Falling in Love With Santa Fe

New Mexico is a rainbow. Red and green chiles doused on every meal, copper and coral and turquoise melded into Navajo jewelry, cerulean skies stretching over terra cotta cliffs and cornflower-blue mountains capped with the purest white snow.

It’s strong margaritas, crisp air inflating your lungs, rich drinking chocolate spiked with chili powder. It’s a way of life that is both slower and fuller, isolated and elevated (literally.) I can’t quite recall why anymore, but Santa Fe had always occupied a place in my mind as magical, mythical, an oasis operating on a different frequency than the rest of us. I suppose the desert has always had that allure. And it was all of that and more.

Albuquerque is only a two-hour flight from Los Angeles, and a relatively inexpensive one at that. From there, the easiest route to Santa Fe is an hour drive by rental car through blinding sun and snow-dusted mountains. We visited in November, a time frame that offered an off-season tranquility and just the right amount of winter chill for us brittle-boned Southern Californians.

There’s no shortage of lodging options once in the historic city: Santa Fe is home to a bevy of Instagram-worthy restored motels, charming bed-and-breakfasts, and minimalist Airbnbs impeccably flavored with Southwestern style. After a little research, we decided on Casa Culinaria, a bed-and-breakfast a stone’s throw from the center of town that offers charming bungalow-style rooms within the cozy arts and crafts style property.

The bed and breakfast was refurbished by a husband and wife duo, Manuel and Carolina, and guests are pampered each morning with a breakfast hand-prepared by classically-trained chef Carolina in the gorgeous, sunlit dining room, as well as coffee, tea and baked goods in the common area throughout the day.

Each room at Casa Culinaria is slightly different in its layout and decor, and we chose the Colorado room, which provided two twin beds, our own porch, and even a cast iron fireplace that made it the perfect cozy base camp for all of our adventures. Our stay at the bed and breakfast felt like a truly luxurious five-star experience (while still being affordable enough for two twenty-somethings.)

We hit the ground running our first night in Santa Fe, making a beeline for the much-buzzed-about Meow Wolf. If you, like me, have paid a visit to any of the pop-up Instagram experiences that have boomed in popularity in recent years โ€“ The Museum of Ice Cream, the Color Factory, etc. โ€“ then Meow Wolf won’t be an unfamiliar concept to you. Still, comparing Meow Wolf to those exhibits would be underselling the place.

A $25 ticket offers admission into the labyrinthian space, in which dozens upon dozens of rooms, hallways, secret passages, and weird and wonderful nooks and crannies are hidden like Russian nesting dolls. We spent hours exploring the place, clambering up and down winding staircases, through tree houses, Airstream trailers โ€“ even sliding through a washing machine. I don’t want to spoil too much โ€“ it’s best to go into Meow Wolf with an open mind and as few preconceived notions as possible โ€“ but it is without a doubt entirely unlike anywhere you’ve been before.

Bright and early the next morning, after fueling up with a three-course vegetarian breakfast prepared by Carolina, we started out on the hour drive north to Abiquiรบ. Ever since I’d chosen Georgia O’Keefe as my historical figure for a school project when I was a kid, I’d been fascinated by the artists; both her work and her life, so visiting Ghost Ranch, the home where she lived, painted, and hosted fellow artists and other visionaries for decades, was a must-do in New Mexico. And being able to take in the stunning vistas that served as a lifelong inspiration for many of O’Keefe’s most iconic works on horseback only made the experience all the more unforgettable.

I had been horseback riding before, with varying levels of comfort during the experiences, but to my delight, I felt instantly at ease during our trail ride. I was paired with a beautiful chestnut boy named Sancho who listened to my every direction, and was able to spend the 90-minute trail ride utterly in awe of the stunning vistas around us. We wound our way out to Ghost Ranch (which unfortunately is not yet open to the public,) as our guide pointed out various landmarks that Georgia O’Keefe immortalized in her work. This included the imposing Pedernal Mountain, where O’Keefe’s ashes are scattered, and about which she famously said; “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Though certainly pricey at a little more than $100 per person, the O’Keefe landscape trail ride was worth every penny. Tours are offered twice a day, but spots are limited, so be sure to reserve one well in advance if you’re interested. The ranch also offers walking tours and other less expensive options for visitors looking to explore the grounds, as well as a museum and gift shop on the property.

Back in Santa Fe, we made sure to also pay a visit to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, which is home to many of her most iconic paintings, as well as early works and photographs by and of the artist that I’d never seen before. We were told that Santa Fe boasts the most art museums in the country after New York and Los Angeles, and it isn’t hard to believe: from the Museum of International Folk Art to the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and seemingly dozens more, we could’ve stayed weeks and still not seen them all.

