(CNN) — It's too easy to let New Mexico off as simply "The Land of Enchantment."
It's true the state has magical desert vistas, Rocky Mountain playgrounds and charming adobe communities that predate Columbus' arrival by a few thousand years. But there's an undeniably eclectic and occasionally dark side to the 47th state as well.
In Roswell, residents see UFOs with frightening regularity. In Santa Fe, they burn Zozobra, or "Old Man Gloom," at the stake every fall. And Trinity Site, near Alamogordo, is the first spot on the planet where humans detonated an atomic bomb. Considering that New Mexico is essentially a bilingual state, where nearly half the population is hispanic or latino, it often feels like another country. Add the interesting juxtaposition that it's the fifth-largest state (121,589 square miles), but has a population of about 2 million people (about half the population of Los Angeles), making it one of the least densely populated states in the country.
All of which means that there is quite a lot of space to explore. You might be surprised by what you find:
1. Christmas is served 365 days per year.
Walk into any New Mexico restaurant, order an enchilada or burrito and the server will ask the inevitable: Red, green or Christmas?
That's local parlance for "How do you prefer your chile?"
The spicy, capsaicin-rich sauce made from the official state vegetable smothers most everything that comes out of a New Mexico kitchen.
Whether you prefer spicy green, mellow red or "Christmas," a combination of the two, the little-known secret about New Mexico chile is that red and green are one and the same. The difference is how ripe the pepper is when picked.
2. The wine industry here is older than California's.
It all began in 1629 when Franciscan friar García de Zúñiga and a Capuchín monk named Antonio de Arteaga planted the first wine grapes in the Rio Grande Valley to use for Communion.
By 1884, New Mexico was producing almost a million gallons of wine annually. Indian raids in the 19th century and flooding in the early 20th century brought the industry to its knees, until a group of European investors began importing French hybrid vines to New Mexico to establish small boutique wineries.
Today, the state has more than 40 wineries.
The Gruet family, established French winemakers who moved to New Mexico to run an experimental vineyard in 1984, grow grapes at 4,300 feet. The altitude must work magic. Sparkling wines from Gruet Winery are some of the best in the country. There are Gruet tasting rooms in Albuquerque (8400 Pan American Freeway NE, Albuquerque, NM 87113; 505-821-0055) and Santa Fe (210 Don Gaspar Ave, Hotel St. Francis, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 505-989-9463).
3. Route 66 crosses itself.
Cruise Albuquerque's Central Avenue today and the buildings might be described as faded retro. Flashback to the 1950s and this blacktop strip was the soul of Route 66, the 2,400-mile scenic highway that passed through eight states along the way from Chicago to Los Angeles.
At the height of the Mother Road's popularity in 1955, 98 motels lined Central Avenue.
Today one of the strangest corners is the intersection of Central Avenue and Fourth Street in downtown Albuquerque. Due to a change in the road's alignment in 1937, this is where historic Route 66 (Fourth Street) intersects with modern Route 66 (Central Avenue).
4. Santa Fe is very high, very old, and contains a miraculous staircase.
The staircase at Loretto Chapel is a winding curiosity.
Quirky and charming, Santa Fe sits at 7,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest state capital in the country.
It's also eerily reminiscent of the Old West, especially the downtown plaza's Palace of the Governors, which was built in 1610, more than 300 years before New Mexico became a state.
The "City of Faith" is also home to a few miracles, like the Loretto Chapel's (207 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe, NM 87501; 505-982-0092) circular wooden steps.
Built by an unidentified man who is said to have shown up at the chapel in 1879 with a donkey and a toolbox, his staircase has two 360-degree turns, no visible means of support and wooden pegs instead of metal nails. Some faithful at the time believed that the mystery man was St. Joseph.
5. It's still the Wild West.
Like many villages west of the Mississippi, Cimarron, in the northeast corner of the state, staked its claim as the "Cowboy Capital of the World."
