The true heart of Santa Fe beats beyond the center of town

The 60,000 residents of Santa Fe, which rises out of the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, enjoy what could be considered one of America's most vibrant, multicultural, and artistic urban cities.

In this largely arid capital city, which sees more than 300 days of annual sunshine, Santa Fe's sights, smells, textures, and tastes offer a world of experiences to the steady stream of travelers who make the journey northward from Albuquerque's bustling airport.

But along with its growing popularity, Santa Fe has also evolved into The City Unaffordable, and, for those tourists who rarely venture outside of the confines of The Plaza (the overcrowded, overdeveloped downtown area), The City Unremarkable.

For a more genuine taste of Santa Fe's brilliance and Southwestern mystique, seek out the natural splendor of the remainder of the city and its outskirts.

It should go without saying that the summer is, by far, the least pleasant time to visit Santa Fe. It is more enjoyable in the late spring months, before the oppressive heat hits. In April, average daytime temperatures are already nearing 60 degrees, although nighttime lows still hover slightly above freezing. By May, temperatures are nearing 70 degrees, and lows are usually above 40 degrees at night. But whenever you go,the Santa Fe experience is incomplete without at least a few visits to its phenomenal assortment of museums.

Clustered in the downtown area, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Palace of the Governors, Museum of Fine Arts, and the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum are all worth a visit. (Friday evenings from 5 to 8 o'clock are free for the first three museums.)

Although more difficult to reach, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art (off the Old Santa Fe Trail on Camino Lejo) are ultimately more inviting.

If you happen to wander off in search of a scenic view from this beautiful hillside location, you might stumble across the least crowded museum of them all: the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

References to this museum in local pamphlets or guide maps are hardmay be hard to find, but the eight-sided Wheelwright Museum has existed since 1937, and is modeled after a Navajo "hooghan," or home.

At the core of the collection are a number of sand-painting reproductions, jewelry, basketry, and pottery, but this museum also hosts a variety of exhibitions and special events throughout the year. Admission is free, although donations are appreciated. On Saturdays at 10:15 a.m., the Wheelwright also hosts a free lecture/demonstration, and provides a snack for attendees.

In the spring, summer, and autumn months, the land adjacent to the Wheelwright is also a popular location for American Indian events. On the weekend I came across this museum, I also happened upon an All-Children's Pow Wow, attended largely by local native American families who came to cheer on the children.

From the Wheelwright, it is a short bike ride or roughly a 15-minute walk northeast to St. John's College. It's here that many Santa Feans come to walk their dogs or enjoy solitary time in one of the area's most peaceful and stunning locales.

For mountain bicyclists, the adjacent Atalaya trail with more than 1,500 feet of challenging (if not expert-level) climbing is a dream come true. Less-than-advanced cyclists might consider hiking the magnificent, winding trail instead of biking, as most locals seem to do.

Atalaya's large, loose rocks and its unforgivingly narrow single track are not for the faint of heart. Although largely unexplored by tourists, the trail is frequented by locals and their unleashed dogs; if you're biking, be prepared to dismount politely on a fairly regular basis.

After hiking or biking, head back down into the city for a taste of the spices that give Southwestern cuisine its glowing reputation. If you must eat in The Plaza, head to the second-floor Blue Corn Cafe (135 Water) for mouthwatering and reasonably priced lunch and dinner specials.

Vegetarians will find plenty to eat here, but an even better alternative awaits about a half a mile south of The Plaza at Cafe Oasis (526 Galisteo).

A vibrant, colorful restaurant, Cafe Oasis is big and roomy. Each of its rooms sports a different theme. While one emphasizes a romantic, Victorian atmosphere, another features a Turkish-influenced style and enforces a strict no-shoes policy.

In warmer weather, head for the back patio to enjoy the comfortable, mismatched furniture and funky sculptures. Always uncrowded for lunch, Cafe Oasis features organic food for vegetarians and carnivores alike, and serves breakfast all day. The service is prompt, the food is lovingly prepared by the restaurant's owner and head chef, Toby, with panache.

While there's still plenty to see and do within Santa Fe, take the time for at least one daytrip out of the city. Although Taos is the understandable first choice for most visitors, a more relaxed journey is driving east on 475 to the Santa Fe National Park and hiking one of the numerous, well-maintained, and accessible trails. (The Chamisa Trail remains one of my favorites.) Alternately, head north on US 84/285 toward Espaola, and then west on 68 to the Santa Clara Indian Pueblo to visit the breathtaking Puye Cliff Dwellings.

Once in the Pueblo, a lonely, scenic road dotted with signs warning drivers of the possibility of cattle crossings leads you to Puye, which is independently run by the Santa Clara Indian Reservation as a cultural monument.

For a small entrance and photography fee (donations are used to maintain the cliff dwellings), visitors can pick up an informative, self-guided tour sheet and experience the wonders of this national landmark. For more than three centuries, these cliffs served as the homes for more than 1,500 Tewa-speaking Anasazi who carved small dwellings into the mountainsides and who favored the use of petroglyphs, which are still visible in the rock. The dwellings were abandoned by the Anasazi people in 1580, and were not excavated until 1907.

After a heart-pounding climb to the top, using a network of ladders and pathways, visitors are treated to a sweeping outlook over the Rio Grande Valley and its majestic, ochre-colored landscape. At the top of the mesa, visitors stand at more than 7,000 feet above sea level and are treated to a thrilling sense of history, community, and culture.

This short excursion outside of Santa Fe city limits offers a truly worthwhile experience that visitors would do well to seek out and enjoy.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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