The Perfect Road Trip Through Magical New Mexico


An enchanting Albuquerque sunset. (Photo: Sheila Sund/Flickr)

“Welcome to the land of enchantment,” says the automated tape playing in the airport’s rental car shuttle. The guy at the Avis counter repeats the same welcome to my best friend Mike and I, then hands us the keys to a white Mustang. Laughing, he says, “We call New Mexico the land of entrapment — once you come you never want to leave.” Here is the perfect five-day road trip through the state.

Day 1: Arriving in Albuquerque


Jesse Pinkman’s Breaking Bad house. (Photo: Eric Trujillo/Caldwell Banker Legacy)

Start out in New Mexico’s biggest city. (If you’re from out of the area, you can fly in to Albuquerque International Sunport, a.k.a., the airport.)

Use the day to get bad — Breaking Bad. Visit the hit TV show’s hallowed haunts like the car wash, Walt’s house, and even “Los Pollos Hermanos,” which is actually a fast-food Mexican chain called Twisters that’s not half bad for lunch. Choose from either an organized RV tour or take the self-guided one found on the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau website. And hope that your travel companion (ahem, Mike) doesn’t start pretending he’s Heisenberg.

After geeking out over Breaking Bad filming locations, have a meal at Frontier Restaurant. The no-frills diner, which came highly recommended when I crowd-sourced my Twitter feed, is also a University of New Mexico student hangout, thanks to its 1 a.m. closing time, inexpensive prices, and campus proximity. Our A+ order: enchiladas, vegetarian burritos, and a green-chile stew.

Stay the night in town and book the Sandia Peak Inn Motel. TripAdvisor devotees swear by this $80 a night, easy-to-find, sparse-though-clean accommodation. And I’ll echo the crowd — I’d give it five of those little green circles.

Related: Pacific Coast Highway: the Ultimate California Road Trip

Day 2: Next stop, Santa Fe


Santa Fe (Photo: iStock)

It’s time to hit the open road toward Santa Fe. Skip I-25 in favor of scenic Highway 14, better known as the “Turquoise Trail.” It turns an hour and 15 minutes of driving into two hours, but it’s well worth the extra mileage thanks to stunning mountain views. Along the way, you’ll also pass through old mining towns like colorful Madrid and craftsy Cerrillos, home of the Turquoise Trail Sculpture Garden. Tip: Find and blast 104.7, the classic rock station.


A peek at the famous staircase of the Loretto Chapel (Photo credit: Daniel Nadelbach)

The first stop in Santa Fe is the Loretto Chapel, which is famous for its “miraculous staircase” — dubbed so because it was built in 1878 without a single nail by a carpenter who disappeared days after its completion. (You may recognize if from an Unsolved Mysteries episode. Or from someone you know’s wedding pictures. It’s a popular venue.)

Take the rest of the afternoon to explore (and shop) the oh-so-charming city. The main plaza is surrounded by stores selling turquoise jewelry, but the best buys are from the Native American artists that set up shop on the north side of the Plaza as part of the Palace of the Governors Vendor Program. Another favorite? The Chile Shop, where we find New Mexico cookbooks like The Green Chile Bible alongside Southwestern delicacies like blue corn pancake mix and chocolate habanero fudge sauce. And speaking of New Mexico’s revered cuisine, the holy grail of Frito pies is found at the back of the Five and Dime General Store. Anthony Bourdain hated it; I would say it’s interesting; and Mike, who annoyingly kept asking for bites, loved it but refused to get his own.

Make a dinner reservation in advance at the always-packed Sante Fe institution Cafe Pasqual’s, and then end the night at Vanessie’s Lounge, a rowdy, sing-along piano bar. A short walk away is El Farolito. It’s a fun overnight accommodation thanks to its authentic adobe architecture. After admiring the interesting folk art on the walls of Room #2 (named “Peralta”), we fell fast asleep in our 1850s vintage-style New Mexican beds.

