Welcome to San Luis

During an April road trip with Taos in New Mexico as our destination, my husband and I revisited San Luis, Colorado’s oldest continually inhabited town, founded in 1851. Like many settlements in southern Colorado, it carries a Spanish name, as this part of the state once lay in the territory of New Spain.

The farther away from Colorado’s busy Front Range one journeys, the greater the region’s storied history looms. Much of the land mass north of the Isthmus of Panama was claimed for the King and Queen of Spain after Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America in 1492, which resulted in the bloody usurpation of the Aztec Empire. Centuries later, after Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, those lands became Mexican, but vast stretches of it were “ceded” to the U.S. only two and a half decades later following the Mexican-American War (1846-48). This war is often mentioned summarily in a few short lines, but it was hugely significant for Mexico and the United States.

In his acclaimed Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, bestselling author Hampton Sides reflects about this tumultuous period:

With the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in February 1848, the Mexican War officially ended, and the United States officially absorbed 1.2 million square miles of new real estate—increasing the national domain by more than 66 percent. Agreeing to pay the paltry sum of $15 million, Polk had won precisely what he wanted at the outset, a vast, unbroken, continental nation with Pacific harbors. Washington’s first war of foreign intervention had cost the lives of more than 13,000 Americans—the highest death rate per fighting soldier in U.S. military history—with the Mexican toll soaring far higher, perhaps as high as 25,000 dead. The victory did not come without stout reservations and pangs of somber introspection among many American leaders who could not ignore the war’s darker imperial shadings. Ulysses S. Grant, to name one prominent doubter who actually fought in the conflict, would call the Mexican War ‘one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.’

Sides continues in this vein:

Nicholas Trist, the American envoy sent to Mexico City to negotiate the treaty, later recalled sitting down with the Mexican officials and trying to hide his guilt about concluding a treaty that sheared from Mexico nearly half of its territory: ‘Could those Mexicans have seen into my heart that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was strong. . . For though it would not have done for me to say so there, that was a thing for every right-minded American to be ashamed of, and I was ashamed of it, most cordially and intensely ashamed of it.’

Portions of the yet-to-be-founded states of Colorado and New Mexico lay in this appropriated region and its Hispano inhabitants became American citizens, often against their personal preference, as well as the concerns of a predominantly Protestant country with strong anti-Catholic sentiments. To the numerous Indigenous tribes who had lived in or migrated through the area for centuries, if not millennia, before the arrival of Europeans, citizenship was not offered until 1924, but not before they had to endure many more devastating trials and tribulations.

For our trip to New Mexico, we opted to leave Interstate 25 near Walsenburg and follow US Highway 160 and Colorado Highway 159, which leads straight through San Luis, located in the eponymous San Luis Valley at an elevation of 7,979 feet (2.432 meters). The town’s best-known attraction, the Stations of the Cross Shrine, is located on a hill at the eastern edge of the community. A footpath, hewn into the mountainside, is lined by fifteen bronze sculptures depicting the final stages of Jesus’s life and culminating in his resurrection.

Fashioned by local artist and sculptor Huberto Maestas, whose work is well-known beyond the boundaries of his hometown and state, the sculptures are nearly life-size and very expressive. Station three captures the anguish on Mary’s face when her bloodied son passes her, burdened by his heavy cross, and represents the pain and sorrow of anyone who has watched a loved one suffer without being able to intervene.

A chapel atop the mesa comes gradually into view with each ascending step. Built in a Spanish-Moorish style, it towers over town and surrounding plateau and from this perch, the traveler beholds wide-ranging views of Sangre de Christo mountains in the east, and San Juan mountains in the west. On the day of our visit, the church doors were locked, but I was able to find a few images of its interior in my archives, dating back to 2017.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover your cursor over it.

Besides the Stations of the Cross Shrine, San Luis is also home to the oldest grocery store in Colorado, the R & R Market, founded in 1857, but I failed to capture an image. It belonged to seven generations of the same family for 165 years, and when it was sold in 2022, the new owners pledged to keep it open and transform it into a local cooperative, The Peoples Market. For more information, here is a link to a Rocky Mountain PBS website: https://www.rmpbs.org/blogs/rocky-mountain-pbs/the-oldest-grocery-store-in-colorado-changes-ownership/.

What I also took photos of are a number of historically and culturally relevant murals (the ones with colorful leaves are also from the autumn 2017). If you ever find yourself in this southcentral part of Colorado, I highly recommend you spend a few hours here to explore its absorbing heritage.

Part relief/part mural on the side of a building in San Luis

Mural on the side of a house in San Luis

31 thoughts on “Welcome to San Luis

  1. Interesting to speculate how the history of North America, and indeed the world as a whole, would have been different had the Mexican-American War never happened. That war is little known here – Brits tend to focus on the War of Independence (inevitably…we lost!) and the Civil War – but it was plainly a definitive moment in shaping the modern US. Fascinating stuff.

    I love the part relief/part mural on the side of the house. Very evocative of a different age.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Mr. P. I apologize for the tardy response.

