New Mexico Road Trip: Carlsbad Caverns and Pueblo Cooking

When he arrived in New Mexico, Joel Balsam wasn’t sure what was in store. What he got was a crash-course in pueblo cooking, a newfound appreciation for green chile sauce, and a brief sojourn to another dimension.


Photo © Getty Images / Adam Springer

I was driving west like a bandit on the run. The July hellfire and the behemoths on wheels cutting me off on the highway were way too much – I had to get out of west Texas. Fortunately, I found refuge in a state I’d heard very little about, save for UFO conspiracies and what I’d seen on Breaking Bad, and I was willing to bet the show about meth dealers did not portray the best of New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns

Over the state border, I parked at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and zig-zagged down into the cave mouth. Every summer evening, millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats soar out for dinner in a thick, black cloud, but all I craved was cool air. As I approached, a wave of freshness washed over me and I exhaled. I felt like Indiana Jones as I delved deeper and deeper into the enormous, 73mi (117km) maze of caverns, though instead of a whip, I was carrying a far less badass GoPro. Harrison Ford, eat your heart out.

Carlsbad Caverns. Photo credit: Getty Images / Theo Lawrence

The next day, I’d planned to roll around in the surreal sand dunes at White Sands National Monument, but the heat was overpowering, and I was in no mood to become a fried egg. So, I powered directly to Santa Fe and dove face first into a prickly pear margarita at The Shed cantina, housed in a hacienda that dates back to 1692.

Hatch green chile sauce and Meow Wolf in Santa Fe

I can’t tell you if the heat was oppressive or not in Santa Fe, as I was completely distracted by the city. Smooth, beige adobe buildings lined the streets like so many anthills, housing shops selling artisanal wares, art galleries, and restaurants – plenty of restaurants.

At Tia Sophia’s, I drove a fork and knife into a descendent of the first-ever breakfast burrito, a recipe that was dreamed up in 1975. Like nearly every New Mexican food worth eating, the burrito (“little donkey” in Spanish) was bathed in a bright green sauce derived from green chiles, an ingredient so beloved that New Mexicans drive around with them on their license plate.

After spending the night in my RV in the parking lot of Santa Fe’s Visitors Center, I took an Uber to what might as well be a different galaxy. Part art gallery, part trippy alien amusement park, Meow Wolf is an experiment carried out by a collective of hair-brained artists that is just as much fun for adults as for children. One moment, you’re trying to put together clues to figure out a family’s disappearance, the next, you’re walking through a refrigerator door leading to a spaceship from the future. And it only gets stranger from there.

Meow Wolf. Photo credit: TOURISM Santa Fe Kate Russell Courtesy of Meow Wolf

Taos Pueblo, and Pueblo food

North of Santa Fe, I gazed out the window at vast mountain ranges suitable for framing until I reached Taos. This artist colony and ski town is neighbor to the UNESCO-recognized Taos Pueblo, a settlement of multi-story adobe homes that have been continuously inhabited for more than 1,000 years. After a tranquil couple of days meandering around Taos's winding streets, I headed back south towards Española for a lesson in traditional Pueblo cooking at Norma Naranjo’s Feasting Place.

I was late and the group of women from Missouri and Oklahoma let me have it with their glares – they were starving, and so was I. I was quickly hustled off to the sun room and handed hunks of masa (corn dough), shredded spiced pork, and corn husks. I tried to wrap my tamales, but they came out oblong, instead of the cute, rectangular packages they’re supposed to be, and I broke the thin piece of husk used to tie it. Meanwhile, Naranjo – a member of the Tewa-speaking Ohkay Ohwingeh Pueblo group – was wrapping delicious packets that looked like they belonged in an art gallery.

Norma Naranjo demonstrates the correct way to make tamales. Photo credit: Stephanie Foden

“I don’t use machines,” she said, looking down at her hands. "These are my machines.”

As we tucked into our Pueblo feast of spicy posole, fresh pico de gallo with horno bread, and a veggie stew made from zucchini, squash, corn, and green chiles roasted in the backyard adobe oven, Naranjo explained that New Mexico is a complicated place to nail down. There are the Native American, Anglo-American, and Spanish/Mexican cultures as well as African-Americans and others who comprise the state’s intricate mosaic.

“New Mexico is a very unique place,” Naranjo said to the group. “I think that’s why people like coming. It's the uniqueness, and that’s what we hold onto.”

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