Related: New Mexico Smackdown: Santa Fe vs. Taos

Day 3: Best Museum Ever


The “Spirit Dancer” sculpture outside of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture (Photo: Museum of New Mexico)

Start the morning of day two at Santa Fe’s “Museum hill,” which consists of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens, and my personal obsession, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. I took so long in there that Mike left for coffee and a snack (he highly recommends the Museum Hill Cafe) and came back to find me still wandering the contemporary exhibits, transfixed by everything from modern Native American art (David Bradley is brilliant) to reproductions of trading posts and teepees. Make sure to exit through the gift shop; it’s filled with Native American jewelry, clothing, and an extensive bookstore. Mike bought Empire of the Summer Moon and I left with The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.

Head back toward town, because the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is not to be missed. Start with the video about her life then stand in awe of her paintings, photographs, and sculptures — many of which were inspired by the extreme New Mexico landscape.

For an afternoon pickup, walk over to the nearby Kakawa Chocolate House, which makes drinkable chocolate elixirs — most of them sans milk — that are thick, spicy, and totally not on Mike’s diet, he said, before ordering one anyway.

Day 4: Heading North to Taos


The San Geronimo Chapel in Taos Pueblo (Photo: Taryn Adler)

Make the two-hour journey north. You’ll drive through the mountains and along the Rio Grande, passing fields of wildflowers, desert shrubs, and the occasional roadside gas station and Sonic Drive-In. The final destination? The famous, funky town of Taos. Part ski-town and part artist enclave, this place has got a serious vibe.

Peruse the art galleries in town, stop for an easy bite on the patio of La Cueva Cafe (order the enchiladas Christmas style, which is a mix of both red and green chiles perfect for the indecisive) and then make your way to Taos Pueblo. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a Native American reservation open to the public during set visiting hours. You can tour parts of the property, eat lunch at the family-run restaurants (find yourself the blue corn tortilla soup with ground turkey at the eatery across from the San Geronimo Chapel), and buy handicrafts from the local artisans. Ask for Robert Mirabal’s shop — the handsome musician will play his didjeridoo for you and you’ll probably leave with his CD. I did. Mike and I both joined his Facebook fan page, too.


Sunset in Taos. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Have an early dinner at El Meze where all the chairs on the patio face the mountains, almost like a movie theatre, to behold the sun setting over the peaks. I’m sure it was beautiful — I was distracted inhaling the out-of-this-world Tamale de Cardenas, drenched in a green-chile sauce and topped with feta.

Full? It’s time to retire for the night. We chose the Earthship Biotecture. Disclaimer: We do not actually sleep there. Our assigned rental home was so creepy, big, dark, and full of weird noises that we hightailed it out of there as soon as the sun set. So creepy that I refused to go back with Mike when he realized he left his wallet. For actual sleeping purposes, Hacienda del Sol Inn is the way to go.

Day 5: Strangeness, Peace, and Beauty


Earthship Biotecture (Photo: Earthship Biotecture/Facebook)

Earthship Biotecture isn’t a total bust. The tour from the visitor center there, in the light of day, is totally worth it. Spend the morning learning about the fascinating community comprised of sustainable houses each built with recycled materials; run by thermal, solar, and wind systems; and surrounded by lush, animal-filled greenhouses.

Save the best — or at least most relaxing — for last. Head back towards Albuquerque via Santa Fe and a stopover at the magical Ten Thousand Waves, just outside the city. The spa is a literal oasis in the desert, filled with baths, spa treatments, and even a meditation room. I got a rash from the Yuzu bath salts I bought at the gift shop, but aside from that there’s not a thing I don’t recommend.


Adler exploring at Tent Rocks (Photo: Taryn Adler)

Afterwards, take your Om over to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, where you can buy “Indian tacos” from the vendors at the base (think: fry bread, a Native American specialty, instead of tortilla shell), then hike to the top. It’s just strenuous enough that we were slightly out of breath at the summit. Take a break to ponder life and look out over the shrubs and the fascinating rock formations.

Related: Rocky Mountain Camping Smackdown: Colorado vs. New Mexico

At peace, massaged, and happy, head back to where you started. Mike and I ate dinner at Frontier Restaurant again (that’s how good it is) before our red-eye. In fact, we enjoyed our last green-chile-filled meal so thoroughly that we almost missed our flight home.

Land of entrapment, indeed.

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