UFOs, atomic bombs, and cultural diversity are a few things we instantly associate with New Mexico, but what is New Mexico famous for besides these?
Located in the Mountain West, New Mexico is a landlocked state bordering Arizona to the west, Colorado to the north, Texas to the east and southeast, Oklahoma to the northeast, and Mexico to the south. It also touches Utah in the four corners. New Mexico is one of the biggest states in the Union (5th), but with only 2 million people, it has a very low population density.
With a diverse climate and geography, New Mexico ranges from high mountain peaks in the north to sparse deserts in the south. It really is a stunning destination with one of the longest histories in the USA. With 3 UNESCO heritage sites, It is easy to understand why New Mexico was officially nicknamed “the land of enchantment.”
But for now, let’s explore what is New Mexico famous for!
10 Things New Mexico is famous for
Not being Mexico
New Mexico is not Mexico, but they do share similar roots and name origins.
New Mexico was established long before Mexico existed. In 1598 the lands of upper Rio Grande became part of the Kingdom of Spain as part of the American viceroyalty of New Spain. The settlers and explorers of this new land decided to name it Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico) after the Aztec Valley of Mexico, south of the Rio Grande.
Thus, New Mexico was established and named 223 years before Mexico was named and gained independence from Spain in 1821. New Mexico territory became part of the USA after the Mexican–American War in 1848 but only gained the state statute in 1912.
The cultural diversity of New Mexico is one of its most marking characteristics. The indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, and American influences are too evident in New Mexico.
New Mexico is one of the majority-minority states, which means that the sum of all minorities comprises more than 50% of the New Mexico population.
Moreover, it is the state with the highest Hispanic and Latino percentage (46%), but it also has the second-highest percentage (9.4%) of Native Americans (only after Alaska). Even in the language, we can see the heterogeneity of the state, as 34% of the households in New Mexico don’t speak English as their primary language at home.
Due to its history, New Mexico is a unique convergence of Native American, Mexican and European heritage, which is one of the many reasons it is the land of enchantment.
This cultural richness is evident in its architecture, cuisine, music, etc. Even the New Mexican flag combines Spain’s colors (gold and burgundy) and the sacred ancient Zia sun symbol.
Native American heritage
The land where today lies New Mexico has been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years, with the first permanent settlers dating back to 1500 ago.
These are known as pueblos, and some of them are the oldest continuously inhabited towns in America in New Mexico. When European explorers arrived, the Pueblo, Apache, Comanche, Navajo, and Ute peoples were in New Mexico.
Today there are 23 native American tribes in New Mexico, comprised of 19 pueblos, 3 Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian tribe in America, spreading to Arizona and Utah. More than 60 000 Navajos live in New Mexico. Each tribe has its own government, lifeways, traditions, and culture. Many of the pueblos are very small, with less than 2000 people living there.
There are sites across new Mexico dedicated to preserving and educating visitors on the history and culture of each tribe. It is essential to notice that each tribe is very different, with its own identity, social norms, and culture.
Besides the well-known Navajo Nation and the Apache tribes, we need to mention the Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo as they are the oldest settlements in New Mexico and some of the oldest in the USA. Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the most famous landmarks in New Mexico, but they are both fascinating sites to visit.
The reminders of Native American occupation are visible throughout the state – cliff dwellings, pit houses, kivas (underground ceremonial chambers), abandoned cities, ancient trade routes, and symbols etched in rock.
Old Wild West
When Spanish settlers arrived in New Mexico, a new culture emerged, the cowboy culture and the wild west. The discovery of silver and gold in the 19th century brought pioneers, miners, cowboys, and outlaws to New Mexico. There was little law enforcement then, so buffalo hunters, drifters, soldiers, railroad workers, and outlaws fought and shot each other constantly.
It’s no big surprise that Billy the kid is one of the most famous personalities of New Mexico and the wild west of that period. Even today, there are tours to visit some of the most famous places in the life and death of Billy, the kid.
In many ways, New Mexico is similar to the other Southwest states (Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and even California), sharing the old west culture with them. The typical images of cowboys, Outlaws, Sheriffs, clashes between pioneers and Native Americans, and the vastness of the land we have in our collective vision of the wild west could easily be in New Mexico.
Even today, cowboy culture is still very much alive. The state has more than 13 000 ranches that cover about 60% of the land. Cowboy boots, a blazer, a cowboy hat, and a bolo tie are usual attire; sometimes, they are more than a fashion statement. Despite changing (a lot), it is not as unruly, but New Mexico still has that new frontier soul.
One of the best ways of enjoying this cowboy culture is going to New Mexico’s state fair. It’s one of the largest in the country, and you’ll find everything you imagine and expect: horse barrel racing, bull riding, livestock competitions, rodeos, and exhibits.
There are also shows where you can enjoy mounted shooting competitions, historical re-enactments, cowboy poetry, a gunfighter town, stagecoach and buggy rides, a chuck wagon and encampment, and so on.
Who hasn’t heard about Roswell? The alien town in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert in New Mexico. It constantly appears on tv series, movies, and other shows. It’s frequently mentioned as a reference to anything extraterrestrial and plenty of conspiracy theories. There’s even a science fiction drama series named after the city and where all the action happens in Roswell, New Mexico.
The incident brought Roswell to fame, though it happened in 1947, about 75 miles (121 km) from Roswell and closer to Corona. Officially, the incident was a recovery of air force balloon debris by the Roswell Army airfield. However, other theories claim that it resulted from an alleged UFO crash.
