Santa Fe’s historic plaza, museums, galleries, and restaurants are only 80 minutes by rail from
By George Miller
On the Rail Runner Express, the “beep-beep” sound that signifies that the doors are closing brings to mind the Warner Brothers cartoon “Roadrunner.” The train accelerates, and in a matter of minutes the houses and commerce of Albuquerque disappear. Instead, you see clusters of adobe houses with domed bread ovens, fields of corn and squash, and horses grazing in pastures. Eighty minutes later, the train pulls into the historic depot in Santa Fe. But unlike a daily commute, a day trip by rail to Santa Fe, with its famous plaza, museums, and galleries, begins with the journey itself.
The Rail Runner, with a roadrunner (the New Mexico state bird) painted on its side, speeds through time as well as landscape. Santa Fe “” the oldest European city west of the Mississippi River and the oldest capital city in North America “” celebrates its 400th anniversary in 2010. Yet, the Indian pueblos that the train whizzes past were thriving towns with thousands of inhabitants 1,000 years ago. Rail Runner passes by the Sandia, San Felipe, Santo Domingo, and Cochiti reservations, offering glimpses of the settlements and mission churches.
The train follows much the same path traveled by the early conquistadores. The scene has changed little since Coronado made first contact with the Rio Grande Pueblo Indians circa 1540. North of the Bernalillo station, only a few dirt roads mar the rolling hills. Instead of four lanes of speeding vehicles on Interstate 25, Rail Runner passengers see an undisturbed vista of open landscape. Billowing clouds roll across the blue sky, and mesas and mountains frame the horizon. You can’t see any of this from the highway.
Santa Fe “” “The City Different” “” also can boast that it’s one-of-a-kind. The city is ranked third among the nation’s most popular travel destinations by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. The Rail Runner terminates at the tiny Santa Fe depot in the historic Railyard District, popular for shopping and entertainment. Across the tracks at the Sanbusco Market Center, you can browse specialty shops and import bazaars and enjoy a delicious meal at El Tosoro Café or one of the other eateries.
One block away, galleries, boutiques, antiques stores, and restaurants line South Guadalupe Street. The art-deco-style Zia serves what is called “international comfort food,” while Cowgirl BBQ specializes in mesquite-smoked brisket, ribs, chicken, and frozen margaritas.
For the signature Santa Fe experience, head for the historic Santa Fe Plaza, the soul of the city. It’s an eight-block walk from the depot. If you don’t want to hike, you can catch the Santa Fe Pick-Up, a free shuttle bus that leaves from the north end of the tracks soon after each train arrives. The bus loops the historic district and stops a block from the famous plaza, as well as at Canyon Road with its art galleries. With this kind of transportation, there’s no need to bring your motorhome to Santa Fe, and actually, there is no room for one most of the time, anyway. Leave your coach in Albuquerque and ride the rails.
For a thousand years, traders from as far away as the Pacific Coast and the Mayan empire in Mexico (and beyond) gathered in the central plazas of Indian pueblos in New Mexico. Today Indians from 23 tribes and pueblos continue the tradition in the Santa Fe Plaza. Like their ancestors, the artisans offer their wares on blankets spread on the ground. Every day, they line the portal of the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, now part of the New Mexico History Museum.
The New Mexico History Museum juries the vendors and inspects their workshops to ensure that all items are original and trademarked. Silver must be sterling and turquoise either natural or stabilized stone, but not color-enhanced. You can shop with confidence that you’re getting authentic American goods, not imported or mass-produced merchandise.
The New Mexico History Museum traces the development of the state from pre-Columbian times through Spanish colonization, statehood, and the Western era to the Code Talkers and World War II. Video clips show how Hispanic and American Indian traditions still thrive in today’s culture. Stop in the history library and read jailhouse letters that Billy the Kid sent to Governor Lew Wallace, then check out the museum’s photography archives to view some of the first photos ever taken in the Southwest.
The New Mexico Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the Institute of American Indian Arts also are located near the plaza. One can easily spend several hours just looking at all the exhibits.
A long row of connected adobe storefronts lines East Plaza Street one block off the plaza. Built centuries ago as family homes, these dwellings now house galleries, courtyard restaurants, and boutiques. One unobtrusive door, 109 East Palace, was the secret gateway for the Manhattan Project. There, families headed to Los Alamos were provisioned so they could settle in that hastily built town where the first atomic bomb was developed. Now 109 E. Palace is home to the Onorato Home and Ambiance store.
When the evening light transmutes the adobe buildings to gold, the stone towers of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi come to life. Built in 1869, the landmark anchors the east side of the downtown historic zone. The oldest statue of the Virgin Mary in the United States, brought here in 1625, is the city’s patroness and a distinguishing feature of this beautiful house of worship.
Historically the center for three cultures, Santa Fe is the hub for American Indian, Hispanic, and contemporary folk and fine art. With more than 250 galleries and dealers, the city has one of the United States’ largest art markets.
In addition to the sidewalk artists and galleries around the plaza, Santa Fe has an arts district along Canyon Road with one of the highest concentrations, and most extensive selections, of fine art in the West. Outdoor sculptures decorate the courtyards, and native-plant landscapes capture the sense of the Southwest. Despite the commercial development, the neighborhood maintains its original rural, lived-in feeling. In 2007 the American Planning Association rated Canyon Road as one of the 10 greatest streets in the United States.
You can reach Canyon Road via the free Santa Fe Pick-Up shuttle, which has two stop locations there. In addition to art, the road hosts eateries such as Geronimo and The Compound; so, you may want to plan to dine in this district.
Just a bit south of the Canyon Road art district is Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, which is served by a bus “” the “M” bus “” which departs from Santa Fe Plaza. Fares are very inexpensive. Four museums line Camino Lejo. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian focus on the heritage and evolving culture of Southwest Indians. The Museum of International Folk Art encompasses even more cultures, displaying thousands of toys, textiles, and hand-carved dioramas from around the world. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art features objects from throughout the Hispanic world.
Military aficionados will want to stop at Santa Fe’s Bataan Memorial Military Museum and Library to salute the past. Nearly all of New Mexico’s national guard was among the thousands of Filipino and American soldiers forced to participate in the renowned Bataan Death March during World War II. The museum commemorates the event and other conflicts that involved New Mexicans.
Trains return to Albuquerque in the afternoon and evening, so you have plenty of time to soak up the best of Santa Fe before you leave. Then relax and listen to the “beep-beep” as Rail Runner speeds you back to Albuquerque. It’s a great way to get to Santa Fe without worrying about driving or parking a car or a motorhome there.
If You Go
For more information about the train, schedules, etc., contact:
New Mexico Rail Runner Express
809 Copper Ave. N.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87102
The Rail Runner Express stop closest to Balloon Fiesta Park, where FMCA members will be ensconced during the March convention, is the Los Ranchos/Journal Center. It is only 7 minutes by car from Balloon Fiesta Park. There is no motorhome parking available at this lot, so please take a towed car.
For more information about restaurants, shopping, and other attractions in Santa Fe, contact:
Santa Fe Convention & Visitors Bureau
210 W. Marcy St.
Santa Fe, NM 87501