If you like it rough, then you’ll love Santa Fe.
I didn’t start coming to Santa Fe until five years ago, 408 years – give or take – after its grand opening. Yes, I’m a little late to the party, but a half-dozen trips since, I’m happy to report that the spirituality for sale here is bullshit.
Hundreds of “lost” souls, celebrities and trustafarians will certainly pounce on that Spinal Tap-ish take! They know better: Santa Fe is about as zen as the Level 3 at Horseman’s Haven. There are no soft edges in this town, no matter how many crystals you buy or springs you soak in. Sooner or later, you’ll get tweaked… literally or figuratively. And that’s a good thing.
And the world is full of energy
To be clear, Santa Fe radiates something, and for lack of a better term, let us call it energy. It ebbs and flows amongst its varying demographic, just not in the way the for-profit healers think. The energy I’ve encountered mirrors the medieval city layout – evidenced by mini-fortresses down every road, holding off an unseen intruder – the contrasting infinite landscape that surrounds the town, and ultimately, its people. It is a force neither good nor evil, it’s just simply there, waiting to latch onto you and force you to make a decision. The catch: you can’t opt out.
This makes Santa Fe something of a sorting hat for newcomers: harness the energy of Santa Fe and redistribute as you are wont and you will survive, quite possibly thrive. Artistic tribes that put Santa Fe on the cultural map are Exhibit A. Ignore or underestimate its grip and pay the price. Santa Fe is not for rookies, but maybe that’s where the healers come in. Come to visit, but don’t stay unless you plan to take this town seriously.
My preferred demographic is the strain who own and/or operate bars and restaurants. I bear witness to the generosity and depravity of man – sometimes all in the same man – as tequila coarses throughout the evening. Santa Fe restaurants produce Michelin-worthy cuisine and equally admirable take-out at a tenth of the price. Regardless of the food you elect to be put in front of you, this town always tempts you to throw down.
And throw down we do.
Eating & Drinking
All trips to Santa Fe should begin and end with a trip to Cowgirl BBQ (that doesn’t imply passing out at the bar and starting over at brunch). Originally the Cowgirl Hall of Fame Restaurant (and originally from NYC!!), this city-block empire is a non-denominational, salt-rimmed interactive drinking museum with cowpoke hosts to make your experience that much more authentic. It’s warm and weathered, delicious yet still tinged with danger.
Maybe it’s the history of bar fights and bartop dancing… back in the day, Pearl beer night created lines down the block while Hollywood faces seduced post-college cocktail waitresses from out of the weeds. While those days are mostly over, regulars who have weathered every storm from their favorite barstools intermingle with hipsters, families and non-ironic western clothing wearers alike. There’s not a place on this earth where it feels like a fight could break out at anytime but also sport a tasty kids’ menu and delightful brunch. Bonus: Cowgirl has a better beer list than you think.
When in Rome… do you really want to go an entire trip to New Mexico without being asked “red or green?” This one-story palace is dedicated to all things tequila and that ubiquitous question. They have rellenos for days but it’s the adovada that grips on you immediately. Good adovada sauce is the perfect glowing red color with the temperament of lava, slowly engulfing and infusing the pork immersed in its path. This is not a runny adovada, which is to say if you like runny adovada, you might also like cold breakfast burritos. Run from runny adovada. Stop at Tomasita’s.
There aren’t many places like the Palace anymore. Poor lighting – what’s lit is in red – glamorizes huge overstuffed booths and dark wood since your eyes would prefer not to take in the condition of their surroundings. This is a place where 4s turn into 8s and good decisions become an afterthought. Not every night can be legendary at the Palace, but the chances are if you don’t have to work the next day, you should like your odds. (Update, 12/11/18: The Palace shuttered inexplicably on 12/5/18. The Palace had closed once in 2007 but took five years to re-open. Don’t hold your breath and feel free to consider the above paragraph to be its first eulogy. )
Regarding the Matador, you either like tiny basement bars with outdoor concrete steps descending to the entrance, a cash-only drink menu and a sticky floor. Or you like table service and prickly pear margaritas. I happen to like the Matador, as does my wallet. Pro tip: order one shot for two people and split it.
Every western town seem to have a Coyote Café; it’s unfair to compare them to the Santa Fe edition because it’s not a fair fight. Not far from the Plaza, the OG Coyote Café has been a restaurant 30 years, already a legendary feat. Some claim the food quality may have oscillated over the years, but their legend remains a pillar of New Mexican cuisine.
Ideally, when you pay city prices for food, you should get city quality on your plate. For the most part, Coyote delivers, but there’s no shame in leaving a restaurant giddy about how great the service was. Regardless of what you order, the Coyote Café staff will make you feel like a friend of the owner. They take your drink orders with a flirtatious wink, like you’re getting away with something. Nor will they hesitate to detour you around a dish that may not be on point… supposedly, the customer is always right, but this is a joint I don’t mind being wrong in.
