The capital of New Mexico has long been a place where diverse cultures come together — bound by a mutual appreciation for the great outdoors.
Mayor Javier Gonzales of Santa Fe tells me that he came out late in life. He did so publicly, in the same op-ed he used to announce his mayoral candidacy. Before publishing the piece, Gonzales informed his father, himself a former Santa Fe Mayor. Though his father was personally supportive, he advised Gonzales not to go public while seeking election in their historically Catholic city. “You always taught us to be ourselves,” Gonzales recalls telling his father. “I’d rather lose with the community knowing who I am than win without.”
But he won.
Ultimately, this kind of story is very Santa Fe. On paper, it seems a like culture clash that wouldn’t work, but in practice, it does quite well. Similarly, the city is a happy mishmash of cultures — reflecting the traditions of the Pueblo Indians, Spanish colonists, Mexican neighbors and American prospectors who all had a hand in creating it. It’s also both a cultural mecca — a base for artists from Georgia O’Keeffe to D.H. Lawrence to George R.R. Martin — and an outdoorsman’s playground. It’s a city steeped in history with an eye on progress.
Mayor Gonzales asks what I expected from the city before arriving. I tell him I thought it would be a desert. He laughs at the common misperception.Apparently, Santa Fe is not a desert but a “subalpine highland.” It’s got cold winters (“amazing skiing,” Gonzales says) and warm, dry summers (“great hiking,” he adds). The mayor encourages me not to leave before exploring the many mountain trails just minutes outside the city. And that’s what I aim to do.
Santa Fe is nestled in the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains. Its skyline has intentionally been kept low, so that citizens and visitors alike don’t forget the natural beauty that surrounds the city. My introduction to this is a sunrise hike to Old Fort Marcy Park. You could drive to the hilltop, but a hike takes just 20 minutes at a gentle pace. At sunrise and sunset, you can see why the mountains may have gotten their name — the hills glowing bright red.
That’s the in-town hike. The real hiking requires just a quick drive outside of town. To the west, you’ll find Hyde Memorial State Park (emnrd.state.nm.us) within Santa Fe National Forest. It’s covered in aspens — decidedly non-desert trees — which grow in cool climates at high altitudes. Almost every Santa Fean who talks about them mentions that together these trees comprise the world’s “largest single organism.” This fun fact aside, what you need to know is that they make for a gorgeous, beautifully-scented forest, and if you happen to catch them at the right moment in autumn (as I did), their leaves light up to an outrageously bright yellow.
On the other side of town — looking like a completely different world — is Bandelier National Monument (nps.gov/band). Here the cool climate of the hills is replaced by 33,000 acres of rugged, dry mesa. The area offers more than 70 miles of trail, and it’s essential to plan a path in advance and bring enough water to get through it. A 2011 fire destroyed much of the canopy, which is good and bad for hikers. The bad: Shade is limited, and the trails get hot. The good: You get spectacular views of rock formations and canyon rims. Trails to consider include the Painted Cave for adventurers, with its 22 often steep miles, or the Main Loop, an easy 1.2 miles great for history buffs. Four Seasons Adventure Excursions (fourseasons.com/santafe) offers knowledgeable guides like Jim Guttau, who explained the Loop’s petroglyphs and historic significance as a Pueblo trade route eons ago.
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If all this sounds like a workout, keep in mind that you’re going to want a lot of activity to counter the abundant, fresh and filling food of Santa Fe. The city has become a gathering place for creative chefs who aim to adopt the region’s distinct flavors while also making them their own. New Mexican food is a distinct cuisine — not one that’s found its way to most of the rest of the country. And it’s all about the chile.
This is chile with an “e,” not chili with an “i.” It’s essentially a mole made from a pepper varietal grown in New Mexico, roasted in batches, and tweaked per family recipe. It comes in red, green or “Christmas” (a mixture of both) varieties. Santa Fe visitors will encounter a lot of it and should become acquainted with it first by way of the enchiladas, chile burgers and chile rellenos at the iconic Tomasita’s (tomasitas.com). They caution that theirs is hot, but this Yankee — who generally does not like it hot — managed all right. The remarkable thing about New Mexican food is that, even at its most filling, it doesn’t make you feel weighed down in the same way American Mexican fare often does.
A great tip for eating well: look to the hotels. Their signature restaurants have enticed chefs to come from around the world to experiment with the New Mexican flavors and interpret them for guests with a cosmopolitan hand. Terra at the Four Seasons is a must — especially at brunch when Chef Andrew Cooper invites diners to serve themselves right from his kitchen.
Before our visit is through, I make a point of asking the mayor where to go looking for the local gay hotspots.“Where’s the gay neighborhood?” he echoes. “Everywhere. I could walk in anywhere with anyone I’m dating and feel comfortable.“ It’s a trend we’re seeing more of in major U.S. cities in the 2010s: gay people feeling comfortable enough anywhere that they don’t need to flock to a gay neighborhood. “Gay professionals that live here just move with everyone else,” Gonzales explains.
Perhaps it is in Santa Fe’s DNA to be comfortable with a diverse community. But if there’s one trait I found universal among Santa Feans, it’s a shared love of their big backyard. “There’s something magical about being on the trails in Santa Fe: the smells and the quiet and the beauty,” Gonzales says, “all have the ability to connect with everyone’s soul.” But there’s only way to truly understand it, he is quick to add: “It has to be experienced.”
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Last modified: August 16, 2019