It doesn’t have the foot traffic of Santa Fe, but that only partly explains the appeal of the arty New Mexico town

Taos isn’t just a smaller Santa Fe. It remains a stronghold along the margin of the high plains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, with whitewater rafting—drought permitting—in the Rio Grande Gorge outside town and trails to mountain lakes in the shadow of 13,065-foot Wheeler Peak, New Mexico’s highest point. Its cultural scene isn’t as extensive but may be a little purer. Santa Fe certainly doesn’t have anything that can compare with the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, the writer and arts patron’s adobe compound, which in the 1920s drew the likes of Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence, and Georgia O’Keeffe. They were among the visionaries who ventured to Taos, seeking inspiration along the exotic frontier of an untamed New Mexico. The latilla ceilings in the dining room are painted like an Indian blanket in reds and blacks, and the 200-year-old wood gates still stand, originally part of the balcony at San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, the 18th-century Rancho de Taos landmark that Adams photographed—from behind—and transformed into a modernist masterpiece. You can see windows that Lawrence painted during his time here and stay in simple rooms where O’Keeffe and Willa Cather slept, long before Dennis Hopper bought the property during his Easy Rider days and dubbed it “the Mud Palace.” Taos has no doubt changed more than the Luhan House, but it hasn’t lost a connection to the ancient, evident as the sounds of drumming and chanting from the pueblo reach town in the middle of the night, and dreams and the mystical become one.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge
Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Photo by Education Images/Getty Images

Where to stay
The five adobe casitas at Casa Gallina ($165-$375) spread out a few minutes from the plaza. Vividly painted and decorated with handmade furnishings, they have kiva fireplaces and kitchens with organic foods, including eggs from the inn’s own brood.

Where to eat
While the interior of folk art and rainbow-hued paint has its appeal, the patio is the place to be at Orlando’s New Mexican Café, where you not only face the Land of Enchantment’s eternally vexing question of red or green chile but you can opt for the hot and smoky caribe pepper. The Los Colores blue corn enchiladas feature all three. After dinner, let the vintage neon thunderbird sign at the Taos Inn guide you to the Adobe Bar, where ponderosa pine posts rise to a viga ceiling and a mix of Taoseños and turistas gathers for live music along with premium mescals and tequilas.