Chimayó Chile: The Unique Chile Only Grown in One New Mexico Town

Gigi Ragland
June 22, 2023
7 min read
Gigi Ragland
June 22, 2023
7 min read
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As I added the last of the Chimayó chile into the sauce I was making for enchiladas, mixed feelings swept over me. I was looking forward to the distinctive taste that would upgrade my red sauce from good to great, but sad that it was the last of my precious Chimayó chile powder. 

Like other fans of Chimayó chile, I like it for its smoky, slightly sweet, earthy flavor that goes way beyond the tang and spark of other chiles. It’s described as moderate in heat, on par with a Jalapeno, and milder than a Chipotle pepper. The brick-red, sun-dried chile imparts a rich depth to Southwestern cookery that kicks up the umami flavor profile of any dish, and chile connoisseurs relish the chance to include this coveted gem in their pantry. 

But it’s not that easy to get. I couldn’t just go to the grocery store or even the Latin foods store to get more. The chile pepper, named after the high mountain town of the same name, is rare. For centuries, farmers kept the seed within the community, passing it down through generations, ultimately cultivating a chile that could thrive in the harsh arid mountain landscape.

Today, unlike other chiles (like the Hatch chile from southern New Mexico), this heirloom chile is not produced commercially, and while you might find chiles from elsewhere labeled Chimayó, they are only true Chimayó chiles if they are certified as grown exclusively within the geographical area of Chimayó. 

According to the New Mexico State Legislature’s declaration, “the name ‘Chimayó’ for chile…identifies the native strains of chile that were inherited from the traditional families who founded and named the village of Chimayó in New Mexico.” This certification of the chile trademark helps protect farmers and consumers against chile products sold falsely under the name, elevates the value of the native seed, and ensures consistency in the taste, as conditions are not the same if grown elsewhere, and this produces a different tasting chile pepper. 

The land of enchantment—and chiles 

dried chiles

Known as the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico is a destination for chile lovers. Not only is the state the top chile producer in the United States, but as of 2023, it became the first state in the country with an official aroma: chile roasting in the fall. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the chile is the official vegetable of the state too. From southern to northern New Mexico, the robust flavor is an important element in regional Southwest cuisine, and local communities, home gardens, and Pueblos are graced with chile crops unique to their terrain.

Dr. Stephanie Walker, who specializes in New Mexico chile pepper studies and is the Extension Vegetable Specialist at New Mexico State University, says chiles were introduced to North America over 400 years ago. “According to Spanish written records, the chile pepper seed was brought to the southwest by Spanish explorer Antonion Espejo during his expedition of 1582-83,” she says. 

But, it’s possible that chile seed might have already existed in the area. Dr. Walker says that “we don’t have hard evidence indicating whether or not chile seed was introduced to what is now northern New Mexico by the Native Americans before the arrival of the Spanish,” however she confirms that the Chimayó chile is one of the ‘landrace’ chiles that have grown in northern New Mexico for more than 400 years. 

A landrace product is an individual strain of plant that’s been grown by seed in specific geographical locations for generations. Landrace chiles are unique to their heritage regions in northern New Mexico, where many Native American Pueblo and Hispanic communities have grown ‘native seed’ for hundreds of years. “These landrace chiles became adapted to the high altitude, desert growing conditions in northern New Mexico as farmers saved seed from the best, highest yielding and earliest maturing plants over hundreds of years,” says Dr. Walker. 

Adaptation in genetic traits was brought forward with each generation of farmers, who then passed on the seed to the next, cultivating only the hardiest strains that could survive the difficult environment. 

There are sixteen recognized landrace chiles in New Mexico known so far, including Chimayó, Alcalde, Cochiti Pueblo, Escondida, Jemez Pueblo, Velarde, and Zia Pueblo. Chimayó is the most well-known chile. 

The treasure of Chimayó

chimayo church

The town of Chimayó is located between Santa Fe and Taos, sitting at 6,073 feet of elevation in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The quintessential northern New Mexico high mountain landscape is painterly pretty, dotted with Piñon trees and juniper, with mounds of shrubby yellow chamisa (rabbit brush) plants punctuating the landscape. Adobe structures and artisan weaving shops line the towns, and red chile ristras—bunches of chiles—hang from the eaves of houses drying in the sun.

