Arty Taos, New Mexico
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
In Taos, it’s all about the art.
Populated with more artists and galleries per capita than Paris, the town is overflowing with beautiful and creative artworks. Artists are drawn by the light, which is sometimes warm and golden and other times bold enough to turn the surrounding mountains blood red—a fact that prompted the Spanish conquistadors to dub them the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for their resemblance to the “blood of Christ.” Rainbow halos are said to hang over the mountains in summer.
Most visitors are in turn attracted by the artists and their creations–and by the opportunity to hike with a llama, to take a rafting trip on the Rio Grande, or to sight local resident Julia Roberts and her twins.
More than 80 galleries are scattered around town. Of special interest among those lining the perimeter of historic Taos Plaza are the La Fonda Hotel, where for a small fee you can see a permanent exhibit of erotic paintings by D.H. Lawrence, and the old town courthouse, where murals by a protégé of Diego Rivera are displayed in an upstairs gallery. Nearby, pedestrians-only Bent Street has additional galleries, boutiques, and cafes.
As might be expected in such an artist-heavy venue, the town’s array of museums is noteworthy. Those mentioned here also provide the opportunity to tour an authentic adobe.
Just a block from the plaza, the Blumenschein Home and Museum is maintained much as it was when the original tenant artist lived here in the early twentieth century. Art hangs on mud plaster walls beautifully restored to their original colors, and rooms are decorated true to the times. Taos-blue door and window trim reflects the fact that the Spanish who settled in the area believed this color kept evil out of a house and so always painted entrances blue. (A warning: Lost in the fantasy of life in another time, it can be a rude realization to discover you’re allergic to adobe interiors.)
On the same street is the Harwood Museum of Art, New Mexico’s second oldest museum. Highlights include Victor Higgins’ “Winter Funeral,” which captures the beauty of Taos light, and a collection of 18th- and 19th-century ornamental tin work and religious retablos and santos.
About four blocks north of the plaza, the Taos Art Museum displays within the Nicolai Fechin House its collection of historic and contemporary art by more than 50 Taos artists. Fechin is known for his paintings of Native Americans and of New Mexico desert landscapes. But he was also a skilled craftsman, as is seen in detailed wooden and metal fixtures he created. Built with asymmetrical lines, or “informal balance,” the house itself is as intriguing as the art.
On the outskirts of town set amid new adobe homes, the striking Millicent Rogers Museum celebrates the memory of a glamorous, forceful woman who collected local art and jewelry and was reputedly a pioneer of Southwest chic. A serpentine path leads through 15 intimate galleries designed so that viewers can get up close to exhibits that include Rogers’ stellar personal collection of Native American silver and turquoise jewelry and an impressive collection of Hispanic devotional art from the 1800s on.
A living museum of sorts, Taos Pueblo is home to the Taos Pueblo Indians and is one of the oldest continually inhabited communities in the U.S. It is said to be the best of the pueblos. Today the pueblo looks much as it did when the conquistadors first saw it in 1540 and still has no indoor plumbing. Guided tours are scheduled throughout the day.
The newer adobe San Francisco de Asis Church dates to around 1710. Interior features include retablos, a rare painting of a pregnant Mary, and a high, hand-carved ceiling.
A two-mile drive through peaceful farm land west of town brings you to the fortress-like La Hacienda de los Martinez. One of the few remaining late Spanish Colonial “Great Houses,” it survived many an Apache and Comanche raid. Rooms off two inside courtyards feature exhibits demonstrating family life in a hacienda.
If you can pull yourself out of the galleries for a few hours, two side trips are noteworthy. Reached by driving 11 miles north of town over flat high desert, where you might spot an occasional prairie dog, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is the second-highest suspension bridge in the U.S. It spans the length of four football fields and towers 650 feet over a scenic gorge cutting down to the namesake river.
Highway 150 hugs a rushing river as it winds through the aspen- and evergreen-covered mountains in the Carson National Forest north of town, eventually leading to Taos Ski Valley. Known for its steep slopes, it can be visited, though not skied, year-round. Horseback-riding is a fair-weather option. Along the 22-mile route, Arroyo Seco is a colorful bend in the road with unique shops and cafes.
After even just a brief immersion in this art-rich community, most visitors agree with D. H. Lawrence’s observation that, “You cannot come to Taos without feeling that here is one of the chosen spots on earth.” And the art and the light conspire shamelessly to entice you back.
Casa Benavides Inn
This well-located adobe enclave hides behind Taos-blue gates fringed with deep maroon roses. Breakfast and afternoon tea include a selection of delicious pastries served in an atmospheric dining room.
The Historic Taos Inn
Located on the town’s main drag, the frenetic lobby here is a popular gathering spot for evening entertainment. It feels safe, by design, even for solo women. Kit Carson’s grave is out behind the parking lot.
Contemporary and traditional cuisine from Old Mexico is served in a vintage adobe home decorated with Mexican folkloric murals. Beware of the diced chipotles served with some items; should you start hiccupping, squeeze some lime juice into your mouth for instant relief.
In The Historic Taos Inn. Try the destination chile relleno with its incredible corn-chip crust.