A New Way to Do Santa Fe

By Radha Marcum

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see,” said English writer Gilbert K. Chesterton. If you visit Santa Fe, you will know exactly what he means. With family roots in the area, I grew up visiting Santa Fe several times a year, traveling long, hot, monotonous distances across the Mojave Desert by un-air-conditioned car. Arriving in Santa Fe was always a bit like entering the Promised Land.

Now, as a resident of Colorado, the drive isn’t nearly so tortuous; my husband, kids, and I visit at least once per year. Over these decades, I’ve experienced Santa Fe from an outsider-insider perspective. The city is as cyclical as it is historic, as full of nature’s brilliance as it is packed with galleries hung with pretty canvases. But for the one-time visitor, without a little nudge, it would be so easy to amble with the crowd through the historic plaza—on autopilot to the next enchilada, the next high-end “art” shop—and miss the real wonder of the place.

When you go, the first rule is “no tourism.” Ditch your itinerary; don’t do (much) research. No amount of planning can possibly account for every outstanding restaurant and museum—nor Santa Fe’s vibrant people or its serendipitous roadside folk art, spiritual shops, or fragrant trails. Consider these suggestions starting points—not destinations. Here are five ways to follow your bliss and refuel your spirit.

1.  Savor every bite. “With mindfulness, the simple act of eating an apple becomes a profound experience,” writes Lilian Cheung in Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Lifeco-written with meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh (HarperOne, 2011). Rather than apples, I recommend mindfully savoring green chile, New Mexico’s most popular ingredient, essential to its colorful, spicy fusion of Native American, Latin, and contemporary southwestern cooking. (Chile also has vitamins A, C, and capsaicin—a powerful compound responsible for the pepper’s heat, touted for its vascular benefits.) To savor: Take an hour or more for lunch. Really see your food; how does it look against the backdrop of a painted plate? I like to take a phone photo to savor the visual feast, too, before I dig in. Then, notice subtle textures and flavors in each bite. You’ll find each taste deliciously different. Where to savor chile: Café Pasqual’s, the Tune Up Café, and Tomasita’s.

2.  Reset your brain with art. In the last decade, neuroscientists have learned a lot about how we process paintings internally. Their experiments have shown that viewing art stimulates pleasure centers in the brain and can activate mirror motor neurons in response to figures or movement on the canvas. Translation: When we slow down enough to truly take in a piece of visual art, it changes our experience of ourselves and the world. What better way to wipe away stale mental and emotional habits? Where to look: Canyon Road (multiple galleries), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.

3.  Smell the pinyon pines and desert plants. A growing body of research suggests that (no surprise!) we are more productive, creative, and happier when we have downtime, including naps and nature walks. There is so much to do, see, and eat in Santa Fe, it would be easy to overpack the schedule and lose any sense of spaciousness. Once you’ve napped, take advantage of numerous trails that are a short drive from the city center, as well as extensive trails in the 1.5 million acres of the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest. Where to walk or hike: Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, Dale Ball Trail System, Arroyo Hondo Open Space.

4.  Soak away stress. According to Colorado-based Taoism expert Elizabeth Reninger, the healing power of hot springs is akin to qi (energy) gathering along the channels of the body. Outdoor springs, especially, offer balm to aching minds and muscles through all of the traditional Taoist elements—earth, metal, wood, water, and fire. West of Santa Fe, the Jemez Mountains were formed in part by an ancient caldera, evident in the area’s many hot springs. Where to soak: It’s worth a day trip to the Jemez hot springs or to the Japanese-style bathhouse Ten Thousand Waves, where you can enjoy the peacefulness of traditional Japanese architecture, gardens, and natural elements like the koi pond. Call ahead to book a private outdoor hot tub, massage, and an exquisite Japanese meal at their restaurant.

5.  Take solace in sacred places. The city of Santa Fe was founded in 1610 (thirteen years before the Plymouth colonies), but evidence of habitation in the area dates back over twenty-five thousand years. With such a long history, it’s no wonder that so much spiritual significance is attributed to the place by Native American tribes and Pueblo cultures, Catholic communities, and more recent Buddhist establishments. Beyond any religious significance, the simple beauty of the land speaks for itself in the Land of Enchantment. Where to find peace: The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, Upaya Zen Center, El Santuario de Chimayó, Bandelier National Monument.

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