Explore the Ancient New Mexico Territory – Chimayo

By David Currier

Chimayo is not Santa Fe.

Santa Fe glistens in the New Mexico sunshine. This exciting state capital is a beacon to travelers yearning to experience the history of the American Southwest.

The Spanish began settling this area in 1598. The city of Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi was established in 1608 and became the capital of this northern part of New Spain (in North America) in 1610.

An exciting city unto itself, Santa Fe showcases the oldest church in the United States, 250 art galleries representing local and international artists, art and history museums, energetic bars for evening socializing, cabaret and fine dining. The local Plaza frequently hosts local musicians who entertain passersby while hoping a few dollars get tossed into their guitar case. You’ll enjoy some darned good performances here. Basically free entertainment – but I always support the performing arts.

For travelers who want to explore the area, Santa Fe is the perfect pied a terre for excursions into historical North Central New Mexico.

For LGBT travelers, Santa Fe claims that their percentage of the population of same-sex couples is second to San Francisco.

Chimayo is not the first thing that comes to mind for most travelers to New Mexico. Yet, it does have its remarkable, historic, and unique attractions that deserve your attention.

First of all, El Santuario de Chimayo is one of the most visited churches in America. Some refer to it as the Lourdes of the United States. With religious ties to Guatemala, El Santuario is constructed on the site of “holy dirt”. Catholic worshipers making a pilgrimage to Chimayo will take “holy dirt” and spread it on their bodies while praying that its connection to Jesus will cure their maladies.

As in the southwestern French city, during the holy week Semana Santa (around Easter), tens of thousands of people visit Chimayo. The original (small) chapel was built in 1810, but the number of pilgrims visiting Chimayo soon exceeded the capacity of the original building. The current thick walled adobe structure was built in 1816 and is now a National Historic Landmark.

El Santuario de Chimayo receives about 300,000 visitors per year.

Immediately behind El Santuario sits the smaller Santo Niño de Atocha Chapel.

The Santo Nino story dates from the time the Muslim Moors had conquered Spain and imprisoned the Christian men. The only food available for the prisoners came from family members.

Traditions say that there was a small boy who appeared at the prison each day with a never ending supply of food and water. The citizens believed that this child was the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They relate that the child’s commitment grew, and he wandered over the countryside helping the sick and impoverished Spanish people.

As time advanced, shrines to Santo Nino became associated with miracles during difficult childbirth and children’s illnesses. Believers will tell you that Santo Niño still roams throughout New Mexico protecting children. Pilgrims to Santo Nino Chapel often leave children’s shoes on the alter.

When you enter the Santo Nino Chapel in Chimayo, the artifacts on the tables and walls make you realize the chapel’s association with children. In a calming, religious way, the atmosphere is similar to that of a pre-school care center.

Inside these two chapels and other churches in the Spanish-influenced Catholic churches of the Southwest, you may see interesting carvings or flat wooden-backed religious paintings. These items are collectively known as santos.

Today, several area devotional artists still practice the craft of carving santo, bulto, or retablo artifacts for collectors, museums and Catholic churches. KevinsTravelJournal.com recently posted an interesting story about Gustavo Victor Goler whose studio is 50 miles north of Chimayo in the ancient village of Talpa. Goler is a highly respected artist in this field.

Several shops and art galleries have opened near Santo Nino and El Santuario.

Now, chefs; pay attention.

Working with historians and agrarians, the area has re-established the farming of the ancient, traditional Chimayo chili. Using “descendants” of 300-year-old seeds, farmers again grow this mild chili. The shops behind Santo Nino and El Santuario have several versions of chili spice made from the Chimayo chili for purchase. I can’t wait to try my smoked Chimayo chili powder.

Restaurants in northern New Mexico may feature local dishes using this chile (green or ripe-red) and chile powder. Plan ahead and you can taste before you buy!

Of course, with churches we typically find a village.

Native people inhabited the Chimayo area beginning at least around 1000 AD, but the first Spanish colonists found the native pueblos abandoned in the early 1600s. A centuries old irrigation ditch still brings water into the area for farmers to water their crops.

The original Chimayo pueblo is the one remaining, inhabited, walled village in the United States. Built in the 1740s, originally the adobe buildings were constructed (by order of the Spanish government) with no outward-facing doors or windows, and only narrow entrances into Plaza del Cerró. As with a fort, this limited-access provided protection to the settlers. Those entrances were wide enough for a man or a horse.

Recently, some of the occupied homes have been modernized with electricity, and contemporary roofs to shed rain have been constructed above the original flat roofs.

Underfunded, this historical site needs some TLC to save the adobe buildings from literally being washed away. However, its rarity makes it worth a visit.

Students of history and architecture will find an exceptional opportunity to evaluate how early settlers built durable homes that lasted for centuries – and they used nothing more than a few timbers and a lot of thick but porous adobe.

If you are fortunate, perhaps you can arrange with the museum to visit the small chapel within the pueblo. It’s an educational experience.

The Chimayo Museum opened in 1995 in one of the original buildings on the plaza. It’s interesting to see the architecture and the ornamental vigas in the ceilings. The museum collection consists primarily of black and white photographs of local citizens, particularly the Ortega family, undoubtedly the largest in the village. (The Ortega descendants operate a traditional weaving shop next door. Blankets and clothing with Hispanic and Native American patterns are available for purchase.)

As you plan the lodging for your Chimayo vacation, to maintain the theme, I recommend the Hotel Chimayo in Santa Fe. The Heritage Hotels and Resorts group has prepared a comfortable environment for guests that projects the history and culture of Santa Fe and Chimayo by using Hispanic and Native American artifacts to decorate the common areas and the guestrooms.

Hotel Chimayo is a convenient three-minute walk to the Plaza, museums and art galleries.

Their Tia’s Cocina Restaurant is upscale-casual. Several traditional specialties include some prepared with Chimayo chiles from their own farm. If your season permits, choose your table for dining on their shaded rooftop patio.

Buen viaje!

Tucked among the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in North Central New Mexico, the village and area of Chimayo. The architecture, ruins and current residents provide an astonishing window into the Hispanic Catholic influence in the American Southwest. For pilgrims and vacationers alike, the history and culture associated with Chimayo provide a unique travel experience.

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