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The Jewel of Taos County: A Tour of Arroyo Seco
The hamlet of Arroyo Seco, located just 9 miles from the Taos Ski Valley and just 7 miles north of Taos, celebrated its bicentennial in 2006, and has exploded in popularity since. Situated at an elevation of 7,634 feet just below Lucero peak, the village has grown into a bedroom community of personal and artist retreats, whose fame reaches a crescendo during the annual Fourth of July parade, and drawing tourists from all over.
Geologically “Seco,” as the locals call it, like Taos, sits in an area that virtually defines plate tectonics – balanced on the edge of the active faultline that separates the San Luis basin of the Rio Grande rift zone - a low area created by the division of the continental plates - and the mountains to the East, which were formed sometime between 2.5 million to just 12,000 years ago. Seco is located in what is called the Transition Life Zone, which receives 16 to 20 inches of precipitation per year. Plants found in the area include aspen, cottonwood, red willows, Gambel’s oak, western chokecherry, wild roses, apples, plums, cherries, and abundant wildflowers throughout the year. Because of the many medicinal herbs and plants that grow nearby, Seco is known for its rich wildcrafting.
Archaeological evidence suggests some precedence for prehistoric settlement, with recent finds dating from approximately 800AD. However, the formal history of the area began when the land that is now home to Arroyo Seco was deeded in 1716 to General Lucero de Godoy by the Viceroy of Mexico. Godoy never settled the land. It was not until 1804, when two brothers - Cristóbal and José Gregorio Martínez, began to use the land for agriculture that Seco was settled in any tangible way. Two years later, in 1806, once the crops were established, the brothers began construction on their homes. Then, in 1815, a new batch of landless Hispanic settlers arrived, pushed from Don Fernando de Taos.
The original community was established just below El Salto Mountain, a sacred mountain named for the seven cascading waterfalls that flow most during the spring melt and create amazing stalagtites in winter. Locals revere the flow of the mountain falls, calling it a form of natural land baptism. It was the scarlet light of the setting sun reflecting off this peak that caused Spanish settlers to designate the neighboring mountain range the Sangre de Cristos, or ‘the blood of Christ.’
The name Arroyo Seco, or ‘dry creek’, was the nickname of a small seasonal stream off El Salto actually called el Arroyo de la Luvia – or ‘run-off stream.’ The stream, along with the Rio Lucero, were the sources of water the first settlers used for their crops. Historians have suggested that sometime after settlement, the people of Seco were unable to pay their taxes for the land they were using. The government would have none of that, and took the land and gave it to Taos Pueblo. This spurred the move of the village to its new location, next to The Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Three torreons, or towers, remain at old site of settlement, where families would spot for and take refuge during Indian raiding parties. It was at these towers that the story of Seco’s La Santissima Trinidad church begins. See page….
The village of Arroyo Seco was primarily a Hispanic-settled agricultural area - with a placita, a church, a few stores and a post office… until Taos Ski Valley opened in 1955. The movement from mining to tourism brought new opportunities, and the question quickly became how to get the tourists to stop by the village (and spend their money) on the way to TSV. As a result, forward-thinking Seco has exploded with vitality, and is now host to some of the finest Taos-area galleries, eateries, and places to stay. Certainly, it is one of, if not the, loveliest place to visit in the area - with its abundant painting and sculpture, friendly locals, great shopping, and gardens planted to bursting.
Entering from the southwest, visitors have to slow down to make the curves that wind past Sabroso and into the village of Arroyo Seco. Boasting a truly unique bar with painted frescoes, and one of the great patios for outdoor dining in Taos, Sabroso offers fine dining & bistro fare - with seasonal specialties cooked on their wood-fired grill. Visit their website at www.sabrosotaos.com or call 575-776-3333.
A sharp turn to the north announces arrival at the village of Arroyo Seco. Immediately on the left, next to the famous Hondo-Seco Road is the home and grounds of The Abominable SnowMansion, the only Taos-area hostel, located in the former Gusdorf grocery. The uber-funky snowmansion offers dorm type accommodations as well as private rooms, tipis and cabins for an affordable lodging choice right in the heart of Seco and next door to the cool and funky Seco Pearl. Pick salad in the garden for $2.00 per person per day during the growing season. Visit their website at www.snowmansion.com or call 575-776-8298.
Just north of the Snowmansion on the Hondo-Seco Road is the Seco Pearl. Billing itself as a local’s tea house and boutique, “the Pearl” is a rare gem of a hangout for the young and the restless of Taos. With healthy food, coffees, funky art and clothing, and a flair for all that is cool… Taos’ punks and hippies find peace together in this oasis where artists and musicians gather round the outdoor patio and stage to fire-spin, strum some chords, and merge voices. Visit their website at www.secopearl.com or call 575-776-1225.
