The Thrifty Wintry Charms of Santa Fe, New Mexico

SANTA FE has an international art scene, year-round celebrities and hotel rooms that go for up to $450 a night, so “affordable” may not be the first word that comes to mind in describing it. But with some creative choices and a willingness to stray from the plaza of postcard fame, it can be surprisingly easy on a budget. A couple on a three-day weekend can stay at immaculate adobe-style hotels, browse at world-class art galleries, tour historic churches, eat flavorful Southwestern cuisine, hike, ski and even soak in a private Japanese hot tub — all for under $500.

After New Year’s, holiday crowds are gone and prices drop before their summer ascent, making the cool months a delightful time to visit. Yes, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, Santa Fe gets cold on winter nights, and the average winter high is 40 degrees, but it’s almost always sunny, and the blue sky overhead intensifies the brightness of the ubiquitous turquoise and terra-cotta palette.

Start your visit by getting settled in a quiet place away from Santa Fe Plaza. The Santa Fe Motel & Inn on Cerrillos Road is only about half a mile — a 15-minute walk — away, close enough for easy plaza strolling. But with rates beginning at $79 ($99 for an individual casita), it costs a small fraction of what hotels directly on the plaza charge. The rooms feature Southwestern-style fabrics and tiles. A full complimentary breakfast, including eggs with beans, salsa verde and other toppings, fuels guests for the stroll into town.

If you want a touch of quirkiness, consider the El Rey Inn farther out on Cerrillos Road, a 10-minute drive from the plaza. The El Rey first opened in 1936 as a 12-room motor court. It now has 86 rooms decorated with Southwestern-style furniture, textiles and artwork. Amenities include a basket piled with fluffy bath sheets for use in the small outdoor, tiled hot pool and sauna. Rates start at $99, continental breakfast included.

It’s worth your while (and easy on your wallet) to start your visit on a Friday evening. That’s when Santa Fe’s art galleries hold openings, great for soaking up local flavor and chatting with Santa Feans. Cliff Shapiro, 21, an intern at the photo-eye Gallery on Garcia Street, was explaining the photographer Jo Whaley’s intriguing work — butterflies displayed on intricate backgrounds — as guests brushed by him one recent Friday night.

“The gallery openings are very much a part of the culture here,” said Mr. Shapiro, a student at the College of Santa Fe. “The public is encouraged to come. They can stay for a minute or an hour.” Many galleries are on Canyon Road, six blocks southeast of the plaza. To check for scheduled openings, search

Fridays from 5 to 8 p.m. are also free at several museums, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, on Johnson Street right off the plaza, which holds over 1,000 of O’Keeffe’s works, and the New Mexico Museum of Art on West Palace Avenue, which emphasizes art produced in or related to New Mexico.

The museums’ stores offer an alternative to Santa Fe’s generally costly shopping. At the O’Keeffe Museum, for example, an 11-by-14-inch poster costs only $9.50 ($28 framed). At the Museum of Art, a “Dulce: Desserts from Santa Fe Kitchens” cookbook is $24.99.

When you’ve had your fill of art, seek out a green chili cheeseburger, essential to any visit to Santa Fe. At the handsome Blue Corn Café on Water Street, which is also a microbrewery, for $14 you can get a delectable burger with jicama-lime slaw and a lager from an ever-changing list. Fajitas, tamales and other Southwestern choices are also popular.

It doesn’t look like much from the outside (or the inside either, for that matter) but Evangelo’s Cocktail Lounge on West San Francisco Street is the real deal — a local bar, with local flavor and no pretenses. Live bands play all weekend, and the cover is only $5 (cash only). Sam the Soul Man, backed by Soul City, was covering the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” one recent night, while patrons danced in front of the small stage.

Come Saturday morning, drive to the Santa Fe Farmers Market in the revitalized Railyard District. More than 50 vendors sell cheese, meat, hothouse-grown produce, juices, jams and baked goods, as well as crafts, textiles, soaps and skin care products. Hundreds of shoppers tasted samples as a quintet of string players from the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Orchestra serenaded them one recent Saturday. Pick up a breakfast burrito or assemble a picnic lunch. For less than $15 for two people, you can buy a round of pesto goat cheese, a fresh baguette, a few just-picked organic apples and a pain au chocolat — all of it made or grown in New Mexico.

While you’re at the Railyard, check out SITE Santa Fe, a huge, multi-leveled contemporary art space with provocative installations that change regularly. From Feb. 14 through May 10, the space will present “Pretty Is as Pretty Does,” a group show seeking to meld the sinister and ugly with traditional ideas of beauty. The gallery is often free of charge from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, as well as all day Fridays. Otherwise, tickets are $10.

