Cynthia Rael-Vigil, a fifth-generation Questa resident and fourth-generation owner of Rael’s Market in this northern New Mexico village says pride of place and honoring family traditions holds her village together through good times and bad. “My grandfather and his brothers started this business as a general store in 1927. They sold everything from clothing to food staples,” she says. “My dad took over the store from my grandfather in the 1960s, and now my daughter is helping me run it.”
What makes this town with just one stoplight and fewer than 2,000 residents unique starts with a gorgeous natural environment. The village sits at 7,500 feet near the confluence of the Río Grande and Red River, on the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway. This 84-mile loop earns praise as one of the most beautiful drives in the country. Known as the Gateway to the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, which lies to the west of the Village, Questa is part of the Carlson National Forest and its Columbine Hondo and Latir Peak Wilderness Areas. Trails lead from the town through these protected areas and down into the Río Grande Gorge. Fishing, hiking, camping, mountain biking, skiing, and other outdoor activities abound. Many village residents make their livings outfitting, feeding, and watering adventure seekers, anglers, skiers, and hunters.
Rael’s Market features the wares of a dozen crafts people and local artists, in addition to serving as a community gathering place for weekly jam sessions and a spot where espressos fuel morning gatherings. Questa-made Taos Bakes energy bars are always available for a quick snack. The summer farmers’ market on Sundays offers bushels of local fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The Questa Studio Arts Tour in August flings open the doors of dozens of local artists to visitors from around the world. In October, Cambalache, an annual harvest festival for the past 25-years, celebrates autumn and is full of dancing, music and food. Even a Cucui is burned, which is an effigy filled with paper penas, or pains, and worries, so attendees can watch them all go up in smoke.
Even with all this activity, stores and restaurants close early most nights, and Sundays are quiet. That’s the perfect opportunity to be hiking the trails or fishing the rivers. This focus on outdoor activities draws visitors and is a 180-degree shift from mining, the industry that for over a century was the lifeblood of the area. When the nearby molybdenum mine closed in 2014, the village made a deliberate decision to reimagine itself. Significant investments of time and resources were made to clean up and restore stretches of the Red River and nearby lakes, and area lands.
The successful restoration projects and renewed support for the outdoors is evident every spring when the town turns out for the annual Río Grande Cutthroat Trout Restocking Festival. Hundreds of volunteers, also coming from neighboring communities and states, hike down the Gorge to the Rio Grande with bags of fingerling fish, releasing them into the frigid waters to help maintain a strong and healthy fish population.
Another local attraction that draws visitors from near and far is the Historic San Antonio del Río Colorado Church, which was built in the mid-1800s by the first settling families. This iconic symbol of the Village is the traditional heart of the community, one often painted or photographed by artists. A collapsed wall several years ago nearly spelled its doom. Instead, its restoration united the area residents, many of whom are descendants of those same original settlers that initially built the church.
“Everyone participated and were so happy to be out there,” says Rael-Vigil. “Community members and visitors provided meals, held fundraisers, some did prayer rosaries, many did a lot of physical labor or offered other skills. We rebuilt all the walls, put in a foundation, modern heating and a group created stained glass, which we never had before. We not only repaired the wall but restored the entire structure, we preserved the authenticity by recycling all of the material back into the structure.”
The Church represents the Village’s pride of place, it is the focal point of the Questa History Trail, a half-mile self-guided walking loop. Interpretive markers share stories from generations of Village traditions and acknowledge today’s importance and beauty of the Village’s great outdoors. Rael-Vigil maintains, “It’s an amazing place to visit.”