It was supposed to be fun and easy: a three-night trip to New Mexico to help my friend and frequent travel companion, Molly, visit her 50th state. The flights and hotels were booked, M was all set for a few days of solo parenting, and I was excited to explore a new place and generate some fresh content for the blog.
It didn’t take long for things to start going awry.
While I am grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with Molly, enjoy a few days away from the demands of parenting toddlers, and visit my 47th state (only Michigan, South Carolina, and Hawaii to go!), my trip to New Mexico was far from the relaxing, rejuvenating, blog-tastic getaway I was hoping for. In fact, there were certain points on the trip that could easily have fit into one of my worst travel moments posts.
But New Mexico is a stunning state, and the small sliver of it that we saw had a thriving arts scene, mouthwatering food, a fascinating blend of cultures, and lovely architecture. Although the trip had some lows, there were definite highs as well. Read on to see how the Land of Enchantment treated us well, and where it did us dirty.
Day 1: A Longer-Than-Expected Travel Day
I was feeling nothing but excitement as I made the journey from our home outside of Philadelphia to Molly’s house near Baltimore on Tuesday evening. Our flight was to depart from BWI (Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport) at 6:25 the next morning, so it made sense for me to crash at her house before her husband drove us to the airport at the wretched hour of 5:00 AM. (You might remember Molly from our two-month cross-country road trip, our long weekend in Iowa and Nebraska, and her fabulous bachelorette weekend in Virginia’s wine country.)
When the time came, we boarded our flight and were delighted to have a row to ourselves. Molly was at the aisle, I was at the window, and we had a big open middle seat between us. We shared a giddy smile and settled in for our four-hour flight to Austin.
We should have known that it was too good to be true.
Within a few minutes of the last person boarding, it was announced that we could feel free to use our larger electronic devices for the time being. Given that those devices need to be stowed away in order for us to take off, it wasn’t a good sign. Soon enough, all passengers bound for Albuquerque were being pulled off the plane because a mechanical issue was going to delay us long enough that we would miss our connection in Austin.
So much for a blissful flight with an empty middle seat. Instead, Molly and I found ourselves at the tail end of a line of fifty people, all of whom were waiting for a single gate agent to rebook us to Albuquerque. A little pessimistic voice, or perhaps just the realist inside of me, whispered that there was no way we were all going to make it to New Mexico today. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I chanced a phone call to Southwest Airlines customer service to see if I could get some quicker assistance.
Happily, I was able to get through and ended up getting us rebooked on a flight with a layover in Dallas leaving four hours later. We were ticketed and heading off to find some breakfast before our line had moved ten feet!*
*Note: This tactic, while always a good idea to try, doesn’t always work. Sometimes airlines lock the rebooking process for delayed or canceled flights and you can only rebook through a gate agent. Thankfully, ours wasn’t locked and we made it through!
After an extra four hours in Baltimore and a long layover in Dallas, we finally touched down in Albuquerque, New Mexico at around 6:00 PM local time. It was a full seven hours later than originally planned. By the time we grabbed our rental car and drove an hour to our hotel in Santa Fe, the sun had set and the first day of our vacation was completely shot. But we had made it to Molly’s 50th state!
Our home for the next two nights was Hotel Chimayo, a reasonably-priced midrange hotel just off Santa Fe Plaza in the historic downtown. It had comfy beds, a friendly staff, and plenty of character that helped us feel like we were actually in the Southwest, despite having seen almost nothing in the darkness on the drive to Santa Fe.
The next order of business was to find some dinner, which led us to Plaza Cafe, the oldest restaurant in the city. It was only a five-minute walk from Hotel Chimayo, perfect after a long travel day. It was there that we got our first taste of New Mexican food. I stuck with a traditional, soul-warming posole – a hearty pork and hominy stew – while Molly branched out a bit with some crispy avocado tacos.
(PS: If you’re headed to Santa Fe, don’t miss my list of ten of the best places to eat in the historic downtown!)
