When people think of the United States, ancient ruins are typically not the first thing that comes to mind. New Mexicans are accustomed to ancient ruins and petroglyphs in their backyard. Many no longer marvel at their splendor.
Overlooking the historical and natural treasures of New Mexico is a mistake. Doing so detracts from the overall experience of living here or visiting. There are impressive ruins as old as the Egyptian Pyramids tucked into cliffs of remote canyons throughout the Southwest. These long abandoned settlements are a testament to vibrant cultures that flourished in this area long before the conquistadors arrived. Ruins aren’t the only evidence of the Ancestral Puebloan’s legacy. Taos Pueblo has been inhabited longer than any other village, though Acoma Pueblo claims a similar distinction.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
New Mexico should be on every traveler’s radar, because we are an affordable destination compared to most of the United States. The variety of activities and diversity of terrain is extraordinary for anyone who loves culture, history or nature. The number of UNESCO World Heritage sites is a testament New Mexico’s natural and historical bounty. There are twenty-three UNESCO sites in the U.S. Three of them are in New Mexico; Taos Pueblo, Chaco Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. The governing body of UNESCO considered White Sands, but the U.S. Air Force is proprietary about that area. As far as the military is concerned, the air space over White Sands is protected from the ground to infinity. Besides, New Mexico doesn’t need a 4th site. We already have more than anyone else.
UNESCO sites are selected based on a list of cultural or natural criteria. Of the 1031 sites in the world, 802 are cultural, 197 are natural, and 32 have mixed designation. These sites tend to be on every traveler’s bucket list. Sites in the U.S. include Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, Yellowstone, and the Statue of Liberty.
Significance of World Heritage sites?
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, chooses sites based on “being of special cultural or physical significance to humanity.” Their goal is to conserve sites deemed culturally or naturally significant to our shared heritage. Each World Heritage Site remains under the jurisdiction of the nation where it is located. However, UNESCO considers it in the interest of the international community to preserve them, including funding preservation or restoration.
Taos Pueblo (Cultural)
Criteria IV – “Is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural, or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history”
“Taos Pueblo is a remarkable example of a traditional type of architectural ensemble from the pre-Hispanic period of the Americas unique to this region and one that has successfully retained most of its traditional forms up to the present day.”
Taos Pueblo is one of many settlements established near the Rio Grande and its tributaries during the 13th and 14th century. It has been continuously occupied for over one thousand years and is the largest of the remaining Rio Grande Pueblos. Taos Pueblo is an extraordinary place. It is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also a National Historic Landmark. Members of Taos Pueblo have occupied the beautiful terraced adobe structures for over a 1,000 years. There are similarities to Ancestral Puebloan settlements preserved in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, but Taos has unique cultural traditions that are distinct from the Mesoamerican influence.
Archaeologists confirmed that ancestors of Taos Pueblo’s current inhabitants lived in this valley before Columbus discovered America, centuries before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. Essentially archaeologists confirmed what the inhabitants of Taos already knew.
Roaming Taos Pueblo is like stepping back in time. The view is similar to what the Spanish conquistadors saw when they arrived in northern New Mexico in 1540. There are ruins in the Taos Valley that are over one thousand years old. Within the existing pueblo, the ancestors of today’s families constructed the main part of the structures between 1000 and 1450 AD. The community has always had a comprehensive unwritten preservation strategy that respects traditional materials and techniques. These practices have protected the Pueblo’s structures for centuries.
The Pueblo was built with adobe bricks. Villagers made the bricks with dirt, water and straw. They poured the mixture into forms or made and baked them into sun-dried bricks. The walls are commonly several feet thick, which keeps the home cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The roofs of each of the five stories are supported by large, timber vigas. Smaller slats of wood, usually pine or aspen latillas, are placed side-by-side on top of the vigas. Villagers cover the roof with packed dirt.
The outside surfaces require re-plastering with layers of mud to cover the cracks that occur during the summer. Residents coat interior walls with thin washes of white earth to keep them clean and bright. There is no electricity or running water in the village.
