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New Mexico, billed as the 'land of enchantment', is a geological wonderland featuring everything from the high Rocky Mountain ranges of the north, the Chihuahuan Desert in the south, the great plains in the east, the spectacular canyons of the west and, cutting right through the centre, the Rio Grande, a river much revered in a state were water is sacred. A rich heritage of ancient Native American culture and Hispanic occupation combines under a bright blue sky, making a fascinating and colourful mosaic that quite understandably draws thousands of visitors looking for a destination that brings surprises at every turn, and reveals hidden treasures behind every mysterious rock formation.
Originally the home of the Anasazi people, who evolved into today's Pueblo Indians still living in their traditional settlements, New Mexico was also the scene of territorial wars between the legendary Apache and Navajo tribes. Along came the Spanish explorers and by 1610 the capital of Santa Fe had been founded and settled.
Today the dual Spanish and Indian heritage provides for some fascinating historic attractions in the State, and the 'living museums' of the pueblos welcome visitors. The state was also home to some of the most legendary mountain men and notorious cowboys, like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, not to mention cattle barons like John Chisum who grew rich rounding up longhorns on the southeastern plains. From cowboys to alien space ships is a big leap, but one New Mexico makes with ease in the town of Roswell in the southeast, where UFO enthusiasts flock to investigate the famed 'Roswell Incident'.
Aside from its historic and physical attractions New Mexico has the special appeal of being caught in a time warp. A laid-back attitude prevails even in the cities, and the pace is as slow and languid as the ascent of the myriad of colourful hot-air balloons that fill the skies over the city of Albuquerque in the world-famous annual festival.
New Mexico is a sublime state for the adventurous, offering visitors outstanding natural beauty in the form of desert landscapes, gorges and canyons as well as a rich ancient Native American and Hispanic heritage. With vibrant cities to enjoy as well as the great outdoors, New Mexico makes for a unique holiday experience.
The state's capital, Santa Fe, is a great place to start. Offering visitors a great history made tangible in its many world-class museums and galleries, including the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, it is also a wonderful center for shopping, craft-collecting and gourmet cuisine. Resting at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, a journey to Santa Fe should include exploring the remains of its 2,000 year-old Pueblo civilisation along the Rio Grande, and a colonial history dating back 400 years in the central plaza and winding alleys of the city itself.
Another city worth the visit is Albuquerque. For those with a taste for top-class New Mexican cuisine and plenty of diversions to work off the culinary over-indulgence, Albuquerque is the place to be. Apart from the food there are a variety of active pursuits, from cycling to dancing. Families are also guaranteed plenty of natural and recreational attractions. Albuquerque offers a taste of historic New Mexican life at attractions such as the Albuquerque Museum, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the exciting Museum of Natural History and Science.
The Land of Enchantment is a haven for those with a love for the outdoors, of course. The likes of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, gives visitors the chance to explore cave chambers and take on paved trails. The Taos Gorge Bridge also captures the spirit of adventure; rafting under it provides excitement as does merely gasping at the views from on top - it is the fifth highest bridge in the US, 650 feet (200m) above the Rio Grande. For avid hikers the Petroglyph National Monument is a popular choice; hikers can follow various trails and explore the Boca Negra Canyon.
The awe-inspiring view of Albuquerque can be had from nearly one mile (2km) above the city on top of Sandia Crest, the windy mountaintop where the view extends for over 1,000 miles (1,609km). Simply follow Tramway Boulevard for a few miles north of the city to board the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, the world's longest continuous jigback passenger tramway, which makes the ascent from the foothills to the summit in about 20 minutes.
In winter, skiers make use of the more than 30 trails descending from the mountain crest, while in summer hikers and mountain bikers can take the tramway up and enjoy nature on their way down. Pleasure seekers simply ride to the top to enjoy the view, which is particularly spectacular at sunset, and enjoy a meal at the High Finance Restaurant with its picture windows.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is designed to give an introduction to New Mexico's rich Native American cultural heritage and the 19 individual pueblo communities of the State. The centre is situated on 12th Street, about a mile northeast of the Old Town in Albuquerque. It is a recreation of Pueblo Bonito, a ruined Indian village in the Chaco Culture National Historic Park dating from the 9th century.
The centre also features a museum displaying early photographs, artefacts, and artworks. A restaurant serves traditional fare, and traditional dances are performed by different tribal groups. Those interested in seeing the real thing can make an excursion to Pueblo Acoma, 60 miles (96km) west of Albuquerque, the oldest inhabited village in the United States, situated on a 367-foot (112m) high sandstone rock.
