Old Santa Fe: 400 and still evolving
"Oldest house," panted Robert Chavez, steering his pedicab past a 17th century adobe.

"Oldest church," he added a moment later, nodding left toward the 17th century San Miguel Mission Church.

Santa Fe — rich, tan, relentlessly artsy and frequently artificial — is really old, by American standards. The city turned 400 this year.


Photos: Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade's fashion show

When I visited recently, my mission wasn't really to chase after old buildings, odd galleries and new restaurants. I wanted a look at Santa Fe's newest downtown neighborhood, a once-blighted railroad zone whose revival is nearly complete. But in the middle of such history and atmosphere, a tourist gets distracted.

Before long, I was seated in Chavez's pedicab, hurtling down a historic alley near the ditch that carried the city's original water supply.

And then I was in front of a jewelry shop on San Francisco Street, where a cowboy guitarist named Wily Jim yodeled like a coyote who'd put in a semester at Juilliard. A few blocks over on Marcy Avenue, the Mira! Boutique was offering a stylish patio chair, crafted in Togo from an old oil barrel — only $250. In the front yard of a gallery on Canyon Road, a woman with a blue scarf daubed white spots on a painting of a dancing pig.
Planning your trip

THE BEST WAY TO SANTA FE

From LAX, Southwest and United offer nonstop service, and US Airways, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United offer connecting service (change of planes) to Albuquerque, which is about 60 miles from Santa Fe. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $218. Since late 2009 American Eagle has been offering one daily nonstop flight between LAX and Santa Fe Municipal Airport. The flight takes about 1 hour and 50 minutes. The jet, an Embraer ERJ-140, seats 44 passengers. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $210.

>> Read more
"I'm just putting dots on her panties while the artist goes and gets a cigarette," explained Deborah A. Higgs, director of All My Relations gallery. A moment later, artist Robert Anderson returned, took back the brush and regarded the pig anew.

"She represents to me a sort of welcoming, motherly femininity," Anderson said.

So goes the good life in Santa Fe, and much of it is conducted among the city's beloved earth-toned adobe and faux-adobe buildings (because the real adobes can melt like mocha ice cream in the rain). At their roof lines, carefully carved wood vigas — the ceiling beams — protrude, and red-pepper ristras dangle. The handsome blue doors and window frames look nice too, but their first purpose (so the folk wisdom goes) is to repel evil spirits.

If only there were a color that tourists could wear to repel high prices. But because there isn't, be grateful that fall is here and room rates are falling.

If you visit in October — when the aspens and cottonwoods put on golden displays of fall foliage — you'll probably pay 15% less for your room than the August hordes (who paid $144 nightly on average last year). In November, you might pay 30% less, but you will need a heavier jacket; Santa Fe is about 7,000 feet above sea level, and the average November high/low is 52/26.

No matter when you arrive, you'll want to check out the dozens of galleries along Canyon Road, where landscapes, portraits, American pottery and Australian aboriginal abstracts abound, at price points of $100 to $10,000. You'll also want to pay respects at the Palace of the Governors, the long, low structure that faces the plaza, where the Native American merchants lay out their wares along the shaded walkway.

It's not only the oldest building in town (and a genuine adobe that requires careful maintenance), but it's also billed as the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Inside, you can browse historical exhibits. Just behind the palace stands the New Mexico History Museum, which opened last year.

The palace has been tweaked and renovated over the years, but this is where the Spanish set up headquarters when they showed up around 1610. When Native Americans rose up and chased the Spanish out of town in 1680, this building was here. When the Spanish retook the town in 1693, it was still here.

And in the late 1870s, when New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace turned away from his day job to scribble, of all things, a novel about a chariot-racing Jewish slave/prince named Ben-Hur, this is where he did it. (Long before the Charlton Heston movie, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ" was a 19th century bestseller.)