      I have had similar thoughts. We tend to look back in time and get the impression that some events were unavoidable, but at each junction, someone made a conscious decision to proceed in one way, rather than another.

      I like to imagine how life on this planet would be different if we haughty Europeans had tried to understand and learn from different cultures, instead of declaring ourselves superior and bulldozing whatever stood in the way of our very narrow way of thinking.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Agreed totally. Where we are today (the good, the bad and the ugly) has been determined by countless decisions in the past, decisions both made and not made. We can honour those who have been wronged in the past by learning from history and committing ourselves to not repeating the mistakes of the past.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Our schools would do well to teach more history, which reveals that people are people, for better and for worse. The United States took land away from Mexico. Mexico had broken away from Spain. Spain had subdued various tribes in the Americas, as you mentioned. Those tribes (or clans within tribes) had been warring against one another for centuries and presumably millennia. It sure would be nice if people could learn to get along.

    In 2017, heading south from Colorado Springs, we also turned west off Interstate 25 at Walsenburg (good German name). We did so to get to Great Sand Dunes National Park, after which we continued south to Taos. On our previous visit there in 2002, we went to visit the grave of Kit Carson (whom you also mentioned). An iron fence with a gate surrounds it, but over time the gate had settled into the ground. When I went to open it, I found it wouldn’t budge. Undeterred, I climbed over the fence and took some pictures of the grave. When I climbed back out, however, my pants leg caught on the fence and I fell onto the ground, fracturing a bone in my left arm near the wrist. Your visit was less fraught, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Steve. I apologize for the late response.

      Yes, learning about our past would do all of us good. Learning from it would even be better.

      I share your wish for all of us to get along. But pointing to the horrific things humans have always done to one another doesn’t justify continuing to do so (and I don’t think that was the point of your argument).

      I remember reading about your mishap at Kit Carson’s grave a while back, and I’m sorry it happened. I will show a photo of the grave in a future post (if I ever get it written), and I’m happy to report that I didn’t break any bones during the taking of it.


  3. Thanks for the tour and photos of this town. I’ve heard of it but didn’t know it’s the oldest in CO and, as with most people, know very little about the actual realities of the Mexican American war.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, interesting history. I’ve heard of San Luis, but this was a great tour and good history lesson. Hope you enjoyed your trip and time in Taos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Christa. I’m always surprised how much history there is to uncover wherever we go. I also love the regional adobe buildings and art. The long history of Catholicism in this part of the country is very palpable and visible.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful place with some sad memories. I have to admit that I didn’t know that the Spanish had reached Colorado or that indigenous people did not get citizenship of their own country until 1924. Thank you for this post. K x

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your comment, Kerry. Even though I love learning about the history of various places, most of it is rather depressing. I don’t know why it’s so challenging for us to want the best for everybody, instead of only for ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a lovely spot to spend time discovering history and absorbing local culture!
    Thank you for sharing some outstanding photographs of San Luis. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Wally, I’m sorry it took me a while to respond.

      We enjoy discovering new destinations and their history, even if much of it is not uplifting.

      If you ever come out this way, you might miss the color and humidity of Florida, besides the paucity of long-legged wading birds. 😊


  7. This is why we must be aware and learn from history and not go about rewriting it or worse trying to shield people from it or as the saying goes, it will be repeated. Recently learned a lot more about that war from our recent trip to the Hidalgo County battlefields. The canon battles there must have been horrifying – especially for the outmatched Mexican army. From the placards at the various key battle points learned that we had perfected small canon units that were highly mobile to keep the enemy charges contained while massive canons in the back rained down hell and broke the enemy spirits. Standing there years since was still sobering.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, Brian. Learning about history is important, but as I wrote before, learning from it is even more important. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have been doing that enough, as we repeat the same mistakes over and over.
      I have had that sobering feeling you describe repeatedly.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I was especially taken by the relief/mural combination showing the horses. Before reading about the technique, I couldn’t figure out how the artist had achieved such a 3-D effect. I also enjoyed the photo of the interior of the chapel. The similarities between it and some of our mission chapels is obvious, although the decoration probably differs somewhat because of different cultural influences.

    Although I didn’t spend much time in Taos proper, I have some warm memories of the people of the various communities strung along the High Road to Taos. My favorite memory? Cherry picking! As I recall, they were only $2/pound, but even today you can pick your own for $4/pound. Luscious!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the art and architecture of New Mexico, including along the High Road. It’s been a number of years since we traveled it, but unlike you, we were never there when the cherries were ripe. I haven’t eaten cherries directly off the tree since my childhood, but I remember that experience fondly. 🍒🍒🍒

      Liked by 1 person

  9. […] Let me take you briefly back to San Luis in southcentral Colorado, the state’s oldest continually inhabited town and a stop en route to Taos, New Mexico, during our April road trip. After exploring the Stations of the Cross Shrine, we continued our drive south on Colorado Highway 159, which turns into New Mexico Highway 552 at the interstate line. It doesn’t matter how many times we have crossed this invisible border, we always stop to take a photo of the sign welcoming us to New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment,” with its cheerful yellow color and red-hot chili peppers. […]


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