By the time we finished dinner, it was well past 9:00 PM local time, which meant that it was 11:00 PM for our East Coast, up-at-3:30 AM-for-the-flight bodies. The streets were chilly and deserted as we walked back to the hotel, making it a lot more appealing to just snuggle into our warm, comfy beds.
Day 2: Santa Fe
Despite the setbacks of the day before, we woke up on Thursday with renewed excitement to start experiencing all that Santa Fe had to offer. The morning was cold – it was late October at almost 7,200 feet above sea level – so we bundled up to make the walk to 35° North Coffee for some breakfast.
Located a block off the historic Santa Fe Plaza, 35˚ North is a small coffee shop and pastelaria (pastry shop) that is deeply committed to excellent and sustainable coffee. We grabbed our drinks and some savory croissants (complete with green chili, of course; when in Rome!) to enjoy in their pretty seating area before setting off to enjoy Santa Fe!
The Plaza was quiet under cloudy skies as we returned to our hotel to get ready for our day. Now that the darkness had lifted, we could better appreciate the beautiful adobe architecture that surrounded us and the historic landmarks we were passing. The stately Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stood watch down the street…
…the pretty Plaza was empty and peaceful…
…and the local artisans had not yet spread their goods in front of the historic Palace of the Governors.
With its start roughly a half mile from the Plaza, Canyon Road is a famous arts district that boasts more than a hundred art galleries and boutique shops along a half-mile-long street. There, you’ll find everything from Native American pottery to fine and contemporary art, tapestries, jewelry, and leatherwork. Visiting Canyon Road is one of the most popular things to do in Santa Fe, and it absolutely not be missed by any lovers of art and culture. I am a novice art appreciator at best and was still charmed and fascinated by the artistic talent and variety of art on display.
Before visiting Canyon Road, I had – perhaps foolishly – anticipated a series of storefronts and side-by-side modern buildings, but I was delighted to find that the road itself is historic and charming. Many of the buildings are adobe, with colorful doors and well-tended gardens and landscaping. As befits an artsy area, sculpture abounds as well.
Molly and I parked along Delgado Street* and turned west on Canyon Road, visiting the galleries and sculpture gardens at that end of the street before turning back and heading eastward. There were so many gorgeous works of art on display, and we also really appreciated how much Native American and Mesoamerican art and artifacts were available to view and appreciate.
*Canyon Road is within walking distance of the Plaza and the surrounding hotels, so we considered walking. Ultimately, we chose to drive to allow for other, farther-flung sightseeing after.
We were visiting in late October, when the vegetation was sparse and often brown, but I can imagine how pretty the road would be in the warmer months when the trees are green and flowers in bloom.
There are a few restaurants and cafes along Canyon Road, as well, to refuel you during your artistic journeying. We stopped for some refreshment at The Teahouse, which is perfectly situated a little more than halfway down the street. There, we found a massive number of loose leaf teas, in addition to coffee, pastries, and other delights. Don’t miss the blueberry scone with lemon curd, if they have it!
Fortunately or unfortunately, there were more galleries and boutiques than we possibly could have visited or appreciated in one morning, let alone a full day. By lunchtime, however, we plebian art buffs were ready for our next adventure. And that next adventure was lunch.
We returned the car to the hotel, and by the time we left in search of our next round of New Mexican comfort food, it had started to snow!
In a town full of adobe and Southwestern-style buildings, the gothic Loretto Chapel certainly stands out. It was consecrated in 1878 and served the sisters and students of a Catholic school. While services were once held regularly inside, these days the church serves solely as a museum and wedding chapel. It’s small and intimate, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in detail or aesthetics.
The main attraction, the Miraculous Stair, is tucked in the back corner of the chapel. Circling up twenty feet to the choir loft, the staircase is considered miraculous because it rises without the support of a central pole or any nails, glue, or other hardware – just wooden pegs.
