YOU CAN EDIT THIS PAGE! Just click any blue "Edit" link and start writing!

New Mexico

From Wikitravel
Revision as of 23:50, 31 March 2007 by (talk) (Understand)
Jump to: navigation, search
New Mexico

Default Banner.jpg

New Mexico [1] 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.

Adobe architecture, Eldorado Hotel, Santa Fe



Other destinations


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 Grande 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.


"American Indian" or "Native American"?
In many places in the United States, the neologism "Native American" has replaced "American Indian" as the descriptor for indigenous peoples, "American Indian" being viewed by some as pejorative. In New Mexico, however, "American Indian" is still widely used, and indeed was preferred by members of several northern New Mexico pueblos in a poll conducted a few years ago. (Actually, the most common response was "it doesn't really matter," but "American Indian" was preferred by a plurality of those who expressed an opinion.) You can use either term without discomfort, and need not go to any lengths to structure your language one way or the other when visiting the Institute of American Indian Arts, Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremonials, Santa Fe Indian Market, etc.

If you worry that you'll have to speak Spanish to get around in New Mexico, don't worry, and you're not alone. New Mexico magazine [2], the state's tourist rag (and a better-than-average read by the standards of such things), carries a regular column called "One of our Fifty Is Missing" that describes the many humorous misconceptions (the polite word) that the state and its residents experience at the hands of those seemingly unaware that New Mexico is part of the United States; linguistic misunderstandings are among the more frequent anecdotes appearing there. In fact, English will do just fine, although particularly in the North Central and Northwest regions, you'll have a good chance of running into people for whom English is a second, or even third, language, behind Spanish and/or a tribal language. Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Los Alamos and Santa Fe all have notably diverse populations that include native speakers of most of the world's major languages. It's common (if unexpected, given the town's historic secrecy) to walk into a store or restaurant in Los Alamos and hear a conversation between storekeeper and patron in Russian or Chinese, or even Polish or Korean.

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).

Get in

By air

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.

By car

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.

By rail

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 Sunset Limited makes its way from Orlando to Los Angeles, with stops at El Paso, TX, Deming, and Lordsburg.

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.

Get around

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. With the exception of the southern deserts, much of New Mexico is at a higher elevation, hence 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 serious problem with drunk driving, although aggressive enforcement and public-education campaigns have been enacted to reduce DUI incidents. 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 cause severe damage in a collision) in the north central mountains.


Native Americana

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:

  • Check the regional articles for guidance on which pueblos/reservations are open to visitors; not all will be.
  • Please respect local regulations regarding photography and sketching! Most north-central and central pueblos require would-be photographers and artists to pay for permits issued by the pueblo administration, and some don't allow photography or sketching at all. If the restrictions seem draconian, remember that these are not museum exhibits or theme parks, they're towns and settlements where people live their daily lives.
  • Most of the pueblos and reservations hold ceremonial dances, feasts and sings that welcome visitors, as well as some others of a more private, religious nature at which visitors are unwelcome if not forbidden. Many have succeeded in reconciling their historic religious practices with the dominant Christian (particularly Catholic) practice, and celebrations at Christmas (in some cases extending through much of December), Easter, and the feast day of San Antonio (June) are generally open to visitors.
  • For many residents of some pueblos and reservations, not only is English not the primary daily language, it may not be spoken fluently or at all. Most residents in the "service" sector (i.e., those you'll interact with first) are as fluent in English as their Anglo colleagues in neighboring communities, and there is no reason to speak to them in a patronizing or condescending manner. However, if you venture far from the main tourist centers, you may run into language issues, although you're still odds-on to deal with English speakers. Patience and gestures will overcome many obstacles, but be aware that in certain areas (notably Navajo Nation) it is considered rude to point with extended fingers. A nod or tip of the head for indicating direction is considered more polite (true among fluent English speakers as well).

