I recently had the pleasure of traveling to sunny New Mexico for the first time to visit a good friend of mine. She has been wooing me for three years to get me to take in the majestic sights, and I finally made the trip with my husband and daughter. Beyond the breathtaking views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and deserts at every angle, my visit pleasantly surprised me. I learned a ton about the nation’s 47th state after visiting Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the state’s capital. From my experience, here are five awesome reasons to consider visiting New Mexico soon:

Get a Lesson in Native Culture

Textiles

Visiting New Mexico was like being in a cultural melting pot. On our four-day visit, we were exposed to and learned about Native American, Mexican and Cuban culture. I was excited to visit a Native American reservation and learn more about the local tribes.

Did you know that the state has the second highest population of American Indians behind only Alaska? More than 10% of the population has a native origin, while about 50% of the population has a Hispanic or Latino background. There are 22 federally recognized tribes around New Mexico, organized into 19 pueblos, which are sovereign nations.

We were fortunate enough to be visiting Santa Fe during the annual Indian Market, which features artists from all over the continent bring their artwork, jewelry and pottery for a six-day outdoor market. More than 300 tribes were represented as rows and rows of vendors lined the downtown streets to sell their wares, which were decked out with feathers, beads, stones, silver and fur. Taking in the wide range of both traditional and contemporary art gave me a renewed appreciation for their community.

We visited the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, located at 2401 12th Street NW, in Albuquerque. We toured galleries of more than 2,500 pieces of pottery, baskets, paintings, jewelry and photographs from the 19 pueblos. We attended a traditional dance by the Big Thunder dancers from the Hopi and Cochiti tribes. They performed prayers, songs and dances passed down from their ancestors for hundreds of years.

Other places to visit include the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, and the Bosque Redondo Memorial in Fort Sumner.

Take in New Mexico’s Natural Beauty

New Mexico landscape

From the raging Rio Grande to the nearby Rocky Mountains, New Mexico’s landscape is amazing and diverse. The state is packed with natural wonders such as the Carlsbad Caverns and the Brazos Cliffs. The state has 13 national parks, three historic trails and more than 400 smaller park units.

We had the pleasure of hiking through Piedras Marcadas Canyon in Albuquerque, which was created by a series of volcano eruptions 200,000 years ago. The canyon is home to Petroglyph National Monument, which has an estimated 5,000 documented drawings in the rocks. These drawings, which were created between 400 and 700 years ago by the native Pueblo people, include geometric forms, reptiles, mammal images, masks and human figures.

Our hike took about a half hour up a winding, steep trail, but the climb was well worth it for the breath-taking views in every direction from the mountain’s top plateau. I was amazed that the drawings were so well preserved after centuries of weathering. Unfortunately, the high temps kept us from tackling all of the nearby petroglyph sites.

Other amazing places to visit include the White Sands National Monument, which is celebrated as one of the greatest wonders of the world. This section of the Chihuahuan Desert consists of wave-like dunes of gypsum sand. Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec features village ruins and thousands of artifacts from its inhabitants of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Blue Hole in Santa Rosa is a natural phenomenon that is an 80-foot deep pool that is popular among divers.

Live on the Adventurous Side

Hiking

While vacationing in New Mexico, I felt like the tourist activities were endless and superior to the things I’m used to as a midwestern girl. My options included hiking through trails in the Sandias Mountains, whitewater rafting excursions down the Rio Grande, and hot air balloon rides.

Albuquerque is considered the Balloon Capital of the World and home to more than 300 balloon pilots. The annual International Balloon Fiesta is held every October and is a nine-day event with hundreds of hot air balloon flights. I found at least a half dozen companies that offer hot air balloon rides at sunset and sunrise, and champagne rides for as little as $150 per person. Adventure seekers you can also go sky diving, for a helicopter ride or for a spin in a NASCAR car or stock car.

We considered going whitewater rafting for a half-day trip on the Rio Chama, but the weather didn’t permit it. Rafting excursions in New Mexico are a great way to take in historical sites, colorful canyons and the state’s desert scenery. The cost for a half-day trip begins around $55 and you can typically choose from five difficulty classifications for your rafting trip. Kayaking, paddle boarding and rock climbing are also available.

Eat Your Way into a Coma

Mexican Food

With New Mexico’s melting pot of cuisines, I was thrilled to try some authentic cooking on my trip. Local cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, Mediterranean and Mexican, Native American influences. I knew I had left the land of pizza and burgers when our waitresses asked whether I preferred green chile or red chile in my food. I learned that chile, beans and corn are considered basic ingredients in most New Mexican meals.

In Santa Fe, the city’s “Little Havana” is a great place to taste traditional Cuban and African food. I visited Jambo Café, located at 2010 Cerrillos Road, and was pleasantly surprised after ordering chicken curry, goat stew, lentils, rice and roti.

It was a must to try traditional Mexican food so we visited Tia Sophia’s, located at 210 W. San Francisco Street, in the heart of Santa Fe’s downtown. It’s where locals have been going for over 40 years. I tried the amazing combination plate with an enchilada, beans, rice and a tamale, although the restaurant is best known for its traditional Mexican breakfast, Huevos Rancheros.

In Albuquerque, We even visited an Indian pueblo to try frybread and a Navajo taco, which is meal staple in the Navajo culture. From chalupas to flan to frijoles, an open-minded eater will be in heaven trying new fare on a trip to New Mexico.

Learn Something New

The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe NM

My husband and I learned so many historical and cultural facts about the state during our trip. Our Santa Fe city tour was a blast since it included an off-road detour through the dessert as well as a history lesson about the city.

Did you know that the oldest church in America is in Santa Fe? We visited San Miguel Chapel, which is considered the nation’s oldest church and was established between 1610 and 1626 by Spanish settlers. The church has been repaired and rebuilt several times over the years, and church services are still held there. A portion of the church is used as a mini museum and gift shop.

Did you know that the infamous Route 66 runs through the state’s major cities? Route 66, better known as America’s Main Street, is one of the nation’s original highways. As people migrated west, the route was used as a major trade source.

Did you know that New Mexico’s capitol is the only round state capitol building in the U.S.? Located on Old Santa Fe Trail, we visited the building, which stands in the heart of Santa Fe. The building was designed in the shape of the Zia Sun Symbol, which also graces the state flag. It symbolizes the circle of life, four winds, four seasons and four directions.

I could go on and on about all of the cool facts I learned and new things I got to experience on my Southwest expedition. There’s something for everyone, no matter what your interest, from the Sandia Peak Tramway to the International UFO Museum. It was a great decision to break out of the typical beach destinations for a little more culture and history.

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