Escaping the hustle and bustle of Santa Fe, NM is not difficult. Drive 30 minutes north on Hwy. 84/285 to Española, turn onto # 76 and follow the signs to Chimayó, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
Approaching the small settlement it is easy to miss the narrow road leading to a spacious parking lot. Free parking is a welcome change from other tourist destinations in New Mexico. We leave the car behind and walk along a chain link fence crowded with small hand-crafted crosses commemorating personal plights and “thank yous” by pilgrims.
Across the grounds near the parking lot seven large arched crosses crudely constructed from local rocks, bricks and mortar draw the attention to the Santa Cruz River bank and fertile fields beyond.
A hush falls over us. We speak with quiet voices, adapting to the surroundings and actions of other visitors. This peaceful, tranquil meditation garden includes several statues with stations for pilgrims to reflect, meditate and pray.
The path leads uphill to Plaza del Cerro, the last surviving fortified plaza in the US, of which Santuario de Chimayó is the central destination.
Cameras are not allowed in the sanctuary to provide privacy and an undisturbed environment to pilgrims and visitors alike. The sanctuary focal point is the original altar with colorful paintings and primitive carvings, a testament to its humble origins. The solid wood door keep the dimly lit prayer space protected.
Adjacent to Santuario de Chimayó is the museum. Walking beyond the church yard Santo Niño Church and Santo Niño Museum are easily accessible within a few steps. Galleries and small restaurants provide further opportunities to explore the historical town. Chimayó was settled near the end of the 17th century. Spanish settlers chose this fertile area along the Santa Cruz River and the protection of the surrounding foothills to develop their skills in farming, stock raising and weaving.
Their descendants continue to hone their skills in many of the traditions in which Chimayó has been known for throughout history. Fruit orchards expands from the outskirts of town, countless weaving studios are open to the public. Chimayó is also famous for traditional Hispanic and Tewa Indian arts including wood carving, paintings of saints on retablos (flat wood slabs) and bultos (sculptures), tin working, colcha embroidery, and pottery.
Red chilies are a high demand crop. The open air market stall across from the plaza is impossible to overlook. Maybe the drawing point is the operator with the “gift of the gab”: His enthusiasm draws in visitors. Sampling is encouraged and how can one say no to a shelled, unsalted pistachio nut placed into the hand and sprinkled with various chili mixes, ranging from mild to medium and very hot!
With a quote of $ 6 a bag I select three flavors that I am confident I will be able to incorporate into my cooking at home. My $ 20 bill was turned, inspected and greeted with “Oh, well – don’t worry about the extra dollar…”