Passport to Pueblo Country: Your Ticket to Tsankawi Trail and San Ildefonso Pueblo

Exploring Tsankawi Village Trail with descendants of people that lived here in the 1300s is a rare treat. But anyone can book this experience with Passport to Pueblo Country and have a traditional feast meal at San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.

Walking and Talking on the Tsankawi Village Trail

Elmer Torres leads hikers on wide trail
Elmer Torres shares his story on Tsankawi Village Trail near Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We judge each other, often before we even talk together. Perhaps that is an unfortunate part of our human nature. However, when we walk side by side with a person, those barriers come down. Walking together helps start conversations. The following story tells of a family who is bringing down barriers by sharing their culture with people from around the world.

Earlier this month I walked with Elmer Torres across part of his ancestral lands along the Tsankawi Village Trail. These lands are situated about 30 miles northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Elmer, who owns Passport to Pueblo Country, led us up to a mesa top and an abandoned village called Tsankawi (sank-ah-WEE). The mesa and 1.5-mile loop trail are now part of Bandelier National Monument. However, they are separate from the main park, which is twelve miles away.

Tsankawi was home to Elmer’s ancestors

Stacey peeks out from dark hollow in the light colored cliff face,
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey peeks out of caveat on Passport to Pueblo Country hike.

In the 1300s – and some say 1400s – Tsankawi was home to Elmer’s ancestors, the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people, who also walked the Tsankawi Village Trail. Today, their descendants – including Elmer – live in the nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo. The pueblo stands in the valley below the high mesa (6,600 feet above sea level.)

“Back then, you would see a lot of activity around here,” said Elmer pointing to the now the quiet hillsides. “Where you see that crow flying, you can see the caveats where charcoal from years of fires marks the ceilings.” The small rooms carved into the cliff walls of soft tuff or tufa that you see along the Tsankawi Village Trail are called caveats.

Passport to Pueblo Country: Walking Together Breaks Down Barriers

Elmer points towards mountains in background as Allan Kissam from California looks on.

There is something about walking together that breaks down barriers. While walking outdoors you experience the sky and the earth and things you might not read about in books, or see in photos posted on social media. Uneven pathways make you pay attention – paying attention to each step makes you more present to your surroundings, to you self and to the others that walk with you.

Walking with Passport to Pueblo Country helps non-natives understand the local culture and environment from a different perspective.

The spirit of adventure on the Tsankawi Village Trail

Ladder of hand-scribed logs leans against cliff on Tsankawi Village Trail

To get to the mesa top, we had to climb up three ladders made of hand-scribed logs. Embracing the spirit of adventure , we hoisted ourselves up the ladders and over the light-colored cliff faces.

I found it somewhat difficult, as UNSTOPPABLE Stacey, to let others lead. But to be open to the experience, I know that it is important to follow, and let go of trying to control the situation. And so I walked and I listened.

A Trail from here to the Rio Grande River

“The people that lived here knew how to control water. They built small catch tanks to irrigate the land,” explains Elmer. The ancient ones at Tsankawi Village farmed beans, corn and squash – crops that still thrive in the surrounding high desert.

“There was a trail from here to the Rio Grande,” Elmer reveals. We could see the valley of the Rio Grande to the southeast.

Tsankawi Village on Top of the Mesa

Tsankawi Village looks more like unexcavated archaeological site. A line of worked rock in the foreground shows evidence of former pueblo wall. Views stretch out over 30 miles from the top of this mesa.
Ruins of Tsankawi Village at Bandelier National Monument. New Mexico.

Once on top of the mesa, Elmer leads us to a large ruin – once a village of his ancestors – and points out several archaeological features.

Today it is called Tsankawi Village but Elmer gives us its native name which I am unable to write down. Depressions in the ground were evidence of kivas, or subterranean ceremonial gathering places. Archaeologists say that there are ten kivas here, surprising for a village of its rather small size.

“People could live in the kivas, too,” the Passport to Pueblo Country guide says. “High society individuals might live there and others would bring them food, like deer and corn.” The village of Tsankawi had about 275 ground-floor rooms. The structures were one to two stories high and surrounded a large nearly rectangular central plaza.

Hand and Toeholds: Evidence of Ancient Stairways up Steep Cliff Faces

Yellow arrows indicate toehold pecked into rocky cliffs as seen on Passport to Pueblos hike
Toeholds pecked into cliff indicate ancient stairways on Tsankawi Village Trail.

I was fascinated by the hand and toeholds, which reminded me of those I’d seen at Chaco Culture National Historical Park west of here. The carved holes make staircases up and down the canyon walls and tell me that many people worked here. They found places to move up and down the canyon walls with the help of the human-made toeholds.  They provided access to water, gardens and building material.

The people left the mesa top village and migrated west to the valley where San Ildefonso Pueblo now resides. “This whole area was part of our ancestral homelands,” says Elmer, beckoning us on.

Nearby San Ildefonso Pueblo

Large plaza in foreground withtwo-story pueblo buildings of adobe surrounding.
San Ildefonso Pueblo-Plaza. Photo by UNSTOPPABLE Stacey

After completing the Tsankawi Village Trail hike, we climb into our vehicles and follow Elmer back to San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Unlike other native people groups across North America, the Puebloan people of New Mexico and Arizona were not moved from their ancestral land. In fact, today many Puebloans live in the same places that have been inhabited by their families for centuries. San Ildefonso Pueblo was established around 1300 when the people moved off Tsankawi Mesa and away from the villages situated at the main part of what is now called Bandelier National Monument.