My lamb chops were delicious, not mind-bending. That sensation was reserved for the amuse-bouche, a mushroom bisque that evoked tastes of a time and terrain where Santa Fe reigned over the kingdom of New Mexico. Food doesn’t make me time-travel often, but that shot of soup took me for a ride. Make a reservation.
If you prefer sweat with your scenery, north and east of town are a network of respectable hiking trails from Tesuque to Ski Santa Fe. There are dozens of trails you can pick from that will keep you in the orange zone for hours, but I like a little treasure hunt with my hiking. Finding an non-obvious trailhead provides a certain lift before you actually start hiking.
First-timers on the Rio en Medio Trail will appreciate the journey to its western trailhead. It’s literally at the end of the town of Rio en Medio – town is a generous word – and there is no shortage of signs that
one might call discouraging in their tone as you idle closer. The parking area holds no more than four cars, and one could conclude that a few residents didn’t take too kindly to not having access to their driveway.
Once you navigate past the parking particulars, the trail is out-and-back with multiple stream crossings. The trail ends at Aspen Ranch, 6.7 miles to the east, but for a more abbreviated hike, visit the waterfall that provides the step down for the creek to the valley floor you’ve been walking along for the past hour. Pro tip: your dog will love this trail, as do the locals’ dogs. There is about a quarter-mile of private property that the trail runs through, so there’s a chance of encountering domesticated species at the start of the hike. Second pro tip: the decidedly non-domestic bear and mountain lion are known to kick it in these hills, as well. Use backcountry protocol when hiking in these conditions, and if a ranger has closed a trail temporarily, just don’t.
Nothing to see here… kidding. This place has done blowed up… Meow Wolf opens its first outpost in Denver in 2020 (maybe to keep those hipsters from clogging Cerrillos anymore than it already is). I will
not attempt to out-clever other writers by describing what I saw there (you should let Meow Wolf wash over you), suffice to say that at nearly 50 years old, it was the first interactive art outing where I wish I could have stayed longer in a long, long time (and maybe took some mushrooms).
Didn’t see that coming: MW is way more kid-friendly than I thought, and the gen pop on the day I visited was kids having fun, parents trying to chase down said kids and a bunch of kid-free adults stoned and gleefully stupid. All in all, a pretty symbiotic crowd. Besides, sliding headfirst through a clothes dryer after crushing a bag of crispy chicken tacos from El Parasol is a win any day. Pro tip: there are no tables in El Parasol, only benches and your car’s hood if you don’t want to wait to eat. I like a good bench.
To keep one’s sanity in Santa Fe, one must drive toward the horizon. Or, at least until you can latch onto a view that suits your eye. Unlike your basic mountain range view that fills your lens, the town of Lamy and
its surrounding area incorporates the romanticism of the barren landscape running up to the abrupt elevation changes in the far, far distance. Situated south and east of Santa Fe, Lamy is a rail stop that grew in historical significance when Santa Fe Railway civil engineers realized they wouldn’t be able to run their tracks through its namesake town.
Due to its distance from town and lack of basic postcard views, Lamy is still quiet and starry. But if I must recharge my holistic batteries, give me nothingness laced with piñon trees and cactus. Lamy isn’t an all-day adventure, but you’ll like it. Which means you can say you have something in common with the likes of Tom Ford.
I’m always hesitant about staying at hotels with obligatory valet parking. It makes me feel like obligatory bathrobe purchases are coming at check-out. But La Posada de Santa Fe is an old-school compound just a few blocks from the Plaza, where the walls are high and the streets are narrow. Yeah, there’s street parking, but if there’s a town where car pinball is more likely to happen, you’re in the heart of it here. So, you get over it and sleep easy knowing your ride’s not going to lose a mirror overnight. Besides, the bell guys are the coolest I’ve ever met.
Inside the La Posada walls you actually get a resort feeling because it’s a true compound with multiple buildings, stairs up to second-floor rooms but all drip with Pueblo charm. Rooms are adobe and log decorated, with some of the upgraded rooms sporting wood or gas fireplaces. Santa Fe is not a gas fireplace town; step up and stoke your own fire.
It can be intimidating once you realize you don’t remember the last time you built a fire. The kiva-style hearths at La Posada don’t make it easy on your insecurities, either. Theirs are tiny with room for about 3-4 logs max. The hotel will gladly stock your firewood, as well as as starter fuel and matches, which, is to say, that’s all you need. No kindling. No balled-up newspaper. Go get ’em.
Your survival doesn’t depend on it (well, you may not get any that night if you don’t) so take a few cracks at it. See if you can produce a snuggle-worthy fire. Pro tip: the front desk will bail you out and send a “fire butler” to get things raging; a proper gratuity will also keep them quiet about who actually started it. Better pro tip: DIY and stack vertically with thinner logs to start, add bigger ones later. Don’t skimp on the starter.