Back at the plaza, a pilgrimage to the Native American jewelry and crafts vendors is a must. Every day, rain or shine, members of various pueblos and tribes sell handmade goods along the “front porch,” or portal, of the commanding Palace of the Governors on the plaza’s north side. Much of it is quite affordable. A delicate silver feather bookmark was $15, for example, and turquoise-and-silver earrings were $30. The artists represent and explain their work; by law, none of it is mass-produced.

The Gothic Revival Loretto Chapel, two blocks east of the plaza on Old Santa Fe Trail, is famous for its spiral staircase, with two 360-degree turns and no visible means of support. The plaza district could keep you entertained as long as you want to stay. But if the weather is accommodating and you want to see some of Santa Fe’s natural beauty, get out of town. The Randall Davey Audubon Center at the end of Upper Canyon Road offers two trails, one of them an easy half-mile loop. Laminated guides are available for bird watchers. Admission is $2. For longer hikes, the Dale Ball Trails offer 22 miles of hiking and biking trails at all levels.

Some Santa Feans have been known to take an afternoon off and go skiing if the powder is fresh. A half-day lift ticket with skis or snowboard, boot and pole rentals costs $64 at Ski Santa Fe, 16 miles up Hyde Park Road.

On the way back, save time for a stop at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese-style mountain spa where guests can reserve time in a private teak hot tub. The Waves, as it’s called, offers lodging as well as spa services, but the hot baths, at $29 for an hour, are an affordable luxury. With its waterfalls and complimentary teas, the spa has a spare, serene elegance, and at night, astonishing views of the stars (it is open until 10:30 p.m.). You’ll need to book ahead.

Have dinner at La Plazuela at La Fonda. This beautiful enclosed courtyard restaurant features huge glass and wooden doors hand-painted with Southwestern scenes and trimmed in Santa Fe’s trademark turquoise hue. Flip directly to the northern New Mexican specialties on the menu and consider chili rellenos de la Fonda with three cheeses for $15, or fajitas de la plancha with chicken or beef for $17.

Sunday mornings at this time of year are lovely for a walk in the crisp air. Take a self-guided (i.e., free) walking tour of the outdoor sculpture in the Canyon Road area and discover a brooding bronze James Dean, red steel rectangles balanced on each other and armchairs made of stone. A garden of wind sculptures by the Utah artist Lyman Whitaker, in front of the Wiford Gallery on Canyon Road, is particularly playful. Made of copper and steel, the spinning pieces are fashioned in shapes from pinwheel to nautilus to double helix and range in height from 5 to 27 feet.

A suitable ending to your trip is a visit to the San Miguel Mission, a humble adobe church on Old Santa Fe Trail. The mission is best known for its soaring reredos, or altar screen, fashioned of solid pine; its nine painted panels rise two stories behind the altar. Built in the early 1600s, the mission is one of the oldest churches in North America. Admission is $1, but you may be inspired to give more. The mission provides an apt example of how Santa Fe continues to honor its 400-year history in the 21st century.



Santa Fe Motel & Inn, 510 Cerrillos Road; (505) 982-1039;

El Rey Inn, 1862 Cerrillos Road; (800) 521-1349;


Blue Corn Café, 133 Water Street (upstairs), at corner of Galisteo Street; (505) 984-1800;

Evangelo’s Cocktail Lounge, 200 West San Francisco Street; (505) 982-9014.

Santa Fe Farmers Market, 1607 Paseo de Peralta, at South Guadelupe Street;; winter hours: Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

La Plazuela at La Fonda, 100 East San Francisco Street; (505) 982-5511;


Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson Street; (505) 946-1000;

New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 West Palace Avenue; (505) 476-5072;

photo-eye Gallery, 370 Garcia Street, No. A; (505) 988-5159;

SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta; (505) 989-1199;

Loretto Chapel, 207 Old Santa Fe Trail; (505) 982-0092;

Randall Davey Audubon Center, at end of Upper Canyon Road; (505) 983-4609;

Dale Ball Trails, parking and trailheads off Hyde Park Road, Upper Canyon Road or Wilderness Gate, atop Camino Cruz Blanca; and search for “Dale Ball Trails” for details.

Ski Santa Fe, at the top of Hyde Park Road; (505) 983-9155;

Ten Thousand Waves, 3451 Hyde Park Road; (505) 982-9304;

Wiford Gallery Sculpture Garden, 403 Canyon Road; (866) 594-6554;

San Miguel Mission, 401 Old Santa Fe Trail; (505) 983-3974;

New York Times


Published: January 9, 2009