Mountain road with car on verge
Architecture,  Friendly Friday,  History,  Landscape,  New Mexico

Following the High Road to Taos

There are two ways to get to Taos from Santa Fe. There is the quicker (but still pretty) Low Road, and the more dramatically scenic and historically interesting High Road. This winds over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through high desert, forests and tiny communities. On the way there are stories to be discovered, stunning landscapes to marvel at and picture-perfect churches to explore.

So for this week’s Friendly Friday challenge, with Amanda’s theme of On the Way, let me take you on the High Road to Taos, one of the designated Scenic Byways of New Mexico.

The Santuario de Chimayó

The Santuario de Chimayó has been a place of pilgrimage for over two centuries. It was built in 1816 on the site of an earlier chapel, and on the site of a miraculous discovery. In 1811 a villager saw a light shining from a spot in the earth. He dug down and found a large crucifix. This he named for Our Lord of Esquipulas, also known as the ‘Black Christ’. A local priest, Father Sebastian Alvarez, was called; he organized a ceremony to carry the crucifix to a church in Santa Cruz about eight miles away, where it was placed on the altar.

But the next morning the crucifix was back in the spot where it had been found. The villagers tried twice more to move it to Santa Cruz, before they realised that Our Lord of Esquipulas wanted to stay in their village, so they built a church to house him.

However there are variations to this legend, and some that pre-date it. According to the neighbouring Tewa people, this spot had been sacred to various Indian tribes for many generations. At one time there had been a spring here, rich in iron and other minerals, which gave healing. When the spring dried up, the people still came for the dirt left behind to benefit from its powers. Many Tewa also held sacred the mountain behind the church, T’si Mayoh, which gave the village its name.

Some believe therefore that the Pueblo people were forced by Spanish colonists to build the church over an already sacred site. There are certainly other instances where early Christian settlers chose to build their churches right on top of the indigenous people’s sacred sites, and to force those people to do much of the building, for example at Acoma Pueblo.

Another version of the legend says that the crucifix originally belonged to a priest who had accompanied the first Spanish settlers to Chimayó and who had a devotion to Our Lord of Esquipulas. He was killed by Indians and buried here. A flood of the Santa Cruz River in the spring of 1810 uncovered the body and the crucifix; and the villagers, who remembered the priest fondly, built a church to honour him and the Black Christ.

Whatever the truth behind the building of the chapel, it is unarguably a place of sincere pilgrimage for believers. Today the sacred spot where the crucifix is said to have been found is protected in a tiny side chapel, in the centre of which is el posito, the little well. Visitors and pilgrims can make a small donation in return for digging up some of the ‘holy dirt’. This they apply to injured limbs, parts of the body affected by illness. Some even eat it, although this is officially discouraged. A room next to the chapel houses crutches and gifts brought by those giving thanks for healing received. And on the wall of the chapel are these lines:

‘If you are a stranger, if you are weary from the struggles in life, whether you have a handicap, whether you have a broken heart, follow the long mountain road, find a home in Chimayó.’

Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

A short walk from the Santurio is another beautiful chapel. It holds a statue of the Christ Child (El Santo Niño de Atocha), brought here from Mexico in the mid nineteenth century. As with the crucifix in the Santurio, there is a story attached to this statue; and it is one that draws believers from all over the country, and beyond.

The story starts in Spain in the time of the Moors. They had captured and imprisoned many men in Atocha, near Madrid. The jail did not feed the prisoners, and the caliph ordered that only children could visit and bring them food. The wives and mothers of the men prayed to Our Lady for help; and soon word spread that a small boy had been visiting and feeding the prisoners. His basket was never empty of bread, and his water gourd was always full. He was seen as the answer to the women’s prayers; the Virgin had sent her own son to help them, the Holy Child or Santo Niño.

In 1492 Catholics drove the Moors out of Spain, and the country’s strength and power started to grow. As the Spanish started to colonise the New World, they brought their religion with them; and to the village of Plateros, Mexico, they brought worship of Our Lady of Atocha and her Holy Child. They erected a statue there of the Virgin with the Child in her arms, and he was often removed and taken to help with difficult births. Over time, stories spread about the miracles he performed. It was said that he wandered the countryside at night bringing help to the imprisoned, the poor, and the sick.

