With its annual Fiesta de Santa Fe, the “City Different” revels in its tri-cultural heritage. We say come for the Fiesta, stay for the posole.

Santa Fe in September

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Travel Issue: September 2016
Group Free

I’d been in Santa Fe for about an hour before I started scheming to move there. Would I have to quit my beloved job, or could I finagle some sort of “Santa Fe correspondent” position for myself at the magazine? Maybe I could move there, jobless, and tap into some previously latent art talent and become the next Canyon Road – Santa Fe’s world-renowned arts district – sensation. If all else failed, I could definitely retire in the high desert city.

I was in New Mexico’s capital to experience Fiesta de Santa Fe, an annual event commemorating the resettlement – some say reconquering, but we’ll get into that later – of the city by Spanish governor Don Diego de Vargas in 1692 after 12 years of Pueblo independence following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. “Fiesta,” as it is colloquially known, has evolved from a religious celebration established in 1712 by General Juan Paez Hurtado to a multicultural, multi-day revelry complete with melodramas, mariachis, concerts, arts and crafts markets, fashion shows, parades and masses. I was lucky to be on a press trip with the first group of journalists ever invited to Santa Fe during Fiesta, and it was love at first adobe sighting.

Even in a city with a cultural calendar brimming with events (see sidebar), Fiesta stands out. The intermingling of cultures – Native American, Anglo and Mexican – in its celebrations is a microcosm of the history and culture of the city, which is home to descendants of its 1610 Spanish founders and descendants of the Native Americans who predated them. It was the perfect entrée into a cosmopolitan “small town” that felt familiar in so many ways to an Arizona gal – the aforementioned adobes, the Mexican and Native American art, the desert landscape, the omnipresent Spanglish – yet new and exciting in so many others, from the cooler weather and winding stone paths to the more liberal political climate and vaunted arts scene. Plus, chiles.



Santa Fe is not the place to scrimp on lodging. In fact, it would be a travesty to stay at a bland budget motel when the town’s lodging options are such destinations in and of themselves. We began our stay at La Fonda on the Plaza (100 E. San Francisco St., 505-982-5511, lafondasantafe.com), the only hotel located in the historic Santa Fe Plaza. The sprawling hotel and its 180 rooms, restaurant and on-site shopping complex and cafe are decorated with Mexican and Native American art and artifacts, from Catholic santos statues to indigenous pottery. I explored the property for about an hour just to capture photos of the beautiful pieces. The hotel’s rooftop cocktail lounge affords splendid panoramic views of the city – time your reservation for sunset for a sublime show. The hotel also neighbors the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which, in addition to its stunning architecture, has a “secret garden” with larger-than-life stations of the cross statues.

We also stayed at Hotel Chimayó de Santa Fe (125 Washington Ave., 505-988-4900, hotelchimayo.com), a rustic yet chic boutique hotel featuring the artwork of Chimayó artists and artisans in every room. Private balconies overlook an outdoor courtyard lined with ristras, New Mexico’s signature outdoor adornments of dried chiles laced into lanky, tumbling bouquets tacked onto walls and door frames. The hotel’s Low ‘N Slow Lowrider Bar nods cheekily to Santa Fe’s place in lowrider car history with photographs of low-slung vehicles dotting the lounge and a reserved parking spot in front for lowriders.

We visited two other hotels for meals and tours: the Inn & Spa at Loretto (211 Old Santa Fe Trl., 505-988-5531, destinationhotels.com/inn-at-loretto) and Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi (113 Washington Ave., 505-988-3030, rosewoodhotels.com/anasazi), both classic Santa Fe haunts for travelers and locals, including – reportedly – notable Santa Fe dwellers/visitors Ali MacGraw and Robert Redford.



Like many celebrations cooked up by Anglos in areas they once conquered, Fiesta (santafefiesta.org) comes with a certain amount of tension. “In some cases it wasn’t peaceful. There was trouble on both sides,” former Santa Fe mayor Larry Delgado said during a chat about the history of the event, which for obvious reasons has historically been a sore spot for Native Americans. “We were able to, over the years, come together with the Native American community and respect each other for our beliefs. The Native Americans have their culture, the Spanish have their culture, and when the people from the east started coming in they had their culture,” Delgado said. “So it’s a tri-cultural city of people who truly live together and understand each other, which I’ve always been very proud of.” Delgado was right – Fiesta was packed with celebrants of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds enjoying the procession of the caballeros and la conquistadora, the dancing and singing, the food and drink.

Delgado’s daughter Cynthia, now director of marketing for Tourism Santa Fe, said the festival remains a nostalgic draw for people. “It’s also an opportunity for people who have moved away from Santa Fe to come back. I went away for college. We always tried to get back here to celebrate Fiestas,” she said. “All of our friends were here, we got to see our family, you’d get posole and tamales, which you didn’t get all year long. It was a real opportunity to connect with our family.”

