The Budget Travel Guides are travel tips to help you save money and enrich your travel experiences. A trip through the western United States may lead you to a surprising and interesting destination. In this Santa Fe Travel Guide, Billie Frank shares her travel tips for one of New Mexico’s top destinations.
Budget travel to Santa Fe can be a bit challenging. It’s not an inexpensive city to visit. The highest costs will be for car rental, food and lodging. The upside is, there are a lot of free things to do, especially in summer.
Even though it’s high season, the amount of free and low cost activities might off-set other costs. But, no matter what time of year you visit, you can find free and inexpensive things to do.
Santa Fe Travel and Transportation tips
You can fly into Albuquerque and rent a car or take either the Sandia Shuttle or the NM Railrunner to Santa Fe. It’s also a great road destination for those who want to take a road trip on the west coast.
If you plan to go anywhere out of town, you will need a rental car. Public transportation here is limited. If you’ll be happy just exploring in town, Santa Fe Trails offers scheduled bus service or you can rent a bike. For those staying downtown, walking is great exercise and a wonderful way to explore the city.
Santa Fe Lodging
Research your Santa Fe travel and accommodation options. Lodging in Santa Fe can be pricey. There is one hostel in town, but it gets dicey reviews on Trip Advisor. Here are a few budget options:
Consider home swapping if you have something to trade. There are online resources that specialize in that. I haven’t used any of these, but, there are stories. Swapper beware! Just a word of caution: not all Santa Fe neighborhoods were created equal; do some research.
This is a great option in warmer weather. There are campsites in the National Forests and at National Monuments. Hyde Park State Park on the way to Ski Santa Fe is the closest to town. Be prepared; it gets chilly at night up in the mountains. There are also RV Parks.
Santa Fe has the usual outposts of national budget motel chains; names with numbers in etc. These are not necessarily as inexpensive as you’d expect. Here are a few budget options that get consistent reviews on Trip Advisor and other review sites: (Author’s note: I always take TA and other online review sites with a large grain of salt. You never know who is writing the reviews; friend, foe or guest.)
Santa Fe Sage Inn offers small clean rooms with southwest décor, a pool, continental breakfast and free Wi-Fi Market. They are about a 10 minute walk from the Plaza and adjacent to the trendy Railyard District and the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Free local shuttle service is offered. Many of the vendors at the annual Santa Fe International Folk Art market stay here.
Silver Saddles is a locally-owned mid-century motel furnished in what the owners call “cowboy flair.” They’re about a 10 minute drive from the plaza. There are good budget dining options in close walking distance. Some rooms come with a microwave and fridge. Continental breakfast and Wi-Fi are free.
The Santa Fe Suites, an independently owned all-suite hotel, is a short drive from the Plaza. Each compact unit features a fully-equipped kitchenette with full-sized refrigerator, microwave, cooktop and dishwasher. There’s a grocery a short walk away. You can easily save money by cooking. They also serve a free continental breakfast. Not all suites have Wi-Fi.
Low season (from the end of October through mid-May, with higher rates during Christmas and spring break), brings better rates. Check online discounters.
Here’s a tip – if you find a great rate at a locally owned hotel online, see if the hotel will meet it. They may, as they earn more if they don’t to pay a commission. A perk for booking directly is better cancellation policies and better chances for upgrades if they’re slow. If they won’t meet the rate, book with the discounter.
Food and Dining in Santa Fee
Book lodgings with a kitchen or other cooking facilities. There are two National chain stores, Albertson’s and Smith’s (part of the Kroger empire). We also have a bunch of “natural” groceries: two Whole Foods Markets, Natural Grocers, two Sprouts and La Montanita Co-op. There’s also a Trader Joe’s, always a great source of interesting bargain options.
In summer, check out the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market (they’re open all year, but fresh-gown food is more plentiful in summer). You can get healthy food directly from the growers.
The second budget-friendly option
Buy ready cooked foods or ones that don’t need cooking at the grocery stores. The stores listed above are all good sources.
Of course, even the most budget-minded traveler wants to eat out a bit. The best prices are often at ethnic restaurants and food stands or trucks. Try some of these:
The Red Enchilada 1310 Osage Ave (505) 820-6552 This Salvadoran-owned eatery is a find. A lot of the folks in restaurant kitchens around town can be found dining here.
Jarochos, a stand at 2020 Cerrillos Road in front of the venerable Jackalope, serves really inexpensive Veracruz-style food. You can fill up on tacos, gorditas or other tasty treats for about $6. (If you have a huge appetite, it may cost you a bit more.)
Roque’s Carnitas, a seasonal stand at the southeast corner, has been serving these tasty grilled beef treats for more than 25 years. Open March into October.
You have to have at least one Northern New Mexican meal while you’re here. Don’t confuse it with Mexican or Tex-Mex; it’s different. Explaining it would take an entire post. Just take my word for it. If you don’t eat spicy food, beware. The chile-based cuisine comes with a kick. There are a lot of New Mexican restaurants scattered around town. Here are two:
Café Castro at 2811 Cerrillos Road (505) 473-5800 has some of the best prices on local Northern New Mexican cuisine.