Adobe church with decorative tiles on the front
The Capella de Santo Niño de Atocha

It was from this Mexican shrine that the Chimayó statue of El Santo Niño was brought, and this chapel was built to house it. The statue now stands on an altar in a side chapel; he wears a pilgrim’s clothing and carries a bread basket and a pilgrim’s staff to which is tied a water gourd. Worshippers believe that as in Mexico, he leaves his shrine each night; he roams the local countryside, performing miracles and wearing out his little shoes. Pilgrims therefore bring him baby shoes; and these now line the walls of his chapel, along with photos of children and prayers for his intervention on their behalf. It is all very moving, regardless of your beliefs.

Truchas

The small village of Truchas lies off the main highway. It was built in a square with an entrance just wide enough for one cart to pass through, for defensive purposes. Today it’s a pretty sleepy place, and like the other villages along and just off the High Road, it is notable mainly for its church, dedicated to Nuestra Senora dei Rosario.

This church is a classic adobe structure built in the early 19th century at the heart of the tiny village. It contains two large altar-screens (reredos) by a renowned santero, Pedro Antonio Fresquis, and other fine examples of early santero art. These were preserved during the Bishop Lamy led modernisations of churches in this area, by Truchas residents who hid them in their houses. We were too late in the season to see inside, as it’s only open from June to August, but it was even on the outside a very photogenic church.

Adobe church
Nuestra Senora dei Rosario
Neon sign, Natural American Spirit
Sign in a Truchas window

Of all the villages we stopped in on the High Road to Taos, Truchas seemed the most closed in on itself, even slightly hostile to visitors. This is not to say that anybody was rude to us; indeed the only person I spoke to, the owner of a local art gallery, was friendly and welcoming. But there was a slightly brooding atmosphere, or so it seemed to me. Maybe it is the fact that it lies a little off the main road, and until thirty years or so ago had no paved access? Maybe it is the way it is constructed, with most of the older buildings having their ‘backs’ turned to the road, facing into the central plaza? Maybe I was affected by the somewhat aggressive barking of an invisible dog in a nearby yard?

Or maybe my impression was created by the seeming obsession with the bones of dead animals. Not only were these skulls slightly artfully arranged on a ladder propped in a corner of the plaza; there was also a somewhat bizarre heap of bones, bleached white by the sun, stacked against one of the adobe walls that surround the little church. We weren’t quite sure what to make of this ‘arrangement’ but it certainly gave the village a distinctive touch!

On the road near the entrance to the plaza is Truchas General Store. This too was closed; a shame, as peering through the window we could see a place seemingly untouched by the passing of the years. I would love to have gone in and ferreted about!

San José de Gracia, Trampas

About seventeen miles further down the road from Truchas is Trampas. This village is sometimes referred to as Las Trampas, and has another gem of a colonial church. Like other traditional villages in New Mexico, Trampas (or Santo Tomás del Río de las Trampas to give it its full name) was built around a plaza, dominated by the church, which during times of war could be blocked to serve as a fortress.

The church dates from around 1776. It is considered possibly the finest example of early mission churches in New Mexico; it has even been called ‘the most perfectly preserved church in the United States’. The building is well maintained, with its thick adobe walls coated with a fresh coat of mud every year, and its chunky bell towers recently restored. Its most striking external feature is the balcony that runs across the front, above the main door. Experts disagree as to its purpose. Some say it was for the choir to perform during outdoor ceremonies, but others are less sure. The reason for the ladders propped on it is also uncertain.

We found the sleepy plaza almost deserted, apart from a dog and young child kicking a ball around, and one other tourist taking photos. We didn’t stay long; but the beauty of this church made an indelible impression on me nevertheless, even though we weren’t able to go inside.

