Mystical City: Taos, New Mexico, Settled by the Tiwa People 2000 years ago
By Fred Mays
A trip to the mystical Taos Pueblo takes you back to the earliest days of southwest history.
Long before Europeans began their North American conquest, the Tiwa people were building their pueblo homes in the mountains of what is now New Mexico. For nearly a thousand years they lived in relative peace.
And then, in the late 1500s, Spanish conquistadors entered their lands, and life was irrevocably changed.
The mud and straw pueblo village, which for centuries had resisted occasional marauding attacks by rival Indian tribes, was overwhelmed by the Spaniards.
One of the first things the conquering forces did was build a mission, San Geronimo de Taos. The Native Americans resisted Catholicism and over decades they twice tore the mission down and killed three priests.
The 1800s were turbulent times as both Mexican immigrants and Indians resisted being brought under the control of the United States.
The end of the Mexican-American War touched off a revolt in the region. A riotous mob raided the town of Taos and killed the U.S. territorial governor.
Federal troops pushed them back into their pueblo and bombarded their mission shelter with cannon fire. Today all that remains of the mission at Taos Pueblo is a forlorn bell tower and graveyard.
A “new” mission stands near the entrance to the pueblo, built in about 1850.
The Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years, the longest permanent settlement in North America. It is both a National Historic Landmark and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only place in the country so designated.
Fewer than 150 Remain
It is believed the early population of the pueblo was several thousand inhabitants. Today fewer than 150 remain living in the original community. But that was a census count in 2006, and the population has gone down since then.
By tribal decree, there is no electricity, no running water, no plumbing in the pueblo. Many Tiwa families still live on tribal lands but have opted for more modern housing outside the pueblo grounds.
The pueblo land covers nearly 100-thousand acres up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which are considered holy by the Native Americans.
Nearly half their land was taken by the federal government in 1906 and claimed as a National Forest. The tribe petitioned the government for decades to try and get their lands restored, which finally happened in 1970.
Admission to the pueblo is $16 for adults, $14 for seniors and students. It includes a guided tour, filled with the history of the community. The tour is free and optional. Take it! It’s well worth a half-hour of your time.
Ta0s Is More than a Side Trip
The actual town of Taos sits at the base of the mountains. Often viewed as a “side trip” by visitors to Santa Fe, Taos today commands a presence all its own. It is well worth your time to spend a few days here.
Most of the lodging is found along Highway 68, which is the main street through town.
There are a Hilton, a Hampton Inn and a number of others to be found on the south side of town. A complete list of lodgings is at taos.org, the Visitor’s Center website.
For restaurants, I recommend Lambert’s on Bent Street. It has a full menu for dinner and a fine wine list. Another more budget-conscious restaurant is The Gorge on Taos Plaza right by the main plaza entrance off Route 68, Paseo del Pueblo Sur.
For lunch, the Burger Stand on Paseo del Pueblo Sur serves up huge burgers and craft beer.
The Taos climate is four seasons. It sits at seven thousand feet elevation on the high plains, desert terrain. Even during the summer, it cools off enough at night for a light jacket or sweater. Winters are moderately cold and snowy, especially in the higher mountain elevations.
Those same mountains hold another key to Taos’ attraction. They are filled with hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and in the winter there are four ski resorts just out of town.
The Rio Grande River Gorge slices through the high desert terrain, and outfitters run the rapids with rafts and kayaks. During the spring melt-off, the river swells with Class III and IV whitewater.
I floated the river with New Mexico River Adventures during calmer water times. Guides do an excellent job of explaining the history of the river, the hydrology, and geology of the Gorge, and surrounding wild country.
For wilderness hiking in the Carson National Forest without the need to lug a heavy pack, there are llamas to carry the load.
Wild Earth Llama Adventures provides a guide and llamas for day hikes or multi-day treks in the mountains around Taos, or in the Rio Grande river gorge. website
You’ll be surprised how much more terrain you can cover by not carrying that heavy pack on your back. And breathe that fresh mountain air.
There are miles of mountain biking trails in state parks and the national forest. We rented bikes from Gearing Up Bikes and toured trails in the Rio Grande Gorge State Park, overlooking the river gorge, north of Taos.
In the winter the mountains around Taos have four ski areas to pick from. The largest is Angel Fire with peaks over 11,000 feet. There are also trails for Cross Country skiing and snowshoeing.
Many Museums in Taos
Art lovers have an abundance of opportunities to let the Taos culture atmosphere satisfy them. There are eight museums in town and over 40 art galleries. A complete list can be found at the Taos Visitor Center website.
Long in Santa Fe’s tourism shadow, Taos today is its own destination. A vacation there is memorable. Taos Pueblo website.
Fred Mays is a retired TV news guy, and now a freelance writer/photographer in Dallas, TX. He has visited Taos several times and cherishes his time there. His blog can be seen at www.northtexasactivelife.com.