Although it’s just a few miles from San Gabriel, the first town established by Don Juan de Oñate in 1598, Española itself is a relatively modern city of about 10,000 people, founded in the 1880s as a stop on the Chili Line, the railway between Denver and Santa Fe.
It’s still a crossroads: Take Highway 68 (called Riverside Drive in town) north from here to Taos, or continue on U.S. 84 to Abiquiu or U.S. 285 to Ojo Caliente. Highway 76 leads east to Chimayó and then to Truchas and the other high-road towns on the way to Taos. Highway 30 is the back road to Los Alamos.
Superficially, the place is not enticing—fast-food joints line the main highway, and Wal-Mart seems to be the biggest social scene in town.
One token museum, Bond House (706 Bond St., 505/747-8535, noon–5 p.m. daily, free), tries to scrape up some historic pride, but really, Española is all about the food: Come here for authentic northern New Mexican cuisine, never watered down for interlopers’ tastes.
Española is also the state’s unofficial lowrider capital—keep your eyes out for cruisers in, say, the Wal-Mart parking lot, or at the Saints and Sinners package liquor store (its neon sign should also get landmark status) on U.S. 84/285 at the south end of town.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition