Ruby Wax finds magic in New Mexico

Last week Ruby Wax visited America's most exotic state for the first time since she was a teenager – and discovered a land where ancient tradition meets modern-day madness

I first saw New Mexico when I was 17. It all started in Denver, Colorado, at a party. Around midnight I was splayed on a shag-pile rug gazing at a lava lamp when I decided we should all get up and go to Mexico. I persuaded one volunteer, who was so drunk she didn't know she'd volunteered, and we stuck our thumbs out in the dark. We were immediately picked up by a soldier heading to his base about 45 minutes away, but by the time we got there we had infected him with our mania and made him so crazy he said he'd take us to Texas. I fell asleep but woke up to catch a glimpse of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It felt like a dream: rising out of the desert floor like giant mosquito bites were round terracotta adobe huts with windows and doors painted turquoise, yellow and orange. Flagpoles were loaded up with feathers, bells, skulls, balloons and streamers. The locals looked like the cast of Woodstock, and were slumped in mid-stoned positions. I screamed to stop the car but the soldier was so determined to dump us in Texas that he stepped on the pedal.

In Texas we pretended to cry, burbling that it was in the middle of nowhere and please, please could he just take us just a teeny-weeny 500 miles more to Mexico? By now he had apparently gone Awol, and would probably be hanged. I guess he thought at the end of the ride there would be sex as a thank-you, but at the Mexican border we leapt out and stole his camera. Such are the whimsies of youth.

Last week I flew back to see if Santa Fe was all I imagined it to be. I'd told my kids to pack their sunscreen, swimsuits and shorts because New Mexico would be burning hot. No one mentioned to me that it was 7,000ft high in the mountains and therefore cold. We stopped at an American poor cousin of Primark on the way from the airport, and loaded and layered ourselves up in hundreds of T-shirts, all for $30 (they had no winter clothes for sale). So we arrived in Santa Fe looking like obese bumble bees. To my horror the first thing I saw was an imitation red-clay shopping mall. Not the authentic adobe huts from my dreams; these were faux-dobes, called things like "Wind Chimes" and "Rainbow Man."

We walked, fat and freezing, in and out of every store finding nothing to buy. Having said that, if you were Pocahontas you could shop till you drop. I've never seen so much squaw-wear: the latest in knee-length beaded moccasins, full-feather head-dresses and the skinned animal dress with a fringe. You want a tomahawk or bow and arrow? Then this is your kind of town. I was tempted to buy a poncho but realised it was an old blanket with a hole in the middle: not so flattering for the waist line.

There were about a hundred jewellery shops where you could buy earrings in the shape and size of a fully grown bald American eagle, embossed with enough gemstones to wipe out a mine. There were also Mexican-bling buckle-belts which could fit around the White House several times. Along one side of the town square, squatting on the sidewalk, were real Native Americans. I walked down the row apologising for massacring their people one after another, when someone told me this was a privileged position. Apparently it was an honour for these people to sell their goods out there on the sidewalk. I didn't realise. By the way, they looked so beautiful and majestic that next to them we look like pale, pasty pigs.

There is also a street called Canyon Road, the art quarter of Santa Fe. The paintings here are all the same: eye-blinding orange, spotted with lurid aqua. Apparently they represent the sunset. What we thought was a mound of manure turned out to be a bear and her cubs set in bronze. So much for Santa Fe.

Let's talk instead about my hotel, which was a 20-minute drive away. It's a whole different experience at the Encantado, an Auberge Resort, which lies in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Throughout the 57 acre estate are 67 individual casitas where adobe charm goes five star. Each suite is made of clay and slick exposed wood with outdoor patios facing waving hills of red desert spotted with juniper bushes, cedar, aspen and pinon trees. When the wind blows you're hit with a clean, herby, heady scent. Inside there's original art, an Indian clay oven for fires, heated floors, Navajo rugs, one plasma screen in the living room and – four feet away – another one in the bedroom.

My galaxy-sized bed faced a glass wall with views of the snow-peaked mountains and a blazing baby-blue sky that turned deep turquoise and orange at night. It looked like the paintings on Canyon Road, but this time done with talent.

A walkway of stones leads to a spa. Inside is a round Japanese white-oak wooded room, where you are rolled up in a blanket in front of a fire and fed apricots and almonds. Outside is a heated waterfall, saunas, Jacuzzis, Turkish baths, a yoga and fitness centre and a lake-like steaming pool which, if you weren't rolled up in a blanket, you would go in. The treatments include Mountain Spirit Purification, Ayurvedic Attunement (to re-align the chakras) and Shirodhara (which would involve dripping oil on my "third eye"). Remember when we had plain vanilla massage? I had something where my spiritual guide lit a smudge stick (basically a bunch of sage) and waved it east, west, north and south to bless the ancient grandmothers, who made sure I was spiritually awakened and made holy. I was smirking about it until I passed out in euphoria. When I woke up, I made sure I tipped all the grandmothers.

I eventually crawled to a gym so state-of-the-art it lost weight for me. The whole resort in the early evening is lit by candles in little paper bags which makes the place glow. You pass courtyards with open fires made of pinon logs and hear the coyotes howling in the distance. As the sun sets the air looks like it catches fire with blue cotton-candy clouds lined in neon.

