Above: Twin Lakes is just one of many Santa Rosa spots that invite young and old to dive in.

ALREADY THE WATERS taunt you. Come in, come in, they seem to insist, with an azure wink from a limitless drink that shimmers and extends down, down, to what looks like the center of the earth. Certainly, this must be a mirage. You barely saw a sign of life on that long, straight drive into Santa Rosa. The llano estacado, these staked plains of east-central New Mexico, have long been a lonely place. The landscape is most noted for what is not there-—trees or anything else to block the uninterrupted view of forever. Shifting shades of dry grass, rocky soil, and sandstone outcroppings have their charms, but the sepia-toned monotony lulls you into a false sense of nothingness. Old Route 66 slices through the middle of it, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a cryptic highway billboard urges you to veer ever so slightly off the beaten path to a place called the Blue Hole.

You slow down as it hits you: Santa Rosa has been inviting you to jump in all along—here at the Blue Hole, on nearby nature trails, at legendary fishing holes, into yesteryear’s car-and-diner culture along a well-preserved stretch of historic Route 66. This time, you bite, following the Blue Hole signs about a mile off Interstate 40, down a short stretch of the original path for “America’s Mother Road,” and into a crumbling parking lot. Ahead, there’s a sidewalk slab and an aging rock wall circling something roughly the size of a golf green. You get to the edge of the wall. You look down. Your eyes widen. Whoa. It’s so clear. So blue. So deep. You wonder if it’s real.

“Do they pipe in the water? Do they dye it that color?” you ask a local who wanders up in shorts and flip-flops. Nope, it’s the real deal.

In fact, the Blue Hole is a giant artesian well, a cenote, or sinkhole, if you prefer. It formed thousands of years ago when deep underground water sources fought their way upward through cracks in soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum, until the surface layers collapsed 82 feet into this great pool. It’s called the karst process. The water here is pure. This is the first time it has seen daylight. Three thousand gallons per minute gush into the cenote and overflow down the creek into the nearby ciénaga, or wetlands. Residual minerals give the waters their breathtaking blue hue, an effect that is accentuated anytime the glasslike surface reflects New Mexico’s turquoise skies.

The pool tempts you to jump in. But you’re daunted by the aging wooden sign saying it’s a brisk 61 degrees—every day of the year. In July. In January. On Labor Day. On Christmas morning. You hesitate, ready to settle for a few selfies by the wall. That’s when some regular local swimmers taunt you with Santa Rosa’s unofficial motto: “If you didn’t get wet, were you really here?” You gaze down nervously from a little rocky ledge. Then smile. Then spring. Then splash. Then scream from the momentary chill. But before you brag all the way down the long road about diving into one of the more unique experiences on the 2,448-mile drive between Chicago and Santa Monica, you need to see the rest of Santa Rosa.

HISTORIC ROUTE 66 CUTS a five-mile path through the heart of this town (pop. 2,680). Interstate travelers who turn off their cruise control, slow down, and pay attention can find a place where the “Happy Motoring” era never really ended. One of the more colorful ambassadors of the local car culture is a legendary hot-rod builder named James “Bozo” Cordova, proprietor of Bozo’s Garage and the nearby Route 66 Auto Museum. The big metal building doesn’t look like much from outside. Once people step into the lobby, outfitted with kitschy reminders of the glory days, Cordova challenges doubters to pay the five-buck admission to see what he’s hiding behind a back wall. “I’ll put your five dollars on the register,” he tells them. “If you don’t think it’s worth it, you pick it up on your way out.” Visitors step around the corner, and their jaws drop at dozens of meticulously restored vehicles—Chevys, Fords, one-of-a-kind hybrids, sedans, wagons, pickup trucks, and even a few mash-ups that defy categorization. That includes a 1947 C.O.E. spliced together with a 1999 Chevy truck. “It’s a one-off. There’s nothing else in the world that’s like it,” Cordova says. 

Australian newlyweds Colleen and Andy White have their “wow” moments when they step into the showroom. And then they beg Cordova for a bonus tour of the sprawling boneyard behind the nearby garage. It’s where Bozo and his crew harvest parts from rows and rows of junked vehicles, including a number of legendary Tri-Fives, those cultishly popular Chevys of 1955, ’56, and ’57. The Australians are impressed by this unplanned stop in Santa Rosa, a town that finally lives up to their visions of Route 66. “Some areas embrace it so much, and other areas, you wouldn’t even know you’re on it,” Andy White says.

The spirit of 66 is also kept alive at a stretch of throwback diners that all trace their roots to the Mother Road’s cruiser heights in the late fifties and early sixties. That includes the roadhouse atmosphere of Joseph’s Bar and Grill, classic diners such as the Route 66 Restaurant and the old Sun ’n’ Sand, traveler-friendly drop-ins like the Silvermoon Café, Santa Fe Grille, and Lake City Diner, and the neon-lit mecca of the Comet II Restaurant.

