Puye Cliff Dwellings pulling in tours, visitors - Albuquerque Journal

Puye Cliff Dwellings pulling in tours, visitors

A reconstructed ruins of a home at Puye Cliff Dwellings. The ancient ruins that are now open to the public again. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

PUYE CLIFF DWELLINGS – History is close to the surface here on the 6,700-foot-high mesa top, which hovers above Santa Clara Pueblo, 10 miles to the east.

Sherds of colorful pottery and sharp-edged pieces of obsidian dating back hundreds of years are strewn about in the dust, uncovered by wind, rain or the tread of human feet. Other elements of nature sometimes get in on the excavation.

Emeric Padilla, a resident of Santa Clara Pueblo and a Puye Cliff Dwellings guide, is crouched over an ant mound on a day late last month.

“The ants are dormant now, but they push up things they don’t need,” he said as he moved his hand lightly over the mound, finding a bead and a piece of turquoise.

Padilla, 56, picks up a piece of obsidian and shows it to the eight people on a tour. He tells them that the people who once lived here, ancestors of the Santa Clara people, his ancestors, used obsidian to make arrow heads.

“This one is a discard,” he said. “If you hold it up to the light, you can usually see a crack.”

Pieces of pottery, beads, arrowheads and grinding stones 500 to 1,100 years old are right there on the ground. As if somebody dropped them yesterday.

Lorri Chmilar, from British Columbia, walks through a reconstructed house on the mesa top portion of the Puye Cliff Dwellings. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Pick a tour

As many as 1,500 Pueblo people lived in this area – now on Santa Clara Pueblo land near Española – between 900 and 1580. Taking advantage of soft, volcanic rock, the product of an eruption in the Jemez Mountains 1.25 million years ago, these people carved dwellings in the cliffs just below the mesa top, and built houses on top of the mesa. Between 1907 and 1910, a team directed by archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewitt uncovered 140 rooms on top of the mesa.

The site, managed by Santa Clara Pueblo, was closed to the public at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but reopened in June 2022. Tours guided by members of Santa Clara Pueblo are available Thursday through Monday. Summer hours, which went into effect Sunday, March 12, are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors may choose from among the following three tours. • Mesa Top Tour: A one-hour tour in which guests are driven in a van to the top of the mesa above the Puye Cliffs to see the remains of multi-storied ancient dwellings, as well as the spectacular views of New Mexico landscape afforded by that vantage point. Tickets are $25 or $21 for seniors and children younger than 14. • Cliff Dwellings Tour: One-hour tour that follows the cliffside below the mesa top to carved-out dwellings and petroglyphs, $25 or $21 for seniors and children younger than 14. • Adventure Tour: Two-hour tour that combines the Mesa Top and Cliff Dwellings tours using ladders to connect them, $40, $36 for seniors and children younger than 14.

People may also pay a visit free of charge to the Puye Cliffs’ Harvey House, built by the Fred Harvey Company to serve railroad tourists. The building is now used as a visitor center, gift shop, offices and an exhibit area, which displays cultural information about the Puye people. It is the only Harvey House constructed on an Indian reservation.

Rooms with a view

Low rows of walls, remnants of the centuries-old buildings that once stood here, stretch along the mesa top. Reconstructions of two houses give some idea of what living conditions might have been like.

Padilla points out how small the doors are, noting they would be easy to defend against enemies.

Jeff Gibby, from Salt Lake City, takes a photo of the ruins of a home at Puye Cliff Dwellings, on Monday, Feb. 27. He and others were on a tour of the ancient ruins that are now open to the public again. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

“It’d be easy to hit somebody on the head while he was crawling in here,” he said.

The Puye people’s enemies were such nomadic tribes as the Apache and the Navajo, and, after the Spanish introduced the horse, making travel over distance easier, the Comanche and the Kiowa.

From the mesa top, you would have been able to see the enemy coming from a long way off. You can still see a lot of New Mexico from here.

Puye Cliff Dwellings Operations Manager Joseph Mark Chavarria, who accompanied this day’s tour, points out snow-capped peaks at Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Los Alamos and Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

There’s a plaza up here on the mesa top and a kiva. The Puye people would have used the latter for religious or tribal government purposes, but Padilla remembers it as being a good place for playing hide-and-seek when he was a kid.

“We used to have ceremonies up here, dances, until the late 1970s,” Padilla said. He points to a depression in the ground, which he said once served as a water catchment.

“As a kid, I remember when you could still see the walls (of the catchment) and the bottom,” he said. “It was probably 5-6 feet deep, but all this sediment has come in. We do still have springs up here. Most of them go so far and then they will go underground, and you don’t see them.”

A collection of pottery sherds and tools cover a rock at Puye Cliff Dwellings. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

A walk down

Shunning the van, tour members use narrow walkways and a ladder to descend from the mesa top, inspecting cliffside dwellings and age-old petroglyphs etched into the cliff walls as they make their way down to the visitor center.

Chavarria, 55, like Padilla, knows almost every inch of his Santa Clara Pueblo home. Both men have hunted this country extensively.

But Chavarria said he has seldom been far from his home. He feels connected to it, to the people who live here now, and to the people who lived here hundreds of years ago.

“Our people were ingenious,” he said of those who lived on the mesa top and in the cliff walls. “They were engineers. They were hydrologists.” And you can walk through their story at the Cliff Dwellings.

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