Abiquiú, best known as the home of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, offers astonishing landscapes and a glimpse into New Mexico's rich past.
Abiquiú, a small town about 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe, is best known today as the home of the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Once you visit, you'll understand why she loved and painted the landscape of her adopted home for so many years. The haunting beauty of the tiny adobe village, the majesty of the surrounding mountains, and the astonishing grandeur of the nearby red rock canyons is more than enough to keep any artist enthralled for a lifetime.
To get there, take NM 285/84 (St. Francis Drive) north to Española. Where the highway splits, veer to the left (there's a Dandy Burger with a big sign right on the corner-you can't miss it). You'll need to turn right at the first stoplight then left at the next intersection to stay on NM 84 north. This road will take you through tiny rural villages and right into Abiquiú.
Abiquiú is as rich in history as it is in beauty. In the 1730s, small land grant settlements (land given by the King of Spain to those who were willing the settle and farm the territory) were attempted. Santa Rosa de Abiquiú, in the valley near the Rio Chama, was the northwesternmost outpost in New Mexico. Unfortunately, it was also right in the middle of Apache country. To make matters worse for the Spanish settlers, tribes of Comanches and Utes had also moved into the area. After a terrible raid in 1747 in which all the women and children were either killed or captured, Santa Rosa de Abiquiú was temporarily abandoned. These outpost settlements, however, provided an important barrier between the wilds of the northwest and the larger Spanish cities to the south (the most important of which, of course, was Santa Fe); the governor ordered the settlers to return or risk the loss of their lands. To somewhat decrease their isolation, he granted lands higher in the hills to a group Indians known as genízaros-descendants of Plains Indians who had been captured and Christianized by the Spanish. The mesa-top village created on the site of a long-abandoned pueblo just above the Santa Rosa settlement (where the Spanish settlers in the valley could-and did-retreat during raids) is what is considered today the heart of the village of Abiquiú.
As you come into Abiquiú on NM 84, you can see the ruins of Santa Rosa de Lima, the church for the early settlement, on your right. The old village, however, is as hidden from sight as it ever was. To get there, look for the large (for Abiquiú) grocery store and gas station on your right. On the left you'll see a small road with a sign for the Abiquiú Post Office. This road will take you right up to the plaza and village. Be sure to observe all No Parking and No Trespassing signs: the residents of Abiquiú are very protective of their village.
As in many of New Mexico's villages, the church is the centerpiece of the town. Abiquiú's Santo Tomás Apóstole, is a beauty. John Gaw Meem, the renowned architect of the Southwest and father of Santa Fe style, designed this church in the Pueblo Revival style in 1930. His Society for the Preservation of New Mexico Mission Churches assisted the people of Abiquiú in creating a church in the traditional style to replace the older, dilapidated structure.
The first church on the Abiquiú plaza (which burned and was rebuilt in 1867) was completed in 1772. Like all early New Mexico missions, Abiquiú was overseen by a Franciscan priest-in this case, a particularly zealous one. Though the genízaro Indians were technically Christians, many continued to practice their native religions as well. Fray Juan José Toledo was determined to put a stop to their rites and ceremonies. When a terrible sickness swept the village and the priest himself fell sick, "witchcraft"€ was suspected. Fifteen people were arrested and a brujo named El Cojo was whipped on the Abiquiú plaza and threatened with being burned at the stake. Although several of the arrested "witches"€ later died of the very illness they'd been accused of causing, witch trials continued in Abiquiú until 1766, long after the better-known events in Salem, Massachusetts, had passed.
If you continue on the road to the left of the plaza, you'll see a building with three wooden crosses perched at the side of a gorge. This is a morada, a private place of worship used by the group known as the Penitentes or Los Hermanos. Be especially careful to be respectful here: stay away from the grounds surrounding this building, and take no photographs without permission.
Be sure to leave enough time to drive farther north on NM 84. Vistas of red and orange rock formations and dramatic red rock canyons surround Ghost Ranch, one of the homes of O'Keeffe (now a conference center). You'll see again why O'Keeffe never wanted to leave here, and glimpse Pedernal, the flat-topped hill she painted so many times. Said she, "I painted it often enough thinking that, if I did so, God would give it to me."€ As she requested, her ashes were spread there.
The Abiquiú area is beautiful and well worth visiting all year round. In the fall, the golden aspens add a special note of glory. If you're in town over Columbus Day weekend, be sure to attend the Studio Tour given by local artists. In summer months, nearby Abiquiú Lake, a reservoir maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is a popular recreation spot offering swimming, boating, fishing and camping.