Where there is water in the high deserts of Northern New Mexico there is life, and that is very much the case for the small village of La Cienega, just south of Santa Fe. La Cienega means “desert marsh” in Spanish, and La Cienaga certainly lives up to its name. Natural streams and springs dot the valley, making it an oasis, full of large cottonwood trees, songbirds, wildflowers and an incredible variety of wildlife. So is the setting for El Rancho de las Golondrinas, “the ranch of the swallows,” tucked away in La Cienega Valley. With desert water comes another creature — humans. People have been living in and passing through Las Golondrinas for thousands of years, and it continues to be a place people seek out and enjoy all these eons later.
Today El Rancho de las Golondrinas is the site of the Southwest’s premier living history museum. It features 200 acres of ponds, acequias, fields and over forty historical buildings. Some buildings are original to the site, but others were brought here from all corners of New Mexico. When the post-pandemic world is back to normal, Golondrinas’ buildings will again be staffed with volunteers in period dress, showing and explaining to guests how New Mexicans lived from the 1600s to statehood in 1912. A traditional schoolhouse, brought from Raton, shows the educational setting for early New Mexican children and teachers. Tinsmiths explain how tin became a vital and unique art form in New Mexico, and there is a tiendita, or general store, where guests can learn the importance of bartering in New Mexico’s culture and what goods they would have had access to in the 1800s.
Golondrinas also features animals important to New Mexico. Guests, especially the children, always seem partial to the Churro sheep, goats and burros. The sheep at the ranch are sheared here, and their wool is carded, spun, dyed and woven. This is all done using traditional techniques so that guests can see firsthand the weaving process and its importance in New Mexican life. Along with sharing New Mexico’s animal traditions, Golondrinas also features traditional crops and food ways. The growing season of traditional acequia-fed crops extends into the fall. The harvest includes corn, squash and chile — crops grown in La Cienega for thousands of years.
From early June through late October, El Rancho de las Golondrinas holds various festivals drawing thousands of visitors from all over the country and world. Festivals celebrate weaving, lavender and herbs, New Mexican food and beer, and a gathering of winemakers from all over the state to share their vintages. There is a celebration of our neighbor, Mexico, as well as Fiesta de los Niños for New Mexico’s kids and a Renaissance Faire (turkey legs galore!). In addition, there is a harvest festival at which grapes are squished and cider is pressed, and near Halloween, Spirits of New Mexico’s Past celebrates New Mexicans who are no longer with us. Each festival is unique and provides a way to see the ranch in full swing. Visitors can spend a fun-filled day exploring the beautiful property.
But Golondrinas was not always a museum and fun festival spot. For many centuries, it was a working ranch and homestead where the people who lived there grew or made almost everything they needed to survive. Inhabitants grew grain and milled it. They raised animals and to provide meat, wool, leather and milk. They built and maintained acequias (irrigation ditches), which enabled them grow fruits and vegetables. The mud they built their adobe homes and hornos (outdoor ovens) with came from the earth on which they stood. Golondrinas was largely self-sufficient, but if other goods were needed, they mostly came from trade along El Camino Real, or the Royal Road. El Rancho de las Golondrinas was a paraje, or stopping point, on this 1,500-mile trade route between Mexico City and Santa Fe. From 1598 to 1882, almost 300 years, Golondrinas served as the final stop on the way to north Santa Fe, and the first stop for those headed the other direction. It was place to rest, get water for the travelers and their animals, eat and perhaps trade goods.
With the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, leading to Santa Fe from St. Louis, goods from the East began to come to New Mexico, making Golondrinas even busier and livelier. In 1846 the U.S. Army came to New Mexico, and the Camino Real became less used as time wore on. With the coming of the train in 1878, the Santa Fe Trail also became less important, and Golondrinas’ role as a trading hub faded.
Golondrinas continued to be lived on and farmed by various families. In 1933 Leonora Scott Muse Curtin and her daughter, Leonora, bought El Rancho de las Golondrinas as a retreat. In 1946 Leonora Curtin married a Finnish gent by the name of Yrjo Alfred (Y.A.) Paloheimo. After touring living history museums in Europe, Mr. and Mrs. Paloheimo decided to turn Golondrinas into a New Mexican/Southwestern living history museum. Buildings already on the property were restored, other historic buildings were brought in from around the state, and other period buildings were erected.
In 1972 the museum opened its doors to visitors, and festivals soon followed. The fiftieth anniversary is coming up, and lots of fun and interesting plans are in the works for Golondrinas’ big birthday party. Golondrinas has spent several years working on a strategic plan for improving existing buildings as well as adding other buildings to enhance visitors’ experience. Also envisioned are improvements for pathways, infrastructure and signage, and overall ease of use to make the ranch accessible and comfortable for all guests.
El Rancho de las Golondrinas is a cultural icon of our state and region. May it continue to bring joy to New Mexicans as we celebrate those who helped build this historic treasure and those who have played a role preserving it.