handy bypass of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso and is an important route for international commerce and travel.
In practice, traffic inbound from neighboring states is generally not subjected to inspection for controlled items, apart from the usual weigh stations, etc., for commercial trucks. However, commercial traffic heading out of New Mexico for Arizona may be inspected on the Arizona side of the state line, owing to concerns about the introduction of agricultural pests.
The Southwest Chief, the main Amtrak line through the southwestern United States, from Chicago to Los Angeles, enters the state westbound at Raton, and basically follows the route of I-25 to Albuquerque, making stops at Las Vegas and Lamy (where you can catch a shuttle bus to Santa Fe). After Albuquerque the train follows the route of I-40 to Gallup and on west.
The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad of Chama (New Mexico) and Antonito, Colorado operates tourist trains with vintage equipment passing attractive scenery, but this line doesn't connect to any commercial railroads and isn't intended to open the state to the traveler from afar. There are presently no other rail services from other states (or Mexico) to points in New Mexico.
The larger cities (Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Santa Fe) have some degree of public transportation, but this is still a state where you'll have to drive most of the time. The Rail Runner commuter train currently connects residential communities with downtown Albuquerque, service to Santa Fe is envisaged.
Roads in New Mexico are generally well maintained and driving itself can be a pleasurable experience here. Although only a few roads are designated scenic drives, most rural highways in the western two thirds of the state provide splendid vistas. However, if you are behind the wheel, please remain attentive to the road and the local driving habits. New Mexico has road conditions and situations that may be different than your own; use caution and drive defensively at all times. Speed limits on interstates are normally 75 miles per hour, except in urban and mountainous areas areas where the speed limit typically drops to 65. Multilane US and state highways have rural speed limits ranging from 45 to 75 miles per hour. Two-lane rural highways have speed limits in the range of 45-65 miles per hour. In urban areas and other communities speed limits can be as low as 15 and as fast as 55 miles per hour, and enforcement is more highly visible and heavy-handed than in rural areas. A number of state highways and most county roads, remarkably enough, are still unpaved and should be driven at reduced speeds. Between this, a number of radar traps, and the fact that many of the roads through the mountains are more sinuous than is apparent on a map, you should expect intercity travel to take a bit longer than the distance would imply, except on the Interstates. There are exceptions in the eastern parts of the state, where you're in serious danger of being run over if you drive as slowly as the speed limits.
Weather-related driving hazards are generally confined to the winter months, when the northern half of the state, as well as the mountainous parts of the southwestern region, can experience snowstorms that close highways or render them hazardous. Have chains or 4-wheel drive available in these areas from December through February, particularly in the mountains. Spring winds can be disconcerting to drivers in tall vehicles and occasionally create reduced visibility from blowing dust, but dust storms are less of a problem than in some neighboring states. <<Most of New Mexico is at higher elevation, hence slightly cooler, than other states of the Southwest; problems with boiling radiators, etc., are therefore not as common, although it's still a good idea to take water with you when driving in the summer.>>
New Mexico has a severe problem with drunk driving, although aggressive enforcement and public-education campaigns have reduced DUI levels somewhat, compared to 10 years ago. No road in the state is immune to this problem; there is no time of day when it cannot occur. Defensive driving is the obvious antidote. Large animals on the roadway create hazards as well, whether from cattle and sheep in the open range in the east and west or from wildlife (notably elk, which can really mess up a car in a collision) in the north central mountains. Again, just drive defensively.
One of the primary attractions of New Mexico is its large and diverse collection of American Indian (or, if you prefer, Native American -- both terms are used in the state) pueblos, reservations, artwork, and of course, people. The north central and central regions have the greatest diversity of Native American centers, while Navajo Nation in the northwest region (extending into the other Four Corners states) is the largest Indian reservation/nation within the contiguous United States. There are a few points of interest in other regions, such as the Mescalero Apache reservation in the southeast region and outlying parts of Navajo Nation in the southwest.
Many, but by no means all, of the American Indian communities welcome visitors, usually with some restrictions. Following are some tips if you're planning to see the sights of these communities:
International Balloon Fiesta
Albuquerque is the host city for the International Balloon Fiesta , held each year during the first full week in October. This extravaganza of color and sound is a unique event, with participants from throughout the world bringing gaily colored and some unusual or "Special Shapes" hot air balloons. As many as 700 or 800 balloons have been registered with mass ascensions highlighting the mornings, balloon glows lighting up the night and competitions sprinkled in for the competitive and professional balloon pilots. And licensed pilots are required! This event draws tens of thousands of visitors to Albuquerque and New Mexico each year as participants, ground chase crew members and observers.
A considerable portion of New Mexico is preserved in national parks and monuments, national forests, wildlife refuges, and other wild areas, and is available to the hiker/backpacker. The pronounced north-south elevation gradient means that one part or another of the state has satisfactory hiking weather throughout the year. Good places and times for hiking include:
Alpine skiing  is popular in New Mexico and is much more widely available than the state's desert image would suggest. Most of the state's ski areas are in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the north central part of the state, the best known being at Taos and Santa Fe. However, there are also interesting areas near Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains, possibly in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque, and at Ruidoso in the southeastern part of the state.
Nordic (cross-country) skiing is also widely practiced, although snow conditions are marginal in some years. The most reliable snow for Nordic skiing is near Cumbres Pass on the Colorado state line near Chama. There is usually enough snow around Taos for Nordic work, and Enchanted Forest Nordic Ski Center near Red River maintains an extensive network of groomed trails. Nordic skiing at Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains is of variable quality; the scenery is gorgeous, but snowpack varies greatly from year to year and may be insufficient to allow much skiing.
Two things to keep in mind if you're coming to New Mexico to ski: First, check on snow conditions before coming. Snowfall varies wildly from year to year in this area. The resulting variations in snowpack are such that even Taos may have marginal conditions, and some of the lower areas may not be open at all. On the other hand, if you come in a good snow year, conditions will be among the best in the world, so it's worth your time to do some research on conditions. Second, the ski areas are at high altitude by the standards of most of the world's Alpine ski resorts. If you're prone to altitude sickness, take precautions before coming, and spend a day or two acclimatizing in the towns before you start to ski.
A distinctive regional cuisine has developed in New Mexico. Often considered a subset of "Mexican" food, "New Mexican" cooking is characterized by:
These components merge into a cuisine that ranges from utterly basic, everyday-lunch fare (served almost everywhere in the state) to incredibly elaborate "Southwestern" meals with any number of exotic variations and add-ons. Santa Fe is justly famous for its rich assortment of New Mexican and Southwestern restaurants, but don't eat New Mexican food just there; there are a number of subtle variations in New Mexican cooking in the different regions of the state (for example, topping enchiladas with a fried egg is characteristic of southern New Mexican food but rare in the north), and you'll be well advised to experiment locally.
If you're planning on crossing into Mexico, the crossings at Juarez (reached via El Paso or Santa Teresa) are far busier than the one near Columbus, with all that that entails -- longer lines on the US side, but more to do once you're over the border. The mercado is busy, schlocky, and colorful. One warning: drinking age in Juarez is 18, and on weekends, many younger students at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, and at colleges in El Paso, make the pilgrimage to indulge. Traffic back into Las Cruces can be frightening at such times. Be cautious.
Some destinations in other states that are close to their borders with New Mexico and hence reachable as day excursions are (clockwise from the southwest corner):