Last Updated on January 31, 2023
The sky was a rich cornflower blue with wisps of fluffy white clouds when I visited Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. A breeze gently blew on a brisk November morning as our group of friends entered one of the country’s most sacred places.
Ringed by the soaring peaks and sagebrush plains of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this living Native American community with fascinating multi-leveled adobe structures has no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. Though other Tiwa maintain dwellings here, only a hardy 150 actually live in the Pueblo full-time, as their ancestors have for centuries.
Designated both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. Note, Taos Pueblo is located adjacent to, but is separate from the city of Taos, New Mexico. No overnight guest accommodations are available at the Pubelo and options in Taos are limited due to its small size. Many visitors to Taos Pueblo and the town make it a day trip from Santa Fe.
Though visitors are welcome to explore the grounds of the Pueblo on a self-guided tour, I highly recommend using a local Taos guide from Heritage Inspirations. As a Taos resident, she provided us with a deeper, more meaningful cultural experience within this fascinating walled-village community.
Home to the Tiwa-Speaking Puebloans
As the most northern of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos, Taos Pueblo is home to the indigenous Tiwa-speaking Puebloans, also known as the Red Willow People. They were so named after Red Willow Creek, a gentle flowing stream running through the village serving as the sole water source for drinking, cooking, and religious ceremonies.
It is in this sacred place that life continues from its earliest existence, and little has changed in over 1,000 years.
Construction of the Pueblo Dwellings
Taos Pueblo is a series of individual homes built side-by-side and in layers with common walls, but no connecting doorways. In earlier times, there were no doors or windows and entry was gained only by ladders extending down into the living quarters. This was primarily as a means of protection against invaders.
The Pueblo is made entirely of adobe — earth mixed with water and straw then either poured into forms or made into sun-dried bricks. Many of the walls are several feet thick. The roofs of each of the five stories are supported by vigas, large timbers hauled down from the mountain forests. On top of the vigas, smaller pieces of wood are placed side to side, and the entire roof is sealed with packed dirt.
The outside surfaces of the Pueblo are continuously maintained by replastering with thin layers of mud. Interior walls are coated with washes of white earth to keep them clean and bright.
These unique sand-colored homes have captivated painters and photographers since the 1920s. Likely the most photographed sites are the northern-most multi-leveled pueblo home and the San Geronimo de Taos church and cemetery.
Walking the entire property was a moving experience and we were ever conscious of treading on sacred ground. Throughout the tour, we learned about the private, conservative Taos Pueblo community where tribal members do not share or speak about their religious customs to outsiders. Because their language has never been written down, much of the Taos Pueblo culture remains a complete mystery to those not in the inner circle.
The Ancient Art of Breadmaking
On our private tour we had the incredible privilege of spending time with Geronimo, a lifelong resident of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico who took us into his home and invited us to share in the preparation and time-honored art of breadmaking.
Adhering to the strict custom of no electricity, residents prepare their foods in an outdoor wood-fired oven known as a horno. Like the pueblo dwellings, they are constructed completely with adobe mud. The interior of the oven is heated with cedar wood and brought to a temperature ideal for breadmaking. There is no thermometer used, as Geronimo, like his fellow native Puebloans, just know when the oven is ready.
When the desired temperature has been reached, the coals are scooped out of the oven and set on the ground. Hatch chile peppers are charred there, then peeled, chopped and salted. The round bread generously topped with butter is then placed in the oven on long paddles and baked. Once removed, it is topped with more butter and the Hatch Chile mixture.
The scents wafting from the wood burning, chiles charring and bread baking was so enticing we could hardly wait to taste our creations. Every bite was incredible. So much so, we all took seconds. It was of no surprise when Geronimo told us that he bakes 350 loaves of bread for village feast days and they sell out within minutes.
Pueblo residents sell baked goods to visitors within the Pubelo walls, but only while supplies last, which often isn’t very long.
Artisans of the Pueblo
After our wonderful breadmaking experience, we had the opportunity to visit some of the local shops and vendors within the pueblo. Tiwa people are skilled leather workers known for their moccasins, boots and drums. They also blend their own unique Southwestern culture into the raw materials they transform into artistic creations.
We were impressed with the exquisite silver and turquoise jewelry pieces, mica-flecked pottery and other works of art. The high quality, creativity and workmanship demonstrated by these artisans was awe-inspiring. Many of the treasures they create are priced shockingly low – less than $20. One-of-a-kind, handmade souvenirs can be purchased here for less than plastic, mass produced junk at department stores. Bring cash, however, as not all vendors take credit cards.
Having the opportunity to explore an ancient and surviving culture at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, walk among its century-old structures and bake bread with a resident while hearing his stories was beyond inspirational. This is the way to truly understand and appreciate a culture and get a glimpse of a world much different from the one we’ve always lived in.
As we departed the Pueblo, we all felt blessed that a kind, gentle soul named Geronimo allowed us to enter his world, if only for a few hours.