Exotic adventure awaits you in New Mexico's "Indian Country." At Acoma, you may peek through a hole in the wall of an ancient cemetery on a mesa hundreds of feet above the ground. It's there so that the spirits of some children who were taken from the pueblo can return. In Grants (pop. 9,043), a former uranium-mining boomtown, travel deep into a mine. In Gallup (pop. 20,000), self-proclaimed "Indian capital of the world" and a mecca for silver jewelry shoppers, you can cruise along Route 66 and pick up some authentic "pawn." In Farmington (pop. 42,000), center of the fertile San Juan valley and gateway to the Four Corners region, you might sleep in a cave. And in Chama (pop. 1,250), ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad -- the longest and highest narrow-gauge steam railroad in the country.
Each is an adventure in its own right, but what really makes them special is the people you'll encounter along the way. The biggest presence here is the Native American culture, old and new. Each time I travel to this area, I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of Pueblos, Navajos, and Apaches who inhabit it. Truly, they are the majority, and they set the pace and tone of the place. The Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna pueblos are each within a short distance of I-40. Acoma's "Sky City" has been continually occupied for more than 9 centuries. A huge chunk of the northwest is taken up by a part of the Navajo Reservation, the largest in America; and the Jicarilla Apache Reservation stretches 65 miles south from the Colorado border. All share their arts and crafts as well as their distinctive cultures with visitors, but they ask that their personal privacy and religious traditions be respected.
The past lives here, too. The Pueblo people believe that their ancestors' spirits still inhabit the ruins. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, with 12 major ruins and hundreds of smaller ones, represents the development of ancient Puebloan civilization, which reached its peak in the 11th century. Aztec Ruins National Monument and the nearby Salmon Ruins are similarly spectacular Pueblo preservations.
Two other national monuments in northwestern New Mexico also speak of the region's history. El Morro is a sandstone monolith known as Inscription Rock, where travelers and explorers documented their journeys for centuries; El Malpais is a volcanic badland with spectacular cinder cones, ice caves, and lava tubes.