Successive waves of settlers, from the early Pueblo Indians to the Spanish explorers and Anglo pioneers and ranchers, have made little imprint on what D.H. Lawrence called ''the curious otherness of Taos.''
Swaddled in mountains, Taos is a triplex of villages: the Spanish town (Don Fernando de Taos), the Indian pueblocq (San Geronimo de Taos), and the Indian farming center (Ranchos de Taos, three miles away).
Fernando de Taos, simply called Taos, with its small Spanish-pueblo plaza encircled by low adobe buildings, is the matrix of aesthetic and commercial life. A stone cross towers over the square. Benches invite visitors to pause and reflect before they wander toward the galleries, shops, and restaurants beneath the arcade.
San Geronimo de Taos, the Indian pueblo on the outskirts of town, is home to approximately 1,700 Taos Indians. A community has existed there since about 1200 . The Indian culture and traditions are preserved there, although many Indians work in town in shops, garages, and as artists and artists' models.
The pueblo has two venerable adobe and mud-plastered five-story structures, the oldest ''apartment buildings'' in the United States. They lie on either side of the Rio Pueblo de Taos, which bisects the central plaza. The Indians farm, raise cattle and horses, and are trilingual, speaking Tiwa as well as Spanish and English.
Their community is governed by a Council of Elders, headed by an elected governor and the cacique (priest). Clan-groups are instrumental in pueblo life. Religious ceremonials are still observed and visitors are permitted at certain rituals.
The pueblo has seen many struggles between the modernizers (who want to bring in electricity and plumbing) and the conservers of the old ways. So far the latter group has won. The same battle rages throughout Taos. Pebble people, for instance, vie everywhere with asphalt people and often win. The most lavish inns are approached over crunchy gravel roads which bond town and desert and suggest the early days when Taos was a stop on the Santa Fe Trail.
In 1898 artists Bert Phillips and Ernest L. Blumenschein moved to Taos. They, with several other artists, organized the Taos Society of Artists. Their work introduced new aesthetic sources: the Indian culture and the Spanish religious art tradition. Blumenschein's work, particularly, has a timeless quality. Even today it is possible to enter a Taos doughnut shop and see an Indian girl who looks as though she might have modeled for him. In 1923 their group merged with others to form the New Mexico Painters.
In 1922 D.H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, came to Taos at the request of Mabel Dodge Sterne, a New York heiress who had settled in Taos and who later married an Indian, Tony Luhan. She hoped Lawrence would interpret New Mexico to the world or, as Lawrence put it, ''write this country up.''
Lawrence incorporated his New Mexico experiences in ''The Plumed Serpent,'' a novel about old Mexico, and in three short stories, ''The Woman Who Rode Away,'' ''The Princess,'' and ''St. Mawr.''
He and Frieda settled on an abandoned sheep ranch owned by Mabel Luhan about 17 miles from Taos. This ranch is now owned by the University of New Mexico, which annually awards a D.H. Lawrence Fellowship to a poet for summer residence there. Lawrence passed on at Vence, France, in 1930. Frieda later married Angelino Ravagli, returned to Taos, and built a small chapel at the ranch. Lawrence's ashes were brought there. The shrine is open to the public.
As one stands before the shrine, overlooking the winding rock path and clustered mountains, one can see why Lawrence considered Taos ''the greatest experience of the outside world'' he had ever had.
Lawrence sought to capture New Mexico on canvas as well as in words. Several of his paintings are on display in the office of the La Fonda hotel on the plaza and may be seen for a small fee.
It is a rare visitor to Taos who does not find himself tempted by at least one painting or piece of sculpture. There are over 80 galleries, a substantial number for a town of just over 3,000.
The Taos Book Shop specializes in books about Taos and the Southwest. One of the owners, Claire Morrill, is known for her book ''A Taos Mosaic.''
Taos is also noted for its associations with Kit Carson. The Kit Carson home and museum are near the plaza. Kit Carson lived here from 1843 to 1868. Rooms are furnished in the period, and Indian artifacts are also exhibited.
One building of special interest at the foundation is La Morada, a small chapel once used by Los Penitentes, an early Roman Catholic religious order. It is still in use on religious days.
The restored home of Ernest L. Blumenschein on Ledoux Street near the plaza is open to visitors. The rooms surround a central courtyard. The kitchen, entered first, has a cozy domesticity; one senses the milk just heated, the eggs just scrambled, the intermingling of cookery and conversation with the continual and unremitting hard work of painting.
The Harwood Foundation contains a collection of paintings and sculpture by both early and contemporary Taos artists.
Ranchos de Taos, the third of the villages constituting Taos, is known for the Mission of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the Southwest's most notable churches. The reredos dates to the founding of the church, probably about 1710.
The Millicent A. Rogers Memorial Museum contains both Spanish and Indian articles as well as pioneer artifacts. It brings together the three cultures which have combined to shape the town.
Taos has 17 motels and hotels. We stayed at the Sagebrush Inn, just outside town, owned by Ken and Louise Blair. Built in 1929, the inn is richly adorned with paintings, beams, antiques, woven rugs, and pinon-burning fireplaces.
Restaurants abound in Taos. Two on the plaza are La Cocina, embellished with stained glass and serving delicious sopaipillas (the puffy fried bread indigenous to the Southwest) and honey butter, and Ogelvies, which has an international menu. Practical information:
For information about Taos, write to the Chamber of Commerce, Drawer 1, Taos, N.M., 87571.
Ernest L. Blumenschein Home: 9-5, Apr.1-Oct.31; 10-4 rest of year.
Pueblo de Taos: Open daylight hours until 6 p.m.
Harwood Foundation: 11:30-5 Mon.-Fri.; 10-4 Sat.
Kit Carson Home and Museum: 8-6, Apr.1-Oct.31; 8-5 rest of year.
Millicent A. Rogers Memorial Museum: Daily 9-5, May 1-Oct.31; Tues.-Sun. 10-4 rest of year.
D.H. Lawrence Shrine: Open; free. Take Route 3 north from Taos 15 miles; follow sign on route to ranch, 6 miles farther.