Here’s What I Learned In Santa Fe

This year I made a pact with myself: if I’m gonna spend a kazillion dollars traveling somewhere, it’s gonna be to a place I’ve never been before. Given that I was a travel writer for a few years, it’s been a challenge to find a city that 1) has appeal/allure and 2) isn’t Poughkeepsie, Butte or Sheboygan.

When my best friend Jeff pitched Albuquerque, I countered with Santa Fe. We arrived with zero agenda, zero pre-planning and zero insight on the city. Here’s what we found out along the way:

9) New Mexico is the 47th state and has an odd, torrid rivalry with Arizona—which became the 48th state only a couple of months later. Santa Fe touts being the oldest capitol city in the United States. (It also houses the San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the U.S.) The state’s un-claim to fame? It flip-flops with Mississippi as the poorest state in the nation.

8) They slather red and/or green chiles on every conceivable dish. When our server asked if I wanted “Christmas on my tamales,” my eyebrow raised. “Wait, what?” I asked. Turns out Christmas is a heaping portion of both red and green sauce. (Get it on the side. Trust me.) The must-visit, go-to authentic New Mexican eatery is La Choza, which is Spanish for “long wait.” No, they don’t take reservations. And if you foolishly try to go early on a Saturday night, you’re still outta luck. We waited an hour and 45 minutes for a table. (Re-read that.) We could have driven to Taos, got a snack and driven back in that allotted timeframe. However, their Frito Pie alone was worth the mind-numbing wait.

7) One of the largest Japanese internment camps was built in Santa Fe. The 80-acre camp imprisoned a reported 4,555 men from 1942 to 1946—one of several camps operated by the Department of Justice during World War II. This camp was distinct in that solely men were housed here—and many were educated professionals such as doctors, professors, businessmen and clergy. The men’s cultural connection to Japan—as well as their high levels of education and respected social standing—unfairly earned them the government’s pre-emptive suspicion.

Today, the only sign the camp ever existed is a memorial boulder in Frank S. Ortiz Park with a plaque attached. The plaque, which was dedicated in 2002, reads, in part: “This marker is placed here as a reminder that history is a valuable teacher only if we do not forget our past.”

6) Tourism is a major draw, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900s, one of Santa Fe’s largest industries was helping infirmed people convalesce from tuberculosis. Countless sanatoriums and tent cities were set up (with the help of countless religious entities) to help people recover from the deadly disease. Long before the Great Depression (and antibiotics), wealthy east and west coast families would send their sick relatives to Santa Fe’s curative climate. (Read that: abundant fresh air and sunshine.) TB sufferers—often called “lungers”—flocked here by the thousands.

5) Little known fact: Santa Fe has more artists and art galleries per capita than anywhere else in the world. In fact, one in 10 jobs in Santa Fe are connected to the arts. Why? Blame/Thank Tuberculosis. When word spread that Santa Fe was a hub for healing, many sickly (and soon-to-be-famous) artists came calling. Given that recovery from TB often took 2-3 years, that gave blossoming artists plenty of time to recoup and regroup while creating artwork. Now high-end galleries are more prevalent than fast food chains. Even the acclaimed Georgia O’Keeffe—the 20th-century painter known for her vibrant depictions of flowers—found artistic fame and glory in Santa Fe. (And she has a museum dedicated to her colorful endeavors.)

Hackman’s home in Santa Fe / Architectural Digest

6) Gene Hackman lives here. So does Ali MacGraw. And Robert Redford. It’s become an off-the-beaten path, home away from home for celebs. Spendy, but not too spendy. And insanely livable. (Rumor has it Robert DeNiro is also a fan of Santa Fe. His former wife once commissioned a six-figure metal sculpture during a gallery visit. Ka-ching!)

5) Roughly halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe is Madrid, New Mexico. It’s a mere two-block long stretch of sheer hippie-dippiness in the middle of the area’s acrid basin. Jewelry-esque boutiques, coffee shops, bars and eateries dot the wiry landscape. On a whim, we stopped at The Hollar, a Bohemian eatery with a surprisingly inspired menu. The special of the day? Fried green tomatoes served over grits and gravy. The gal who took our order told me to add fried shrimp. Hearty—and heart attack-inducing. It was, by far, the best meal of the trip. While the restaurant is comprised of a giant railroad box car (Santa Fe Railways—natch!), you’ll definitely want to sit outside.

Pacheco

4) Want to know every last damn thing about Santa Fe—from its inception up until ten minutes ago? You’ll want to hit up local historian Ana Pacheco for the city’s 411. We took her three-hour tour to immerse ourselves in the endless Mexican-Spanish-Native American culture. She was full of quirky nuggets—like telling us about La Tules, the tawdry madame of a famed brothel who is buried alongside archbishops and other sundry Catholic royalty. She was also the world’s fastest talker—uh, Ana, not the whorehouse owner. At one point we stopped to get some coffee and offered to snag some for Ana. Big mistake. She ordered a cold brew and her machine-gun dialogue somehow got even faster. I missed quite a few fun facts because my brain short-circuited during the second half of the tour.

3) The atomic bomb that dropped on Hiroshima got its start in Santa Fe. Over a period of 27 months, the US Army built a secret Los Alamos research laboratory in the Jemez Mountains and designed that unimaginably powerful weapon which eventually wiped out two Japanese cities. I know this because Ana told us. She also mentioned a bunch of other story arcs like nuclear fission, microfiche and a nest of Russian spies.

2) The Santa Fe Opera is a thing. A huge thing. Seriously. They are one of, if not the most renowned opera companies in the country. Shows are performed in an open-air adobe structure framing views of the mountains to the east and picture-postcard New Mexico sunsets to the west. Since its first show in 1957, The Santa Fe Opera has put on around 170 performances—16 of which have been world premieres. Two words: mic drop.

And 1) Have you heard of Meow Wolf? Up until my visit, I had no idea this endless, trippy art installation was such a tourist haven. Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return takes guests through a psychedelic house full of secret passageways and surrealist creations. (I liken it to going down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole while hallucinating on acid. Or being in a perpetual optical illusion while strung out on LSD.) Oh, and there was some sort of interdimensional backstory going on during all this. Confused? That makes two of us.