This New Mexico Road Trip Is the Ultimate Introduction to the Land of Enchantment
There is more to New Mexico than Taos and Santa Fe. Along this less-explored route between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, travelers can learn about Pueblo history, relax in healing hot springs, and, yes, eat green chile cheeseburgers.
Upscale enclaves filled with kitschy Kokopelli galleries and turquoise jewelry boutiques have defined travel in the Land of Enchantment for far too long. As this lesser-traveled route illustrates, the state’s real magic lies in its natural beauty, found along county roads backed by ochre mountains, painterly desert vistas, and forests teeming with Montezuma quail.
Wild as the nature is, the human residents are no less exotic: Gay cowboy artists and indigenous activists marinate in hot spring tubs alongside conservationists working to restore the habitats of burrowing owls. The New Mexico of 2020 is a place Georgia O’Keeffe would hardly recognize.
Day One: Start in Albuquerque
Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, has caught the eye of curious travelers. Mayor Tim Keller, known for his love of heavy metal, has helped attract new creative businesses—both Netflix and NBC will open production studios here in 2020—and thus, creative people who are helping to shape the city. Visitors will find rich indigenous culture, new food halls, and a vibrant flamenco scene.
After touching down at ABQ’s International Sunport, make your way to Pueblo Harvest, the in-house restaurant at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Here, “pre-contact” ingredients—edibles that existed before colonization—bring time-honored flavors to such dishes as blue corn waffles and chicken, amaranth pancakes, and green-chile-and-cheese biscuits.
At the center itself, Hopi curator Rachel Moore stages exhibits such as HERitage: Pueblo Women Paving Cultural Pathways, which runs through January 2021 and features contemporary female Pueblan artists and sculptors. The center also serves as a safe space for Native perspectives. Expect lectures on the linguistic link between Zuni and Japanese, as well as debates about America’s indigenous genocide.
Also worth a spin: a pair of new market halls opening in 2020. The 34,000-square-foot Sawmill Market, just north of Old Town, opened in March with handmade pasta from Tulipani, wood-fired pies from Hawt Pizza Co., smoked brisket from Mr. Powdrell’s, and steaming bowls of ramen from Naruto. The three-story 505 Central Market, opening this summer off Route 66 in downtown, will hawk Humble Coffee along with burgers, pizza, and beer.
Surprisingly, ABQ is also one of the world’s most important flamenco towns, credited with reviving the dance form in the 1950s. Tablao Flamenco Albuquerque, in Old Town’s Hotel Albuquerque, was the Southwest’s first authentic flamenco dance hall. It still holds regular weekend showcases featuring local and international performers. Intimate Casa Flamenca hosts tablao performances throughout the year.
Where to stay: Hotel Chaco
Book now: expedia.com
The elegant 118-room Hotel Chaco in Old Town features Pueblo-inspired designs in its rugs, stone walls, and exposed wooden beams known as vigas.
What to eat
Truffles spiced with Chimayó chile, and mole from chocolatier Eldora at Sawmill Market.
Detour worth taking
The UNESCO-recognized Chaco Culture National Historical Park, about three hours northwest of ABQ, was a ceremonial and economic hub between 850 and 1250 C.E. Today a nine-mile loop drive takes visitors past five Chaco sites, and backcountry hiking trails offer access to more remote ruins.
Day Two: Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences
149 miles / 2 hours and 10 minutes
Drive south on I-25 past the scrubby, cholla-pocked mountains of Socorro County and take exit 79 to reach the walkable town of Truth or Consequences. Originally called Hot Springs, the village rechristened itself after Truth or Consequences radio host Ralph Edwards dared a U.S. town to name itself after his show. The year was 1950, and T or C, as the locals often call it, never looked back. To this day, no place better captures the state’s zany mash-up than this intersection of artists, serenity-seeking spa lovers, and ardent environmentalists.
An Art Hop, held on the second Saturday evening of the month, is the best way to experience T or C’s parade of characters, plus enjoy free drinks and affordable art. Bounce between RioBravoFineArt Gallery, Desert Archaic, and Main Street Gallery, then duck into Truth or Consequences Brewing Company for live music, which could include a surprise performance by a band of septuagenarian punk rockers. Hungry travelers can head to Latitude 33, a casual BYOB Asian fusion restaurant where the shishito peppers are laced with green chile ponzu and the Korean glass noodles have gone vegan, with rainbow carrots, tofu, and shiitake mushrooms.
Those seeking more opportunities to soak can stop at the sign of the neon spur, marking La Paloma Hot Springs & Spa, where the water rises naturally from the earth, no pipes needed. Or check out the lithium- and calcium-rich waters at Riverbend Hot Springs, a series of pools set on the banks of the Rio Grande. Guests can share space in the common pools or rent a private pool.
Where to stay: Sierra Grande
Book now: expedia.com
Check into the 17-room Sierra Grande, situated on one of four eco-minded Ted Turner Reserves in the state. Guests here are treated to ATV safari drives at the adjacent Ladder Ranch. The chance to spot bison, bobcats, wolves, eagles, roadrunners, and endangered tortoises—and chat with conservationists in the field—makes this experience unlike anything else in the country. After bumping through the rough terrain, head back to the lodge for a candlelit soak in one of the 104-degree spring-fed baths.
Where to eat
Run by a couple from Vermont and Serbia, the Me Gusta World Street Food Truck offers a locally sourced, globally inspired menu of elote, poutine, falafel, tacos, and more.
Day Three: Truth or Consequences to Las Cruces
78 miles / 1 hour and 20 minutes
Southbound Route 187, which hugs I-25, passes farmhouses, pancake-flat cotton fields, and fences choked with tumbleweed. In the distance, the jagged Organ Mountains show their teeth to the sky. Today’s first destination: Hatch, a wee town where roadside vendors sell Mexican pottery and green chile–infused everything. Three Brothers on State Road 543 in Hatch is the best of the pepper depots, offering a selection of powdered green chile, smoky chipotle, and flaming-red ristras (strings of chili peppers) as well as local honey and Mexican vanilla.
Another 45 minutes southeast, Blake’s Lotaburger in Las Cruces is known for its excellent green chile cheeseburgers—the ultimate New Mexico road food. To offset this indulgence, stock up on healthy snacks at the Farmers and Crafts Market of Las Cruces, which sells fresh peaches, bags of pecans, and steaming tamales as well as quality turquoise jewelry and hand-turned woodware. The market sets up from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays along Main Street and on Wednesdays at the Plaza de Las Cruces.
Where to stay: Josefina’s Old Gate
Some travelers will choose to push on to El Paso, Texas, just an hour south. But why rush Las Cruces? Instead, crash for the night in the town’s historic adobe inn, Josefina’s Old Gate, then spend the following morning shopping for locally made prints at Art Obscura or sampling “Christmas-style” huevos compuestos, meat topped with red and green chile sauce, eggs, and cheese and served in cup-shaped corn tortillas, at 63-year-old La Nueva Casita Cafe.
Detour worth taking
The newest addition to the U.S. parks system, White Sands National Park lies 52 miles northeast of Las Cruces. To best experience White Sands’ surreal landscape of windswept gypsum dunes, hike a mile into the park and spend a night of camping in the backcountry, the stars sparkling above.
>> Next: The AFAR Guide to New Mexico