The community is divided between two houses, the Hlauuma (north house) and Hlaukwima (south house). Each house encompasses many individual residences, with the homes built side-by-side in several layers. Think of it as the ancient world’s apartment complexes. Each unit has an outdoor oven and many have more contemporary indoor fireplaces. Taos gets cold during the winter. Originally the homes had no doors or windows. Ladders provided access through the roof. When the village was attacked, residents would pull up their ladders and barricade themselves in their homes. Fortunately, the village had a much taller exterior wall for defense at that time. The wall has since deteriorated.
Taos Pueblo Tourism Office
Monday – Saturday 8:00AM – 4:30PM
Sunday – 8:30AM – 4:30PM
Taos Pueblo is closed annually in early spring/late winter.
Adults: $16 per person
Groups (8 or more Adults): $14 per person
Students: $14 per person
Children 10 and under: Free
- Jan. 1, Turtle Dance
- Jan. 6, Deer or Buffalo Dance
- Feb – Mar (approx.), Spring Closure
- May 3, Santa Cruz Feast Day, Foot Races
- June 13, San Antonio Feast Day, Corn Dance
- June 24, San Juan Day, Corn Dance
- Second weekend of July, Annual Taos Pueblo Pow Wow
- July 25, Santiago Day, Corn Dance
- July 26, Santa Ana Day, Corn Dance
- Last week of August, Closed
- Sept. 29, San Geronimo Eve Vespers
- Sept. 30, San Geronimo Day Feast Day
- Dec. 24, Procession of the Blessed Mother
- Dec. 25, Deer or Matachines Dance
(All dates are approximate; check TaosPueblo.com for current information.)
- Photography is allowed. Rules and regulations apply
- All photos are for personal use only
- Commercial, documentary, educational, and/or artist renderings must have prior approval, additional fees apply, inquire with tourism office
- No photography in San Geronimo Chapel
- Obtain individual permission to photograph tribal members
- No photography on feast days
- Respect the “restricted area” signs as they protect the privacy of residents and sites of native religious practices.
- Visitors should not enter buildings that are not clearly marked as curio shops. People live in the homes and they are not part of a museum display.
- Do not enter the walls surrounding the ruins of the old church or the cemetery.
Chaco Canyon (Cultural)
Criteria III – “To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared”
“The Chaco Canyon sites graphically illustrate the architectural and engineering achievements of the Chacoan people, who overcame the harshness of the environment of the southwestern United States to found a culture that dominated the area for more than four centuries.”
For over 2,000 years, Pueblo people have occupied the southwestern United States. The Ancestral Puebloans were the regional superpower between 850 to 1250 AD. The ruins of their cities and villages can be found all over the southwest. Mesa Verde, another UNESCO site, was the largest of the Ancestral Puebloan villages in the north, on the northern boundary of Chacoan influence. Pueblo Bonito and the many great houses lining miles of the canyon in New Mexico were the epicenter.
Chaco was the Capital, a hub for ceremonies, trade, and political activity for early inhabitants of the Four Corners area. Chacoan artistic traditions and architectural accomplishments were distinct and unique. The monumental public and ceremonial structures seen at Chaco include an ancient ceremonial complex unlike anything constructed before or since.
Peripheral settlements, called outliers, extended hundreds of miles beyond the canyon. The area protected under the auspices of UNESCO include Chaco Canyon, the Aztec Ruins, and several other small Chacoan sites managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The inhabitants of Chaco are often referred to as the Anasazi. “Anasazi” is a Navajo word meaning “Ancient Enemy.” The local preference is Pre-Puebloan or Ancestral Puebloan, though the Navajo may have had reasons for coming up with that word. Archaeologists have found evidence of cannibalism during Chaco’s waning years. Considering that the Navajo migrated into their territory, there may have been conflict between them. The Navajo may have been lunch. Just a hypothesis, but it would certainly explain the ambivalence reflected in the Navajo’s opinion of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Regardless, Chaco Canyon was the primary hub of an ancient civilization, with 400 miles of road facilitating turquoise trades routes in the region. The roads, some of them 30 feet wide, were an engineering marvel. The Puebloans built them in perfectly straight lines across deserts and canyons, without the benefit of compasses, carriages, or beasts of burden. Furthermore, the number of storage facilities attest to robust trade activity.