One of Alquerque's best attractions is the 17-mile-long (27km) stretch of escarpment of the West Mesa, that is a treasure-trove of more than 25,000 prehistoric and historic rock carvings or petroglyphs, some dating as far back as 2,000 years.
Maps and information about the geology and history of the area are available from the Las Imágenes Visitor Center. Hikers can follow various trails to explore the Boca Negra Canyon, or join rangers on scheduled walks during the summer months. Picnic areas, drinking water, and restroom facilities are provided.
Albuquerque's Rattlesnake Museum is an exciting and educational experience. Billed as an animal conservation museum, the establishment is dedicated to displaying how rattlesnakes influence our lives. Exhibits include artefacts, memorabilia, and the largest collection of live rattlesnakes in the world. The snakes, gathered from North, Central and South America, are kept in specially recreated habitats.
The exciting Museum of Natural History takes visitors on a trip through 12 billion years, from the formation of the universe up to the present day. From the earth's beginnings exhibits, displays, and recreated scenes take you through an erupting volcano, an ice-age cave, an aquarium, the dinosaur age, and a fossil centre, giant-screen theatre, planetarium and a naturalist centre, to name just a few of the educational entertainments offered.
The Albuquerque Museum, on the edge of the city's Old Town, explores New Mexico's history and heritage. With the largest collection of Spanish colonial artefacts in the United States, the museum also pays homage to the Vaqueros, the original cowboys who rode the range in New Mexico in the 16th century.
Exhibits like Spanish armour and swords mingle with a recreated 18th-century adobe house compound. There are also hands-on experiences to try like spinning wool, and a theatre where films about the city are shown regularly. The museum provides a walking tour of the Old Town area departing at 11am each day except Monday during spring, summer and fall.
Travellers who abandon the highway and opt for the scenic byways will be rewarded with the Turquoise Trail state-designated scenic and historic route, which runs from Albuquerque to Sante Fe through the majestic Sandia Mountains, passing through the revived 'ghost' towns of New Mexico's mining belt.
The route begins on NM14 about 16 miles (26km) east of central Albuquerque, covering about 61 miles (98km) before reaching Sante Fe. En route is the Cibola National Forest, mining towns of Madrid, Golden, and Cerrillos filled with art and craft practitioners, the Tinkertown Museum, Museum of Archaeology, Old Coal Mine Museum, and the Turquoise Mining Museum.
The town of Roswell in south-east New Mexico has become the focus of UFO and alien hunters from all over the world every. This is ever since the 'Roswell Incident' in 1947, when an alien craft purportedly crashed near the town leaving surviving extra-terrestrials. Conspiracy theorists believe government authorities deliberately covered up the crash.
The incident is highlighted at the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Main Street, along with a large collection of UFO memorabilia and artefacts. The museum also features a worldwide UFO sighting map and a comprehensive library. Roswell itself is just as UFO-crazy, and you can eat at UFO-themed cafes, and buy just about anything you can think of with an alien on it.
To begin sightseeing in Santa Fe, start where it all began on the city's historic central Plaza. It is dominated by the adobe structure known as the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the United States. The palace was built in 1610 as Spain's seat of government for what is today the American Southwest. It still bears the scars of having survived Indian revolts and occupation and Mexican Independence; it was later occupied by Confederate forces when they attempted to take New Mexico
Fittingly, in 1909 the building was converted into the Museum of New Mexico and is now the principal of Santa Fe's four museums, preserving 400 years of the state's history from the 16th century Spanish explorations through the frontier era to modern times. Exhibits range from a stagecoach and kitchen utensils to paintings on bison hide and a state seal made from spoons, quills and tacks.
Opposite the Governor's Palace on Santa Fe's historic Plaza stands a prime example of Pueblo Revival architecture, built in 1917, which houses the state's oldest art museum, home to more than 20,000 works of art. The distinguished collection spans the historic art colonies of Taos and Santa Fe of the past 100 years, right up to contemporary art, focussing on the southwest region. There is also a collection of photographs and two sculpture gardens housing traditional and abstract works.
The most important and comprehensive collection of cross-cultural folk art in the world is housed in the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art, about two miles (3km) southeast of the city's central Plaza on the old Sante Fe Trail.
Fascinating for tourists, and a treasure trove for researchers, scholars, and contemporary artisans, the collection of the museum runs to about 125,000 pieces, divided into categories. Of particular note are the Spanish Colonial collection, the south-western Hispanic Art collection of 20th century works, and collections of international textiles and costumes. There are examples of folk art from more than 100 different countries.
