Longest Way Round is the Shortest Way Home
Ghost towns, ruins provide glimpse of N.M. history
But for my money the path with the most interesting ghost towns, Pueblo ruins and sun-baked N.M. towns on the edge is the one less traveled. That trip involves heading south in Tijeras, into the Manzano mountains, navigating NM-337 south to NM-55 and then onto US Route 60. Along the way be prepared to check out European settlements dating from the early 1800s—including apple trees planted at the beginning of the 19th century, graveyards dating back to the 1830s as well as abandoned and rustic remnants of towns where there are signs warning against tourist photography.
Additionally, this route contains access to two of the most complete and fun to visit colonial Pueblo ruins in the area, Quarai and Abó. Dating from the early 1600s, these small Indigenous villages were centered on large mission churches but were left behind due to drought as their inhabitants sought refuge closer to the river on the other side of the Manzano Mountains. What they left behind is amazing.
Engaging this trip takes about a day. There are a few bed and breakfast type operations on the route, which is basically a circle that begins in Burque and travels through Tijeras, Chilili, Tajique and Manzano before cresting in Mountainair and turning down the mountain west toward Belen and I-25. There are a few hotels in the town of Estancia and a couple in Mountainair too if you care to extend this sojourn into a multi-day event.
After driving through Tijeras (if you need some grub or a quick ice cold drink, check out Molly's Bar right at the freeway exit), head south into the Manzano Mountains. They rise precipitously at first and the road is full of switchbacks and sharp curves. But once you get up into the trees, there's a broad plain to the east; the road meanders before approaching the rugged hills and valleys of the mountain range.
Chilili—with a population of about 137—is the first stop, but it's not a place to stay for long. Chilili is part of an old Spanish land grant. Many of the remaining occupants of this ghost town can trace their lineage directly to those who settled the area at the end of the 18th century. There are some really interesting buildings and sites to check out here, but be aware: Historically the townsfolk have been hostile to outsiders. The rolling hills around the town are wonderful and more awaits farther down the road.
About 12 miles down the road, NM-337 comes to an end. A left, east on NM-55, takes travelers to Estancia, a ranching community on the edge of the great plains. By going right, one heads back into the mountains
Tajique is an engaging place, it's the next town on the circuit right after turning onto highway 55. Like many of the settlements in the area, Tajique was originally occupied by a combination of Spanish colonists and Pueblo peoples in the 1600s, was abandoned due to water issues and Apache raids, and not reoccupied until the early 1800s. Unlike some of the other towns in this area, Tajique is apparently thriving. There are decent shops, it's tourist-friendly and the cemetery on the edge of the burg is historically relevant and fascinating.
The ranching community of Torreon follows. The outcropping of houses, trailers and livestock pens is followed by a swath of open road before wanderers come upon a very cool quartet of places to visit, including the ghost town of Manzano, the ruins of Quarai and Abó, and Manzano Mountains State Park. Manzano has some of the oldest apple orchards in the United States, a stately adobe church, many historic buildings, early 20th century farm machinery; traces of the past are everywhere, but mostly the people have moved on to larger somewhat more stable communities like Estancia or Mountainair.
The ruins at Quarai and Abó, just a few of miles further on (or in the case of Abó, just outside of Mountainair), are some of the most extensive, well-preserved archeological sites in the state. Founded by Tiwa people, Quarai included a huge mission church built in about 1630.
Abó was founded by Tompiros of the Pito tribe. Under the direction of Fray Francisco de Acevedo, they built a small village on the escarpment south of the Manzano mountains in 1629.
Both communities were very vulnerable. Ultimately Indigenous and Spanish settlers left the places to decay in the dust of the drought at the end of the 17th century. Lots of photo opps, a location in the foothills of the mountains and tangible encounters with our region’s glorious past make the stops at Manzano, Quarai and Abó essential parts of this journey.
The Manzano Mountains State Park is nearby. It's just like the Sandias but rougher, less populated and a bit drier climate-wise. There's great camping there in the summer and UNM houses a fancy observatory and telescope on Capilla peak, at the top of the mountain range.
All of this is just about 10 miles from Mountainair, the outer limit of this expedition south and east of Burque. At the intersection of NM-55 and US-60, Mountainair used to be a hub of rail activity. The town's famous Shaffer Hotel—now closed for renovations—is said to be haunted by several ghosts from the Old West, says owner and amateur historian Joel Marks.
From Mountainair, the downhill road back to Belen and I-25 includes an odd, old roadhouse midway down the hill and a stretch of abandoned rancheros (some of which have been known to be used by squatters and meth-cookers). There is also a beautfiful glimpse of the verdant Rio Grande valley that is a sure reminder of why so many people left so much behind in those ghost towns and ruins we've all just passed through on the way back to Burque.