On the Turquoise Trail to the Land of the Dead Cemetery in Madrid, New Mexico.
For those travelers touring New Mexico’s Turquoise Trail, Madrid will surely be high on the list of “must-see” locations. Even if art galleries and coffee shops aren’t your thang, most people like food and the Mine Shaft Tavern has the best burgers around. Personally, I have no interest in being where the tourists are but there is another secret destination that makes Madrid worthwhile. Bring your off-road vehicle and follow me to the Land of the Dead Cemetery!
Welcome to the Land of the Dead
As a native New Mexican, I have been visiting Madrid for many years. During one particularly interesting visit on a Sunday in August of 2003, an encounter with a stranger changed everything. Having noticed that there were four of us walking around together with cameras, they asked the obvious question, “Are y’all in a camera club?“, to which we replied a deadpan, “no”, because photographers hate that question. Then the stranger asked another, more interesting, question. “Have you been to the cemetery?” At this time my little group didn’t know that there even was a cemetery, and we surely wanted to know more about it. To this end, we instantly became much friendlier towards our new acquaintance. “Go back up that-a-ways and turn on The Back Road”, they said.
The road to the Land Of Dead Cemetery is extremely rugged and not maintained. A vehicle with high ground clearance and all-wheel drive would be ideal. Many years later, on the trip that produced these photos, Johnpaul and I were in a Mini Cooper Clubman with none of those characteristics. We still made it, but just barely.
A cemetery unlike the rest
New Mexico’s cemeteries are notorious for their eclectic décor. It is not unusual to find graves adorned with all manner of paraphernalia. Toys, garden gnomes, Christmas lights, pinwheels, wine bottles, gym shoes, Santa hats, you name it and I have found it on a grave somewhere in New Mexico. But the Land of the Dead Cemetery in Madrid takes things to a whole new level.
The gravesites here are literally works of art, and the work is ongoing. Over the years, I have seen items in the cemetery be rearranged and simple gravesites worked into veritable shrines. Referring to this cemetery as a “sculpture garden” may be inappropriate but is accurate nonetheless. One thing is for sure, the living have gone to great lengths to memorialize the dead. There are a lot of photos in this post, so keep scrolling down!
Historical information about Madrid, New Mexico
Historical information about the Land of the Dead Cemetery remains elusive but perhaps that contributes to the allure of this mystical place. The town of Madrid, New Mexico has plenty of documented history so here are some of the facts.
Like many ghost towns, Madrid sprung into existence because of a coal mine and a railroad. Coal mining first began in Madrid around 1835 and was later followed by other types of mining, most notably silver and gold. It is worth mentioning that native people had lived in the area for thousands of years prior to this “settlement” but the town of Madrid as it is known today was formally founded in 1895. Things were prosperous for while but, in keeping with all good ghost town origin stories, the economy changed and people were forced to make difficult choices.
During the late 1940’s, the demand for coal began to decline as natural gas became the preferred fuel for heating homes. Coal-fired steam locomotives went the way of the Dodo bird as they were replaced by the new and improved diesel-electric engine. By 1954 the Albuquerque and Cerrillos Coal Company ceased operations and this forced most of the residents to move away in search of other work. The railroad line was removed shortly thereafter.
Present day Madrid, New Mexico
Today, Madrid remains a census-designated place in Santa Fe County. The 2000 census reported a population of 149 residents and in 2010 the population swelled to 204. The population may be larger than that in 2021 but it’s hard to tell.
Nowadays, Madrid is known as an artists’ community and general all around tourist trap. The little mining camp on New Mexico State Road 14 (The Turquoise Trail) has become a mecca of art galleries and coffee shops. It is quaint and stylish and no one gets any cell service. If I sound disenchanted with Madrid, it is just because I have no interest in competing with the tourists. They can photograph the densely populated main drag and I will cover the cemetery.
For more information, there is an interesting article and a cool photo of the old coal mine on this Wikipedia page.
Taking The Back Road to the Land of the Dead Cemetery
Should you decide to brave the rough trail to the Land of the Dead Cemetery, keep in mind that once you turn off the main drag, the attitude towards tourists is very different. The Back Road is where the residents of Madrid live and they’ve got no sense of humor about looky-loos trespassing on their property or pulling over to take pictures of their houses. The road itself is not private property and you are not breaking any laws by driving on it but, as always, it is important to be respectful.
Just up the road from Madrid is Cerrillos. Cerrillos is a small town that rose and fell under similar circumstances but, for whatever reason, did not bounce back like Madrid did and is therefore less popular with the tourists. In my opinion, Cerrillos is a far more interesting place to go for a walk.
A final note on pronunciation
I learned in my research that Madrid, New Mexico is pronounced MAD-rid. Madrid, Spain is pronounced MA-drid. My whole life I had assumed that MA-drid was the correct pronunciation and that people who insisted on saying MAD-rid were being pretentious but apparently they were right. That being said, I feel awkward and silly saying MAD-rid so I guess I’ll just keep pronouncing it the incorrect way I always have.
These photos were shot in May of 2021.