“It’s magical” or “there’s just something about this place” are words one often hears, or even says, about the San Luis Valley. Nowhere is this truer than in the town of San Luis, the oldest incorporated town in the State of Colorado (1851).
A dirt trail follows a path the fifteen bronze sculptures of the Stations of the Cross up La Mesa de la Piedad y de la Misericordia (Hill of Piety and Mercy) to La Capilla de Todos Los Santos (the Chapel of All Saints). The magic of this town lies as much in La Vega – the grazing commons – as it does on the mesa where the Stations of the Cross depicted in bronze lead
During any season of the year art lovers and worshippers seek the magic and majesty by trekking the half-mile trail to the top of the mesa to take in the views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and the Rio Culebra Valley and La Vega – grazing commons – below or to pray and worship among the stations and at the chapel.
Huberto Maestas, a native of San Luis, created the nearly life-sized, bronze sculptures that depict the trial and death of Jesus as well as his resurrection. “It [the commission of the stations] was not a stepping stone in my life and career, but a whole flight of stairs,” Maestas said.
As a result, Maestas was able to build a career and a living around the religious icons and others like those on the mesa above San Luis. After leaving a foundry and an engineering job in Colorado Springs, he and his wife, Dana, moved back to San Luis to work on the stations and raise four children in their hometown. “I’m much happier, I think. Even if I were an engineer, I’d be headed to the studio to create after work.” The Stations of the Cross commission gave Maestas credibility as a sculptor, he said. More incarnation’s of Maestas’s art can be seen at in churches and chapels throughout Europe, Central America, and even the Vatican. He also runs his own gallery, Jacales, downtown San Luis.
But, few weekends ago, Maestas said his art came full circle when he photographed the annual acequia cleaning on the San Luis People’s Ditch.
“When I was ten years old, I was sent as a representative of my family farm to clean acequias,” Maestas said. He remembers noticing an older man sitting on his front porch whittling and carving a piece of wood. “I was blown away that someone could create something so beautiful from a piece of wood someone else would burn,” he said. “I was hooked.”
After Maestas finished cleaning ditches that day, he returned to the santero and began taking carving lessons.
After he finishes two more projects this spring – a 22-foot tall Resurrection, a replica of the fifteenth station, and a 9 1/2-foot tall Mary de la Paz – he’s going to see where the magic of his home, tradition, and the water in the acequias takes him. “I want to do art that reflects the images and that time, make time stand still. Water is very important … I like to work from my own mind – my personal past, the culture of small farms, they deserve more credit.”
If this place is magical, then the humans who inhabit this stunning landscape will take you to another place entirely. After 162 years of harsh winters and idyllic summers and autumns, several generations of descendants of the original settlers still reside there. They have even won the fight to maintain access to their ancestral communal mountain after a more than 40-year legal fight for their grazing, timber and firewood gathering rights to La Sierra – the Taylor Ranch. The State’s oldest continuously operating business is R&R Market, San Luis’s only grocery store.
“When you look back and see little event, you can see how they make a person,” Maestas said.
Or how little events like the incorporating of a town, make a community.
So, visit the places in San Luis but stay for the people.
- How to Get There: I-25 South to Walsenburg and turn west on Highway 160. At Fort Garland turn south at on to Highway 159, drive 16 more miles to San Luis.
- Where to Eat: Mrs. Rios Restaurant, traditional Mexican food with healthy alternatives
- The Best Coffee: Ventero Open Press and Gallery
- Where to Stay: El Convento Bed & Breakfast, a converted convent
- More History: San Luis Heritage Center & Museum