To head into northern New Mexico, climbing steadily from Albuquerque to Santa Fe's 7,000-foot elevation, is to enter a foreign land. As you near the city, to the north and west, beneath a startling expanse of sky no Easterner can even imagine, begin chunks of naked buttes and dry pink mesas, compressing like undulating waves as they reach the Rio Grande River and the Jemez Mountains beyond. This explosion of space is abruptly halted to the east by the Sangre de Cristo, sharply defined mountains thickly dressed in pine.
The land dazzles, the dry sharp air is abrasive at first. The brilliant light at sunset turns lonely cones of land into profound blackness and shadows into foils for splashes of instant gold.
This dramatic, pure, and pine-scented land is Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, showpiece for the Land of Enchantment.
In winter - with low adobes dark against narrow streets and soft yellow lights - Santa Fe glows, the sprinkling of snow or the blizzard-brought drifts picturesque against bare brown earth and isolated pine. The winter's snow is as untrimmed and natural as the earthen courtyard or patio of warmer seasons.
The warm-toned earth, the stunning architecture wrought by nature alone, the adobe brick and rough-hewn vigas - exposed beams - the pristine style of territorial architecture: These are only the symptoms of a deeper divide from the wide American land to east and west. For despite a relentless onslaught of urban sprawl's gasoline rows and stucco houses, northern New Mexico and Santa Fe offer a social and physical environment unique in the United States.
Santa Fe is a fusion of what New Mexicans call Anglo America, the dominant economy and society of these United States, of a proud and intriguing Hispanic tradition dating from the 17th century, and of an even more ancient racial history of the Indians of the Eastern - or Rio Grande - Pueblos.
A century ago, Santa Fe was a town in turmoil, a rough, raw community of 6, 500 population, mostly of Spanish and Mexican descent - the remainder from the US and a handful of European countries. From 1846 the capital of the Territory of New Mexico, Santa Fe could now call itself a railroad town, though its link to the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad was a mere spur shooting up from tiny Lamy to the south. The main track headed west through Albuquerque, spawning ''new towns'' and wealth as it went.
Though surely a stepchild in the AT&SF RR plans, Santa Fe was nonetheless transformed by the completion of the spur in 1880.
Santa Fe suddenly became a self-conscious tourist town. And so it remains today. Gone are the ''disgracefully filthy'' back streets and alleys the Daily New Mexican raved against in 1880. The slaughterhouses and saloons which riddled lower San Francisco Street have been replaced by art galleries or shops handling the Mexican cottons of hot pinks and turquoise essential for Santa Fe's version of ''chic.''
From a distance, though, as one descends the last long hill into the valley, Santa Fe may still remind you of ''a fleet of flat boats seen in the distance upon the broad surface of the Mississippi.'' It is certainly no longer what one less kindly 19th-century observer called the ''oldest and ugliest city in the union. . . . a dingy adobe settlement of ignorance, vice and cupidity.''
Now, as then, the plaza is the town's landmark, Square 1 for any traveler. The herds of pack animals that swarmed the plaza in the days of the Santa Fe Trail vanished with the introduction of the railroad, as did eventually the huge mercantile establishments of Spiegelbergs, Seligmans, and Staabs - the German-Jewish immigrant families who, with others, effected a commercial revolution in 19th-century New Mexico and throughout the Southwest.
Today's neatly trimmed square, crisscrossed with walkways and embellished with Victorian benches, is curiously at variance with the plaza's spectacular history. When the Pueblo Indians successfully revolted against their Spanish conquerors in 1680, it was here that they besieged their European enemies. Later , long before the railroad arrived, Santa Fe's plaza symbolized the town's significance as a commercial center - the terminus of the Santa Fe Trail, the intermediate point for those wishing to trade as far south as Chihuahua in Mexico.
An obelisk in the plaza's center is reminder of the 1862 occupation by the Confederate Army.
Within walking distance of this historic place, however, one may still capture the essence of Santa Fe.
On the plaza's northern side lies the Palace of the Governors, now a branch of the Museum of New Mexico, housing exquisite exhibits and a shop of well-selected Southwestern Indian and Hispanic crafts, as well as prints, books, and magazines. The present structure reflects its survival from the Confederacy as well as from wreckers, the well-meant modifications of Victorian times, and a remodeling earlier in this century.
When Governor Peralta of Spain established the Villa of Santa Fe in 1610, the Palace of the Governors became the center of the network of barracks, stables, arsenals, and gardens necessary for the maintenance of a seat of government. The long, sheltering portal, which today is a marketplace for Indians from Santo Domingo, Santa Clara, or San Ildefonso pueblos, was absent in the early days.
Santa Fe's respect for its history is not only reflected in the carefully tended palace. Just east of the plaza, on East Palace Avenue, linked by a long, winding portal, is what is known as Sena Plaza, actually a complex of several buildings and placitas, each with its own history and flavor.
