SANTA CLARA PUEBLO — After every few steps, Joseph Mark Chavarria points out more pottery shards, pieces of obsidian and other artifacts that are laying on the ground while walking around the stunning Puye Cliff Dwellings.
They’re absolutely everywhere — embedded in the dirt road near the visitor center, displayed in clusters atop rocks that sit along the paths that skirt the cliff dwellings and spread all around the remains of the multi-story ancient complex that contained some 140 rooms on the mesa top.
This is true preservation, said Chavarria, operations manager at Puye Cliff Dwellings.
“The difference between this and federally managed sites is you get to see traditional protection,” Chavarria said of the sacred site in Santa Clara Pueblo that’s located about 36 miles northwest of Santa Fe. “We protect the land how we were taught by our ancestors.”
At Puye Cliffs, he explains, artifacts are left where they’ve come to rest so they can be viewed by future visitors as they were seen by past generations, rather than collected and cataloged.
Managed by Santa Clara Pueblo, Puye Cliffs offers visitors a different, more connected experience from what one might encounter at sites managed by federal agencies, such as nearby Bandelier National Monument.
A ‘meaningful’ experience of history
All tours at Puye Cliffs are guided and are led by members of Santa Clara Pueblo. This cuts down on the potential for vandalism and theft, but also helps visitors gain a greater understanding of the breathtaking ancestral home of the Santa Clara Pueblo people.
“Bandelier is cool to see, but there you get a map and walk around and you might not know the history of what you’re looking at,” said Sam Moquino, 28, who’s been a guide for three years. “Here, it can be more meaningful because you’re going to know what you’re experiencing.”
“People ask not just about our ancestors, but also about how we live today,” she added. “It’s a great feeling to see people so amazed, so interested and asking questions.”
Puye Cliffs was first occupied in the 1100s when early Pueblo people moved south from Mesa Verda and Chaco Canyon and arrived at the Pajarito Plateau. They were able to carve their dwellings from the soft volcanic rock, called tuff, that was produced from an eruption of nearby Valles Caldera in the Jemez Mountains more than 1 million years ago.
Dwellings were built on both the cliff face and the mesa top, which offers incredible 360-degree views of the surrounding valleys and mountain ranges — from the peaks near Taos to the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque.
‘Place where rabbits gather’
Atop the mesa, a rabbit hops near a kiva where ancestral Tewa people held ceremonies centuries ago. As if a planned part of the tour, Chavarria points out the critter and explains that Puye means the “place where rabbits gather.”
Chavarria said the mesa top village had a tactical purpose, providing an ideal lookout to spot approaching enemies. He said the Apache and Navajo were the traditional enemies of the people of Puye Cliffs and would attempt raids during harvest time.
Growing to the largest of the early Pueblo settlements in the area, the people who occupied Puye Cliffs gradually moved into the Rio Grande Valley to cultivate new fields, and Santa Clara Pueblo, about 10 miles east of the cliffs, became their permanent home by the early 1600s.
Today’s citizens of Santa Clara Pueblo maintain the traditions of past generations. They continue creating Santa Clara’s well-known black and red polished pottery. They grow crops including corn, beans and watermelon. They hunt game in the mountains on the western side of the reservation.
The Puye Cliff Dwellings guides say they rarely leave the pueblo and always feel a longing to return when they do. Here, they say, they have everything they need.
“I can go anywhere, but I know this place,” said guide Emeric Padilla, who used to travel the country as a wildland firefighter. “It all comes back to being at home.”
“Just being up here, how can you not enjoy this scenery?” Padilla added. “It carries you back in time and puts you in touch with your ancestors.”
Visitors welcomed once again
Puye Cliffs welcomed a return of visitors back in June after tours were shut down at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
A few different tour options are available.
The mesa top tour is a one-hour guided tour where guests will be driven in a van to the top of the mesa above Puye Cliffs and will see the remains of the multi-storied ancient dwellings as well as the dramatic views of the surrounding landscape.
The cliff dwellings tour is a one-hour tour that follows the cliffside below the mesa top to masonry dwellings, carved cavate dwellings and petroglyphs.
The two one-hour tours cost $25 for adults ($21 for seniors and children under 14). They can be combined for a two-hour adventure tour where visitors will link between the mesa top and cliff dwellings by using wooden ladders. The adventure tour costs $40 for adults ($36 for seniors and children under 14).
Puye Cliff Dwellings also contains a restored 1930s Harvey House that was built by the Fred Harvey Company and brought visitors through the Southwest on railroad tours. The building, which is free to enter, now contains cultural exhibits about Puye Cliffs, facts about the site’s excavation and the history of Santa Clara Pueblo.
Chavarria said guides can tailor tours to fit visitors’ physical abilities and give wheelchair-bound guests a tour of the mesa top. “It’s in us to take care of anyone,” he said.
While providing insight into the lives of those who inhabited Puye Cliffs, the guides said they like to brighten the guests’ day by injecting humor into the tour.
Tourists come from around the world
They call the white van they use to transport visitors to the mesa top the “white buffalo.” Chavarria said he’ll also do things like report nearby bigfoot sightings via two-way radio while the guides are out leading their guests on tours.
“We may look stoic, but we’re not. We like to joke around and laugh,” Chavarria said.
The site draws tourists from around the world. Chavarria said he’s met visitors from far-flung places including Afghanistan, Iraq, China and the Nordic countries.
He said he appreciates when conversations involve an exchange of cultural knowledge and finds that people from around the world have more in common than they might think.
While most visitors have respect for Puye Cliffs and its guides, Chavarria said trespassing, theft and vandalism commonly occur. There’s a display in the exhibit hall that shows pottery shards and artifacts that have been stolen and returned, along with an apology letter.
The staff at Puye Cliffs asks that visitors simply obey the signs and follow the posted site rules out of respect for the land and its people
This captivating setting is one to be appreciated and preserved to ensure a memorable experience for future generations.
“Everyone who comes to this place connects with it,” Padilla said. “You can feel it.”