You get a view of this from the glass-walled restaurant called Terra whose chef dropped from heaven then trained at La Cirque in Paris. I ate something called Three Little Pigs. The first little pig was a dish of crispy pork belly on green chilli edamame purée, the second little pig was a pork tenderloin with adobo sauce (basically classy chilli sauce) and the third pig was pork cheek enchilada with pumpkin seed sauce. For dessert I was given something that won the souper-bowl award in New Mexico called white chocolate soup. I nearly went faint after a mouthful.

The staff at Encantado know how to love you. Their raison d'être is to ensure you're happy. They even gave me the keys to an open-top Mercedes for no extra charge, which was important because from the resort you have access to the vast Santa Fe National Forest. And that's where the glory and ecstasy of this state begins.

We drove in our Merc to the Taos Pueblo, a multi-layered, red-clay Indian village. It was authentic: not an advertisement, not a Starbucks, not anything but red-clay huts, piled on top of each other like building blocks. The huts surrounded a sandy tribal dance area. At the end was a white arched clay church straight out of a Western. Here, I walked into some unadorned shops and met the world's most enchanting people. Each had eyes so wise they looked straight into me.

Inhabitants of the Taos Pueblo take care of each other, just as their ancestors did. They have monthly festivals to celebrate seasons, moons, plants, the dead, corn, whatever. (Although probably not Thanksgiving.) I was so envious. I don't even know my neighbours in London, but these people have a whole tribe. I met a young boy who was about 13 . He told me he was going to law school in Wisconsin to become a prosecutor. I hope he sues the entire white nation.

Then I had to stop my son in mid-flow from saying to a local, "I bet I can make you speak Indian." The nice man was about to say "How?" I'm so ashamed.

If you head south, you'll find a hippie village called Madrid. It's an old mining town, and again it's the real McCoy: a dusty shootout-at-sunset-type street runs down the middle. On either side are timber houses in all colours, shapes and sizes. Instead of door knockers they have painted cow's skulls, some with feathers hanging off them, others with an American flag hanging from an eye hole. I wondered where this tradition began? Some of the shops in Madrid were rickety log cabins that sold clothes from the 1960s and dream catchers. They're supposed to, you know, catch your dreams. On certain drugs this makes sense.

There's also a long row of bright pink shops called Gypsy Plaza which has "We Have Very Cool Stuff" painted on the wall. Should you need one, this is where you can buy a print of the Virgin Mary on an apron. Nearby, the Mine Shaft Tavern has those swinging doors which you use if you're Clint Eastwood making an entrance. Most of the people in the bar looked like Clint; the rest were Hell's Angels with their hogs tied up at the post outside. (New Mexico is Harley heaven: the whole population rides up and down the road on their low riders. Some of them are so tattooed you can't see a sign of human flesh under the Chinese dragons and macabre medieval sorcerers.) In the Java Café I saw a poster that read "Mad Dog for Governor". It was a photo of a homeless-looking man, short of a few teeth, wearing a baseball cap that read "f*** everyone".

Later, we went to the Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, home to the excavated ruins of a thousand-year-old settlement of Pueblo people. From the canyon floor you're surrounded by sheer cliff walls. On these walls are kivas, large holes with ladders leading to them. You can climb in and see the original wall etchings of the Tewa Indians, all having the time of their lives collecting scalps. Looking down you see a large remaining stone circle where the rituals took place.

I was told that the dancers, all men, lined up in a single row, shoulder to shoulder, each clasping a rattle and some evergreen branches. On their knees they wore rattles made of turtle shells with pigs' hooves attached by leather thongs. This is where the Tewa people did their Turtle Dance songs that celebrate renewal; basically fertility.

Then, just to experience a bit of yin to that yang, we headed toward Los Alamos where J Robert Oppenheimer worked on the first nuclear weapons. There are life-sized models of Little Boy and Fat Man, both atomic bombs. At the Bradbury Science Museum you can watch footage of Little Boy being dropped on Hiroshima in slow motion with the real sound effects.

All the streets here are named after nuclear test sights that were experimentally bombed: Bikini Atoll Road, Trinity Street. It turns out that the folk at Los Alamos – physicists, chemists, biologists – want you to know they are now doing things to help the world. They're working on finding a cure for Aids, investigating treatments for cancer, building computers that think a million times faster than me, and sustainability to make the planet green. And if we really want to get rid of our carbon footprint? Well, I guess we can always drop another bomb. I love New Mexico.

Getting there

The writer flew to Albuquerque from Heathrow with Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental. com) via Houston. Regional departures are also available via Newark.

Staying there

Encantado: an Auberge Resort, 198 State Road 592, Santa Fe, New Mexico (001 505 946 5700; Casitas start at $475 (£339), room only.

Visiting there

Santa Fe National Forest (001 505 438 7840;

Taos Pueblo (001 575 758 1028; Bandelier National Monument (001 505 672 0343; Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos (001 505 667 4444;

More information; 001 505 827 7400

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff