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On Walkabout In: Santa Fe New Mexico

Basic Information

  • City Name: Santa Fe
  • State: New Mexico
  • Founded: 1607 (Oldest Capital City in the US)
  • Population: 68,000
  • More Info: Official Santa Fe website


A few months ago my wife and I took a drive up from El Paso to the historic state capitol of New Mexico, beautiful Santa Fe.  Santa Fe’s downtown areas has got to be one of the most scenic downtown areas in all of the United States due to the city’s historic architecture and stunning backdrop of the Sangre De Cristo mountains:

I think the best way to see Santa Fe is by foot.  So my wife and I found a place to park near the city center and began a walk to all the major historic attractions in downtown Santa Fe.  Our walk began just like most people’s walks around Santa Fe at the Plaza in the center of downtown which was the official end point of the old Santa Fe trail:

Across the street from the plaza, is the historic and extremely interesting Palace of the Governors:

Built in 1610 this adobe building served as the seat of government for the Spanish Empire in Nuevo New Mexico.  The building came under the control of the Native Americans in 1680 when the Pueblo Revolt forced the Spanish out of Santa Fe.  The building was not reclaimed by the Spanish until Don Diego de Vargas led a Spanish military expedition to recapture the capitol in 1693.  In 1821 the building became the local seat of government for the new Mexican Empire after Mexico declared its independence from Spain.  This building would see another government set up here as well in 1846 when American General Stephen Kearney led an expedition to occupy Santa Fe during the Mexican-American War.  After the war the United States would retain possession of Santa Fe with the Palace of the Governors serving as the local seat of government for the newly established New Mexico Territory. However, this wouldn’t be the last change in government that the building would see.  In 1862 Confederate soldiers would occupy Santa Fe and they used the building as a temporary headquarters before being expelled from the capitol.

As you can see the building has had quite a history since its building nearly 400 years ago.  Today the front of the building is known as the Native Portal because it is where local Native Americans sit on the ground and sell locally made souvenirs and jewelery.  Personally I think the local government should construct booths for the Native Americans to use because the way it is now they almost have the appearance of being beggars trying to sell things.  The Native Americans selling items here are mostly from the local Pueblo Indian tribes who are descendants of the original native people who inhabited this area before the Spanish colonists arrived in the area in 1598.  Santa Fe was founded a few years later in 1608 and formally made the capitol of Nuevo Mexico by the Spanish crown.  Santa Fe is the oldest state capitol in the US and one of the oldest cities in the entire country.  It is incredible to think that 400 years ago that people who sailed all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain landed in Mexico and then walked and rode horses thousands of miles across arid deserts inhabited by sometimes hostile natives to reach Santa Fe.

Anyway after checking out what the Native Americans were selling my wife and I actually bought a few things and then began to walk around the Plaza and check the various shops and side streets around the downtown area:

These shops are filled with lots of nice trinkets, clothes, artwork, and other gifts targeted towards tourists that of course my wife and I bought plenty of:

The first thing that is noticeable about Santa Fe is how nearly every building in the city is constructed of adobe architecture:

There is actually a long standing city ordinance that ensures that structures built in the city are of adobe heritage in order to keep the aesthetic charm the city currently enjoys.  I like the ordinance and think it really gives the city a rustic and historic charm to it missing in many other cities in the US.  Not all the buildings are adobe though because some buildings like the ones seen downtown were constructed before the ordinance came into effect and are of Old West vintage:

After walking around the Plaza my wife and I then headed over to the large chapel that dominate downtown, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi:

By Santa Fe standards the church really isn’t that old considering that it was built over the remains of an older adobe church in beginning in 1869.  It is from St. Francis of Assisi the Basillica’s namesake that Santa Fe received its name.  St. Francis is actually one of my favorite saints considering he is considered the Patron Saint of Animals.  My favorite story of Assisi is one from his time traveling around Italy and coming to a village that complained about a wolf who ate both man and animals.  Hearing of this St. Francis walked up into the mountains to find the wolf.  The town people thought he was nuts for trying to find the wolf and would be killed.  Not dettered St. Francis continued into the mountains and ultimately found the wolf and told the animal that he had done evil against the town.  The wolf replied that he was just hungry and that is why he did what he did.  St. Francis made a deal with the wolf and brought the wolf back to the town with him.  The villagers were amazed that the wolf followed St. Francis and even sat at his feet.  St. Francis told the villagers that if they fed the wolf every day he would no longer attack livestock or villagers for food.  The villagers quickly agreed and yet another chapter in St. Francis’ long history of love for animals was written.  It is from this tale that in front of the Basillica a statue of St. Francis with the wolf stands:

The next historic building we walked to was the famous Loretto Chapel:

Like the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Loretto Chapel is also not old by Santa Fe standards with its construction completed in 1878.  Something I found interesting about entering this chapel was the fact they charged an entrance fee.  I have traveled all over the world and have never been asked for an entrance fee to enter a place of worship.  The commercialism of the church kind of annoyed me but I paid my three bucks and entered anyway.  The inside of the church was actually smaller than what the church looks like from the outside.  The alter of the church was fairly elaborate and pretty nice though:

Overall though, architecturally speaking, the chapel isn’t really that impressive, but what makes this chapel so famous is the incredible staircase inside the chapel; now this is impressive:

The churches back then had the organ located on a loft above the pews.  The builders had forgot to design the chapel with a stairs to reach the loft and instead installed a ladder.  The nuns were of course not comfortable using a ladder to reach the loft and thus prayed for someone to build a staircase to reach the loft that wouldn’t require the removing of the limited seating space in the chapel.  According to the Loretto Chapel website here is how the sisters’ prayers were answered:

Legend says that to find a solution to the seating problem, the Sisters
of the Chapel made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of
carpenters. On the ninth and final day of prayer, a man appeared at the
Chapel with a donkey and a toolbox looking for work. Months later, the
elegant circular staircase was completed, and the carpenter disappeared
without pay or thanks. After searching for the man (an ad even ran in
the local newspaper) and finding no trace of him, some concluded that
he was St. Joseph himself, having come in answer to the sisters’

The stairway’s carpenter, whoever he was, built a magnificent structure. The design was innovative for the time and some of the design considerations still perplex experts today.  The staircase has two 360 degree turns and no visible means of support. Also, it is said that the staircase was built without nails—only wooden pegs. Questions also surround the number of stair risers relative to the height of the choir loft and about the types of wood and other materials used in the stairway’s construction.

Over the years many have flocked to the Loretto Chapel to see the Miraculous Staircase. The staircase has been the subject of many articles, TV specials, and movies including “Unsolved Mysteries” and the television movie titled “The Staircase.”  In later years a banister was added for safety reasons that also used no nails in order to remain faithful to the original design:

Despite the commercialism of the place, it is worth paying the admission fee to see the staircase, that is how impressive this staircase is.  After checking out Loretto Chapel my wife and I continued our walk around downtown by heading over to the “Oldest House in the USA“:

This house is believed to be constructed back in the 13th century.  Some of you may be wondering how this building could have been built in the 13th Century when the Spaniards didn’t arrive in Santa Fe until 1598?  Well this is because the Spaniards didn’t build this house, the Pueblo Indians did.  When the Spaniards arrived the Pueblo structure had been long abandoned for decades by the natives who had left the area.  The Pueblo was then occupied by the Spanish and miraculously has survived to this day.  Right across the street from the “Oldest House in the USA” is the oldest church structure in the USA, the San Miguel Mission:

The mission was constructed in 1610 by Tlaxcalan Indians who traveled north was the Spanish as servants or slaves depending on who you talk to.  During the 1680 Pueblo Revolt towns people hid in the church and were eventually killed there with the church receiving heavy damage.  The San Miguel Mission would see more damage over the years to include a supposed earthquake in 1872 that destroyed the mission’s bell tower.  Despite all the damage and reconstruction over the years, the original adobe walls and altar built by the Tlaxcalan Indians can still be seen inside the church.

After checking out these historic landmarks my wife and I then walked back to the downtown area to continue to just wander around and check out the various shops there:


In the downtown area of Santa Fe you can easily spend a whole day just walking around checking out the historic sites and stores.  Like I said in the opening to this travelog, Santa Fe’s downtown has to be one of the most beautiful in the entire US and I recommend everyone take a trip to Santa Fe one day to find out for yourself.

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