In the old days, when Route 66 was a slower, two-lane drive, you could pass as many as 38 gas stations, nine saloons, and countless restaurants along the Santa Rosa stretch. The interstate era eroded that, and it continues to pose challenges, among them “free” motel breakfast bars stealing all the morning diner business. “They didn’t hurt it. They murdered it. They annihilated it,” says Comet II proprietor, chef, and master of ceremonies Johnny Martinez, now in his eighties. “If you don’t adapt, you will not survive.”

His place has adapted, vastly expanding its menu beyond the old burgers and fries to keep up with travelers’ spicier tastes. “We evolved from 10 cents for a hamburger and 10 cents for a bowl of chile to where I’m at today,” he says. The four-page menu takes half a cup of coffee to peruse and features Martinez’s twist on northern New Mexico cuisine—“PDL chile,” a distinctive variety of our official state vegetable with roots in Billy the Kid’s old stomping grounds, Puerto de Luna, a tiny village south of town. Along with menudo, steak ranchero, grilled tilapia, and a gran platito of enchiladas, the menu has an ever-changing mix of daily specials—prime rib, rack of lamb, and “blue Madonna enchiladas” among them. There’s even a hush-hush, hand-scribbled vegetarian menu hiding in the waitress station—just ask. And all the food comes with a side of Martinez, who regularly steps out of the kitchen and pops from table to table with tall tales about the Wild West, the old days on Route 66, and his colorful views on the latest news.

When the self-styled “sheep camp cook” stops at your table, ask him this: Did Elvis really get stranded in Santa Rosa? Where were you when two feet of hail pummeled the city before the Fourth of July? And do you think Billy the Kid ever swam at the Blue Hole? You can ask other questions. He’s never short on answers.

THEY DON'T CALL SANTA ROSA the “City of Natural Lakes” for nothing. Water features abound, even beyond the Blue Hole. Over the past three years, the spring-fed Park Lake, just off Route 66 at the center of the community, has turned into one of New Mexico’s most popular water parks, with the seasonal addition of a floating Wibit playground—slides, obstacle courses, and more. A massive reservoir at Santa Rosa Lake State Park, eight miles north of town, draws boaters, hikers, fisherfolk, and bird-watchers. On the southern edge of town, a deep bowl of water called Perch Lake is popular with fishermen and hungry birds of prey, including eagles, herons, and mergansers. And at the end of a twisting waterway dubbed El Rito,  “the Creek,” is Janes-Wallace Memorial Park and a place called Power Dam that has become popular for fly-fishing, even before a planned multi-million-dollar habitat restoration reaches fruition. (After nearly two decades of planning, city officials hope that work is just a few more years away.)

Cordero Bachicha stands at his favorite spot near the battered dam structure, casting into a brisk breeze while he muses about the multitude of fishing options right near his home. The 24-year-old grew up in a sunken part of town called Dog Valley, where his mom could keep an eye on him while he practiced at the stocked ponds near the Blue Hole that are reserved for children and seniors. Fishing turned into an obsession. Now he spends almost every minute of free time bouncing from spot to spot until he finds the place the rainbow trout or bass are hitting that day. Lucky for him, you can fish in Santa Rosa any time of the year.

“I pretty much fish everywhere here,” he says, flicking his wrist on another cast. “My preference is Power Dam, because it’s more diverse. You can fish the creek and … Ooh, ooh! Running!” As he speaks, a rainbow trout latches on to his hook. It’s the sixth one he’s hooked in two hours. The fish makes a run for the rapids, turns its head, and gets away. “Aw,” Bachicha says. “That’s fishing. Or else we’d call it ‘catching.’ I’d like to come back and catch that fish later.”

“THIS IS ONE LITTLE JEWEL,” Stella Salazar says of her part of Santa Rosa. Over the past four decades, the “Mamacita of the Blue Hole” has watched visitors’ eyes widen countless times per day. She first visited it as a child, back when the waters were off-limits to swimmers and instead fed a sprawling federal fish hatchery. The U.S. Department of Interior abandoned “Blue Hole Lake” in the early 1970s, deeding it over to the city. After Salazar graduated from Santa Rosa High School and married in 1975, her late husband, Rudy Salazar, got a job as the city’s parks manager. “He was the lowest-paid employee,” she says. But one of the fringe benefits was that their family got to live in city-owned housing, first at another popular attraction, the WPA-era Park Lake, and then in a little adobe house at the Blue Hole.

“I tell my kids they had the best place to grow up,” she says. As live-in caretakers, the family had one of America’s most pristine swimming holes in their own backyard. They got to meet scuba divers who began flocking there for training—especially in cold-weather months when sites elsewhere froze over. They got to meet sightseers from every corner of the world. Like Route 66, the Blue Hole seems to be more famous among those who live farthest away. “I don’t even go over there, but they come here,” Salazar says with a smile.

