After a disturbed night's sleep at the same run down motel as last year, we drove to our first destination - Santa Fe, the oldest capital in the United States. Santa Fe also functions as the art capital of the US, which just means that for most of us, the galleries and art shops start resembling museums - they both have items that are way beyond our reach. Santa Fe and the regions around it resemble the cities to the south of the border more than the US ones. We started off our day visiting the city Cathedral (St Francis Cathedral) and the Chapel (Loretto Chapel). The Chapel is the more famous of the two as it houses the "magic" staircase, an engineering marvel of a free standing spiral stairway, allegedly built overnight by an unknown carpenter as an answer to the nuns' prayers. The rest of the day was spent ambling through the museums of the city, must sees of these are the flower paintings of Georgia O' Keffee, Segesser Hide Paintings at the Governor's Palace and the overwhelming Girard Gallery in Museum of International Folk Art.
Early next morning saw us driving to one of the ubiquitous landmarks in New Mexico - Native American ruins - this one was the cliff dwellings of Bandalier National Monument, located about 45 miles from Santa Fe. In the hindsight, it was an intelligent decision to go early in the morning. By the time we left the place around 11:00 am, the queue to enter the site was extending miles from the entrance.
We spent rest of the afternoon driving the two scenic drives of the region - US Route 76, the High Road to Taos and the Enchanted Circle formed by US Route 64, NM Route 38 and Route 522. Despite the menacing cloud cover, thunderstorm warnings and odd rainfall, we managed to get most out of the drives. The worthwhile stopovers are the Santuario de Chimayo on Route 76 (church that marks the northern limit of the pilgrim route from Mexico City), Rio Grande Gorge Bridge (the second tallest bridge in the US) on US Route 64 and the artists colony of Taos.
Since we had an SUV at our disposal - a decision forced on us by the rental company - we decided to utilise it by driving to the Chaco Canyon on our final day. The Chaco Canyon houses probably the most important native American ruins in the US. Due to its location, it functioned as the de facto commercial capital of the ancient southwest maintaining trade connections as far south as Aztec Mexico. Reaching the site requires one to drive at least an hour over dirt road. Although the road are passable by regular cars, SUV does help in making it feel smoother. We visited the two biggest Chacoan great houses - Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl, easily the most impressive ruins in the US. Only the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde can match their brilliance. In order to fully appreciate the ruins, you should do the one hour return hike up to the Pueblo Bonito overlook. Luckily we had enough time to squeeze in the walk before making our way back to Albuquerque.