Art & Engineering
Ancestral Puebloan engineering skill is evident in their construction enterprises. They built more than 100 Great Houses beyond the canyon, dispersing settlements across 50,000 square miles. Pueblo Bonito, built in the 10th-century, was five stories tall with about 800 rooms. They built a 130-foot long ramp on Fajada Butte. Don’t know why, but they incorporated sophisticated astronomical observatories into their architectural design and the sun dagger petroglyph is on Fajada Butte. Maybe the two things are related. Another random hypothesis.
The highly organized large-scale structures illustrate the increasing complexity of Chacoan social structure, which dominated the area for more than four centuries. The number of storage areas indicate the Chacoans were pivotal trading partners and the size and unusual features of the ceremonial kivas suggest that religious ceremony was significant in their lives.
The Ancestral Puebloans produced great works of art, villages such as Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace, hallucinatory petroglyph panels, and some of the most beautiful pottery in the world. However, the people were capable of cruelty and violence. Archaeologists have found evidence of cannibalism and frequent warfare during Chaco’s decline. Inhabitants of the canyon migrated in small, family groups over the course of many years. They established hamlets on all of the major and minor waterways.Their descendants still occupy pueblos on the Rio Grande. Their influence extends west to Zuni and Hopi pueblos.
7:00 AM – Sunset
The park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Dogs are allowed.
Per Vehicle: $12.00
This permit allows all persons traveling in one private, non-commercial vehicle (car/truck/van) to enter the park. Good for 7 days.
Per Person: $6.00
This permit is intended for a single individual traveling on foot, bicycle. Good for 7 days .
This permit allows one motorcycle to enter the park. Good for 7 days.
Carlsbad Caverns (Natural)
Criteria III – “To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance”
“Carlsbad and Lechuguilla are well known for the abundance, diversity, and beauty of their decorative rock formations. Lechuguilla Cave exhibits rare and unique speleothems, including a great abundance of large calcite and gypsum formations, including the largest accumulation of gypsum “chandeliers,” some of which extend more than six meters (18 feet) in length.”
Carlsbad Caverns National Park encompasses more than 119 caves near the Guadalupe Mountains, in southern New Mexico. The permian-aged caves formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone. The process created extraordinary caverns of all sizes, with an endless array of amazing rock formations.
Carlsbad Caverns is one of over 300 limestone caves in the Capitan Reef, a fossil reef created by an inland sea 250 to 280 million years ago. The reef is one of the best preserved, and most accessible, cave complexes in the world. Researchers study the reef’s interior using the network of caves to penetrate deep into the earth’s crust.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one of the few places where on-going geologic processes are apparent. The amazing rock formations, known as speleothems in geology circles, grow with each drop of liquid that falls. This allows scientists to observe geological processes in a virtually undisturbed, real-time environment.
Despite a century of explorations, researchers still haven’t fully explore the cave system. In fact, scientists discovered a new cave in 2012. UNESCO specifically cited Lechuguilla for “providing an underground laboratory where geological and biological processes can be studied in a pristine setting.”
8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Natural Entrance opens at 8:30 am. Hikers need to enter the natural entrance by 3:30 pm, but that doesn’t leave time to see much. I recommend starting the hike by 1:00 pm at the latest to allow time to see the Big Room. It closes at 3:30 pm. If you are hiking out rather than taking the elevation, start by 3:15 pm.
- Adults (16 and older): $10 per person
- Admission good for up to 3 days from the date of purchase.
- Children (15 and under): Free
America the Beautiful pass admits cardholder and three adults (where a per person fee is charged. This applies to the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass, Annual Pass, Senior Pass, Access Pass, Military Pass or Volunteer Pass.
Free self-guided tours of on the following holidays:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- National Park Week Weekends
- Presidents Day
- National Park Service Birthday
- National Public Lands Day
- Veterans Day Weekend
Ranger-guided tours require an additional fee.