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Accessible Santa Fe

Author: Helen Gallagher
Date of Trip: May 2013

Accessible Santa Fe

Santa Fe, New Mexico, the oldest US Capital city, lives up to its moniker as “The City Different,” because so much about it is unique. The history, architecture, art, climate, and multi-cultural flavor combine to create an unusual experience. But it also stands out as an accessible vacation destination for people with mobility issues. The compact downtown area offers abundant lodging for an exciting weekend of activities for young and old, and yet, it is a relaxing destination as well.

More and more people with disabilities are realizing there is a world of travel available, and daily navigation becomes easier with more accessible options due to greater social and governmental adaptations. If you’ve ever tried to navigate the cobblestones of Prague, or the tiny sidewalks that seem uphill both ways throughout Europe, you’ll appreciate Santa Fe. Here’s a rundown on things to do and see, for walking, biking, wheelchairs, and other-enabled challenges of travel we all experience as we age.

Getting there
Many US airlines have non-stop flights into Albuquerque. Flights through Dallas and Los Angeles on American Eagle fly directly into Santa Fe’s airport, nine miles southwest of the city. Most US airport properties are fully accessible. Escalators pose a problem for some, but you can consult the airline’s map for your terminal to locate the elevators, and to arrange for golf-cart transfer between terminals.

As you travel toward Santa Fe, you may notice the air seems a bit thinner. Altitude change is gradual, from about 5,000 ft. in Albuquerque to 7,000 ft. in Santa Fe. And those gorgeous Sandia mountains you see ahead of you top out at over 10,000 ft. For most people, drinking adequate water and applying sunscreen are the only precautions to heed in the drier mountain air. In fact, Santa Fe even boasts the cleanest air in the US, as rated by the American Lung Association.

If you fly
If you fly into Albuquerque, the fun starts when you choose your route into Santa Fe. If you’re not driving, other transit options include the Rail Runner Express train, Sandia Shuttle and Santa Fe Shuttle, taking you right to your Santa Fe hotel. Even a rental car company can offer a sweet surprise for those with limited mobility. On a recent trip from Chicago to Albuquerque with my husband, who uses a transport chair, we did well navigating to the shuttle bus and to the rental car area. The surprise came days later when we returned the car. The rental agent drove us over to the airline terminal, saving us the trouble of boarding another shuttle. If you have a disability, ask for a ride to the terminal if it isn’t offered, and you’ll be able to enjoy the same convenience.

If you drive
Santa Fe is about an hour’s drive north of the Albuquerque airport, 59 miles via I-25. This is the easiest and most direct route. If you have more time, instead of the highway, take the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, NM 14, for about 50 miles. It offers stops in small towns along the way, especially Madrid, and a few other former mining towns, for what is now an artsy little side trip. The drive is also filled with other historic stops and beautiful scenery. The Sandia Peak Tramway is another option for people of all abilities to see the colorful vistas. Check their website ( in advance. Trams and hiking trails are closed when forest fire danger is high.

When you arrive
When you make a hotel reservation, (on your own or with a group), call ahead and tell the hotel what you need. Don’t be shy because they thrive on making guests happy. At a minimum, you might want to be near the elevator, and have a room with an accessible bathroom, with space for a wheel chair, a walk-in shower with a seat, and a toilet riser.

Reconfirm your reservation a few days before you arrive, remind them of your needs, and ask that your room be available upon arrival. For people with special needs, most hotels offer early check-in as soon as you arrive. Upon arrival, if your room doesn’t have the safety features, speak up right away. Once you’re comfortable with the accommodations, you’re ready to head out.

Enjoy the city
Santa Fe is often rated by national travel magazines and websites as one of the top ten US vacation destinations. It wins praise for the variety of activities and events in the centrally located downtown area. Santa Fe is a friendly town where the air smells like chile peppers and piñon-scented firewood, and where the locals happily blend right in with the tourists.

Many travelers don’t want to be singled out as ‘different’ when living with a disability, but people with special needs do deserve courtesy. While not wanting to stand out, we also shouldn’t have to miss any activities. As we traveled around, my husband, with his transport chair, found doors were opening for him, a hand was ready to help over a bump in the road, space was made available in small cafes, and certainly our accessible hotel room was more than gracious. At La Fonda on the Plaza, we had the pleasure of enjoying a terrace room with a rooftop garden outside our window, and an exceptionally attentive staff. Service is a hallmark of La Fonda, since it opened in 1922, on the spot where there has been a hotel for over 200 years. The hotel has earned its place in American history and serves as historian and custodian of amazing art and artifacts of the centuries since the first hotel (fonda) was built on that corner. A tour of the hotel during your stay will surprise you with stories about famous guests over the years, including the many people involved in the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb in Los Alamos.

Getting around Santa Fe
Dozens of interesting attractions are nearby and Santa Fe is a very driveable city with street parking in most areas. Downtown, the Plaza area provides entertaining street life, art fairs, jewelry and art made by Native Americans, theater, dining, and access to the tour busses and trams. If you are intrigued by the Native Americans selling their wares outside the Palace of Governors, be sure to ask permission before taking their photo. Also when visiting a pueblo, ask before using your camera, as some reservations prohibit photography.

While you can easily fill a day relaxing on the Plaza, transportation might be a better way to see more of the city and to get to the famous Canyon Road. With over 200 art galleries, shops and unique architecture, save the walking for once you arrive in this famous art area. Canyon road hosts art fairs, art walks and art festivals almost year-round. We found the Loretto Line open-air tram a great way to ride through Canyon Road, since we had walked the road on a prior visit to Santa Fe. The tram drivers are skilled and knowledgeable so you can see and learn about the history, adobe architecture, zoning laws, and humorous stories along the way. If walking is not feasible, with a car, taxi or shuttle, your weekend can include a pleasurable stop up at Museum Hill, for the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Museum of International Folk Art, and Santa Fe Botanical Garden. Museum Hill is walkable from Canyon Road, only for those who love a long walk before visiting museums.

While in the downtown Plaza area, you can enjoy New Mexico Museum of Art, Palace of Governors, Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. Off the Plaza, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum on Johnson Street, is home to more of O’Keefe’s work than anywhere else. Her home and studio in Abiquiu (north of Santa Fe) allow some access to the grounds and studio tours by appointment.

The Santa Fe Farmers Market now has a permanent year-round home in the old Railyard, with over 120 vendors, and is open Tuesdays and Saturdays. After working up an appetite there, you can fully appreciate New Mexican cuisine in a cooking class. You’ll understand the role of spices and chiles when you park yourself in the kitchen at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, for a hands-on or observation class. Reservations are required, and participants learn about local food, cooking methods, tools, history and lore, followed by an enjoyable feast at the end of the demonstration. On this trip, we enjoyed the cooking class with a group, and enjoyed tortilla soup, Adobe-grilled flank steak, green chile mac and cheese, marinated vegetables, and caramel flan for dessert. Learning about the proper handling and heat levels of chiles was as much fun as the cooking demonstration. Eating like a local and learning about the heart of the New Mexico people through their history with food was the ultimate way to feel at home in this much-loved city.

Beyond the rest and relaxation, Santa Fe offers beautiful serenity, with desert vistas, a gorgeous blue sky and nature at its best. Santa Fe is restorative, and a place we return to again and again.

–written by Helen Gallagher

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