On rock faces throughout northern New Mexico, you'll find circular symbols carved in sandstone, the wavy mark of Avanu the river serpent, or the ubiquitous Kokopelli playing his magic flute. These petroglyphs are constant reminders of the enigmatic history of the ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), the Indians who inhabited this area from A.D. 1100 until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, around 1550.

The Spanish conquistadors, in their inimitable fashion, imposed a new, foreign order on the resident Native Americans and their land. As an inevitable component of conquest, they changed most Native American names -- today, you'll find a number of Native Americans with Hispanic names -- and renamed the villages "pueblos." The Spaniards' most far-reaching legacy, however, was the forceful conversion of Indian populations to Catholicism, a religion that many Indians still practice today. In each of the pueblos you'll see a large, often beautiful, Catholic church, usually made with sculpted adobe; during the holiday seasons, Pueblo people perform ritual dances outside their local Catholic churches. The churches, set against the ancient adobe dwellings, are symbolic of the melding of two cultures.

This mix of cultures is apparent in today's northern New Mexican cuisine. When the Spaniards came to the New World, they brought cows and sheep. They quickly learned to appreciate the indigenous foods here, most notably corn, beans, squash, and chiles, and also more rare foods such as the thin-layered blue piki bread, or chauquehue, a thick corn pudding similar to polenta.

Growing Pains

Northern New Mexico is experiencing a reconquest of sorts, as the Anglo population soars and outside money and values again make their way in. The process continues to transform New Mexico's three distinct cultures and their unique ways of life, albeit in a less violent manner than during the Spanish conquest.

Certainly, the Anglos -- many of them from large cities -- add a cosmopolitan flavor to life here. The variety of restaurants has greatly improved, as have entertainment options. For their small size, towns such as Taos and Santa Fe offer a broad variety of restaurants and cultural events. Santa Fe has developed a strong dance and drama scene, with treats such as flamenco and opera that you'd expect to find in New York or Los Angeles. And Albuquerque has an exciting nightlife scene downtown; you can walk from club to club and hear a wealth of jazz, rock, country, and alternative music.

Yet many newcomers, attracted by the adobe houses and exotic feel of the place, often bring only a loose appreciation for the area. Some tend to romanticize the lifestyle of the other cultures and trivialize their beliefs. Native American symbology, for example, is employed in ever-popular Southwestern decorative motifs; New Age groups appropriate valued rituals, such as sweats (in which believers sit encamped in a very hot, enclosed space to cleanse their spirits). The effects of cultural and economic change are even apparent throughout the countryside, where land is being developed at an alarming rate.

Transformation of the local way of life and landscape is also apparent in the stores continually springing up in the area. For some of us, these are a welcome relief from Western clothing stores and provincial dress shops. The downside is that city plazas, which once contained pharmacies and grocery stores frequented by residents, are now crowded with T-shirt shops and galleries appealing to tourists. Many locals in these cities now rarely visit their plazas except during special events such as fiestas.

Environmental threats are another regional reality. Nuclear-waste issues form part of an ongoing conflict affecting the entire Southwest, and a section of southern New Mexico has been designated a nuclear-waste site. Because much of the waste must pass through Santa Fe, the U.S. government, along with the New Mexico state government, constructed a bypass that directs some transit traffic around the west side of the city.

Still, new ways of thinking have also brought positive changes to the life here, and many locals have directly benefited from New Mexico's influx of wealthy newcomers and popularity as a tourist destination. Businesses and industries large and small have come to the area. In Albuquerque, Intel Corporation now employs approximately 3,300 workers, and in Santa Fe, the nationally renowned Outside magazine publishes monthly. Local artists and artisans also benefit from growth. Many craftspeople -- furniture makers, tin workers, and weavers -- have expanded their businesses. The influx of people has broadened the sensibility of a fairly provincial state. The area has become a refuge for many gays and lesbians, as well as for political exiles, such as Tibetans. With them has developed a level of creativity and tolerance you would generally find only in very large cities.

Cultural Questions

Faced with new challenges to their ways of life, both Native Americans and Hispanics are marshaling forces to protect their cultural identities. A prime concern is language. Through the years, many Pueblo people have begun to speak more and more English, with their children getting little exposure to their native tongue. In a number of the pueblos, elders are working with school children in language classes. Some of the pueblos have even developed written dictionaries, the first time their languages have been presented in this form.

Many pueblos have introduced programs to conserve the environment, preserve ancient seed strains, and protect religious rites. Because their religion is tied closely to nature, a loss of natural resources would threaten the entire culture. Certain rituals have been closed off to outsiders, the most notable being some of the rituals of Shalako at Zuni, a popular and elaborate series of year-end ceremonies.

Hispanics, through art and observance of cultural traditions, are also embracing their roots. In northern New Mexico, murals depicting important historic events, such as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, adorn many walls. The Spanish Market in Santa Fe has expanded into a grand celebration of traditional arts -- from tin working to santo (icon) carving. Public schools in the area have bilingual education programs, allowing students to embrace their Spanish-speaking roots.

Hispanics are also making their voices heard, insisting on more conscientious development of their neighborhoods and rising to positions of power in government. When she was in office, former Santa Fe Mayor Debbie Jaramillo made national news as an advocate of the Hispanic people, and Congressman Bill Richardson, Hispanic despite his Anglo surname, was appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and then left that post to become energy secretary in President Clinton's cabinet. Currently, he is governor of New Mexico.

Gambling Wins & Losses

Gambling, a fact of life and source of much-needed revenue for Native American populations across the country, has been a center of controversy in northern New Mexico for a number of years. In 1994, Governor Gary Johnson signed a pact with tribes in New Mexico, ratified by the U.S. Department of the Interior, to allow full-scale gambling. Tesuque Pueblo was one of the first to begin a massive expansion, and many other pueblos followed suit.

Many New Mexicans are concerned about the tone gambling sets in the state. The casinos are for the most part large, neon-bedecked buildings that stand out sorely on some of New Mexico's most picturesque land. Though most residents appreciate the boost that gambling can ultimately bring to the Native American economies, many critics wonder where gambling profits actually go -- and if the casinos can possibly be a good thing for the pueblos and tribes. Some detractors suspect that profits go directly into the pockets of outside backers.

A number of pueblos and tribes, however, are showing signs of prosperity, and they are using newfound revenues to buy firefighting and medical equipment and to invest in local schools. Isleta Pueblo built a $3.5-million youth center, and the lieutenant governor says the money for it came from gambling revenues. Sandia Pueblo built a $2-million medical and dental clinic and, most recently, provided a computer for every tribal home. Its governor said these projects were "totally funded by gaming revenues." Some of the pueblos have built hotels on their property, most notable of them the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort at Santa Ana.

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.