Sampling a Traditional Feast Day Meal

Elmer’s wife, Deb Torres, was putting the finishing touches on a hearty lunch in their Feast Home as we arrive. Their home is right on the San Ildefonso Pueblo plaza. During Feast Days, family and friends gather here to watch ceremonial dances and partake in spiritual traditions. As she readies the feast table, we meet Madelyn Naranjo from Santa Clara Pueblo.  Madelyn shares about her life as an artist and potter.

Madelyn Naranjo: From long line of Santa Clara Pueblo Pottery Artists

Young woman stands behind table holding small handmade pots, clay and bowl of water at San Ildefonso Pueblo
Madelyn Naranjo shares her life as a potter while demonstrating pinch-form pottery building technique.

“We harvest our clay right by the pueblo,” says Madelyn, a Santa Clara Pueblo Deep Carved Pottery Artist. “It looks dark like chocolate. In Santa Clara, we all gather clay at the same location. The tribe has been good to bring a backhoe to hire and dig it out.”

“I pinch-form all my pieces,” reveals Madelyn. “Some [other Santa Clara artists] coil, but I don’t have the patience for coiling.”

“My grandma taught me how to create pottery. Her aunts taught her,” says the artist who is now passing her art down to her grandson. “My daughters aren’t interested.”

BTW,  Madelyn is showing at the National Museum of the American Indian-Art Market in Washington DC on December 7-8. She is one of only 35 native arts chosen to go.

The aroma of savory chiles drew our attention to the kitchen. “It was the steam that whispered, ‘I’m done,’” Madelyn smiles.

Breaking Bread - Breaking Barriers after Tsankawi Village Trail

Deb and Elmer Torres sharing a traditional feast day meal.

During lunch Deb and Elmer share about the foods we were eating, and about San Ildefonso Pueblo

“This is an example of what we would eat on a feast day,” says Deb bringing out another plate of food. We passed around family style large bowls of chicken in red chile and ground beef in green chile. “Beware of that one,” Deb warns. “It smells like the chile is hot.”

Only Tribe that borders on a Nuclear Facility

“We’re the only tribe in the USA that borders on a nuclear facility,” Elmer smiles. “In 1940-42 our people had no knowledge of what was going on. We didn’t know much about it until the 1960s and now today our pueblo is working closely with the lab.” The ‘lab’ is Los Alamos National Laboratory, which developed the atomic bomb. It’s not unusual that the people at San Ildefonso Pueblo didn’t know what was going on up there during WWII. Neither did the rest of the country.

“Now we work together to monitor State and Federal levels of what can go into the Rio Grande River,” he adds. Elmer worked for the lab as a liaison between the lab and San Ildefonso Pueblo. He also served as Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of the pueblo.

How to Eat Tamales

“You know how to eat tamales, right?” Deb asks. “You take the husks off first.” She also served lasagna explaining that on Feast Days in the old days, the women would make special dishes like lasagna or other pastas that they wouldn’t typically cook at other times.

Tsankawi Village Trail: 'We want people to come and learn'

Stacey Wittig and Deb Torres stand together in Deb's kitchen at San Idefonso Pueblo
UNSTOPPABLE Stacey and Deb Torres in Deb's kitchen at San Idefonso Pueblo.

“We want people to come and learn from us because there is not a textbook that has been written in our words,” explains Deb, who owns and operates Passport to Pueblo Country with her husband Elmer.

I learned a lot about San Ildefonso Pueblo through Deb’s cooking and storytelling.  One of my fellow travel writers said of the experience: “I can’t stop thinking about how special that day was. Probably my favorite!”

While exploring the outdoors with Elmer, I experienced a deep sense of spirit of the place by trying to look through his eyes. Anyone can book this tour at


Slot Canyon: One of the Best Short Trails in New Mexico Experience Pueblo Culture at Native American-Owned Hotel Santa Fe Feeling like a Non-Native 5 Places to Find the Authentic Wild West in Southeast Montana You’ll love my book, New Mexico’s Bandelier Walking Tour: A Self-guided Pictorial Sightseeing Tour and you can find it on Amazon. As is common in the travel industry, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey was provided with accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the Arizona travel writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. In addition, this blog, UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel, contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, she will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. These commissions help reduce the ever-increasing costs of keeping this travel blog active. Thanks for reading. Enjoy this travel story? Then please share by using the Social Media buttons below.  And leave a comment to say “Hi!”

4 thoughts on “Passport to Pueblo Country: Your Ticket to Tsankawi Trail and San Ildefonso Pueblo”

  1. As always, a very interesting story on a fascinating place and people. We will definitely put this on our to-do list as we head out west for the winter. Thank you for sharing this walk which would have been unknown to us but for your post.

    • Thanks so much for your kind words, Debi. The people and place are really quite fascinating! Great way to experience Santa Fe and San Ildefonso Pueblo.

  2. Thanks for sharing this story, Stacey – I grew up just 2 miles away from the Tsankawi Trail (in White Rock) and have hiked it many times with my family and with visiting company. I wasn’t even aware that anyone offered guided tours; once again your way with words really brings that special day to life. I can almost smell the chile cooking … 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments, Marcia. I was thinking of you when we parked at the remote parking spot … and when Elmer pointed out Los Alamos to us. This was an awesome trail – its so cool that you’ve been hiking it for years. A first for me! Cheers!


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