Of course, Santa Fe is also chock-full of world-class dining, drinking and shopping. Whether you’re searching for a cowboy hat that you can watch being crafted right in front of your eyes, or copper and turquoise jewelry bent and etched by Navajo tribe members, you’re sure to leave Santa Fe with a suitcase full of souvenirs. Be sure to also pay a visit to Shiprock Santa Fe, a gallery filled with vibrant Native American rugs and art contrasted against a gorgeous, modern space that’ll make you want to move right in and never leave.

Santa Fe is also famed for Canyon Road, a world-class avenue of art galleries and shops boasting unique (though pricey) artisan wares. Wander into any gallery for an impromptu art history lesson from the owner, or simply get lost inside rooms of cowboy boots and handwoven rugs in stores like Nathalie Home, where the displays are so enchanting you’ll be glad you can only afford to browse.

You’ll also leave with a full belly after stops at local institutions like Cafe Pasqual’s and the Shed, where you can feast on tamales, enchiladas, and red and green chili until your heart’s content (the blood orange frozen margarita at the Shed is also a must.) Speaking of, Santa Fe even offers a “margarita passport” that’s worth taking advantage of if your stay is a bit longer, so you can sip your way through the city and even earn some freebies along the way. Other watering holes worth your time are the adorable bar at the El Rey Inn, the Cowgirl for a dive-y Southwestern experience and live music, and Julia, the bar at the sumptuous (and supposedly haunted) La Posada hotel.

Be sure to satisfy your sweet tooth with a visit to the Kakawa Chocolate House, where you can sample rich New Mexican drinking chocolate and feast on pastries and truffles made with chili, corn, lavender and other unique ingredients.

When it’s time to burn off the margaritas and get your blood pumping, there are plenty of options for hiking in the area, including the La Tierra Trails, and Bandelier and Tent Rocks national monuments. We made a stop at Bandelier on our drive back from Ghost Ranch, and though admission is a bit steep at $25 per car, it felt good knowing that money was going to preserve the park, which is home to dwellings and petroglyphs made by the Ancestral Pueblo people that are thought to be some 11,000 years old.

The monument offers moderate hiking trails and a map that guides visitors through dozens of historic dwellings, artwork and alcove homes carved right out of the rock face, which require wooden ladders to reach. At the end of the Alcove House trail, visitors can climb wooden ladders and stone steps about 140 feet up to a large alcove that once housed the Ancestral Pueblo people. In addition to being an awe-inspiring piece of history, the Alcove House definitely pushed me to conquer my fear of heights, and the view from the top of the snow-covered valleys and peaks of Bandelier was absolutely worth the climb.

In addition to Old Town Santa Fe, where you’ll find a charming historic town square decked out in dried chili peppers and lined with rustic shops and restaurants, you can try a change of pace and get a glimpse of Santa Fe’s sleeker future out at the Railyards, an industrial area dotted with modern coffee shops, street art and stores.

If you’re looking for one last adventure, pay a visit to the Los Poblanos Ranch, a lavender farm that’s a quick detour on the way out of Albuquerque. Though the fields only bloom in the summer, the farm doubles as a hotel, and offers an array of artisan lavender products โ€“ soaps, lotions, even lavender-infused food and drinks โ€“ year round, as well as an intimate bar and restaurant.

It’s a particularly magical sight in the evening; all twinkling string lights in the lavender winter twilight. I couldn’t help thinking how stunning the farm would be as a wedding venue, and its modern earthiness reminded me of Ojai and the south-central California coast, which holds a special place in my heart.

I’d always had the feeling that I’d like New Mexico, and as it turns out, I was far from wrong. Santa Fe was a spontaneous, soul-soothing getaway, and we were fortunate that the entire whirlwind of a trip went off without a hitch; from our rental car to our accommodations, to checking off everything on our to-do list, to being welcomed to the Land of Enchantment by the warmest of people, heartiest of meals, and strongest of drinks. New Mexico has already rooted a special place in my heart, and I have a feeling it won’t be long at all before I journey back to it again.

Desert Niland Dreams

I can’t say for sure what had drawn me to Salvation Mountain for as long as I’d lived in California. I’m not religious, but I’ve always had an affinity for the desert, offbeat attractions, and, admittedly, Instagrammable spots. The cherry on top of its appeal, of course, is that I share my last name with the town where Salvation Mountain sits โ€“ Niland, California. Despite its powerful lure, it took me five years, and a chance encounter with two travelers passing through Los Angeles by way of Canada and France, to finally visit the utterly surreal, technicolor desert wonderland that is Salvation Mountain.

