If the Rio Grande could talk, it would tell you about Indigenous people who sustained themselves along its banks for millennia. At least 700 year ago, the Tewa village of Phiogeh was established, and their farmers grew the three sisters — corn, beans and squash — as well as cotton and amaranth.
In 1598, the controversial conquistador Juan de Oñate led an expedition of Spanish colonists who settled in the area. In 1680, history changed forever when Popé (Po’Pay), a Tewa leader from nearby Ohkay Owingeh, organized a Pueblo revolt that drove the Spanish out. Twelve years later they came back to re-conquer the land, and the Spanish crown made a land grant of 51,000 acres that included the Los Luceros property. The native people were paid to dig an acequia system (irrigation ditches); the “salary” was parcels of their own land that had been taken from them. Although Phiogeh lies silent and unexcavated under the site today, the acequia madre is still being used.
In the eighteenth century, the massive adobe hacienda was the heart of the Sebastián Martín land grant. In the nineteenth century, the hacienda received a makeover, becoming the Territorial-style architectural gem it is today. Fittingly, the 5,700-square-foot home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the l920’s Boston heiress and anthropologist Mary Wheelwright (a founder of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe) began the purchase of Los Luceros Ranch, which had fallen into disrepair. The hacienda, eighteenth-century chapel, Victorian cottage, carriage house and guesthouse were lovingly restored.
Today, Los Luceros , one of the state’s most scenic and historically significant properties, is an officially designated New Mexico Historic Site. A free, self-guided map indicates the sites and buildings, but only your imagination can conjure up the illustrious visitors who walked the land during the time of Mary Wheelwright and later. Georgia O’Keeffe, Santa Fe painter Olive Rush, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Maria Chabot (you’ll learn about her during your visit) topped the list of women. As for men, D.H. Lawrence admired the scenic and historic site, and Leonard Bernstein filled the two-story hacienda with piano music. When Wheelwright lived in the hacienda, Diné (Navajo) artist Hasííin (Hosteen) Klah occupied the room next to hers. A nádleehi, a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, he was a master weaver and ceremonial singer.
Throughout your visit at Los Luceros, you will experience both history and beauty. The entrance to the property, which is north of Española near the village of Alcalde, is a dirt road bordered by cottonwood trees that extend their welcoming branches. Several short trails lead through the bosque (woods), along the river, past the pond, through the apple orchards (you can pick your own heritage apples during the fall harvest festival), across the fields and to the farmyard. Be prepared to meet some very friendly churro sheep, curious goats and a persnickety donkey.
Walking in the fresh air will make you hungry, and you’ll find picnic tables near the visitors center. To enjoy our luxe bosque picnic, we chose a spot near the river, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the distance. Drawing on inspiration from his visit to Los Luceros, Chef/Owner Fernando Olea of Sazón Restaurant in Santa Fe (sazonsantafe.com), created a special meal for us. His culinary homage to the historic site illustrates why he was named 2019 Restaurateur of the Year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.
The Los Luceros tribute meal began with a delicate sopa de milpa (“farm soup”) made of succulent corn kernels, poblano peppers, squash and squash blossoms, and bits of zucchini floating in a homemade vegetable broth.
It was followed by a rack of Churro lamb surrounded by a colorful burst of silky sweet potatoes, swirls of shaved beets, crispy white rice noodles and a splash of persimmon reduction. The entrée was served with Chef’s original apricot-base mole. “Everything is made from local ingredients that would have been traditionally available at the hacienda,” Olea explained, “except for the rice noodles and sweet potatoes.” I’d bet my shaved beets that the wealthy farm owners never had such inventive cuisine.
For dessert, Chef Olea tipped his cowboy hat to little Natilla, the friendliest of the Churro sheep at Los Luceros. Chef prepared traditional New Mexican natilla — milk custard with roasted pine nuts, caramelized apples, meringue and a sprig of fresh mint. I am sure I saw the sun winking at us as we savored the last bit of our riparian repast.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel and culture journalist, author of three books, speaker and frequent media guest as a travel expert. Her husband, Paul Ross, is an award-winning photojournalist, writer and photographer. Their website is globaladventure.us.