To dig even deeper into the history of the area – very much a living history, as evidenced by the continuation of generations of Santa Fe natives from various backgrounds – I recommend the New Mexico History Museum (113 Lincoln Ave., 505-476-5200, nmhistorymuseum.org) and El Rancho de las Golondrinas (334 Los Pinos Rd., 505-471-2261, golondrinas.org). The former is on the same campus as Palace of the Governors National Historic Landmark and tells the story of New Mexico “from prehistoric time to the present.” The latter allows you to experience that history firsthand at a circa-1700s ranch that has been converted into a living history museum. Learn to weave, explore ranchers’ and slaves’ quarters, see a working mill and pause for contemplation in the chapel.  



Art is not a passive experience in Santa Fe. It’s enveloping. Plan to spend a morning exploring the more than 100 galleries and boutiques on Canyon Road (visitcanyonroad.com) as we did and watch as morning brightens to afternoon and dims to evening before you’ve had a chance to truly experience a quarter of them. Take it from me: Dedicate more time to art than you think you’ll need. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St., 505-946-1000, okeeffemuseum.org) is similarly immersive, but can be experienced in an afternoon. For budget-friendly but beautiful souvenirs, I purchased an assortment of O’Keeffe prints on postcards, brought them home and put them in thrift-store and antique picture frames.

Dedicate a leisurely morning or afternoon to the New Mexico Museum of Art (107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072, nmartmuseum.org) and its eclectic mix of modern and contemporary art. Upcoming exhibitions include Small Wonders, a collection of small-scale photographs, and Be With Me, A Small Exhibition of Large Painting with abstract works by Nick Aguayo, Harmony Hammond and John Zurier. When I visited, Phoenix artist Angela Ellsworth’s striking Seer Bonnets: A Continuing Offense collection was on display – a nice surprise bit of home. 

Religious art fanatics like myself will be in heaven in Santa Fe, with its abundant chapels, crosses, Catholic saint statuary and folk art on display year-round, not just during Fiesta. El Santuario de Chimayó’s (15 Santuario Dr., Chimayó, 505-351-9961, elsantuariodechimayo.us) two chapels are a pilgrimage site for the faithful and a treasure trove of Catholic art so magnificent even atheists are impressed. As O’Keeffe herself said, “Anyone who doesn’t feel the crosses simply doesn’t get that country.”  


The food of Santa Fe is no less transcendent than its art and religious experiences. One spoonful of fiery, hominy-studded posole; one bite of slowly tingling, smoky green chile; one buttery, cinnamon-sugar-flecked biscochito cookie melting on your tongue – that’s all it takes to lose all sense of time and place as you surrender to the magic of New Mexican cuisine. Every meal in Santa Fe embodied the cultural mezcla of Fiesta, with indigenous ingredients like the “Three Sisters” (corn, beans and squash) mingling with Mexican cooking traditions, European techniques and that most New Mexican of ingredients, the chile. For the record, “chile” (with an “e,” not like Texan “chili”) is both the pepper and the dishes made with it, from a thinner sauce to top burritos to a heartier stew-like dish most often full of chunks of succulent pork or shredded chicken.  

Fantastic examples of green chile can be found in the mac and cheese at Cowgirl Santa Fe (319 S. Guadalupe St., 505-982-2565, cowgirlsantafe.com), under a chile relleno at Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante (300 Juan Medina Rd., Chimayó, 505-351-4444, ranchodechimayo.com) and in some of the meals created at the Santa Fe School of Cooking (125 N. Guadalupe St., 505-983-4511, santafeschool
), where we took a Georgia O’Keeffe-themed class.

Of course, not all the food is New Mexican. We enjoyed a lovely French meal at L’Olivier (229 Galisteo St., 505-989-1919, loliviersantafe.com), a healthy New American breakfast (don’t skip the smoothies) at Modern General (637 Cerrillos Rd., 505-930-5462, moderngeneralnm.com), and artisanal chocolate truffles and drinking chocolate at Kakawa Chocolate House (1050 Paseo de Peralta, 505-982-0388, kakawachocolates.com). 

But when in Santa Fe, drink as many margaritas (follow the Santa Fe Margarita Trail: santafe.org/margaritatrail) and eat as much posole as you can. I found my all-time favorite version of the latter at Casa Chimayó (409 W. Water St., 505-428-0391, casachimayosantafe.com), a family-owned institution. It was a touch too spicy for me – ¡soy gringa! – but it was so delicious I sopped up every scorching drop with tortillas. The sweet staff sent us each home with a box of biscochitos and a handwritten note, the perfect ending to a whirlwind tour of Santa Fe. I will definitely be a regular at Casa Chimayó when I retire.