Lonely Planet's Executive Editor, Nitya Chambers, has just returned from a family trip to New Mexico. Here, she shares some shots and recommendations that made the trip memorable.
I was desperate to figure out where to spend my kids’ week-long winter break in February. My passport renewal sat with the US State Department which limited international travel, but when this Best in Travel New Mexico video crossed my Tik Tok path, I could think of nothing else but gently gliding across the skies of the Land of Enchantment in a hot air balloon.
And so off we went — a week based in an utterly delightful Santa Fe AirBnB, sampling the delights of the National Park Service and an eclectic, artistic mix of the American West.
It was the off-season which meant not everything was open. On the other hand, there were fewer crowds which allowed us to experience the beauty and wonder of New Mexico as though it was there just for us.
We started the day in Santa Fe with…
Breakfast at home. Perhaps not the most glamorous of answers, but when we’re spending more than three days in a place and we plan on packing our days with sightseeing we often opt to stay in an Airbnb and have breakfast at home so we can get a fast start out the door.
That said, New Mexico is considered the home of the breakfast burrito and you’d be remiss not to find a way to add it to your itinerary. Try Tia Sophia’s in Santa Fe.
The AirBnB we chose — one that embraced the local architecture and came with multiple indoor fireplaces — made it easy to fortify ourselves in the morning at home before we hit the road.
Daily explorations included a visit to Bandelier National Monument
An hour's drive northwest of Santa Fe, Bandelier National Monument brought history to life.
Visiting was a profound experience. I’d read about the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people in history books my whole life. It was another thing entirely to walk a path inside such a sacred space, to climb ladders into the thousand-year-old caves, and to spend a morning in quiet contemplation of those who had come before us.
The off-season made this a spiritual experience: arriving at 9am when the park opened offered our family an empty park to explore at our leisure.
And White Sands National Park
Our family prioritizes a National Park trip every year and White Sands was totally worth the 7.5 hour round trip drive from Santa Fe — a drive made bearable by the changing landscape and the expanse and enormity of a seemingly endless New Mexico sky.
White Sands National Park covers 115 sq miles of sand dunes and drifts, composed of glistening gypsum crystals against a backdrop of mountains. It’s one of those national parks whose landscape is so dramatic and ethereal it feels like you’re on another planet.
After I posted pictures on social media, I got all kinds of tips: there’s a resort nearby in Cloudcroft where you can look down on White Sands from 9,000 feet up; visiting the park at sunset turns the white sand pink.
In the end, we spent three hours in the park — where you can climb, hike, and sled the sand dunes — and did the drive back to Santa Fe.
Eating and drinking in New Mexico is a delight - but reservations are a must
From the traditional to inventive takes on New Mexican cuisine in Santa Fe, we found that even on weeknights and during the off-season, we benefited from making reservations. We indulged at Cafe Pasqual, La Choza and Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen. On a cold afternoon, we warmed ourselves up with Mampuku Ramen where the kimchi fried rice was out of this world.
After a horseback ride at Tamaya Horse Rescue and Stables, we spent an Albuquerque afternoon at Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., the only Native American woman-owned brewery in the United States — we loved the Denim Tux Pilsner, the Easy Cactus Mexican-Style Dark Lager, and the Scenic West Hazy IPA. (Kids are allowed and we all grabbed lunch from the Laguna Burger food truck outside.)
On our way to White Sands, we came across Bry’s Lunchbox in an Alamogordo parking lot after some furious Googling and a desire to support a local business over a fast-food franchise. There Bryan Martinez, a former Arizona restaurant manager, charmed us from the inside of his bright red sandwich stall with the story of his hometown return and made-to-order sandwich menu.
Yes, we did the hot air balloon ride — and yes, it was magic
Experienced balloonists Keshia and Justin Hodge are a wife-and-husband team who are co-owners of Elevated New Mexico, a local company that specializes in smaller group hot air balloon rides over Albuquerque. Think: two — four people per basket versus some of the groups that take up 16 people in a larger basket.
The team is experienced and starts everything with safety, but their passion and excitement for sharing their love of hot air balloons and introducing new riders to the experience touches everything they do: from the safety presentation to the champagne toast with the crew after.
I was a predictable mix of excitement and nerves before the ride, which was just over an hour; I was not expecting the experience to be so meditative and peaceful.
For the cost of the experience, I loved that it felt more personal - not sure of how I would feel going up in a hot air balloon at dawn with 16 strangers.