While raising three kids, she began working for a dive shop in one of the old hatchery buildings. That flood-prone building, dug right into Santa Rosa’s famously high water table, has since made way for the city’s six-year-old convention facility (which had to be constructed on a floating foundation with special piping to drain out the groundwater). The area surrounding the deep-water cenote has changed a bit over the years. But Salazar has been a consistent presence, now living across town but running her own little dive shop out of a quaint shack crowded with gear. This unofficial clubhouse is the first stop for out-of-town divers needing tanks of air, wetsuits, various equipment, or someone to talk to. “I’m not a therapist,” she says, but she has a warming spirit that makes visitors want to share their troubles, their secrets, their musings, and their laughter.

Salazar has seen it all. She watched from the surface during some of the underwater weddings. She was there when a beaver snuck into the Blue Hole and started cutting down trees on the banks. She has seen her share of skinny dippers—and mermaids, too. The Blue Hole regularly hosts a Denver performance troupe of them for underwater photo shoots. Salazar was there when a swimmer found a little unexploded bomb underwater. She was with the cheering throngs for a city-sponsored cannonball contest and a Red Bull diver’s leap from a 70-foot crane. She has answered countless questions about the off-limits, labyrinthine cave system stretching hundreds of feet below the cenote’s main pool. She has been there for movie shoots and prom pictures. She was there when an ashen-faced diver nervously scrambled out of the Blue Hole to report seeing a ghost diver with a distinctive pink air tank. And she has seen people with disabilities escape their wheelchairs to gain a joyous freedom of movement in the weightlessness of scuba diving.

“I have a good life here,” Salazar says. “I think I have the coolest job, the most dangerous job, and on my worst day it’s still a good day, because if you love what you do, that makes it.”

YOU DIDN'T EXPECT ANY OF THIS when you were zipping down the freeway, minding your own business, when the surprising little city of Santa Rosa coaxed you into diving right in. In no time, you were immersed in the slower-paced culture of a living, breathing Route 66 community where they still haven’t gotten their first traffic light. You slowed down. You got your feet wet—in what some say is a genuine fountain of youth. You wonder why this unassuming little destination has been kept secret as long as it has. And over natillas de leche back at the Comet II Restaurant, you realize why this unplanned rest stop is more memorable than the rest of your cruise-controlled trip.

The sheep camp cook, Johnny Martinez, says he sees it every day. People want to confirm that now, even in the age of fast-food chains and self-driving cars, unique little dots on the map still thrive. They want to know that the heart of America’s main drag is alive and well. “They’re looking for history,” he says. “The Mother Road will be better known in 100 years than Interstate 40. Nobody’s going to remember Interstate 40.” 

Discover more New Mexico Route 66 stories, plus a short film, at newmexico.org/route66.

Pull off I-40 to experience a slice of yesteryear. A variety of chain hotels and a few Route 66–era motels, such as La Mesa and La Loma, invite day-trippers to extend their visits. Among the town’s attractions:

The Blue Hole: The famed deepwater cenote is open to swimmers, scuba divers, and sightseers 365 days of the year, from sunrise to sundown. The water temperature is always a brisk 61 degrees. Lifeguards are present from Memorial Day to Labor Day, when a $5-per-vehicle park fee applies. Scuba divers need special permits, available at the shop, along with scuba gear (1085 Blue Hole Road, 575-472-3763, santarosabluehole.com).

Park Lake: This sprawling WPA-era park features trails, a monument to local author Rudolfo Anaya, and a spring-fed lake ringed by a stone wall. It’s ideal for family picnics. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it also turns into a popular water park with floating Wibit amusements—bridges, slides, climbing walls, trampolines, and other bouncy features. $10 per person, plus $5 per vehicle (913 Blue Hole Road, 575-472-3763, visitsantarosanm.com).

Fishing: Catch your limit at Power Dam, in the Janes-Wallace Memorial Park, at various locations along El Rito, at Perch Lake, or at Santa Rosa Lake State Park, a sprawling reservoir eight miles north of the city. (All sites require fishing licenses.) The state park has improved and primitive campgrounds, a boat ramp, hiking and equestrian trails, and prime sites for bird-watching. Fishermen love the lake in warmer months, bird-watchers in colder ones, when it’s home to bald eagles, golden eagles, American white pelicans, mergansers, loons, mountain bluebirds, and many other species ($5 access fee; 7 NM 91, 575-472-3110, emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD).

Route 66: A five-mile stretch of the Mother Road runs through town, with numerous old diners and other reminders. The Route 66 Auto Museum showcases dozens of meticulously restored classic vehicles, including several one- of-a-kind hybrids (open daily, 7:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; 2436 Historic Route 66, 575-472-1966, on Facebook).