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New Mexico

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Settled in turn by Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans and Yankees, NEW MEXICO remains hugely diverse. Each successive group has built upon the legacy of its predecessors; their histories and achievements are intertwined, rather than simply dominated by the white American latecomers.

New Mexico’s indigenous peoples – especially the Pueblo Indians, heirs to the Ancestral Puebloans – provide a sense of cultural continuity. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced a temporary Spanish withdrawal into Mexico, proselytizing padres co-opted the natives without destroying their traditional ways of life, as local deities and celebrations were incorporated into Catholic practice. Somewhat bizarrely to outsiders, grand churches still dominate many Pueblo communities, often adjacent to the underground ceremonial chambers known as kivas.

The Americans who arrived in 1848 saw New Mexico as a wasteland. Apart from a few mining booms and range wars – such as the Lincoln County War, which brought Billy the Kid to fame – New Mexico was relatively undisturbed until it became a state in 1912. Since World War II, when the secret Manhattan Project built the first atomic bomb here, it has been home to America’s premier weapons research outposts. By and large, people work close to the land, mining, farming and ranching.

The mountainous north is the New Mexico of popular imagination, with its pastel colours, vivid desert landscape and adobe architecture. Even Santa Fe, the one real city, is hardly metropolitan in scale and the narrow streets of its small historic centre retain the feel of bygone days. The amiable frontier town of Taos, 75 miles northeast, is remarkable chiefly for the stacked dwellings of neighbouring Taos Pueblo.

While most travellers simply race through central New Mexico, it does hold isolated pockets of interest. Dozens of small towns hang on to remnants of the winding old “Chicago-to-LA” Route 66, long since superseded by I-40. Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, sits dead centre. The area to the east, stretching toward Texas, is largely desolate, but the mountainous region west offers more – above all Ácoma Pueblo, the mesa-top “Sky City”.

In wild, wide-open southern New Mexico, deep Carlsbad Caverns and the desolate dunes of White Sands are the main attractions, and elsewhere you can still stumble upon mining and cattle-ranching towns barely changed since the end of the Wild West.

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