Initially, the army press release stated that they had recovered a “flying disc,” though they quickly retracted the statement saying it was a conventional balloon. This created a little controversy, but in the 1970s, one of the officers said in an interview that he believed that he had retrieved extraterrestrial debris.
From this moment, all kinds of theories appeared from Ufologists, particularly the claims that an alien spacecraft had crashed, and the occupants were recovered and taken to area 51 in Nevada.
Anyway, the truth is… still largely unknown, and the US government has changed its official story a few times. Aliens, the soviets, or anything else happened, but we won’t be 100% sure of what it was until it is unclassified as top secret. Even US presidents have talked about it. Obama said it “was disappointing,” while Trump said it “was interesting.”
From science fiction to science reality, New Mexico is well known for its close association with atomic development and bombs. One of the critical sites of the Manhattan Project was Los Alamos, New Mexico. Oppenheimer directed project Y in Los Alamos with Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Fermi.
Project Manhattan (because it started there) began slowly in 1939 but quickly grew to more than 130 000 people and cost nearly 2 Billion USD. The project was spread through several sites in the USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but it was in New Mexico that it took some of the most critical steps.
In 1943, project Y started, and the main goal was to go from theory to practice by developing and creating the first atomic bomb. Los Alamos, New Mexico, was chosen for its remoteness. Oppenheimer designed the bombs there, and problems with critical mass and the bomb’s construction were solved in about two years.
In July 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 200 miles south of Los Alamos. The test location is now part of the White Sands Missile Range and was declared a National Historic Landmark district in 1965. The first atomic bomb created the first mushroom cloud that went about 40 000 feet high and generated the equivalent of 15 000 to 20 000 tons of TNT.
Hot air balloons
What is New Mexico famous for? Hot air balloons. Every year, the skies of New Mexico are filled with colorful air balloons in a breathtaking show that has become New Mexico’s most significant tourist attraction.
With almost one million visitors per year and between 500 and 600 hot air balloons, the 9-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the world’s largest hot-air balloon festival. Even balloons are shaped like some well-known characters like Smokey the bear or Yoda.
The balloon fiesta showcased New Mexico culture and cuisine and included musical performances, cultural exhibitions, and food. With thousands of people and pictures taken, it is a significant source of income and notability for the city and the state.
Smaller hot air Balloon festivals in White Sands, Taos, Gallup, Elephant Butte, and Angel Fire join the huge Albuquerque balloon fiesta and make New Mexico the world capital of hot air ballooning.
Breaking Bad & Better Call Saul
If you are a Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul) fan, you were expecting this. The hit ABC series was set and filmed in Albuquerque.
Besides being a huge success, it also won 16 Emmy Awards and is often on best tv show lists. Usually very close to the top. Better Call Saul is a prequel to Breaking Bad and is equally successful and almost as popular.
Such significant Tv shows leave marks on the city and spectators. Breaking Bad filming locations have become tourist destinations, as people love to pass by Pinkman’s and Walter White’s houses or the restaurants where the characters go. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul became part of Albuquerque, and you’ll find gifts, souvenirs, tours, and merchandising of the series.
Thus, naturally, when you ask what is New Mexico famous for, many people immediately think of the shows, the desert landscapes, the mountains on the horizon, and the city of Albuquerque.
If series enthusiasts associate New Mexico with Breaking bad, foodies will say that chili peppers are the most famous things in New Mexico. New Mexico chilis are one of the state’s vegetables (together with frijoles pintos), and it is referenced in the state’s question “red or green.” There’s even a Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.
They have been cultivated to perfection for hundreds of years; even before the Spanish arrived, the Pueblo people had already cultivated them. New Mexico’s land and weather give New Mexico chili a unique flavor that today is appreciated globally as it is exported to Europe, Asia, and Australia.
In general, the green New Mexico chilis are lightly pungent and subtly sweet, crisp, spicy, and smoky. When they become ripped red, they tend to retain the flavor and add earthiness and bite. Aging tends to attenuate the front heat and deliver more back heat.
Nevertheless, the spiciness level depends entirely on the variety, which depends on the origins of the chiles. The most famous is the Hatch chile, which is grown in Hatch valley.
Pueblo Chili is the general expression for the plants cultivated by the indigenous pueblos; however, we need to note that each pueblo produces a slightly different chile. Some are sweeter, others fruity, and others mildly hot.
Fun Facts and New Mexico Records
Finally, New Mexico is usually appreciated for a series of records and fun facts. Let’s explore some of the most popular and entertaining:
- New Mexico territory was much larger than New Mexico state, and it played a crucial role in the American expansion to the west;
- New Mexico is one of the four corners states; the others are Colorado, Arizona, and Utah;
- From the top of Capulin Volcano, you can see five states: Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and, obviously, New Mexico.
- New Mexico is officially a bilingual state;
- Native Americans have been living in New Mexico for about 12 000 years;
- The New Mexico flag is one of the only ones that doesn’t have the color blue. The others are Alabama, California, and Maryland;
- The Taos building is over 900 years making it one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the world.
- At about 7 000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe is the highest state capital in the US;
- Santa Fe is also the oldest state capital in the Union. It predates ten years from the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth;
- New Mexico has the lowest water/land ratio in the union. Only .002% of New Mexico is water;
- White Sands National Monument is a desert but doesn’t have sand. It’s comprised of white gypsum crystals;
- 75% of the roads in New Mexico are unpaved;
- Hatch, NM is usually dubbed the chili capital of the world;
- Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, was born in Albuquerque;
- Apparently, it is against the law to dance around a Sombrero in New Mexico…?;
- New Mexico has far more sheep and cattle than people.