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New Mexico's Latest "Paraje" Commemorates the Camino Real (Royal Road)

On Saturday, November 19, a magnificent new "paraje" will officially open just off a sparsely populated stretch of Interstate 25 between Socorro and Truth or Consequences in south-central New Mexico.

It is El Camino Real International Heritage Center, a 20,000-square-foot structure that suggests the image of a ship in the desert, symbolic of the life-sustaining caravans that for centuries moved livestock, merchandise and culture between Mexico City and San Gabriel in the Espanola Valley north of Santa Fe.

The Center is a joint project with the United States Bureau of Land Management and supported by El Camino Real International Heritage Center Foundation. It opens as the sixth New Mexico State Monument.

"You might call the Heritage Center a modern day 'paraje' " mused JosČ Cisneros, New Mexico State Monuments director, 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," said Cisneros. "The Center is a 'paraje' only in the sense that motorists can stop, stretch, rehydrate, and learn about the fascinating life on the trail. In doing so, they will come to appreciate how luxurious travel in 2005 really is by studying the details of the unforgettable journeys that are told through the exhibits.

"They can get a course in New Mexico and Southwest history as complete as one will find in most college classrooms." Visitors will also discover their own roots in the region.

The state-of-the-art facility rises from the northern Chihuahuan Desert to tell the story not of a battle waged or a legend propagated, but of the transport over centuries and 1,500 miles of exotic goods and cultural refinements -- macaw feathers, turquoise, fruit trees, copper, leather, tobacco -- all that Mexico had that North American didn't. And vice versa. 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 and commerce with Spain flourished, creating an unparalleled economic boom. Led by Don Juan de OŇate, the Spanish claimed the New Mexico Territory for Spain in 1598, and began a new wave of settlement and trade between Mexico and what is now New Mexico. A new culture, religion, and ideas were introduced to the region.

The Heritage Center was created to tell the story of the El Camino Real, or the Royal Road, and its 400-mile trek through New Mexico which in October, 2000, was decreed by federal legislation as a national historic trail under joint management by BLM and the National Park Service.

A significant part of the Heritage Center's job is to promote ecotourism along the trail. "The Heritage Center will be a major force in promoting the trail and fostering respect for the land, its rich and diverse history, and the vibrant culture that it has bred," said Stuart Ashman, New Mexico Secretary of Cultural Affairs. "Using El 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."

"I like to compare the historic areas along the highway to a necklace -- a string of pearls," said Kate Padilla, Socorro field office manager for BLM. "We want to work with anyone and everyone who is interested in preservation and development of the necklace."

The "pearls" Padilla referenced are the archaeological sites, forts, early churches, and wagon ruts along the route that are as often as not managed by private individuals or Native American tribes rather than the federal or state governments.

Located on a tableland above the Rio Grande, the Center, completed last year, was designed by Dekker Perich & Sabatini of Albuquerque, and conjures up an image of a ship in the desert. Early chroniclers noted the similarities of the high desert grasses blowing in the wind to the waves of the ocean.

From its amphitheater the river's "bosque" or woodlands is clearly visible along a stretch where Camino Real travelers returned to a key "paraje" that marked the end, or the beginning, of the infamous Jornada del Muerto shortcut.

The Center is surrounding by newly planted desert gardens and hiking trails, the work of community volunteers. In the works is a 10-kilometer equestrian trail and footpath to Fort Craig, another trail site managed by BLM. The path will border the river for some distance near the fort.

Also contemplated are picnic tables and a children's play area with pony and burro rides, a welcome addition to travelers with children.

But the central attraction for visitors with a sense of history will be the exhibits which take them on a chronological journey spanning several centuries from the faint footpaths of prehistory, to the wheel ruts of the Spanish, Mexican and other settlers and traders, to today's high speed ventures by highway, rail, air, and on some stretches, by water.

Through artifacts, paintings, panels, sound tracks and computers the visitor will be escorted through early European exploration, including the journey of Don Juan de OŇate in 1598, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, and even a Civil War battle that took place less than 10 miles away.

A number of first person narratives from the diaries of travelers will be a part of the exhibit that takes the visitor on the journey north from the silver mining city of Zacatecas to Santa Fe and beyond.

No ordinary exhibit, the elaborate infrastructure of the exhibit creates a ramp that circles around and up, taking the visitor on a virtual journey along a portion of the historic trail from Zacatecas, Mexico to Santa Fe, New Mexico. An enormous topographical map surrounded located at the end of the "trail" demonstrates the entire 1,500-mile route. Banco seating is also available for visitorís to ponder the journey.

The Heritage Center has timed its opening to coincide with the Bosque de Apache Wildlife Refuge Annual Festival of the Cranes, a heavily attended event. The two entities will run shuttle buses not only between the refuge and the Center over Highway 1, the Camino Real National Scenic Byway, which connects them, but also between Festival venues from Truth or Consequences to Socorro.

"Its natural history and human history rolled into one package," said Cisneros.

The Heritage Center is located just off Interstate 25 between Socorro and Truth or Consequences at Exit 115. From the east side of Highway 1 (the frontage road), go south 1.5 miles to the back of the Interstate rest area at Milepost 24, then turn left (east) onto County Road 1598, which leads right to the Center.

Visitors can also access the new Heritage Center from San Antonio, exit 139, on the 28-mile Scenic Drive along Highway 1 South.

(For more information call 505 854-3600 or visit www.caminorealheritage.org and www.nmmonuments.org)

* * * *

New Mexico State Monuments is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs. The State Monuments present a capsulated chronology of the stateís history that date back to the 13th Century.


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