One of my favorite day trips is to the Quarai National Monument. Situated between the Manzano Mountains to the west and endless turquoise skies to the east, Quarai is a quiet, austere reminder of New Mexico’s early history.
Around 1300 AD, prehistoric Pueblo Indians established the village of Quarai next to flowing springs and salt-filled lakebeds only a day’s journey away. They raised corn and other grains along with squash and beans. When Europeans arrived in the late 1500s, they found a thriving village of 600-800 people―an ideal location for Spanish missionaries to settle and convert the Indians. A mission church was built in 1626 alongside a kiva where indigenous people were allowed to practice their own traditions along with the new Christian religion. But over time, a combination of drought, disease, famine, and waring Apaches caused the population to dwindle. And by the late 1670s, the village had been completely deserted.
A weathered, metal marker standing next to the forsaken stone church reads:
. . . for three years no Crops have been harvested. Last year a great many Christian Indians starved, left dead along the roads in the ravines and in their huts. There were towns like Las Humanas where more than 450 starved. Now the same Calamity still prevails, for in the whole kingdom there is not a bushel basket of corn, nor of wheat to be had at any price.
Friar Juan Bernal, April 1, 1669
Quarai is one of the three Salinas Pueblo Missions managed by the National Park Service. The nearest town is Mountainair, New Mexico.