It is safe to say that Albuquerque, New Mexico is not on most people’s top ten travel list. Yet the “Land of Enchantment,” is anything but rehashed Southwest scenery and redundant Mexican food. Albuquerque is a surprisingly diverse city which offers an abundance of outdoor and cultural experiences along with stunning natural visuals. Albuquerque is also home to parts of Route 66, the iconic highway America raced across to find a better life in the west. But there is also the Balloon Fiesta, the International Flamenco Festival and such terrific food that you’ll never look at a chili the same way again.
For starters, Albuquerque is an old city, dating from 1706, and is now home to most of New Mexico’s million-plus population. Hotels are uniformly inexpensive, most under $100 per night, and if you’re looking for a chain that’s right downtown, the Hyatt Regency provides dependable accommodations. If you prefer a more colorful experience, the Chocolate Turtle B&B in Corrales, about 20 minutes outside of downtown, is just four rooms, each decorated with a distinct pueblo theme. They have prime views of the Sandia Mountains, daily homemade breakfasts, and there is a road runner who often comes on to the back porch in search of food, which is probably as close as you’ll get to one of these birds.
Regardless of where you stay, hot-air balloons are the big draw here, and an hour-long balloon ride above the Rio Grande River, with views to the Sandia Mountains, is a must. Balloon rides typically last an hour and there’s no better way to see the city than floating nearly weightless through the sky. There are abundant empty fields in Albuquerque, making take-off and landing easy; that, coupled with consistently calm weather, has made this city the balloon capital of the U.S.
You’ll notice as you lift off the ground, you don’t even feel like you’re moving, and the ascent is similar to riding in an elevator, a barely noticeable movement. Usually the balloons hug the ground at first to get you acclimated, then will float up to about a thousand feet; some balloons climb even higher. It’s a myth that rides are tranquil and serene. Well, they are actually–except that every two minutes or so, a fierce blast of propane into the balloon is required to keep you buoyant. Aside from that, it’s a thrilling experience to soar softly above the city.
A visit to the Anderson-Abruzzo Balloon Museum might be a good way to ground you to the realities and history of balloon flight. There are all manner of balloons and baskets on display, and there’s even a section where you can fly a virtual balloon. The four-dollar entry fee starts with the very first un-manned balloon flight in France in 1783. There are also exhibits on zeppelins and hang gliding. This doesn’t require a long stop, but it will give you an overview of how balloons were used in war time and for exploration; it is the perfect introduction to your hot-air experience. Tucked into a corner are even a few dishes on display from the best-known zeppelin, the Hindenburg.
Another sky high adventure is the Sandia Tramway which transports you from the base of the Sandia Mountains all the way to the pinnacle, at over 10,000 feet. The 15-minute enclosed tram ride takes you above the Cibola National Forest, where the views from the limestone-capped granite are absolutely staggering. On clear days there are 11,000 square miles laid out like a tapestry before you. But the best part is the ride itself, when you can see the forested mountains, and you’re looking down on 60-foot pine trees and 150-foot- tall shards of massive granite rock formations which appear as mere toothpicks as you glide past.
Climbing into other worlds, the Acoma Pueblo is the very first high-rise, as it were. This American Indian community is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in all of North America, and it is believed to have first been settled around 1150 AD. The Spanish wrestled control of the pueblo as they began dominating the West.
Tours start with the Mission church, which dates from 1629. Native Americans still live atop this mesa, as they have for nearly a thousand years, 376 feet up in the air on a granite table in the middle of a beautiful and remote valley. There’s only one tree on top at Acoma and no plumbing or electricity. Tribal elders are required to live one year here as part of their duties. A tour, along with the ability to purchase handmade pottery, takes you through the backyards of the Acoma Pueblo and its people. A bus will drive you to the top of the mesa, and you have the option of heading back down the original way; though narrow low-cut rocks, with finger holds deeply worn into the granite over a thousand years. There are supreme visuals here, of the multi-colored rocks rising up around you. It’s a short climb to reach the bottom of the road, about 15 minutes, and this is the true path of history.
Back on terra firma, the food in Albuquerque is another matter altogether. The common question asked is: “red or green”–nearly everywhere you eat. What many tourists don’t know is that chilies vary in intensity and heat, from timid to bracingly spicy and hot, and the best question for your server is: “How are the chilies today?” Always ask the question before assuming you have a palette that is immune to Albuquerque’s signature chilies.
Hands down, El Pinto restaurant is a must-stop. Their food is universally excellent, including their chili rellenos; chilies are dipped in egg white, flash-fried and finished in the oven, making them light without the copious breading. Or sample their pork tamales for a perfect southwest experience, and be sure to get a traditional margarita as well, to complement the food.
Just outside of downtown, Casa Vieja has the best bison enchiladas; they were voted “best” in 2009. Having sampled them, it’s true, and for vegetarians, their veggie enchilada is also a standout.
Enchiladas in Albuquerque are not rolled; they are made like a casserole, layered and topped with sunny side up eggs, which infiltrate the enchiladas as they are cut, making this a quintessential New Mexico dish. Jalapenos are ubiquitous as well; The Candy Lady in the old town section of Albuquerque makes jalapeno fudge, where the sweetness mitigates the spicy pepper, making for a unique dessert.
Even at the 66 Diner, a replica of a once-famous diner clinging to Route 66, you’ll find chilies on almost everything. The Pile Up breakfast is their signature dish, a mish-mash of eggs, potatoes, bacon, cheddar cheese and red or green chili, or both, tossed together and slapped on a plate. It’s a fabulous way to start the day and since the only way to subdue the spicy chilies is an enzyme in milk, order one of their 20 varieties of handmade milkshakes or malts. If you choose the Cappuccino, you can tame the Pile Up while having coffee at the same time. Plus the décor is pure 1950s neon roadside.
Many people still have the hankering to drive Route 66, and Albuquerque has the best preserved piece of roadway. There are quite a few original emblematic buildings and signs which telegraph that bygone era, like the Hi-Way Motel, the Aztec Motel, El Vado Court, and Kelly’s Brewery, formerly the Jones Motor Company which used to be the last chance for travelers to get a new car before heading to the Golden State.
While in Albuquerque, visit the KiMo Theatre, built in 1927 as a movie house and now offers live performances and occasional films; it strongly evokes its original pueblo theme and is probably the single best-preserved piece of Route 66. The seven hand-painted murals in the entry and bison skull light fixtures are authentic kitsch.
Ultimately Albuquerque is an oasis in the dessert, a mirage that exceeds its visual promise and a trip you will long remember.
If You Go
WHERE TO STAY
Hyatt Regency (800) 233-1234, www.albuquerque.hyatt.com
Chocolate Turtle B&B (877) 298-1800, www.chocolateturtlebb.com
WHERE TO EAT
El Pinto (505) 898-1771, www.elpinto.com
Casa Vieja (505) 508-3244, www.casaviejanm.com
66 Diner (505) 247-1421, www.66diner.com
WHAT TO DO
Acoma Pueblo (800) 747-0181, www.skycity.com
Anderson-Abruzzo Balloon Museum (505) 761-4005, www.cabq.gov/balloon
Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloons (800) 725-2477, www.rainbowryders.com
Sandia Peak Tramway (505) 856-7325, www.sandiapeak.com