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Santa Fe

Santa Fe is where the splendor of diverse cultures really shines, and it does so in a setting that's unsurpassed. There's a magic in Santa Fe that's difficult to explain, but you'll sense it when you glimpse an old adobe building set against blue mountains and giant billowing thunderheads, or when you hear a ranchero song come from a low-rider's radio and you smell chicken and chile grilling at a roadside vending booth. Although it's quickening, the pace of life here is still a few steps slower than that in the rest of the country. We use the word mañana to describe the pace -- which doesn't mean "tomorrow" exactly, it just means "not today." There's also a level of creativity here that you'll find in few other places in the world. Artists who have fled big-city jobs are here to follow their passions, as are locals who grew up making crafts and continue to do so. Conversations often center on how to structure one's day so as to take advantage of the incredible outdoors while still making enough money to survive.

Meanwhile, Santa Fe's precipitous growth and enduring popularity with tourists have been a source of conflict and squabbling. Outsiders have bought up land in the hills around the city, building housing developments and sprawling single-family homes. The hills that local populations claimed for centuries as their own are being overrun, while property taxes for all have skyrocketed. Local outcry has prompted the city to implement zoning restrictions on where and how development can proceed. Some of the restrictions include banning building on ridge tops and on steep slopes and limiting the size of homes built.

Only in recent years have Santa Fe's politicians become conscientious about the city's growth. Mayor Debbie Jaramillo was one of the first local politicians to take a strong stand against growth. A fiery native of Santa Fe, she came into office in the 1990s as a representative of la gente (the people) and set about discouraging tourism and rapid development. Subsequent mayors have taken a middle-of-the-road approach to the issue, which has resulted in a calmer community and an increase in tourism and development.

Taos

A funky town in the middle of a beautiful, sage-covered valley, Taos is full of narrow streets dotted with galleries and artisan shops. You might find an artist's studio tucked into a century-old church or a furniture maker working at the back of his own small shop.

More than any other major northern New Mexico community, Taos has successfully opposed much of the heavy development slated for the area. In the 1980s, locals stalled indefinitely plans to expand their airport; in the 1990s, they blocked plans for a $40-million golf course and housing development; and in 2003, they prevented a Super Wal-Mart from opening. It's hard to say where Taos gets its rebellious strength; the roots may lie in the hippie community that settled here in the '60s, or possibly the Pueblo community around which the city formed. After all, Taos Pueblo was at the center of the 17th-century Pueblo revolt.

Still, changes are upon Taoseños. The blinking light that for years residents used as a reference point has given way to a real traffic light. You'll also see the main route through town becoming more and more like Cerrillos Road in Santa Fe, as fast-food restaurants and service businesses set up shop. Though the town is working on alternate routes to channel through-traffic around downtown, there's no feasible way of widening the main drag because the street -- which started out as a wagon trail -- is bordered closely by historic buildings.

Albuquerque

The largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque has borne the brunt of the state's most massive growth. Currently, the city sprawls more than 20 miles, from the lava-crested mesas on the west side of the Rio Grande to the steep alluvial slopes of the Sandia Mountains on the east, and north and south through the Rio Grande Valley. New subdivisions sprout up constantly.

Despite the growth, this town is most prized by New Mexicans for its genuineness. You'll find none of the self-conscious artsy atmosphere of Santa Fe here. Instead, there's a traditional New Mexico feel that's evident when you spend some time in the heart of the city. It centers around downtown, a place of shiny skyscrapers built around the original Route 66, which still maintains some of its 1950s charm.

The most emblematic growth problem concerns the Petroglyph National Monument on the west side. The area is characterized by five extinct volcanoes. Adjacent lava flows became a hunting and gathering place for prehistoric Native Americans, who left a chronicle of their beliefs etched in the dark basalt boulders. Over 25,000 petroglyphs have been found in the preserve. Now, a highway is being constructed through the center of the monument. Opponents fought it for more than a decade, with Native American groups likening the highway to building a road through a church.

Northern New Mexico's extreme popularity as a tourist destination has leveled out in the 21st century. Though many artists and other businesspeople lament the loss of the crowds we had back in the '80s, most people are glad that the wave has subsided. It's good news for travelers, too; they no longer have to compete so heavily for restaurant seats or space when hiking through ruins. Though parts of northern New Mexico have lost some of the unique charm that attracted so many to the area, the overall feeling is still one of mystery and a cultural depth unmatched in the world.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.