Today, in the many shops lining the portal or clustered about the intimate patios, you may find the elegant artistry of Frank Patania Jr.'s silverwork in the House of the Mountain Spirit, delectable and fresh candies at Senor Murphy Candymaker, a splendid selection of Southwestern history and art books in the Villagra Book Shop. And - at last - a sampling of the distinctive New Mexican cuisine in the ever-popular The Shed, a lunchtime-only restaurant as famous for its rich mocha cake as for its blue-corn enchiladas and tasty posole - a flavorful stew of hominy, pork, chili, and garlic.
A traditional signpost for travelers is the La Fonda Hotel, at the plaza's southeast corner. No longer the elegant hostelry it was in its days as a Harvey Hotel, La Fonda's lobby and dining areas still feature an ambience of New Mexico - and Mexico - expressed in tiles, potted plants, and Spanish-style furnishings.
Its newsstand is a center for traveler and resident alike, easily offering the city's best selection of newspapers and magazines, as well as a carefully chosen collection of paperbacks of New Mexicana: history, Indian arts and crafts , fiction by Santa Fe's extraordinarily prolific writers. As you exit, purchase bags of pinon nuts or circles of nut-studded white or dark chocolate, perfect snacks for a walker's refueling.
Long a mecca for artists, Santa Fe is what one writer called a ''good place to paint.'' For its size, there is a disproportionate number of galleries. Much of the art is regional, of course, spawned by the clarifying light, the diversity of humanity, and - at one time - the influx of Eastern artists and writers. These kindred spirits with an astonishing penchant for good fun and good taste not only created their own often wonderful art, but diligently set about reviving the traditional arts and crafts of both the Pueblo Indians and the native Hispanics.
August's annual Indian Market is but one tribute to their remarkable support, for the Indian arts and crafts have not merely revived but are thriving in excellence and often originality of design and technique.
If you've come to Santa Fe seeking these arts of Anglo, Indian, or Hispanic, you've come to a shopper's paradise. Packard's Indian Trading Company on the plaza or nearby Dewey-Kofron Gallery or the stunning new Santa Fe East are only the tip of the iceberg. Santa Fe's Canyon Road, since the 1920s the heart of Santa Fe's artists colony, winds into the hills lined by one gallery after another.
If you've chosen December for your excursion to Santa Fe, you'll quickly perceive that Christmas in Santa Fe has its very special ways. From Dec. 5 to 13 , you may witness ''Las Posadas'', the Sociedad Folklorica's reenactment of Joseph and Mary seeking shelter in Bethlehem. You may see the flowing farolitos - or luminarias - rows of candles set in sand-filled brown paper bags lining the low adobe walls and blending with that combination of colors peculiar to Santa Fe: the red of chili, the brown of earthen adobe, the green - not of satin - but of dark sweet pine.
You will not have seen New Mexico nor have quite known Santa Fe until you know something of the Pueblo Indian cultures. With the exception, perhaps, of San Ildefonso or Taos Pueblo, whose settings and architecture are immediately appealing, a drive to a pueblo may reveal little to the stranger. The seas of low adobes on Pueblo Indian grants are not meant to be tourist traps, and, at Santo Domingo at least, you are not welcome after dark if you are not an Indian.
In December, however, as at special times throughout the year, visitors are more than welcome at the pueblos for annual feast days and processions. Times are unpredictable, however, so a look at the newspapers or a call to a pueblo may be a wise first step. Cameras or even sketchpads are usually not allowed and , if allowed at all, will require a permit.
With their distinct artistic and cultural traditions, you may want an introduction before visiting the pueblos. The Museum of New Mexico's Laboratory of Anthropology has beautifully displayed exhibits of ''Pueblo Pottery Traditions'' and ''Indian Silverwork of the Southwest,'' and, beginning Nov. 22, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian - next door to the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Museum of International Folk Art - will offer ''Tales of the Season,'' featuring the nativities, storyteller dolls and other figures by Helen Cordero, noted potter from Cochiti Pueblo - a much admired and imitated artist and prize winner from the annual Indian market.
Not everyone comes to Santa Fe, of course, for a lesson in cross-cultural experiences, and some come just to ski. Santa Fe's Ski Basin is only 16 miles northeast of town, at a cool 10,400-12,000 foot elevation, and though less popular than Taos Ski Valley to the north, it's a good deal more convenient if Santa Fe is the home base. Through Shuttlejack Inc. you can grab a ski van and spend a full day at the ski area on runs from beginners to advanced. The Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce can bring you up to date on local skiing information.
Santa Fe in winter, as Santa Fe at other times, is America's foreign city - an endangered species, but one that remains vigorous and invigorating. As the crowds depart and the gala September fiesta moves into the past, Santa Fe assumes a more intimate mien, the crisp cool fall slipping gently into deep winter.