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Miracle Dirt at Santuario de Chimayo, New Mexico

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El Santuario de Chimayo is a strange combination of roadside tourist attraction and holy shrine.  Fortunately, the two contrasting definitions seem to co-exist nicely.

If you wish to take the “High Road to Taos”, follow US Rtes. 84 & 285 north out of Santa Fe.  At Pojoaque, watch for NM Rte. 503 on the right.  Follow NM 503 to NM 76, to NM 75, to NM 518.  If you’re visiting the Santuario, drive 7.6 miles from the turn onto Route 503.  Turn left on County Route 98, go 2.6 miles, then turn right on Santuario Drive (Route 94C).

The Santuario is perhaps one of New Mexico’s most picturesque, and most photographed adobe churches.  But most people don’t visit for the quaint appearance, or quiet atmosphere, they’re here for the miracles. More on that, once we get inside.

First, walk around outside.  It’s especially beautiful in springtime, when the trees near the chapel are in bloom.

The old doors at the front of the church’s courtyard are perfect for photographs.  Unfortunately, during my visit, the Santuario staff had tied up a big, ugly vinyl banner just above the doorway.

There are only three rooms open to the public inside the Santuario de Chimayo.  The first room you enter…

… is the chapel.  It’s small and dark, and most likely will be filled with people.  Have a seat for a moment and, perhaps, say a prayer.  Even if you’re not a catholic, or even if you’re not religious, you can still enjoy the feeling of peace here.  After a few minutes, move to the front of the room…

… where you can light a candle.

The entrance to the next room is at the front of the sanctuary.  A low doorway takes you into a second room…

… where the walls are covered with religious artifacts, pictures, and crucifixes.

You’ll also notice dozens of crutches, canes, and walkers covering the walls and piled up in corners in this room, left by people who experienced a miracle in the Santuario’s third room…

… a tiny space, located at the front of the second room.  There’s almost nothing i this room except a hole in the floor.  This is the Posito, or well, where believers can reach down and grab a handful of dirt.  It’s widely believed that the soil is blessed, and can bring miraculous results to ailing believers who brew and drink the dirt (like a tea), or rub it on diseased parts of their body.  This tiny hole, and the dirt inside, is the main attraction here at el Santuario de Chimayo, so be prepared to spend a few minutes waiting for the room to clear, before entering.

So how did el Santuario de Chimayo gain its miraculous reputation?  As the legend goes, back in 1810, on the night of Good Friday, Don Bernardo Abeyta was performing customary penances in the area, when he saw a light shining from a hillside nearby.  When he arrived at the source of the light, he saw that it came from underground.  So he dug with his hands, uncovering a crucifix.  When he told the priest in nearby Santa Cruz about the discovery, a group of men came down to see it, then carried it back to the parish in Santa Cruz.  The next day, the crucifix was gone, and guess where it ended up?  That’s right, back in the same place where it was discovered.  After a second, then a third procession, which ended with the same results, the church finally understood.  The crucifix wanted to stay in Chimayo.  So, they built a small chapel there.

Wait a minute, that explains the miracle crucifix, but not the miracle dirt. It’s not completely clear how the soil earned its reputation. We do know that in a letter written in 1813, Father Sebastian Alvarez wrote to church leaders in Durango, Mexico, saying people were coming from far away to seek healing at the church.  The current chapel was built between 1814 and 1816.

You can read more about the history of el Santuario de Chimayo, including some other accounts of its history, here and here (the second link also has visiting hours and mass times).

As you leave the church, take a few more minutes to wander around.  You’ll notice crosses everywhere–many are nothing more than twigs, jammed into the surrounding fence. Some people even leave cross-shaped bubblegum stuck to trees and signs.

Before you hit the road, you may also want to grab some lunch at Leona’s, which is next door to the Santuario.  Also, don’t forget to use the restroom.  There aren’t many facilities between here and Taos.

Here is a glossary of terms you might encounter at el Santuario de Chimayo:

  • el Santuario = translated: the Shrine
  • El Sefior de Esquipulas = the name given the crucifix found nearby in 1810
  • Don Bernardo Abeyta = the man credited with finding the crucifix
  • el Posito or Pozito = the well, or sand pit, containing sacred dirt
  • tierra bendita = sacred earth

As you leave the Santuario, you can either turn left and return to NM Rte. 503, or turn right and drive through Chimayo.  Either way, you’ll end up at NM Rte. 76, and when you do, you’ll want to take a right.

The High Road to Taos

Around Chimayo, the High Road to Taos officially follows NM Rte. 503.  Quite honestly, I’m amazed that this route holds onto its state-route designation, since for a couple of miles, it drops down to one paved lane, and takes you on a thrilling ride downhill, through several switchbacks.  Aside from feeling a bit dangerous, this is a thrilling road, and it gives you a cool look at a rural New Mexico community, almost untouched by time.
If you don’t want to tackle the one-lane route through Chimayo, take a left at Juan Medina Road (the road to el Santuario de Chimayo).  It will eventually take you to NM Rte. 76.  This road passes to the west of Santa Cruz Lake, while NM 503 passes to the east.  On the map, Juan Medina Road looks like a more well-traveled route, however, since I didn’t drive it, I can’t make any guarantees.

If you do choose to travel NM 503, this is the closest thing you’ll see to a gas station.  It’s quite rare to find an old pump like this one, by the side of the road.

This was the last stop I made for a while.  There were plenty of things to photograph, however my travel companion desperately needed a restroom.  Despite the High Road to Taos being well known and often traveled, there were no bathrooms anywhere.  For an hour we drove.  Since it was a Sunday afternoon, any businesses we spotted were closed.  Until…

… we found the Penasco Valley Food Store, a full hour’s drive after leaving the Santuario.  The owner was about to close down for the day, but was kind enough to not only allow us use of the restroom, but also whip up a milkshake.

Now freed from the constraints of a tiny bladder, I was able to devote some time to photography.

In Penasco, I found the Owens Potatoes store…

… and the el Puente Theatre.  Nearby towns also had quite a few small art galleries and stores.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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