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Embrace the colors of New Mexico

There are few places as colorful as New Mexico.

From the brilliant turquoise and silver of Native American jewelry in Santa Fe to the deep green of Hatch chilies in Las Cruces, the pale pink of Albuquerque’s Sandia Mountains and the vibrant murals of downtown Gallup, the Land of Enchantment has more than enough imagery to live up to its billing. Those colors represent a rich blend of native culture, Western history and extraordinary landscapes that pack a tour itinerary with amazing experiences.

Here are four memorable destinations to discover on your group’s next trip through New Mexico.

Authentic Art in Santa Fe

Santa Fe has been attracting artists and art lovers alike for well over a century. Groups that visit this New Mexico city in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains will find plenty of opportunities to soak in the area’s art heritage, as well as its history and indigenous culture.

“The first place to visit is the Santa Fe Plaza,” said Joanne Hudson, public relations manager for Tourism Santa Fe. “In that area, you’re going to find the Palace of the Governors, which is the oldest continuously used public building in the country. That’s also where the Native American artists set up pretty much every day of the year. You’ll find artists from the surrounding pueblos, who come in and sell what they or their families have made. You’re buying directly from the artist or someone in their family. It’s an artist market, as well as living history.”

Groups that spend time at the plaza will find lots of silver and turquoise jewelry, which is a signature product of the area. Vendors also offer beaded jewelry and other beadwork, as well as woodcarvings, pottery and woven baskets. The plaza is surrounded by many local boutiques, art galleries and restaurants, so it makes a great place to give travelers free time.

Just a few blocks away, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, detailing the life and work of this legendary Western artist, is another popular stop for art lovers.

“The museum is great because it really shows you her life and how she became the artist she was known for,” Hudson said. “It really connects how New Mexico influenced her. They show her contribution to American modernism and the progression of American art as well.”

For a different kind of art experience, Hudson suggested that groups visit the House of Eternal Return, an avant-garde art installation created by the local collective known as Meow Wolf.

“It’s a fun interactive space inside a full-scale Victorian house,” she said. “It’s almost as if you are walking into a piece of art, and it’s 3D and experiential. You’re part of the art, and you get to explore it.”

Groups shouldn’t leave Santa Fe without spending time on Canyon Road, which features about 100 art galleries in a half-mile stretch. Many of those galleries have outdoor sculpture gardens in addition to traditional indoor space. Specialized art guides offer gallery tours for groups.

Lift Off in Albuquerque

About 60 miles south of Santa Fe, Albuquerque is known for its spectacular scenery and distinctive outdoor activities.

“We’re the hot air balloon capital of the world, and that’s always really popular on people’s itineraries,” said Kristin McGrath, vice president of sales, service and sports for Visit Albuquerque. “As long as conditions are right, it’s a year-round activity. We have a number of balloon companies that love working with groups. Some balloons can take up to 12 people at a time, and if a group is larger than that, they’ll send several balloons up from the launch field. It’s always fun to go up in a balloon and see your friends in another balloon.”

Though ballooning is available at any time of year, many groups plan their visits to coincide with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October. This nine-day event features more than 500 hot air balloons from around the world. Groups can visit to watch them take off in the morning, interact with pilots throughout the day or take in the beauty of the balloon glow after dark.

Another way to see the area’s scenery from above is to take a ride on the Sandia Peak Tramway, which transports passengers into the beautiful Sandia Mountains just outside the city.

“The vistas are beautiful,” McGrath said. “It’s a great place to see the city. And you’re facing west, so it’s an awesome place to watch the sunset.”

The ride takes about 15 minutes in fully enclosed gondolas. Once they reach the mountain peak, visitors can take photos, hike on several trails or indulge in a memorable meal at Ten 3, a restaurant named for the peak’s elevation of 10,300 feet above sea level.

Groups visiting Albuquerque should also plan to spend some time at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

“New Mexico has 19 pueblos, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is the gateway, an introduction to all of them,” McGrath said. “It’s more than a museum. There are rotating exhibits, but my favorite thing is the programming. We love taking groups to experience some of the dance performances. The week of Balloon Fiesta, there is programming every day that highlights the different pueblo traditions.”

Finally, groups can relive some of the glory days of Route 66 in the Knob Hill neighborhood, which features period architecture, neon lights and other hallmarks of the Mother Road’s illustrious history in Albuquerque.

History and Culture in Gallup

Driving two hours west from Albuquerque will bring visitors to Gallup, a town of about 21,000 people near the Arizona border. Blending Native American culture, Western heritage, a rich artistic tapestry and Route 66 tradition, Gallup is a mile-high destination that will add distinctive experiences to a group adventure in New Mexico.

The Gallup area is home to sizable Navajo and Zuni populations, including more than 1,000 artists from these and other nations. Over 70% of the world’s authentic Native American art comes from this region, and groups can find their own pieces to take home at more than 100 trading posts, galleries and other art vendors in and around Gallup.

There’s more art to discover in the streets of downtown. The area has 14 public murals that depict scenes from Native American life, westward expansion, Hispanic heritage, Route 66, the area’s mining history and more. Nearby, We the People Park features a 110-foot-long steel sculpture that represents free speech, pluralism, democracy and coexistence with the environment.

Finally, Route 66 fans will want to take in historic Gallup sites on the Mother Road. One prime example is the El Rancho Hotel, which sat along Route 66 and played host to celebrities such as John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Ronald Reagan and Kirk Douglas. The actors stayed at the hotel while filming movies in the area during the ’40s and ’50s. Today, groups can enjoy a meal or an overnight at the hotel, as well as a tour of the lobby, which is decorated with memorabilia from the golden age of Hollywood and Route 66.

Getting Chile in Las Cruces

At the southern end of New Mexico, about 45 miles north of El Paso, Texas, and the Mexican border, the Las Cruces area offers a distinctive New Mexico experience: feasting on green chile.

“We’re known for our cuisine,” said Rochelle Miller-Hernandez, executive director of Visit Las Cruces. “We’re in the heart of the Mesilla Valley chile region, where the Hatch green chile pepper is grown. It has actually been trademarked. It’s a very flavorful crop of chile that has grown in popularity throughout the United States, and people order it from all over the world. They say the soil in the area gives it a really distinct taste.”

Travelers can experience Hatch green chile at just about any restaurant in town, enjoying it in traditional dishes such as enchiladas or in novel applications like green chile pistachios, green chile margaritas and green chile ice cream sundaes. And there’s more to learn about the Hatch green chile and other chile varieties at New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute. Groups can tour the lab there and see the Chile Garden, where scientists grow and study more than 150 kinds of peppers.

In addition to peppers, Las Cruces is known for its wine. Groups can tour several wineries in the area — including La Viña, one of the oldest wineries in the United States.

“They have traced their grapes back as far as the 1500s,” Miller-Hernandez said. “They come from vines that were brought over from Spain to Mexico.”

In addition to highlighting regional food and drink, Las Cruces also serves as a great jumping-off point for exploring other nearby attractions. Historic Mesilla, a village contiguous to Las Cruces, is known for its scenic plaza and calendar of cultural festivals. And most groups in Las Cruces also make the trek 50 miles north to White Sands National Park.

“It’s an amazing, living park with sparkling white sand dunes that are constantly moving,” Miller-Hernandez said. “You can have a tour with a ranger on a coach or get out and walk and go sand sledding. You can get out on top of a peak and look out, and it seems like the dunes go on forever.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.