New Mexico's indigenous peoples - especially the Pueblo Indian, clear inheritors of the Anasazi - provide a sense of cultural continuity. Despite the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, which forced a temporary Spanish withdrawal into Mexico, the missionary endeaour h ere was in general less brutal than elsewhere. The proselytizing padres eventually co-opted the natives without destroying their traditional ways of life, incorporating local deities and celebrations into Catholic practice. Somewhat bizarrely to outsiders , grand churches still stand at the centre of many Pueblo settlements, often adjacent to the underground ceremonial chambers known as kivas, and almost always built in the local adobe style.
The Americans who took over from the Mexicans in 1848 saw New Mexico as a useless wasteland, and left it relatively undisturbed in their eagerness to develop California. In fact, apart from a few mining booms and range wars - such as the so-called Lincoln County War which brought Billy the Kid to fame - New Mexico was more or less forgotten until the US finally got around to making it a state in 1912. During World War II, it was the base of operations for the top-secret Manhattan Proj ect, which built and detonated the first atomic bomb, and since then it has been home to America's premier weapons research outposts. By and large people here work close to the land, mining, farming and ranching, with tourism increasingly underpinning it all.
Northern New Mexico centres on the magnificent landscapes of the Rio Grande Valley, which contains its two finest cities - the artists' colony and winter resort of Taos, with its nearby pueblo, and Santa Fe , the adobe-fronted capital. More than a dozen Pueblo villages can be found in the mountainous area between the two, while to the west lie the evocative Anasazi ruins at Bandelier and Chaco Canyon. The broad swathe of central New Mexico, along the I-40 transcontinental highway - the successor of the old Route 66 - pivots around the state's biggest city, Albuquerque, with th e extraordinary mesa-top Pueblo village of Acoma ("Sky City") an hour's drive to the west. In wild and wide-open southern New Mexico, the yawning Carlsbad Caverns are the main attraction, while you can st ill stumble upon old mining and cattle-ranching towns which have somehow hung on since the end of the Wild West.
For many visitors, the defining feature of New Mexico is its adobe architecture, as seen on homes, churches, and even shopping malls and motels. Adobe bricks are a sun-baked mixture of earth, sand, charcoal and chopped grass or str aw. Built into walls, they are set with a mortar of much the same composition, and then plastered over with mud and straw. The colour of the soil used dictates the colour of the final building, and thus subtle variations can be seen all across the state. However, adobe is a far-from convenient material: it needs replastering every few years, and turns to mud when water seeps up from the ground, so that many buildings must be sporadically raised and bolstered by the insertion of rocks at their base. These days, most of what looks like adobe is actually painted cement or concrete, but even this looks attractive enough in its own semi-kitsch way, and hunting out such superb old adobes as the remote Sanctuario de Chimayo on the "High Route" between Taos and Santa Fe, the formidable church of San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos, or the multi-tiered dwellings of Taos Pueblo, can provide the focus of an enjoyable New Mexico tour.
You'll also become familiar with another New Mexico trademark, the bright-red rastras, or strings of dried chilli peppers, that adorn doorways throughout the state, and festooned on restaurant entrances serve as warnings of the f iery delights that await you within.