Archeological records show that humans have inhabited the American southwest for at least 11,000 years. The earliest inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who lived in pit houses dug in the ground and were at least partially nomadic. Between 700 and 900 A.D., people began to build stone rectangular structures either against cliffs or free-standing. These pueblos became permanent dwellings and ceremonial spaces that flourished for hundreds of years. When the Spanish explorers arrived around 1600, many of these communities had been abandoned, but others were thriving. Today there are 21 federally recognized pueblos in the southwest, mostly in New Mexico, and some of the descendants of the ancestral puebloans still live in the original structures.
Northern New Mexico has an abundance of ancestral puebloan ruins and contains 19 of the modern pueblo communities. An ideal immersion into the history of Puebloan culture includes exploring the ruins of now-abandoned dwellings as well as visits to active pueblos that allow visitors. Many of the best puebloan sites can be visited from three hub cities: Albuquerque, Farmington and Santa Fe. Two days in each will give any visitor a good introduction to key Puebloan sites.
Albuquerque is a great place to begin exploring with the excellent Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. After getting some background at the museum, nearby sites include the Coronado State Historical Site, Petroglyph National Monument and the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. A bit longer drive will take in the Acoma Pueblo, a living community that claims to be the longest continuously-inhabited community in North America. Guided tours are the only way to visit this site. A good place to camp near Albuquerque is the Coronado Campground just north of the city.
The most important and impressive park for Puebloan history is Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The park is a challenging 2-hour, 30-minute drive each way from Albuquerque, and the park itself can easily consume a day to see it’s key sites. It is possible to visit Chaco as a day trip from Albuquerque, but better options would be to camp at the park’s Gallo Campground for a night or to spend a night in Farmington and visit the excellent, but small, Aztec Ruins National Monument before visiting Chaco. However it is done, Chaco Canyon is a must for anyone interested in Puebloan culture and history. Chaco contains sites like Pueblo Bonito, Hungo Pavi, Una Vida, Pueblo Alto and Chetro Ketl that are as fine as any in the southwest.
Finally, Santa Fe makes an excellent destination for further exploring Puebloan sites like Bandelier National Monument, Pecos National Monument and the living community of Taos Pueblo. Santa Fe is an easy drive from Albuquerque, but it is worth spending a few days here, either staying in town or camping at the nearby Black Canyon Forest Service campground.
The pueblo country of northern New Mexico spans 200 miles from Farmington to Taos, and it is a daunting task to thoroughly explore the richness of ancient and modern puebloan history and culture in a short trip. The rewards, however, are immense: scenic beauty, an evocative history, and an appreciation for the ability of resourceful people to thrive in a hostile land over hundreds of years.
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