Further adding to the mystery of the staircase is the fact that no one knows for sure who built it. Theories abound, from a divine visitor – possibly Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus – who finished the staircase overnight to a reclusive French rancher who was later murdered. Either way, what might seem at first glance like a pretty but unremarkable part of the building actually becomes quite impressive after a few moments’ consideration.
After our own few moments, Molly and I stepped back into the October chill to make our way to Kakawa Chocolate House. We’d been looking forward to some authentic, Mexican-style hot chocolate since we had arrived, and this colorful little spot along Paseo de Peralta seemed like the perfect place.
Specializing in artisanal chocolates and boasting a passion for traditional methods, Kakawa is a great stop for both adventurous and traditional chocolate lovers. They sell everything from truffles to homemade brownie sundaes, but Molly and I both elected to try a flight of chocolate “elixirs.”
The elixirs varied widely, starting with authentic Mesoamerican recipes that pair bitter chocolate with water, herbs, and spices and working their way up through historic European blends to more contemporary elixirs made with rich chocolate and almond milk. I tried two of the Mesoamerican elixirs, one of which, I’ll admit, was a bit too bitter and the flavors too jarring for my personal tastes. The others were good, but perhaps I’m just boring: the sweet, rich American elixir – a contemporary blend most like the hot chocolate we’re used to – was my favorite.
For the final stop on our sightseeing tour of Santa Fe, we turned back toward the Plaza and walked to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Located a block off the Plaza, the cathedral is an impressive limestone structure with a rose window at the center of its facade. It dates to the late 1800’s and still serves as the center of the local Catholic archdiocese.
It’s free to enter the Basilica, though you’ll pass a donation box on your way in if you’re in a generous mood or want to help preserve the church. The interior was much more colorful than I was expecting, with lovely green accents, beautiful patterns on the ceiling arches, and plenty of artwork. I appreciated that the woodwork had a distinctive Southwestern flare, as well.
By the time we finished viewing the church’s interior, the “golden hour” had struck and was setting the stone exterior of the Basilica alight. While the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi may not be the largest, grandest, or most impressive cathedral I’ve ever seen, in that moment it was gorgeous.
For the next hour or so, Molly and I wandered the streets of the historic downtown, poking into some of the ubiquitous souvenir and jewelry shops to see if there was anything worth taking home. Turquoise is everywhere here, with dozens of jewelry shops ready to sell you rings, bracelets, necklaces, and other baubles. There are also plenty of leatherworkers, clothing boutiques, art galleries, and shops filled with Native American-style handicrafts, though I noticed that a lot of the offerings were from various parts of Central and South America and Mexico rather than New Mexico itself. If you’re looking for an authentic souvenir from Santa Fe, make sure you read your labels or do your due diligence.
We ended up empty-handed, which was fine by us, and by 6:00 PM it felt like the entire town had shut down. The aforementioned souvenir and jewelry shops were shuttered, there were few people to pass on the streets, and darkness was falling. Time to find some dinner.
Despite our love of New Mexican food, by our fourth meal in Santa Fe it was time for something a little different. We ended up at Hervé Wine Bar, which ended up being a perfect alternative. Tucked back through a narrow walkway off of West San Francisco Street, Hervé is a dimly-lit, romantic-feeling lounge under a big glass ceiling. It is owned by Lescombes Family Vineyards and features small plates, salads, paninis, and desserts along with their delicious wines.
In true Molly-and-Gwen style, it was time to split some dishes. We chose the Hervé Board, because what girls’ trip is complete without charcuterie, as well as four bruschetta. The roasted grapes, goat cheese, and lavender honey bruschetta was out of this world. Molly tried a wine flight while I stuck to a glass of red.
(photo credit: Molly Hayeslip)
Everything was delicious, our server was great, and we had just had a fun, full day exploring a new city. But it was about this time that things started to go downhill. I was still enjoying myself, and Molly and I were even debating whether to head out for a nightcap at a place with live music, but I was also starting to feel a little… off. My head felt foggy, and somewhere in the middle of my outstanding bruschetta I realized that I was exhausted. At the time, I chalked it up to a long day on my feet after an even longer day of travel. If only that had been the case.