The museum dedicated to the work of artist Georgia O'Keeffe opened in 1997, eleven years after the death of the artist who loved the state of New Mexico. Since then the museum has welcomed more than 1.3 million visitors, who come to enjoy the exhibition of the works of one of the most important artists of the 20th century.
Georgia O'Keeffe was a leading member of one of the avant-garde art movements in New York in the 1920s, creating art that expressed wideness and wonder. She featured the high deserts and dramatic cliffs of New Mexico frequently in her work. The Santa Fe museum in a former Baptist church containss a permanent collection with more than 130 O'Keeffe paintings, drawings and sculptures. This makes it the largest concentration of her work in the world and it is the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to one woman's work.
Although the Loretto Chapel on the Old Santa Fe Trail is no longer used for worship, it nevertheless remains a place of congregation, mainly for tourists who come to marvel at the chapel's 'miraculous' spiral staircase. The chapel, copied from Sainte-Chapelle Church in Paris, was built in 1873 to serve as chapel for the Sisters of Loretto's school for young women.
When the building was close to completion workers discovered the design had not left sufficient room for the proposed staircase to the choir loft. The only answer appeared to be a cumbersome ladder, which was not an attractive proposition for the Loretto sisters who decided to pray about the problem to St Joseph. Their prayers were answered in the form of a carpenter riding a donkey, who arrived and offered to build a spiral staircase. He accomplished this with only a saw, hammer and T-square, manufacturing a miraculous staircase, which is held aloft by no visible means of support.
The 'Ranch of the Swallows' (El Rancho de las Golondrinas) was originally a ranch founded in the early 1700s, but today offers an entertaining and educational attraction about 15 miles (24km) south-east of Santa Fe's central Plaza.
The ranch was once the last stopping place on the thousand-mile El Camino Real (Royal Road) between Mexico City and Santa Fe. It has been fully restored as a living village with costumed villagers portraying life in early New Mexico. The first weekend in June brings the Spring Festival, and the first weekend in October is devoted to a Harvest Festival, highlighted on the ranch calendar. Other special events include a Rennaissance Festival and Wine Festival.
Every day visitors can explore the hacienda, village store, schoolhouse, chapels, kitchens, and other buildings on the ranch, pet farm animals, and watch operations in the working molasses mill, blacksmith shop, shearing and weaving rooms, and winery.
The laid-back mountain resort town of Taos, about 70 miles (113km) north of Santa Fe, is in the centre of New Mexico's most sparsely populated region, serving as a popular ski resort in winter and artist's colony all year round. Aside from the slopes, the main attraction at Taos is Taos Pueblo, the largest of northern New Mexico's Indian pueblos where life has changed little since ancient times.
In the town, which sits between the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains and the deep Rio Grande Gorge, the old Spanish plaza is full of shops and museums and an unusual community who live in half-buried houses and reject materialism. The arts scene is particularly lively, and there are some excellent restaurants. Some of the diversions on offer include llama treks, hiking, biking and white-water rafting.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is a popular attraction in New Mexico. Containing the Carlsbad Cavern, also known as the 'Big Cave', one of the largest underground chambers on earth. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cave is one of 80 around the park, but is incredibly popular for tours due to its stunning stalagmite and stalactite formations.
Visitors enter the cave by descending over 600 feet (183m) in an elevator, and explore the chambers via paved trails that are mostly wheelchair accessible. There is also a natural entrance by the visitor centre, involving a longer and rougher walk.
Located in the middle of an arid desert that sees only eight inches (20cm) of rain per year, Las Cruces was an important waypoint on El Camino Royal, a trade route between Santa Fe and Mexico City.
The historic town acted as the backdrop for wild west dramas involving Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa, and has museums dedicated to farm and ranching history, natural history, and railroads in New Mexico. The New Mexico State University Museum has several exhibits on local history and archaeology. There is also an older settlement located in nearby Mesilla with a historic district of traditional adobe buildings.
The summer months from May to October are the warmest, but also the wettest. July and August receive the most rainfall, about 30 to 40 percent of the annual total, which occurs mostly during brief thunderstorms. During the height of summer the temperature averages 90°F (32°C), with cooler temperatures at higher altitudes. January is the coldest month with average temperatures ranging from 55°F (13°C) in the central and southern valleys to 35°F (2°C) at higher elevations.
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