Buffalo Bill Cody once managed a goat ranch just outside of town and Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley and Jesse James stayed at the St. James hotel, famous for being haunted by the men who were murdered there.
The outlaw Davy Crockett (a relative of the legendary frontiersman) murdered three Buffalo Soldiers in the bar in 1876.
More than a century later, New Mexicans are still allowed to openly carry a gun, no permit required, in many public places. So watch your back.
6. White Sands National Monument isn't your typical sand.
White Sands National Monument features an otherworldly landscape.
We may be getting hung up on a technicality, but the "sand" in these 275-square miles of shifting dunes 15 miles west of Alamogordo is actually gypsum crystals. (Most inland sand is made from silica in the form of quartz crystals or coral.)
That's not the only reason White Sands is surreal: 95 African oryx were imported from the Kalahari Desert and set free between 1969 and 1977. Today, thousands of oryx, weighing up to 450 pounds with horns that average 34 inches, roam the area. The National Park Service is concerned about the animal's impact on native plants and animals and has employed measures to control and restrict the population.
7. Archaeologists have identified more than 25,000 Ancestral Pueblo sites in New Mexico.
Arrowheads are unearthed almost everywhere in the state, but for the most complete and mind-boggling perspective of these hunter-gatherers who thrived 10,000 years ago, visit Bandelier National Monument (15 Entrance RD, Los Alamos, NM 87544) near Los Alamos.
The park covers 33,677 acres and centers around Frijoles Canyon, where a mile-long hike takes visitors past petroglyphs and masonry walls built into a cliff face. The Ancestral Puebloans cleared out of Frijoles sometime after 1250, possibly because of drought, deforestation, crop failure or internal conflict. The reasons are still not known.
But to this day their ancestors are scattered across New Mexico in 19 Pueblo communities. One-thousand-year-old Taos Pueblo (120 Veterans Highway, Taos, NM 87571; 575-758-1028), a multistory adobe one mile north of Taos, is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States.
8. You don't need lightning to be awed by 'The Lightning Field.'
In daylight the famous outdoor sculpture built in 1977 by Walter De Maria appears to be little more than 400 stainless steel poles sticking out of the ground near Quemado.
But come sunset on a stormy mid-July summer evening, the poles of "The Lightning Field" will provoke pyrotechnics that make hairs stand on end. Make a reservation at least six months in advance to stay in the rustic, three-bedroom cabin adjacent to the field through the Dia Art Foundation.
Even without lightning, the high desert sky at sunrise and sunset here at 7,200 feet on the edge of the Gila National Forest near Quemado is breathtaking.
9. Ojo Caliente's mineral waters have worked wonders for thousands of years.
Ancestors of the native Tewa tribes, 16th-century Spanish colonizers and ailing bodies in search of a miracle cure have all made the pilgrimage to soak in the geothermal water that flows from an ancient volcanic aquifer to the surface at the rate of more than 100,000 gallons per day.
Southwest of Taos, Ojo Caliente officially became a "health resort" more than 150 years ago, but it still has Lithia, Iron, Soda and Arsenic springs available for day guests. Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa (50 Los Banos Drive, Ojo Caliente, NM 87549; 505-583-2233) opened in 1868. The resort includes a historic 1916 hotel, a variety of suites and cottages and an RV park and camping for overnight guests.
10. 'Old Man Gloom' goes up in flames.
Zozobra, or "Old Man Gloom," is a 50-foot puppet stuffed with scraps of paper bearing the public's woes. Created by artist William Howard Shuster in 1924, Zozobra is an evil monster that is defeated each year by the Fire Spirit.
The torching, presented annually by Kiwanis of Santa Fe on the Friday before Labor Day, is set for August 30, 2019, at Fort Marcy Park (490 Bishops Lodge Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501).
The fiery evening is a kickoff for Fiesta de Santa Fe celebrations. Established in 1712, Fiesta marks Don Diego De Vargas' reoccupation of Santa Fe in 1692.