Santa Fe and Taos
Take a classic road trip through Georgia O'Keeffe country.
The beauty of northern New Mexico's high deserts and mountains enchanted artist Georgia O'Keeffe when she first visited Santa Fe and Taos, and she made this majestic landscape her home-and the subject of many of her paintings-for almost the last four decades of her life. Ah, Georgia, I thought repeatedly as I recently toured what fans like me now call "O'Keeffe Country," if only I could sta y on as you did. Futile dream that one, but at least I got to live it for a few days. And you can, too. Although Santa Fe and Taos rank today as highly sophisticated arts-oriented communities, they prove surprisingly easy on the wallet. Except for the celebrated stars, many painters, sculptors, and other artists tend to struggle on modest incomes, I've been told. As a result, visitors can find quality lodging and dining at budget rates. For all its ritzy appeal, New Mexico counts as one of America's cheaper vacation places.
Figure on paying about $45 to $60 a night in summer to rent a double in a name-brand motel and under $10 per person for a heaping dinner plate of tacos, enchiladas, and other Mexican dishes savored in the Southwest. Much of the art-as intriguing as it is fun-can be viewed for free in dozens of galleries in both towns. On a recent Friday night in Santa Fe, my wife and I went gallery hopping, sipping complimentary champagne or ginger ale and nibbling hors d 'oeuvres at a series of public art-show debuts. For an hour or two we felt like locals, chatting with the artists and gallery owners.
A resident of New York in her younger years, O'Keeffe learned to drive when she moved to New Mexico, turning her car into a mobile studio. To aid you in seeing the settings she captured on canvas-pink rock cliffs, adobe churches, the Ghost Ranch-what follows here is a relaxed, four-day, 475-mile driving tour that focuses both on O'Keeffe Country's vibrant cultural wealth and the scenic grandeur that captivated her. This is a trip for art lovers in a rugged land that also draws lots of hardy backpackers, mountain bikers, and white-water enthusiasts.
In O'Keeffe's footsteps, you will have a chance to watch expert pottery makers at work on Pueblo Indian reservations scattered along the famed Rio Grande River. At Bandelier National Monument, ascend a lofty Pueblo-style ladder into the cave dwelling of the ancient Anasazi, predecessors of the Puebl o people. In the village of Abiquiu, join an escorted tour of O'Keeffe's home, studio, and garden, kept as they were at her death at age 98 in 1986. In Santa Fe, walk half-mile-long Canyon Road, perhaps America's densest concentration of art galleries. Giant outdoor sculptures-the odd, whimsical, and realistic-line the way. (I've been amazed by a sculpture garden filled with massive metal bugs.) In Taos, try your luck at the slot machines at Taos Mountain Casino, operated by the Taos Pueblo. The nickel bandits can't do much damage to your wallet.
In my mind (and surely O'Keeffe's), northern New Mexico's summer climate-sunny, dry, and mild-is almost reason enough to go, or to settle in as she did. When you're calculating costs, this bonus treat is free.
On the Internet, both Thrifty (800/847-4389, thrifty.com) and Alamo (800/327-9633, alamo.com) quote the same midsummer rate: $167 a week for a compact car with unlimited miles. Budget (800/527-0700, budget.com) comes in at just a couple of bucks higher.
June lodging rates tend to be slightly cheaper than rates in July and August. Last-minute bookings shouldn't be a problem, except during special events such as the annual Santa Fe Indian Market in late August. Most budget properties are a five- to ten-minute drive from the historic district. But in little Taos, parking is free on side streets. In Santa Fe, municipal lots charge $1.20 an hour; maximum, $6 a day.
Museum and pueblo entrance fees can mount up. Most charge $5 to $10 per adult, though some are less. The heftiest fee ($22) is for a tour of O'Keeffe's home in Abiquiu.
Day one: On the road
Skilled pottery makers, the Acomas encourage outsiders to visit Sky City, where many market their craft. But you can enter only in small, hour-long group tours (505/552-6604; $10 adults, $6 children). Once, only guarded secret trails ascended the heights; today, a paved road from the visitors center climbs in steep curves, and outsiders are escorted up in a small bus. But at tour's end, the sure-footed are invited to descend one of the old paths. Acoma pottery is noted for its extreme thinness and for the intricate geometric designs painted in black, red, and shades of orange. If the prices are too hefty, indulge instead in a big pumpkin cookie homemade by a villager.
The stop at Acoma introduces you to one of the native peoples of New Mexico. Now double back through Albuquerque to Santa Fe to meet the cultures that moved in on them. First came the Spanish, who founded Santa Fe in 1607 (13 years before the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock). Mexico wrested the trading post from Spain in 1821, and the United States snapped it up in the Mexican-American War of 1846. The cultural mix is credited with sparking the city's artistic vitality.
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