Across from the Pearl and just north of the restored two story Territorial structure that houses the Doug West Gallery and Rivers and Birds, a local nature and storytelling organization, is the incomparable Hiro Hobo sake bar and Japanese café. Technically an Izakaya (pub) style Japanese-Fusion Café, Hiro Hobo is the newest brainchild of one of Taos’ favorite restauranteurs, Sheila Guzman. Get there early or make reservations to enjoy this extremely charming eatery. It may be the unrivaled tapas-style offerings of seared duck sushi, sticky ribs, and fresh sushi rolls that draws them in… but it is the extraordinary hand-crafted sake-based concoctions by consummate mixologist Julie Lake and the green-chile cheeseburger that sets Hiro Hobo firmly apart from any would-be competition. Plan to spend some quality time here, this is not the place to grab a quick bite and go – each morsel should be savored. Visit their website www.hirohobo.com or call 575-776-0900
Returning back south to State Road 150, we discover the beautifully restored 120 year old Territorial style earth-colored adobe home of the Doug West Gallery - a contemporary art gallery representing oil paintings and silk-screened serigraphic landscape works by Doug West and Cynthia Eckhardt, mineral and ceramic sculpture, and elegant gold and silver jewelry accented with precious and semi-precious stones. Visit their website at dougwestgallery.com or call 575-776-0505.
Crossing to the south side of the road, Scott Carlson has decorated the parking area just next to the Rio Seco where Scott Carlson Pottery sits with the beautiful hues and interesting designs of his ceramic work. Tourists love to watch and chat with him as he skillfully throws pots, cups, and sculptures at his semi-outdoor workshop, which also plays home to Seco’s occasional music scene. 575-737-9904
Just to the east, lies the famous Tow Cow. Bon Appetit magazine honored “the Cow” with recognition as one of the 10 best ice cream stores in the country, but that’s just the beginning. The unassuming old grocery store has become a local’s hangout, with wifi, locally-roasted gourmet coffees and excellent breakfast and lunch choices as well as their delicious all-natural R-gbh free ice cream. Take your goodies and enjoy them in the shade by the stream to the south of the building. Visit their website at www.taoscow.com or call 575-776-5640.
If you’ve ever wondered what happens when you mix Spanish Colonial-inspired architecture with a quonset hut, you can discover that and SO much more at Antiquarius Imports. The store is a direct importer of rugs & carpets, textiles, as well as exotic antiques, accessories and home furnishings. This is also the best place around to get rugs cleaned or repaired. Visit them online at www.antiquariusimports.com or call 575-776-8381.
Just east of Antiquarius is the infamous Abe's Cantina y Cocina, started by original village descendant Abe Garcia after his return from World War II, and still run to this day by Abe’s daughters Olympia and Nina. Abe’s bar, through the east door, hosts some of the more interesting conversations and characters in Seco and has an above-average selection of beers in the cooler at the back of the bar. Next door in the west side, grab the supplies you forgot in the small family-owned grocery and some breakfast or lunch – Abe’s is famous for their tamales, pumpkin empanadas, breakfast burritos, green chile, and other legendary New Mexican fare.
Cross the street and head just east to Francesca’s. The little sister to the first-place winner of Taos’ Best women's clothing boutique, Francesca’s offers clothing sure to make any girl feel great. 575-776-8776
Heading back to the west to the Arroyo Seco Mercantile. The adobe structure that houses the Mercantile was the first general store in the area, opened in 1895. Since reopening in 1999, it is one of the coolest places to shop in the Taos area. When preparing for a trip to Japan earlier this year, I knew I had to take some small hand-sized gifts for people who would help me through my travels. I immediately went to Seco Mercantile, whose gifts, antiques & unusual finds promise to fill any gifting requirement, from Pendleton blankets to garage-sale trinkets to locally-crafted sage bundles, jewelry, and wonderful smelling pinon smudgesticks. The 1950’s era truck that sits outside is one of the most famous in the Taos tradition of old trucks, and it is not at all uncommon to see a plein aire artist outside painting it. Visit them online at www.arroyosecomercantile.com or call 575-776-8606.
Next to the Mercantile is Scott Rutherford’s Rottenstone Pottery, which features his distinctive contemporary and funk-tional ceramics, which he fires in a Japanese style wood burning kiln called an Anagama. 575-776-1042
Just to the west of Rottenstone, is the funky and cool Firenza Gallery, who proudly offers folk art, whimsical creations, handcast beads, and contemporary gallery pieces from local artists. Their super-cool outdoor garden and playful sense of style is sure to put a smile on your face. Visit their website at www.firenzagallery.com or call 575-776-2828.
Behind the Firenza and Rottenstone, find your way back to the 1834 Seco Church…
Heading back towards “town,” visit Sol Food, Arroyo Seco’s own natural food store, which as of June 2010 also has a great deli and juicebar.
Just on the south side of this building is Clair Works. The modern gallery is located in a Territorial-revival structure surrounded with a playful sculpture garden, and features works of silver, gold, and bronze jewelry, sculpture & fine art by artist Claire Haye. Visit their website at www.claireworks.com or call 888-219-6060.
Almost back to the start, the last place to visit on the Arroyo Seco tour is the JLI Gallery, a Giclée printer as well as publisher of fine art and photography. Their inviting courtyard patio dazzles with flowers and hummingbirds, and their welcoming pooch will show the way to the front door. 575-776-3899
Whether you come for a few hours or for several days, the village of Arroyo Seco is sure to please. Its success is largely due to tourism, and her community’s realization that tourists and visitors are looking for something “more.” The attention to planting, to open doors and inviting spaces, the tiny details that get missed in other places… is what makes people come and then come back. The merchants and residents of Seco are working towards creating community – they champion the preservation of their architecture and traditions, they are friendly and helpful, and they have created spaces that are ideal for indoor and outdoor use, maximizing the ability to “stay and play.”