International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque is the host city for the International Balloon Fiesta [3], 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:

  • The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, highest and most important range in the state, include several wilderness areas. Important trail heads are near Taos and Santa Fe on the west side, and near the otherwise obscure town of Cowles on the east. Hiking is best from June to September; many high-country trails will be snow-packed from November through May, and October is hunting season, when non-hunters do well to stay off the trails.
  • The Jemez Mountains are a major volcanic range near Los Alamos and include Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve. Bandelier offers excellent hiking practically year-round (hot in mid-summer), while the higher parts of the range are in Santa Fe National Forest or the Preserve and are good for summer and fall hiking. Note that a disastrous forest fire in the year 2000 severely degraded outdoor recreation in parts of the Jemez, but there are still plenty of opportunities.
  • The Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, and their southern extension into the Manzano Mountains, offer hiking and rock climbing. The La Luz Trail enters the mountains from Albuquerque itself and is possibly the most-used trail in the state. Hiking is usually feasible practically year-round, although snow will be sufficient in some but not all winters to make the high-country trails impassable.
  • The Gila Wilderness, in the southwest region near Silver City, is the largest roadless area in the state. Many of the trailheads into the Gila are remote and hard to reach, but as compensation offer a chance to get away from the crowds. Generally hikeable year-round, although the lower elevations will be uncomfortably hot in mid-summer.
  • The Organ Mountains, in the southern part of the state, have several hiking trails close to major towns (notably Las Cruces), as well as spectacular rock climbing. Visit the Organs in fall, winter or spring; they're not high enough to escape the fierce heat of the summer.
  • White Sands National Monument is a white dune-covered area in the middle of a desert valley with lower-key hiking than the committal mountain trails. Picnics are common, and adults and children alike love to climb the snowy white hills of beach-like sand. Go in fall or winter; wind is nasty in spring, and it's blazing hot in the summer.


Alpine skiing [4] 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:

  • First and foremost, chile peppers. New Mexico chiles, despite their reputation, are generally not as hot as habaneros and some Asian peppers, although their spiciness can still come as quite a jolt to the palate unused to spicy foods. Chiles are green for most of their growing life but turn red and dry out as they mature, and can be picked and cooked either "red" or "green." When you order a New Mexican dish in a restaurant, you'll be asked whether you prefer red or green sauce, referring to the color -- maturity -- of the peppers used to prepare the sauce. Red is usually, though not always, spicier, while green is more flavorful and substantial; try both while you're here. (Incidentally, "red" chile has nothing at all in common with the red "chili" -- note spelling -- typical of Tex-Mex-style Mexican food, which is generally scoffed at in New Mexico.) The small town of Hatch, near Las Cruces, is famous for its chile farms, and is a good place to pick up some chile to take home.
  • The sopaipilla, a light, puffy fry bread that can be served as a side dish or turned into an entree by stuffing it with meat, cheese, beans and chile peppers. The stuffed sopaipilla is perhaps the quintessential New Mexican dish and is most commonly seen in the northern half of the state (southerly restaurants are more likely to involve tortillas as the table bread, as in the cuisine of "old" Mexico). As a dessert, sopaipillas are often topped with sugar and honey.
  • "Blue corn," which is just what it sounds like: corn in which the kernels, and resulting corn meal, have a distinctive bluish color. Tortillas made with blue corn differ from the usual tortillas not only to the eye but also to the palate, with a pleasingly gritty consistency and slightly "nutty" taste. Enchiladas made with blue-corn-meal tortillas are characteristic of Santa Fe and environs and have become trendy on a national if not world-wide level.
  • Piñon nuts, the fruit of the scruffy little piñon pine tree that is widespread in the state. These can be eaten as snacks or as components of dishes, particularly some of the upper-end "Southwestern" cuisine.

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.


  • Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces are the only cities large enough to have significant night life. However, several of the American Indian pueblos operate casinos that bring in name-brand entertainment. The casinos themselves are controversial locally because of problems with patrons with gambling addictions, but the entertainment can be reasonably good.
  • There are a surprising number of wineries in New Mexico, concentrated mainly in the north central region, with others scattered between Albuquerque and Socorro in the central part of the state, and near Deming and Alamogordo in the south.
  • The wine- and fruit-based beverage known as sangría, more commonly associated with Spain, is also widespread in New Mexico. Most restaurants with a liquor license that serve New Mexican cuisine will also serve sangría.
  • Warning: small-town bars, particularly in the northern part of the state, are not always good places for the out-of-state visitor to patronize. Firstly, northern New Mexico has significant problems with drunk driving, and the concentration of intoxicated drivers is high close to small-town bars. Also, there have been ethnic tensions intermittently in this part of the state that have led to serious bar fights, some of which have involved visitors.

Stay safe


  • Albuquerque has a crime rate that is higher than average for an American city, but most of it is property crime that affects residents more than visitors. The "South Valley" and the region between the University of New Mexico and Kirtland Air Force Base (including the infamous "War Zone" near the state fairgrounds, the site of some nasty drug-related crime) are best avoided by solitary travelers after dark. Otherwise there are no specific violent-crime issues that unduly threaten the visitor.
  • Illegal immigrants are a problem in the southern region of the state, although less of one than in neighboring Arizona. There are checkpoints along major highways leading north, at which the Border Patrol checks vehicles for illegal passengers. Behave sensibly at them and you won't have any problems.
  • There are some social problems associated with the drug trade that may create unpleasant situations for the unwary visitor in some areas. The world-wide cautions regarding packages from strangers, etc., apply here too, and in addition, some caution is indicated in rural areas of the north central and northwestern regions. The former is a notorious "pipeline" for narcotics entering the country from Mexico, and you really don't want to blunder into a drug deal being transacted in the hinterlands. The main drug-related hazard in the rugged northwest is that it is a "drop zone" for contraband delivered by light plane. If you see a small plane drop below the local horizon when you know there is no airport around, don't investigate; chances are good that a shipment of something illegal has just been delivered to waiting, unfriendly people on the ground. This is less of a problem today than 20 years ago, but can still lead to decidedly hairy situations.
  • Drunk driving is a notorious social problem in New Mexico, particularly in the northern half of the state. There is no hour of the day, and no road, immune to DUI. Simply drive defensively.


  • Disease: New Mexico made unpleasant headlines a few years ago owing to an outbreak of the "Sin Nombre" hantaviral lung disease that claimed some lives and depressed the tourist industry. Realistically, however, hantavirus is of very little concern to the traveler, as is the better-known bubonic plague that is endemic in the state's rodent population. Sensible precautions apply here as anywhere else (don't handle dead animals, don't poke around in animal dens, etc.), but these just aren't major concerns. Much more prevalent, if less threatening, is the Giardia parasite that causes gastro-intestinal disturbances; to avoid it, purify water if backpacking or camping. Tap water state-wide is generally safe.
  • Most of the state is high desert. When out and about, use sun screen, and if hiking, carry more water than you think you'll need. It's wise to wear long pants when hiking (particularly off-trail) in the desert, even if they're uncomfortably warm; most of the desert flora and fauna are thorny, spiny or venomous, and long pants will help keep you from being stuck or bitten. (Don't worry unduly about rattlesnakes, though; many long-time residents of the state have never seen one, and bites are rare.) If bicycling, beware the dreaded "goat head," an invasive weed whose seeds, distributed in the fall, seem tailor-made for puncturing bike tires -- they look like a miniature version of the caltrops used in ancient days to hinder passage of foot soldiers. Carry a patch kit and a spare tube, particularly in the fall.
  • The mountains of the north (and some near Alamogordo in the south) are high enough to create hazards from altitude sickness and some other environmental threats. The high peaks create thunderstorms in the summer, so that the wise hiker is off the summits by 1 p.m. or so to avoid lightning strikes. Avalanches are fairly common in the Sangre de Cristos during the winter, and can occur in some of the other ranges.

Get out

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 New Mexico border and, hence, reachable as day excursions are (clockwise from the southwest corner):

This is a usable article. It gives a good overview of the region, its sights, and how to get in, as well as links to the main destinations, whose articles are similarly well developed. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!