By the time we returned to our hotel and were grabbing a quick drink in the hotel bar, I couldn’t hear out of my left ear. At first, I thought it was just weirdly clogged and continued sipping my whiskey on the rocks, talking with Molly, and making friends with the bartender who just happened to be a massive Philadelphia sports fan despite originally hailing from Oklahoma. But as I reached the bottom of my glass, things were starting to get painful. By the time we returned to our room and started getting ready for bed, any movement caused the whole left side of my head to throb with pain. Showering was torturous, and changing into my pajamas was accompanied by no small number of little moans as the pressure in my head continued to build.
Thus began one of my worst nights in recent memory, a seemingly unending progression of eternal minutes filled with pain, pressure, and complete helplessness. There was nothing I could do to stop the throbbing in my left ear, and any movement caused a burst of pain so sharp that I couldn’t help but groan. An ear infection seems like such a small thing, but I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that it was the worst pain I’ve felt since childbirth.
It was going to be a long night.
Find the Perfect Place to Stay in Santa Fe!
Day 3: Albuquerque... Eventually.
To put it mildly, my day in Albuquerque did not go at all the way I had envisioned when Molly and I started putting this trip together. Instead of a scenic drive south from Santa Fe and an afternoon spent exploring the historic downtown, I got a trip to Urgent Care, a drugged-up car ride I barely remember, and an afternoon spent drifting in and out of sleep in our no-frills hotel room near the airport.
Not exactly what travel dreams are made of.
After a long, painful, and often sleepless night, our alarms went off just before 5:30 AM so that we could check in for our flights the next day. Issues on the Southwest app meant that I was delayed in doing so, resulting in a boarding number far behind what Molly was able to get.
It wasn’t a promising way to start the day.
It was futile trying to go back to sleep with the pressure in my head, so it was a long wait for the moment where we could leave for an urgent care facility. Unfortunately for Molly but fortunately for me, she was also unable to fall back asleep. Thus, we were packed and ready to go in time for me to be first in line at the nearest urgent care facility when they opened for the day.
There, the doctor confirmed that I had a roaring ear infection in my left ear and a milder one in my right, which I hadn’t even noticed because of the severity of the other. He prescribed me a cocktail of allergy medication, antibiotics, and nasal spray but warned me that it would take a while before I started to feel any better.
Great. Just what I wanted to hear.
I was barely functioning as a human as it was – every movement was still sharply painful – but after taking all that medication I could barely keep my eyes open. Nevertheless, I still encouraged Molly to take the scenic drive* between Santa Fe and Albuquerque rather than sticking to the highway. And from what little I saw of it, it was scenic, and definitely a great alternative to the main highway.
*New Mexico State Road 14, or NM14
We had chosen a hotel near the airport for our final night in New Mexico, as our flight was set to depart at 5:30 the next morning. Happily, we were able to arrange an early check-in, and by noon I was in bed. I insisted that Molly go out and have fun exploring Albuquerque, and I didn’t even hear her leave because I was already asleep.
The next few hours were a blur, with me waking up only long enough to roll over (excruciating) or use the restroom (put off as long as possible). Molly, on the other hand, at least got to walk the streets of historic Albuquerque:
(photo credit for all of the above: Molly Hayeslip)
By the time Molly returned in the mid-afternoon, I was feeling a little better and at least able to face the prospect of eating something. (She had kindly brought me a sandwich from the Old Town Cafe on San Felipe Street.) In addition to feeling terrible physically, I was also supremely disappointed to be losing yet another day of this short trip. I had been so excited to see Albuquerque; my grandfather grew up there and I felt like I had spent my whole life hearing about it. Plus, I was looking forward to finding some great new blog content!
