The ruins of three pueblo missions scattered within a 30-mile or so radius of each other around Mountainair, NM were particularly stunning on a crisp sunny day with white snow blending with yellow scrubland, a blend of colors that reminded me of lemon meringue pie. Visiting the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in the Rio Grande Valley on a Monday in February also meant we had the ruins amongst entirely to ourselves. There was one other visitor at each of the two ruins sites we visited. (The visit is free of charge.)
We started at the visitors center in Mountainair, a small very quiet town in the middle of nowhere (with the best name ever!), where the helpful guide told us that the Gran Quivira site is her favorite (she loves the white stone and that it’s situated high on a mesa) but the fan favorite is the Quarai site, a more intact and massive red-walled structure, formerly a Spanish church. So we visited both, driving south 25 miles to the Gran Quivira, which rises seemingly out of nowhere but was once a thriving trading Native American center, hundreds of years ago. We ended up skipping the third site, Abo. The sites were thriving pueblos before Spaniards (conquering explorers and priests) arrived in the late 1500s and early 1600s and built their churches, among other intrusions. Our site brochure refers to the early inquisitors as “compassionate men,” contrary to the Inquisition’s deservedly bad reputation.
I can see why the Quarai site is so popular. Set against a stunning blue sky, with the added rare bonus of white snow, the place dazzled. Standing inside its former church, surrounded by high red stone walls in a huge courtyard, my mind wandered to memories of similar spaces…ruins in Peru and Cambodia, crumbling castles in rural Wales and Ireland, walled Tuscan cities in Italy.
Yet “Salinas” has a distinctly Southwest U.S. feel, thanks to the mountain landscape, high desert vegetation and light. (I’ve become a fan of juniper trees, especially their fresh almost minty smell. Juniper perfume anyone? Or maybe just a juniper candle or sachet?) Beyond the church (which looks more like a fortress), are the much lower, crumbled remnants of a village with round kivas and courtyard gathering places as well as small living quarters.
Because we were with dog, we couldn’t eat at the atmospheric old hotel in Mountainair but we found good sandwiches made to order in the deli at the back of the grocery store. I love visiting local grocery stores in these kinds of places! It’s a great way to get a feel for what life is like, what people eat, where they gather. I found some good homemake baked goods (blue corn muffins!) and local products (I brought a mesh bag of local dried pinto beans. Now I need to figure out what to do with them.)
“Salinas” is about a 90 minute drive south of Albuquerque, on very scenic two-land highways through the countryside. We drive through s few very battered small towns en route, one (Manzano) with a dazzling 1800s adobe church with what looked like fantastic stained glass windows. The Roots Farm Cafe in Tijeras, just outside ABQ, was closed because it was a Monday but looked as good as the write up I read in a the New Mexico visitors guide. next time!