El Camino Real Revisiting a Road Often Traveled

New Mexico’s El Camino Real International Heritage Center celebrates a vital trade route that once linked a region.


Located just off a sparsely populated stretch of Interstate 25 between Socorro and Truth or Consequences in south-central New Mexico, El Camino Real International Heritage Center is one of the more interesting monuments you’re likely to ever see.



El Camino Real The Plaza de Zacatecas as it appeared 300 years ago- Credit: El Camino Real IHC


Its one wing suggestive of a ship in the desert, the 20,000-square-foot building symbolizes the life-sustaining caravans that for centuries moved livestock and merchandise, and served as cultural conduits, between Mexico City and San Gabriel in the Espanola Valley north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, say officials.

‘You might call the Heritage Center a modem-day paraje” said Jose Cisneros, who was the 5½-year head of New Mexico state monuments, using the Spanish word for the primitive rest stops spaced along the ancient trail.

‘Twenty miles between ‘parajes’ was a good day’s travel by ox cart,” he notes. The center is a ‘paraje’ only in the sense that motorists can stop, stretch, rehydrate, and learn about life on the trail. In doing so, they will come to appreciate how luxurious travel in 2005 really is. They can get a course in New Mexico Southwest history as complete as one will find in most college classrooms.”

The state-of-the-art Facility tells the story of the transport of exotic goods and cultural refinements-macaw feathers, turquoise, fruit trees, copper, leather, tobacco between Mexico and regions to the north, according to Mr. Cisneros.





display08 A metate stone and mano was used to grind dried corn into meal or flour- photo courtesy El Camino Heritage


Once the Spanish conquered Mexico in 1519, silver was added to the list of precious cargo. New cities, towns, and haciendas sprang up as trade with Spain flourished. Led by Don Juan de 0flate, the Spanish claimed the New Mexico Territory in 1598, giving rise to a new wave of settlement and trade between Mexico and what is now New Mexico. A new culture, religion, and ideas were thus introduced to the region.

A significant part of the Heritage Center’s job is to promote ecotourism along the trail, says Stuart Ashman, New Mexico’s secretary of cultural affairs.

“’The Heritage Center serves as a major force in promoting the hail and fostering respect for the land, its rich and diverse history and the vibrant culture that it has bred,” he says. “Using EI Camino Real, we can reach out to communities along the trail and help create a series of trail related events and attractions that will entice travelers off the highway, onto the scenic byways and into the communities.”

Along the route are archaeological sites, forts, early churches, and wagon ruts, many of which are managed by private individuals or Native American tribes.





ramp3 A gentle ramp begins El Camino Real, with displays and exhibits describing the trail and the regions it passed through in the 1600 and 1700s- Credit: El Camino Real IHC


“I like to compare the historic areas along the highway to a necklace- a string of pearls,” said Kate Padilla, Socorro, former field office manager for the U.S, Bureau of Land Management which jointly manages New Mexico’s 400 mile portion of the route known as El Camino Real, with the National Park Service. “We  worked with anyone and everyone interested in preservation and development of the necklace.”

Completed in 2004, the center was designed by Dekker Perich & Sabatini of Albuquerque, and conjures the image of a ship in the desert. Early chroniclers noted the similarities of the high desert grasses blowing in the wind to ocean waves.

The center’s exhibits are the main attraction, though. Artifacts, paintings, panels, soundtracks, and computers illuminate centuries of regional history, including the journey of Don Juan de Onate in 1598, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, of the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, and even a Civil War battle that took place nearby.

An exhibit on the 1,500-mile route from the silver-mining city of Zacatecas, Mexico, to Santa Fe includes a number of first-person narratives from the diaries of travelers, as well as an elaborate virtual trail and an enormous topographical map. For more information visit the El Camino Real Heritage website

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