Although my body wanted nothing more than to crawl right back into bed and return to the blissful oblivion of unconsciousness, I knew I would have even more regret if I didn’t at least try to rally for the back half of the day. And so, refueled and somewhat rejuvenated, I got ready to join Molly for a trip to Petroglyph National Monument.
Hugging the western side of the city of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument is a 7,500+ acre piece of protected land that contains dormant volcanoes, archaeological sites, and tens of thousands of petroglyphs (images scratched or carved into rocks). The petroglyphs date back hundreds, and in some cases possibly thousands, of years and were created by Pueblo and other peoples native to the area. I couldn’t wait to go and see the images for myself.
Because it was getting so late in the day, our first stop was the Visitor Information Center to get some information about what hikes would be available and best for our limited time (and my limited stamina).
There aren’t any petroglyph-viewing hikes that leave from the center, but the ranger on duty was very helpful in pointing us to Piedras Marcadas Canyon. Piedras Marcadas, which means “Marked Rocks,” is home to the highest concentration of petroglyphs at the Monument, with many visible along a short, easy trail. It sounded perfect!
We drove to the trailhead for Piedras Marcadas, which was one of the stranger trailheads I’ve visited. Petroglyph National Monument really is right up against the developed area of Albuquerque, and we essentially pulled into a Valvoline Instant Oil Change before swinging left into the trail parking lot.
It didn’t take long, though, before the sandy trail took us away from the hustle and bustle. To our right, a volcanic escarpment grew as we walked, covered with dark boulders and low desert brush. Soon, the houses and businesses faded into the horizon and we were surrounded by the silent desert, the weight of history, and a single jackrabbit.
The trail was easy to follow, since it is lined the entire way by metal posts and a thin metal rope to keep you from disturbing the flora, fauna, and petroglyphs.
Soon enough, we started spotting petroglyphs. Long ago, someone had scratched or carved away the dark, outer layer of the boulders to reveal lighter rock underneath. The meaning of so many of the pictures has been lost to time – and some may have just been ancient doodles in the first place, with no major significance – but it was still amazing to see such obvious evidence of the people who once called the area home.
There are six major stops along the trail for petroglyph viewing, and we made sure to hit all of them. The sheer volume of carvings was amazing, and it was fascinating to see the variety of shapes, pictures, and markings. Common motifs included handprints…
… along with human figures, animals, celestial bodies like the sun, and geometric shapes.
A few of the handprints even included an extra finger, further adding to the mysterious nature of the petroglyphs. Was there a sacred meaning? A message being conveyed? An artist who was endowed with an extra digit or who simply lost track of how many fingers had already been drawn? Whatever the explanation, the extra-fingered hands and some of the other drawings definitely had a haunting quality to them.
While the hike through Piedras Marcadas Canyon was easy and mostly flat, there are no facilities, shade, or places to sit and rest. It was late October, so the temperature was perfect for us, but I’m sure it’s sweltering in summer. Make sure to come prepared with plenty of water and sunscreen if you’re exploring during the hotter months!
With the sun sinking lower and the last major viewing area behind us, it was time to return to the car and make our way to the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway. One of the most popular things to do in Albuquerque, the tramway is a fifteen-minute cable car ride from the edge of the city to the top of the 10,400-foot-tall Sandia Mountains. There, you’ll find stunning panoramic views, a restaurant and lounge, hiking trails, a visitor center, and ski facilities in the winter.
The most atmospheric time to take the aerial tram is around sunset, and we arrived in perfect timing. The sun was starting to set, and a tram car had just left so that we were first in line for the next one. Unfortunately, it took a while for our tram to depart, so we ended up missing peak sunset views, but it was still gorgeous as we slowly ascended to the top of the mountain.
Luckily, there was still enough light to be able to see and appreciate the craggy mountainsides around us, which were further accented by a light dusting of snow.
