AFTER ONLY A DAY, I was ready to cut my Santa Fe visit short. There was the exorbitantly priced plate of ribs at the tourist-packed Coyote Cafe, the nerve-wracking jam of SUVs on Canyon Road, the boutique just off the Plaza doing a brisk business in $7,000 hand-painted lamps and $12,000 antique doors. It was as bad as I'd feared it would be.

Then a friend called with a suggestion: an excursion to Bandelier National Monument. After an hour-long drive across a sweep of mountains covered in cactus and juniper trees, we were peering into caves inhabited by Cochiti tribesmen five centuries ago and taking in soothing sweet air with the aroma of pinyons. Somewhere mid-hike, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and decided to give Santa Fe another try.

This is, after all, a corner of the country whose regal blue skies and lonely landscapes have inspired a generation of painters and photographers, where visitors arrive for a week and stay for the rest of their lives, where the spirits of Native Americans wander the streets at night. Chatting up longtime residents for tips and scouring newspapers and guidebooks for recommendations, I was looking for their vision of this 400-year-old city, for the places not yet primed and polished for the deluge of tourists. I was searching for the soul of Santa Fe.

That evening, I found part of it at the restaurant Tomasita's. Surrounded by Santa Feans hunched over heaping plates of spicy-hot Southwestern dishes, I devoured the perfect chile relleno. The next day, I explored the Tesuque flea market, a sprawl of Navajo rugs, hand-carved sculptures, furniture and other one-of-a-kind objects so alluring that I started daydreaming about building an adobe addition to my home to hold it all.

At night I retreated to the porch of the landmark Inn of the Anasazi, named for the area's original residents, to listen for the spirits and watch the sky fade into a dramatic sweep of pink and iris-colored clouds. For the next five days, I kept up my search.

The Price of Success

Even Santa Fe's biggest boosters acknowledge that the 1990s brought some unfortunate changes. A rush of newcomers arrived, buying up the city's trademark deep brown adobe homes and doubling the population to about 63,000, and in the surrounding county to about 130,000.

The central Plaza, an inspiring square once lined with unique shops and art galleries, is now home to Banana Republic, Chico's and what's billed as the busiest Haagen Dazs in the United States. Cher, Val Kilmer and other celebrities have bought second or third homes here and transformed the place into a kind of distant suburb of Hollywood. The rate of visitors quadrupled. "We've been Aspenized," said Cynthia Leespring, a guide with Aboot About, a tour company. "Or maybe Aspen has been Santa Fe'd."

Yet, you can still find refreshing expressions of the raw Southwestern spirit here. The Guadalupe district, a 15-minute walk from the main Plaza, is a good place to start looking. A 20-square-block neighborhood of adobe homes, quirky stores and cafes, it lacks the wonderful territorial architectural style popularized in the 1800s or the even more historical elegance of the Plaza, Santa Fe's center of tourism. But it compensates in accessibility and laid-back style.

Guadalupe is a good place to shop for the kinds of goods that Santa Fe is known for: Western clothing, handmade home furnishings, Indian pottery and jewelry. At Southwest Spanish Craftsman, you can order bureaus, tables, doors and other furniture decorated with intricate carvings. Santa Fe Pottery sells ceramic vases, jugs and other products at more reasonable prices than stores closer to the center. Around the corner, the Rio Bravo Trading Co. is the place to go for cowboy boots, hats, spurs and other Western paraphernalia.

In the 1970s, a wave of counterculture types staked out their spot in Guadalupe, and their earthy spirit lingers everywhere. At the farmer's market, organized on Saturday mornings in an abandoned rail yard in the middle of the district, folks come from the surrounding hills to sell vegetables, melons, herbs, peppers and freshly baked bread. Around the corner at Ark Books, one of the country's best-known repositories of New Age literature and music, herbal tea is always brewing and the shelves are lined with the works of visionary writers such as Eckhart Tolle, and ecology-inspired recording artists like David Dunn. A couple of blocks away at the Bodhi Bazaar, locals buy casual clothing, have their tarot cards read and chew the fat with other shoppers.

The more I hung out in Guadalupe, the more fat-chewing I observed and took part in, both with locals and visitors. There was April, the hostess at Pranzo's, a beloved Italian restaurant, chattering about how much she missed the rain in her native Seattle. And Burt, an out-of-work drummer sipping beers at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame who filled me in on the best local venues for live music.

A short walk away, I stopped into an adobe structure next the San Miguel Mission. Built in the 1500s, it is said to be the oldest house in Santa Fe. As I wandered through the small, dark rooms, staring at the ancient corner fireplaces and rooftop entranceways constructed in the old Indian style, I had the distinct feeling that someone was staring at me from behind.

And that, I thought, is the soul of Santa Fe.

Crafts and Customs

The morning sun was just falling across the Plaza, and the vendors were spreading out their wares on blankets under the portals in front of the Palace of the Governors. Majorie, a Navajo, was selling tiny bookmarks made of silver for $20 each. Rick, a member of the Santa Clara pueblo, had silver bookmarks, too, decorated with gemstones from his shop near Albuquerque. Patricia, a mix of Navajo and Cochiti, featured elegantly designed silver necklaces.

