Mon. Nov 28th, 2022

“New Mexico is like the only foreign country in the U.S.,” says Angelisa Murray, the founder of local tour company Heritage Inspirations. She means it in the best possible way. She came back to the charming town of Taos in the northern part of the state—the one where she spent her childhood summers—after an international career working for the likes of Four Seasons, Backroads, and Butterfield & Robinson.

Now Heritage Inspirations is one of the few truly high-end, meaningful, genuine, and sustainability-minded travel companies operating in the United States, and she says she couldn’t imagine doing what she does in any other state.

As a native New Mexican, I understand what she’s talking about. I grew up on a diet of green chile (we always spell it with an E) and an education about the three cultures that have lived together for so long in New Mexico: the Pueblo people who were native to the land, the Spanish arrivals who ended up making the area part of their colony of New Spain (later Mexico, but it’s complicated) and the northern Europeans who came later.

History classes in the 1990s left out the ugly parts. And while serious reckonings with those parts are going on all around the town’s cultural institutions, Taos seems close to actually embodying that ideal of coexistence. As an historic center of trading among different peoples, it was long accustomed to strangers from outside. In more recent years, the people of the Taos Pueblo had more success in holding onto and regaining their lands and traditions than many other indigenous groups.

Those lands and traditions are very much worth seeing. That’s why Murray brings her Heritage Inspirations guests onto the Taos Pueblo—not only one of the longest continually inhabited places in North America but also a stunning geometry of adobe homes, with external wooden ladders and a luminosity that takes on an extra life during the morning of an autumn snow—and then slides into the background.

The small-group tours are led by people like Ilona Spruce, a Pueblo woman who lives onsite and sees tourism as a positive force for education. (And not only for the outsiders visiting the place—many of the native tour guides use their tips to pay their college tuition.)

Outside the pueblo, contemporary Taos is New Mexico at its most operatic: the piercingly blue skies, the weathered adobe walls, the nearly sparkling amber color of the cottonwood leaves in autumn. It’s a town with a charming plaza, inviting side streets and courtyards. If you just want to have a breakfast burrito and a chile-spiked (E again, please) hot chocolate, the place is for you.

It also has a thriving, yet human-scale art and gallery scene, and locals who say things like, “What Taos has is what Santa Fe lost. We still like the funk” and “The charm of Taos is that it doesn’t reveal itself in a couple hours. You need a few days.”

A fine base for those days is El Monte Sagrado, which has about 75 rooms, suites and casitas in a variety of styles—some with hot tubs and private courtyards, and a few inspired by notable Native Americans. They’re all spacious and handsome, with fireplaces and works from local artists. At the De La Terra restaurant, executive chef Cristina Martinez has put together a menu that ranges nicely over dishes like pan-seared local rainbow trout with green curry broth and carrot-kimchi salad, and wild mushroom quinoa rellenos (stuffed red chiles) with mole verde and Oaxaca cheese.

The hotel is also the base from which Heritage Inspiration organizes a variety of tours in the town and surrounding mountains. A good introduction the Artisan Walking Tour, which includes Taos-born artist Maye Torres’s contemporary art gallery on the plaza, traditional weaving showplace Tres Estellas, worldly jeweler Moriah Stanton’s concept store MoMo, the colorful contemporary art gallery and bookstore called Jones Walker and the crowd pleasing artisanal chocolate shop Chokolá. (My tour guide got off another one-liner: “New Mexico is counterculture, from the Pueblo Revolt to Meow Wolf,” referring to the pioneering immersive art experience in Santa Fe. “There’s always been a lot of forward thinking here.”)

A must-see is the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, which was the headquarters of the Taos Society of Artists, a group of East Coast painters who arrived in the city about a century ago, at a time when the local community was “oddly open to Europeans in wool suits and bow ties,” in the colorful words of executive director and curator Davison Packard Koenig.

The centerpiece is the house where Eanger Irving Couse made his home and studio in Taos. He became important for working with models from the Pueblo (and paying them well), depicting native people as humans rather than savages, which was revolutionary at the time.

“Our story isn’t pretty,” admits Koenig. “But our story is authenticity.” And he takes pains to emphasize that “what the Taos Society accomplished was some of the first steps toward a society where more people were seen and appreciated.”

And the Couse-Sharp’s story certainly gets more interesting when it gets around to the laboratory and machine shop that were added by Eanger’s son, Kibbey. The place is like a time capsule. His main project was developing a prototype for a mobile machine shop to repair farm equipment in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s.

Military commanders saw potential in the machines, and soon they were deployed around WWII battlegrounds. Now one of the few that survived the whole thing is just outside, on the terrace beside the library. The onetime engineering nerd in me was pleased.

A few blocks away, the Harwood Museum of Art (one of the oldest museums in New Mexico), has also been focusing on connection and legacy for more than 100 years. The museum’s current exhibition is centered on Black cowboys—whom it seems made up more than one-quarter of the riding force for decades—with a collection of archival photos and some contemporary responses to the tradition and the history and all of the forgetting.

Again, it’s complicated, but it’s also an appreciation, and a beautiful one at that.

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