As we ascended, a guide pointed out notable landmarks, explained the history and workings of the tram, and entertained us with all the groaner tour guide jokes you’d expect on such a journey. At one point, Molly and I were surreptitiously trying to get a photo of her holding a “50th State” sign when the guide caught us and announced her achievement to the entire car. Cue a round of gracious applause from our fellow travelers that made Molly’s cheeks turn ever-so-slightly crimson.
Now, I will admit something to you: aerial trams and cable cars of this nature tend to freak me out. I’m not a big fan of heights as it is, but the idea of floating through the air with only a (seemingly) thin cable holding me up is about half panic-inducing. My stomach drops when the car rocks back and forth while clearing a tower, and there is no way I’m looking out the front of the car as it makes its descent.
That said, I love the views that an aerial tram can give me and the vistas I am rewarded with at the top. This was the case at the Sugarloaf Mountain cable car in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as the Alyeska Tramway in Girdwood, Alaska and the TelefériQo in Quito, Ecuador. And it was certainly the case at the top of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico.
The last of the sunlight was disappearing beyond the horizon as we disembarked our tram car and walked onto the wooden viewing platform at the top of the mountain. The city of Albuquerque lay stretched out before us, lights starting to twinkle in the gathering darkness.
We watched as our tram car, now full of returning passengers, made its way down the mountain. As I looked at the drooping cables and that tiny car suspended over the rocky mountainside, I was once again dumbfounded as to how these things actually work safely. But I digress.
With less of an audience this time, we grabbed a better photo of Molly to celebrate her 50th state, as well as the only non-snow-selfie picture of the two of us together of the entire trip.
Both dining areas offer great views (when it’s light enough to enjoy them), but reservations are mandatory on the fine dining side. We hadn’t chosen to make any, so instead we grabbed a spot at the bar in the first-come, first-served lounge area. There, we each ordered a drink and toasted our trip, Molly’s achievement, and my fortitude for making it out of the hotel.
Finally, it was time to make our return trip down the mountain. Grateful for the darkness that hid the sheer drop in front of us, I spent the ride staring into the middle distance out the side of the tram car. At last, however, we were back at the station and bidding adieu to the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway.
It was getting late and we had an early morning ahead of us, so dinner consisted of some snacks picked up from a Walmart on our way back to our hotel.
Find the Perfect Place to Stay in Albuquerque!
Despite a very early flight and lingering pain in my ear, I was grateful for two things: a nonstop flight to Baltimore and the fact that my pain level was nowhere near what it had been the day before. We made it back to Molly’s with very little trouble, and her husband kindly met us with a bag full of yummy breakfast goodness. All that remained was an hour-and-a-half-long drive home… and two more weeks before I could hear out of my left ear properly again.
All in all, while our trip to Santa Fe and Albuquerque had a lot of disappointments, I’m still grateful to have had the opportunity to go. It was so special to be able to help Molly fulfill her goal of visiting all fifty states, and it also felt good to cross number forty-seven off my own list!
We also had a lot of small blessings-in-the-badness that kept things from being worse. For example:
- We were still able to make it to New Mexico on Wednesday rather than being delayed until Thursday or later. When I saw the rebooking line as we exited the plane, I was half-convinced there was no way we’d be able to make it to Albuquerque that day.
- We discovered before boarding our flight to Albuquerque that our rental car pickup location, which should have been fine with our original flight schedule, was going to close at 4 PM. Thankfully, we were able to switch to an airport pickup and actually ended up saving a few dollars!
- I began to feel ill on Thursday night and was able to go to an urgent care facility on Friday morning, rather than getting sick Friday night. Even though I lost some of my day on Thursday, I was able to get the medicine I needed and didn’t have to fly in such a miserable state the next day.
Still, I feel like I only scratched the surface of what Santa Fe and Albuquerque – let alone the rest of New Mexico – have to offer. There are so many more historic sites to visit, so many more tasty dishes to try, so many more mountaintop views to seek out, and so many more incredible things to do that will just have to wait for next time. I just hope that next time comes soon!
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