Picuris Pueblo

A few miles north of Las Trampas Highway 76 meets Highway 75 and turns to the right. We made a short detour here to visit Picuris Pueblo, one of the more open pueblos in the area. It has a pretty lake, Tu-Tah Lake, with a few picnic tables set out on its shore where we ate our lunch while watching a couple of local men, and a small boy, fish on the far side.

There is also an attractive church, dedicated to San Lorenzo. This collapsed in 1989 due to water damage; it was painstakingly rebuilt by hand by pueblo members, who followed exactly the form of the original 1776 design. Again, this late in the season both this church and the small village museum were closed. But the compensation was the beautiful colour of the aspen leaves around the lake.

Our final stop on the High Road was in Ranchos de Taos, but that I have already described so won’t repeat myself here.

I visited New Mexico in 2011

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13 Comments

  • Easymalc

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read about your journey in this neck of the woods before. If I haven’t, I’ve enjoyed reading about it – and if I have, I’ve enjoyed reading it again 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, some of this material is reworked from a post I put on TravellersPoint a few years ago, as I have a new audience here. I should perhaps include an apology/disclaimer for long-time friends! Thank you anyway for enjoying it again 🙂

  • Forestwood

    This is a very different part of the world isn’t it? So many chapels. The residents are clearly heavily religious. Some of the scenes reminded me of old Western movies. Those bones certainly gave that village a creepy aura. The architecture is distinctive nevertheless. Were the structures cool inside, being made of mud brick? It looks like a very dry hot area.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re not far wrong in mentioning Westerns, Amanda, as a lot were filmed in New Mexico. Mark (mtncorg) mentions one below that was actually filmed in this specific part of the state. I think the number of churches is linked to the strength of religious belief among the colonising Spanish, and their desire to convert the resident Pueblo Indians, in which they were partly successful (as I’ve said elsewhere, the Native Americans retain their old beliefs alongside Christianity and see no conflict in doing so). I guess they will be cool inside but we didn’t get to go in any – all were closed 🙁

      • Forestwood

        They are so religious and yet the churches were all closed. Perhaps they were concerned about vandalism or theiving?
        The point that they built their churches over existing pagan monuments reminds me of the Christian churches being built over Viking sites. I guess they figured it was easier to convert the population that way. The site was a sacred one, whichever religion you chose to follow at the time. It is a shame this concept wasn’t used to bring religions together in the global sense.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          Yes, I’m sure concern about the security of these historic churches is the reason they’re closed. These are tiny communities and wouldn’t have the resources to keep an eye on them properly. Probably in most places there will be only one Mass said each week, by a priest visiting from a larger town. We met one in a church that WAS open in another village, elsewhere in NM, and he told us about the distances he has to cover and the number of parish communities for which he is responsible.

          And I think you’re right about the reason for building over already sacred sites. It reinforces a sense that this new religion is superior to the old one we’re trying to stamp out but also benefits from local belief that this spot is holy. I saw it most recently in Sofia where several churches are built on the site of Roman temples.

  • mtncorg

    Truchas is actually a very nice little town – more traditional, but warm the several times I have been here. The weaving shop of the Ortegas is a wonderful stop where you can see the production of Chimayo weaving firsthand. The movie Milagro Beanfield War (Robert Redford directing) was filmed here in Truchas. From here at night you can look across the Rio Grande canyon at the lights blinking in Los Alamos.

    The churches of the High Road are indeed magic as you ably demonstrate.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m sure you’re right about Truchas – as I said, the one person I spoke to was friendly for sure 🙂 It was just something in the atmosphere, perhaps because everything was closed.

      You mentioning seeing Los Alamos in the distance reminds me of another NM experience I must share some time, exploring Tsankawi in the Bandelier National Monument – we could see it from there too, although of course that was day time!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Not so very much so in this case Margaret – this is a well known scenic drive taken by most visitors to this part of the state I would guess! But maybe New Mexico in general is less visited – certainly by Brits who flock to Florida and a lesser extent to California and New England, all of which are better known over here 🙂

  • Nemorino

    This is a part of New Mexico I have never visited — which actually includes most of the state, since I have only ever been to the northeast corner, around Cimarron and Raton.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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