Considered one of the most scenic New Mexico day trips, a drive along The High Road between Santa Fe and Taos is the best way to enjoy the beauty and charm of the villages, including Chimayó, strung like pearls along the route. This small town of 3,000 people is home to the National Historic Landmark church El Santuario de Chimayó, one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage sites in the US (the holy dirt inside a pit is reputed to have curative healing powers). And it’s the only place in the world where Chimayó chiles thrive.

Some would say that the Chimayó chile is the most well-known landrace chile due to its location near the famous church known for its mystical spiritual healing powers. “Even the Native Americans believe that there is something special about the area,” says Dr. Charles Havlik, an associate of Dr. Walker at the New Mexico State University. The Tewa Indigenous people who inhabited the area before the Spanish arrived believed in the healing properties associated with an ancient stream near the church. 

While the belief that the soil offers a spiritual element certainly doesn’t hurt the chile’s reputation as exceptional, there are scientific reasons why this soil creates great chiles. Dr. Havlik refers to the French wine term “terroir” when discussing how the soil imparts the chile’s piquant, tangy flavor. In the Chimayó valley, the chile crops have adapted to cool weather, high elevation, snowmelt, arid conditions, specific diseases, and abundance of sunshine, as well as cultivation under each farmer’s unique methods—which haven’t changed much over 400 years of cultivating the crop.  

chiles drying in the sun

Chimayósos will say that just the seeds, soil, water from an acequia (a ditch system that has been in use for hundreds of years), and a hoe are used to farm their chile. No chemicals are used, and all chile is hand-picked. During the summer growing season, they require warm days and cool nights to grow. They are allowed to mature to a red-orangey color on the vine, and at maturity, the chile pods are small, about 4 inches long, thin-skinned, and crooked in shape. 

Today, at best, up to 500 acres of Chimayó chile are planted annually. When the chile is harvested by Chimayósos (chile farmers) in October and November, production is mostly shared with family and friends, with about 30% of the yield sent to market. Prices are typically higher than commercial chile products due to this limited availability. The chile you'll see for purchase will be fine powder or dried chile pepper flakes made from ground-up or crushed sun-dried Chimayó.  

Since I ran out of the prized chile powder, I’ve tried other types, but it’s like tasting fine Belgian chocolate: Once you’ve had it, others will make do, but they just don’t compare to the quality and flavor. 

I could order it online but I think a road trip from Santa Fe to Taos via The High Road sounds like more fun. That way, not only can I pick up Chimayó chile in person, but I can also stop and eat my way through the enchanting towns of northern New Mexico.

Where to try the real Chimayó chile 

carne adovada

In New Mexico 

Head to Rancho de Chimayó, where proprietor Florence Jaramillo has presided over the ancestral hacienda restaurant for decades, ensuring that the authentic recipes of her husband’s heritage continue to tantalize the palates of visitors and locals. All the restaurant’s Chimayó chiles come from local farmers and end up in dishes like hand-rolled tamales, blue corn enchiladas, chile rellenos, and the restaurant’s signature dish, the Carne Adovada. The marinated chunky pork dish is rendered utterly tender from slowly simmering in a bath of Chimayó red chile sauce. It may also be possible to purchase chile powder or sauces in their shop.

In Santa Fe, try Estevan, the only restaurant in the city to serve Chimayó chile. In Albuquerque, try the Chimayó pozole at Bike In Coffee. And check out farmer’s markets in both cities or throughout northern New Mexico. 

Check out our guide to Santa Fe.


Check out Potrero Trading Post, Chimayo Chile Brothers, Chimayo Chile Shop, or Chimayo Trading.

Read more about food around the world

Last Updated 
June 22, 2023
Gigi Ragland

Gigi is a travel and food writer. Although she makes her base in Colorado, she’s happy that northern New Mexico is a short road trip away to satisfy her many cravings for blue corn enchiladas. Her stories cover outdoor adventure, culture, nature, and food. You can learn more about her at

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