The Best 10 'Tourist Traps'

By Richard Mahler

Author of "New Mexico's Best"

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a "tourist trap." In some cases such notoriety is justified, but sometimes not. Based on the author's informal and unscientific survey of Santa Fe residents and visitors, conducted from 1988 to the present, the 10 best (and worst) tourist traps in The City Different include, in no particular order:

The Best

1)     Native American art vendors under the Palace of the Governors portal on the Plaza-both the Indians and the artwork are genuine. The sellers are friendly, the quality is high, the prices are fair.

2)     Santa Fe Opera-A setting so spectacular and productions so lavish that even people who hate opera love it. The July-August repertoire is wide-ranging, from popular classics to world premieres.

3)     Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival-The musicians are first-class, the program is diverse, and the setting-a few steps from the Plaza-is marvelous.

4)     Fiesta's burning of Zozobra (the first time)-Probably the biggest community-wide pagan ritual in the United States, but be prepared for a boisterous crowd. It happens the first Thursday after Labor Day, and is part of the commemoration of the Spanish reconquest of Santa Fe from the native Indians in 1692.

5)     Christmas Eve farolitos, luminaries and caroling. Snow on the ground (sometimes), pinon smoke in the air, flickering firelight on the adobe walls, and goodwill in the hearts of singing pedestrians. For a few dark hours in December, it feels as if heaven has come to Earth and peace will prevail.

6)     The Museum of New Mexico-The state of New Mexico maintains four separate, well-curated facilities in Santa Fe, each with its own character and charm, and each worthy of an extended visit. Buy a discount ticket and see them all.

7)     St. Francis Cathedral and Cristo Rey Church-This is a Roman Catholic city-its name means "Holy Faith"-and religious traditions are still strong. For a glimpse of the beauty of these, take a quiet walk through Santa Fe's biggest churches. Better yet, attend a Sunday Mass.

8)     Canyon Road Art Walk-On Friday and Saturday nights, particularly during warm months, the city's galleries open their doors and invite the public to experience any and all forms of visual art from paintings to photographs, from ceramics to sculpture. It's all free-including the refreshments.

9)     Gardens-You'll notice them everywhere during summer and fall: full of hollyhocks, columbines, lilacs and cosmos. While you're on the Canyon Road Art Walk, linger for a soothing moment at the carefully tended, multiblossomed El Zaguan, dominated by two enormous horse chestnut trees and open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

10) Restaurants-There are more than 200 to choose from, including some of the finest and most celebrated in the United States. Don't be afraid to splurge. After all, you're on vacation!

The Worst

1)     The Plaza during summer-It's crowded with people. It's encircled by noisy, smelly cars. There's no restroom. It's full of tourists, not locals. Come back during the other nine months, when you'll at least find a place to sit down.

2)     Fiesta's burning of Zozobra (after the first time)-When you're surrounded by 10,000 people, too many of them drunk and disorderly, you wonder why you didn't stay home, order a pizza, and watch it on cable TV.

3)     The "oldest" house-Age is relative and claims are dubious. When this house was being built, hundreds of Native Americans in other parts of New Mexico were living in houses where their descendant live today.

4)     The "oldest" church-Another case of relativity. San Miguel Mission has been around for a long time, but there are contenders for this title in every corner of the world-and other parts of the United States.

5)     New Mexico State Capitol Building-You can take a tour of "the Roundhouse" and watch the Legislature if you'd like-it convenes only during January, February and sometimes March. But other than the unusual architecture and some interesting public art, there's not much worth seeing.

6)     Loretto Chapel-It's small, authentic and pretty, but not a must-see unless there's a concert-in which case you should definitely attend. The so-called "miraculous staircase" is no miracle, although the story is lovely.

7)     Indian Market-Take a relatively small, quiet town of 65,000 people. Add 100,000 tourists and hundreds of Native American art vendors. Stir well, block off the traffic, and place in a hot sun to bake. Need we say more?

8)     Coyote- and Kokopelli-themed art-Who can explain fashion? The howling coyote and humpbacked flute player (Kokopelli), once wonderful, evocative Southwestern images, have been trivialized beyond restoration. Do the planet a favor: Don't buy any.

9)     Restaurants-Speaking of coyotes, the Coyote Café is a place no self-respecting coyote would be caught dead. The food is pretty good-although it's often spiked with too much chile-but the noise level is deafening and the prices astronomical. And there are several other overrated dining destinations. Ask around before making those "big splurge" reservations.

10) La Fonda's lobby-This is the famous "inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail." For decades the world walked through its front door. But the world and Santa Fe have changed. You'll detect a faint echo of what once was, but the characters and conversations that once made La Fonda's lobby special will never return.


Richard Mahler is author of "New Mexico's Best" and several other books. A journalist and photographer as well, he specializes in travel writing, among other subjects. He has contributed to National Public Radio since 1973 and to the Los Angeles Times since 1979. He has written thousands of articles for more than 100 magazines and newspapers, including The New Mexican, New Mexico magazine, and Santa Fean magazine. A longtime resident of New Mexico, he lives in Santa Fe.

For a full listing of Richard Mahler's books, and to place orders for them, visit Amazon.com.

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