The Shed, in business for over 40 years, is famous for its green and red chile. It’s a little pricier, but you can have a margarita with dinner.
The best burger in town can be found at Bobcat Bite on Old Las Vegas Highway about twenty minutes from town is famous for its Green Chile Cheeseburgers. The meat is HUGE (10 oz burgers are ground in-house daily). It’s a meal for under $10. Skip the sides (the burger comes with chips) unless you have a really big appetite or are sharing them.
Things to do in Santa Fe
No Santa Fe travel guide would be complete without a list of fun and interesting things to do in and around the city.
Art, culture and history
It’s a great walking city. Explore the historic downtown and Canyon Road areas. Head over to trendy Railyard District or down to the South Capital area, a haven of 20th century Arts and Crafts bungalows. It’s one of the few places in town that escaped the Santa Fe Pueblo-style revival.
Galleries: There are over 200 galleries and they’re all free. Don’t expect to see only southwest or western art. There are a lot of different genres represented. Friday night art receptions offer a great chance to meet the artists and sometimes nibble a little food and perhaps get a glass of wine.
Museums: We have ten of them. Admission is reasonable and the two downtown, State-owned museums (NM History Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art)oHistor are free on Friday evenings from 5 to 7pm. If you want to see all the State-owned museums, a pass museum pass offers savings.
Summer art markets: Santa Fe is known for its three major summer markets: Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, Spanish Market and the Santa Fe Indian Market. They attract people from all over the world. While the Folk Art Market has a moderate admission fee; the other two are free.
Music: In the summer, there are lots of free concerts. The Santa Fe Plaza often has music in the evenings. Music on the Hill brings free jazz to the St. John’s College Campus. There are free concerts in the Railyard. Bars are another great source for free live music. Pasatiempo, the Friday edition of our local paper, The Santa Fe New Mexican, has a calendar of events for the week.
Active and outdoors
Hiking: The Dale Ball Trails are a wonderful system of free trails that are on the east side of the city, or climb Atalaya Mountain right behind the St. John’s College campus.
You can take a city bus to either. Santa Fe National Forest is close to the city. There are a lot of hiking trails on Santa Fe Baldy on the way to the ski area. If you have a car, the options are endless. One of our favorites is Tent Rocks (Kasha Katuwe) about 50 minutes southwest of town.
Biking: Santa Fe offers great mountain biking. You can also rent a bike and bike around town. Streets are narrow and it can be a little daunting. In most places there are well marked bike lanes. For a fairly flat ride with spectacular views take dirt and gravel bike trail that follows the railroad tracks south out of town to Lamy where the Amtrak trains stop.
Rafting: This can be a bit expensive, if you like adventure, this can be your splurge. The most challenging course, The Class 4 Taos Box on the Rio Grande in Taos runs early in the season. Bring your own kayak and enjoy a day on the Rio Grande or Rio Chama.
Take a day trip
For the cost of the gas there are a lot of free or inexpensive places to see:
Pecos National Historic: This Pueblo archeological site had the ruins of a kiva (ceremonial chamber) a Spanish Colonial Church and a loop trail to walk. Admission is $3 per person. The best part is the same ticket will get you into
Fort Union, the shell of a 19th century U. S.Army fort, about an hour north of here.
The High Road To Taos: This ride takes you to historic mountain towns, some settled 400 years ago. Chimayó is probably the place you’ll want to spend the most time. Tour the Sanctuario de Chimayó, called the “Lourdes of the US” because of reported healing miracles. There are also art and weaving galleries here. There are lots of things to see along the way.
At Rancho de Taos, take a short detour to see the Church St. Francis de Assisi painted by Georgia O’Keeffe and photographed by Ansel Adams. Taos is loaded with history. The Pueblo has an admission charge. It’s well worth it. You can drive out of town on US Route 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, one of the highest bridges in the country. There’s a breathtaking view of the gorge from here.
O’Keeffe Country: Take a trip to the Abiquiu area. Georgia O’Keeffe lived here. You can see and hike the landscape that inspired her. Visit a lavender farm, see the echo amphitheater and perhaps the Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery.
Connect with locals in Santa Fe
Locals are everywhere. Santa Fe has three distinct cultures: Native American, Hispanic and Anglo. It’s probably easiest to meet the Anglos if you’re here as a tourist. One of the best ways to meet people is going to hear free music whether at a bar or one of the many outdoor concerts in summer. Also, the gallery openings mentioned in the Things to do section above are a great place for meeting Santa Feans.
We meet a lot of local artists with deep New Mexico roots at both Spanish Market at the end of July and Indian Market, usually held the third weekend in August. Both take place on and around the Plaza. Strike up a conversation. They love to share their stories. One of the best times and places to meet locals is Christmas Eve on Canyon Road. A lot of the town turns out for this.
While Santa Fe is challenging on a budget, it can be done. Plan well and get off the beaten path and you’ll find some bargains.
Billie Frank is a Santa Fe based freelance writer covering Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico for her blog Santa Fe Travelers. and other online publication. Her business The Santa Fe Traveler, designs unique experiences for visitors to Santa Fe. You can find Billie on Facebook) and on Twitter.