I strolled along, chatting as I went, intrigued by this longstanding Santa Fe ritual. According to custom, jewelry makers and craftsmen from throughout northern New Mexico meet near the Plaza and enter their names in a daily lottery. Of the hundreds of contenders, only the first couple dozen or so names to be drawn can sell their products for the day. The makeshift marketplace cannot accommodate more. The city of Santa Fe, which organizes the event, stipulates that the vendors must be card-carrying members of one of the local pueblos and must use authentic silver or other natural materials to make their wares. Although squarely on the beaten track, the market under the portals of the governor's mansion is one Santa Fe attraction no visitor should miss.

Another is the Santa Fe Opera. On a chilly evening, a friend and I made the seven-mile trip north of the city to the open-air venue. Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, the building's majestic setting alone is worth the trip. And the production of "Eugene Onegin," set to an emotional score by Tchaikovsky, made for an uplifting outing.

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is another venue that should not be missed. In a city with a half-dozen major museums, including an excellent showcase of Santa Fe and New Mexico history in the Palace of the Governors and a stunning tribute to Spanish culture at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the competition for art-viewing is keen. But to visit Santa Fe without looking at the world's biggest collection of O'Keeffes would be like visiting Washington and bypassing the National Air and Space Museum.

The permanent exhibition is arranged to show the gradual progression of the artist's works from simple landscapes in basic colors to sensual, spectacularly colored renditions of the New Mexican landscape. To put O'Keeffe's work in context, paintings and photographs by some of her contemporaries are also displayed. During my visit, there was an exhibition of awesome photographs by Todd Webb, a longtime O'Keeffe friend, that included shots of the painter between the late 1920s and 1950s.

One of the most poignant features of the museum is a documentary devoted to O'Keeffe's life, with photographs of her leathery, poetic face, and personal accounts of her relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz. For me, it was her assessment of northern New Mexico landscape that was most insightful.

"I knew from the first time I came and saw the color and heard the wind that this was my place," she says in a scene from the film. "I knew I would spend the rest of my life here."

And that, I thought, is the soul of Santa Fe.

Gallery Hopping

In the past 15 years, the number of galleries in Santa Fe has mushroomed from a couple of dozen to more than 250. The third-largest concentration of art venues in the United States, it includes spaces devoted largely to Southwestern landscapes, others featuring works by bygone masters such as Frederic Remington, and still others displaying the works of emerging artists in Santa Fe. Although many of the most prestigious places line Canyon Road, a posh boulevard an easy walk from the town center, others are spread out across the city. A casual visitor is at a loss for where to start gallery-hopping.

As I talked with artists, gallery owners and a few critics, four names kept popping up as must-sees for the casual visitor. I visited each one.

LewAllen Contemporary, in downtown Santa Fe, is a vast space exhibiting an eclectic mix of painters. There were big names, such as Forrest Moses, a painter of colorful Monet-like works, and Jesus Bautista Moroles, a sculptor of oversize works, mostly made of granite. But there were also some little-known painters. The mix reflected the tastes of owner Arlene LewAllen. A charismatic figure who nurtured hundreds of painters and helped boost the local gallery scene, she died this summer of a stroke at age 61.

The Turner Carroll Gallery, a Canyon Road institution, also features a wide assembly of works by locally based and international painters. In spite of its high standing in the arts scene, staffers were easygoing and took their time walking casual visitors through the range of canvases on display.

Ventana, also on Canyon, is equally accessible to the non-specialist. The paintings by such big names as Doug Dawson, Ted Larsen and Kevin Red Star covered the bright, airy space. But my attention was drawn most to the electric hues in the works of John Nieto, a Southwestern resident who captures this region's wildlife and people in an inimitable rush of colors.

My final stop was the Gerald Peters Gallery, one of the area's most spacious and established art venues. Although the mood was too austere for my taste, the range of major painters exhibited was daunting, including O'Keeffe canvases and Remington sculptures. Even the casual gallery-goer should count on spending a couple of hours here.

After a few days hopping among exhibits, my attention was grabbed by the works of Elias Rivera and Susan Contreras. The Santa Fe couple display wildly different styles: He specializes in scenes of natives in Guatemala and other parts of Latin America, while she paints masked figures that evoke memories of her native Mexico.

Their works captured my imagination and I wanted to meet them. That isn't as fanciful as it sounds. One of the special features of Santa Fe is the accessibility of its artists. The heavy concentration of sculptors and painters clustered in this intimate city makes it easy to meet them, quiz them about their works and influences, and even invite them out for a margarita. They usually appear at gallery openings, held every Friday and open to the public.

And so through friends of friends, I arranged a visit to their studios, impressive spaces that sit behind their grand home in the country outside of town. Over a glass of wine, they told me of their influences, favorite hangouts in Santa Fe and the vibrancy of the arts community.

"What distinguishes this from any other place I know is how intimately everyone in the arts scene is involved with one another," Rivera said.

"We encourage one another to produce and celebrate one another's successes. At the end of the day we look out across the country and rejoice at how lucky we are to be in this place."

He embraced his wife and the two looked out across the awesome span of mountains out their back window. The moment of intimacy was fleeting, but it captured the soul of Santa Fe.

Gary Lee will be online tomorrow at 2 p.m. to discuss this story at during the Travel section's weekly chat.

Santa Fe, N. M., is rich with architecture and art, from the traditional Southwestern look of the Inn at Loretto, above, to the contemporary design of the Santa Fe Opera house, below. Top right, Native American crafts at the Plaza market.Aspects of Santa Fe, clockwise from top: a local's Southwestern flair; an adobe church; decorative wooden crosses; and a handpainted chair.