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When you pass through Slab City, a post-war, unincorporated community that draws wintering snowbirds and those looking to escape society alike, one of its namesake concrete slab structures welcomes you to “The Last Free Place On Earth,” just past which lies Salvation Mountain. Built in the 1980s and ’90s by Leonard Knight, the rainbow-hued mountain lies to the west of Slab City and south of East Jesus in the vast Sonoran Desert. It’s a true feat of construction, slapped together with adobe, straw and vibrant paint over the course of several decades after its creator found a spiritual calling. Leonard’s first two efforts at evangelizing that “God is Love” โ€“ through a giant hot air balloon and a first, structurally unstable attempt at Salvation Mountain โ€“ were both unsuccessful. But his final vision ultimately became the mammoth that still towers like a technicolor oasis today, withstanding the blistering desert heat and outlasting even Leonard himself, who died in 2014.

These days, Salvation Mountain is a sprawling, living work of art truly unlike anywhere else on Earth. It is entirely donation based, run by a non-profit organization, live-in caretaker and cadre of volunteers who will bellow through airhorns from the base of the mountain at visitors who stray from the designated path, labeled “The Yellow Brick Road.” Still, decades after Leonard’s first rendering of Salvation Mountain, the paint remains as vibrant and the foundation as sturdy as ever, and despite the remoteness of its locations, draws a steady stream of visitors from around the world to the mountain, even with skin-blistering heat of the summer already in full swing.

Perched upon the mountain’s top, you can see for miles and miles across the desert, out to Slab City and the deep blue mountains and the horizon meeting the Salton Sea, so vast and shimmering in a barren land seemingly devoid of life that it could easily be mistaken for a glittering mirage. Surveying the seemingly endless, almost Martian landscape, blanketed in the stillness of the afternoon heat, I felt utterly calm. Time seemed to melt; my traveling companions and I might have lounged there a few minutes, or an hour. It was impossible to say. My time there was less a religious experience and more the kind of peace that pervades when you step away from a city awhile and its din and hum fades to a silence that settles into your soul. Lost in the desert, communing with nature, hundreds of miles from civilization and obligation. It might truly be the last free place on earth. And that’s some sort of salvation.

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When (or if) you decide to leave Salvation Mountain, the Salton Sea is not to be missed โ€“ and in fact, as the largest lake in California it would be impossible to do so. You may have heard tall tales about its smell or inhospitable ecosystem, but I assure you that the Salton Sea is more than compatible with life. It feels a bit like being on the moon; it’s an otherworldly sort of place, a shoreline rising like a mirage to meet the desert horizon, ringed by a white beach made of a million fish bones that crackle beneath your feet. Dusk feels like watching the sun evaporate on another planet, sinking behind purple lunar mountains over an accidental lake stretching as far as the eye can see. It is remote and eerie, magical and mythical. The sunset seems to take twice as long out there, and the climate takes on a comfortable humidity as the light lingers, the sky strobing from fire orange to petal pink and lavender. Wild brown hares with cotton tails dart through the brush as night falls, a sliver of moon and smattering of stars appear. The Salton Sea Recreation Area allows for picnicking, camping, or simply gaping in awe at its idiosyncratic beauty.

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The Salton Sea, as a concept, tends to dredge up the cynics. It is symbolic of the inherent desire โ€“ and failure โ€“ of mankind to insert himself where he does not belong. Imagine, making the journey to a caustic desert environment, vacationing along the shores of aย  toxic body of water that nature never intended to exist. It is as incongruous with life as the smog and sprawl of Los Angeles, in an acute and opposite way. Decades after it was a resort town, the Salton Sea still calls to those looking to get lost, to slip between the cracks of reality for a while, not into the lap of luxury, but into an alternate existence of dilapidation and grit that reminds us that we are temporary, while these other things remain.

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Like the Salton Sea, nearby Bombay Beach is located below sea level โ€“ in fact, it’s the lowest-elevation community in the United States. Originally established as a resort town โ€“ which even boasted its own yacht club โ€“ it fell victim to the Salton Sea’s fickle rising waters, which have at points flooded the trailer community that has existed there since its heyday. There are just a couple hundred residents of Bombay Beach still, and it’s also home to a bar, some abandoned structures, and enough nuclear fallout-paraphernalia to make you just a little uneasy. It is post-apocalyptic to a tee, some sort of post-war alternate reality in which the war had gone the other way. It is eerie and impenetrable and inexplicably beautiful, its purpose and endurance and very existence make no sense and perfect sense all at once. Bombay Beach feels as though you’ve slipped through the wormhole somewhere in the timeline, where you are free to be either a stranger passing through with wonder or a local born and bred in this alien wasteland where the weight of your own reality has somehow ceased to matter.

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And if you still need more incentive to go get lost out in the desert for a day, the drive winds directly through Palm Springs, where you can stop for a refreshing cocktail and bite to eat. Most importantly, you’ll also pass right by the International Banana Museum, the world’s largest, and kitschiest, collection of all things banana that costs just $1 to enter and is the perfect accompaniment to the offbeat, nowhere-else-like-it spirit of the desert all around it.