I’m soaring over the treetops and dogs are coming out on backyard patios to growl up at the fiery roar of a dragon passing overhead. In between blasts of flame it is eerily silent other than those occasional barks. Drifting like a dandelion seed on the wind we alight briefly on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande before the balloon pilot takes to the wind once again over the rooftops of Albuquerque.
Ballooning is a popular pastime here and in October the city actually hosts the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta right next to their international balloon museum. From the sky, I can see the unlikelihood of this patch of green. Surrounding the city all the way out to the horizon is the antithesis of that lumbering river on its course to Mexico. The Sandia Mountains — Spanish-named for the watermelon color they take on at sunset — postpone the sunrise a bit with their rocky bulk. To the west the three worn volcano cones break the horizon line. Everything in between is dry and dusty, scraggly with tenacious desert plants, and patterned with empty arroyos and runoffs that only see water when winter rolls around. Everything lies about us, dry as sandpaper, except this verdant stripe of the Rio Grande to which Albuquerque clings.
The bird’s eye view is one angle on this town – either from a balloon or from the 2.7-mile tramway to the top of 10,378-foot Sandia Peak in the Cibola National Forest — but there are many other angles on Albuquerque.
Follow Your Palate
Red or Green? Know this question, because you will get asked at just about any eating establishment in the area. In New Mexico it is all about the chile (and yes, this is how it is spelled here). You can expect to find both varieties of these delicious chile sauces – everyone has their own recipe – not just in any place serving New Mexican food, but also in a lot of other styles of eateries. Q Burger downtown serves a nice chile burger. Breakfast joints will ask your color before pouring it over breakfast burritos. If you can’t decide, just say “Christmas” and you’ll get both.
One of the most famous of the New Mexican restaurants is El Pinto. They’ve served presidents and superstars and the place fills up with locals and visitors alike. Their salsa is so good that they bottle it up on site and ship it around the country. The manager is an expert in tequilas and the bar’s vast assortment pairs nicely with their enchiladas and chile rellenos.
But there are many alternatives to New Mexico eats, the most notable Italian option being Torino’s. In an unlikely strip-mall location, this casual spot for lunch or dinner is owned and run by an Italian-French marriage that insists on doing it right. Pasta is made fresh in house. Meals can be served family style for a culinary experience that travels more of the menu than one’s usual a la carte visit, and will leave you pleasantly stuffed.
County Line BBQ, like any reputable barbecue joint, has its own sauce for sale. A platter of meats will satisfy any family of serious carnivores. (These are “wet” ribs, BBQ fans.) The potato sides rival the slow-smoked meats in terms of awesomeness. The Sandia Mountains loom over the place so either come from the Tramway or get here for sunset bouncing off the peaks.
The Nature Trail
A paddle down this lazy stretch of the Rio Grande or a hike through the Bosque – the forest park that borders it – gives the illusion of being somewhere quite different from the desert surroundings. But the low (or nonexistent) humidity makes outdoor activities much more comfortable. The altitude, a contender with Denver for that mile-high mark, means cooler nights, but also thinner air and stronger sun. Pack sunscreen, drink water, and give yourself a day to adjust to avoid a bit of altitude sickness.
Heading north just over an hour is the Jemez Mountain Trail, a low-speed National Scenic Byway that cuts through carved red rock and sandstone forcing you to pull over often for photo shoots and hot springs.
The volcanic Valles Caldera is a national preserve with a crater rim 11 miles across. Activities range from flyfishing (limited to 30 people per day) to hiking (which becomes cross country skiing in winter). You can see herds of elk, a rich variety of bird life, and if you are lucky, big predators such as black bear or even a mountain lion. To look out from up on a ridge over the grassy plain in the east end of the park is reminiscent of a safari, and the lower attendance compared to the Yellowstones of the world means that you feel like you are the only one there. Consider that 30-person daily limit on fishing for 24 miles of streams. You own the place.
Visit with the Locals
And I mean the original locals. New Mexico has 19 Pueblos, communities of Native Americans, and while you can surely find your way into some casinos, the cultures of the Pueblo are the truly rich experiences.
The Sky City of Acoma to the west of Albuquerque is the oldest continuously inhabited city in North America. Perched on a 350-foot-high mesa, the adobe homes have some modern touches, such as paned windows and doors, but ladders still lead to second floors, there is no electricity or plumbing, and the 17th-century church and cemetery still stand at the edge of town.
Guided tours give you an hour or more to learn the past and the present of the Acoma people while offering incredible views of the rock formations that thrust up from the earth in all directions.
And don’t miss a stop at Petroglyph National Monument where you can see thousands of mysterious figures carved into volcanic rock. It’s a story of geology as well as a glimpse of the people of the past.
The Most Famous Route
There is only one place where you can find Route 66 intersecting with… Route 66. In downtown Albuquerque is the site where a former governor once rerouted America’s most famous highway north to Santa Fe.
If you want a nice overview of the Route and the rest of the city, your first stop in town should be the Albuquerque Trolley. The company claims as much in its slogan, and I concur. You’ll get an up-and-down ride of the Central Avenue portion of Route 66 with the restored KiMo Theater and an assortment of shops and restaurants (helping you choose where to go later on); you’ll see the neighborhoods and abandoned train station that consistently end up in a boatload of Hollywood movies as sets; you’ll pass Albuquerque Isotopes baseball’s home and a few other famous homes as well before returning to the Old Town plaza. (The team took it’s name from a local vote which chose Isotopes from The Simpsons.)
It’s true you can “get your kicks on Route 66,” and a very good place to start is in Albuquerque.
Also on this trip I had the opportunity to see the new Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic‘s terminal there.
I visited New Mexico as a guest of the state tourism board while on a magazine assignment.