Albuquerque: Can You Keep It Up?

It’s safe to say that Albuquerque, New Mexico, is not on most people’s top 10 travel list, maybe not even their top 100. Yet the “Land of Enchantment,” (yes, that’s what they call themselves) is anything but rehashed Southwest scenery and redundant Mexican food. Albuquerque is a surprisingly diverse city offering abundant outdoor and cultural experiences and stunning visuals. Albuquerque is home to parts of iconic Route 66, 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.

The Rio Grande River

Albuquerque is an old city, dating from 1706. Hot-air balloons are relatively new and are the big draw. An hour-long balloon ride above the Rio Grande River flanked by the Sandia Mountains is the classic experience. As you lift off the ground you don’t even feel like you’re moving and the ascent is similar to 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 climbing even higher. It’s a myth that rides are tranquil and serene. Well, they are actually, with the exception that every two minutes a fierce blast of propane into the balloon is required to keep you buoyant, and everyone can appreciate that.

The views from the Sandia Tramway are totally impressive

The other sky high adventure worth checking out 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 where 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.

The Acoma Pueblo, home for a 1,000 years

 Not as high but just a cool, the Acoma Pueblo is the very first high rise as it were, 376 feet up in the air on a granite table in the middle of a beautiful and remote valley. This American Indian community is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in all of North America and is believed to have been settled around 1150 AD. The Spanish forcibly took control of the pueblo, and the Indians, as they began dominating the West. That’s why tours start with the Mission church which dates from 1629. Native American’s still live atop this mesa, as they have for nearly a thousand years and the tour takes you through, literally, the backyards of the Acoma Pueblo and its people. You’ll stop every so often so you can buy handmade pottery and water (it can get brutally hot) but the commercial feel of the tours seems in direct contrast with the spiritual nature of the place. A bus drives you up and back to the top of the mesa, but rather than sitting in a bus on the way back, head down the original way; though narrow low cut rocks with finger holds deeply worn into the granite from a thousand years of use. There are supreme visuals here; multi-colored rocks rising up around you with dramatic and jagged edges. It’s a short climb to reach the bottom of the road, about 15 minutes, and it’s not strenuous.

Don't miss these views. Hike down from the Acoma Pueblo.

Killer bison enchiladas!

Back on terra firma, the food in Albuquerque is awesome. The common question asked nearly everywhere you eat is, red or green? What many tourists don’t know is that chilies vary in intensity and heat, from timid to bracingly spicy. Therefore always ask 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 where the chilies are dipped in egg white, flash fried and finished in the oven, making them light without the copious breading.
Casa Vieja has the best bison enchiladas and a killer veggie enchilada. And enchiladas in Albuquerque are not rolled, they are layered like a casserole, topped with sunny side up eggs which infiltrate and soak into the enchiladas making them quintessential New Mexico.

Many people still have the hankering to drive Route 66 and Albuquerque has the best preserved piece of roadway. Only a few original emblematic buildings and signs remain like the Hi-Way Motel, the Aztec Motel and
El Vado Court
. But the KiMo Theatre, built in 1927 as a movie house, is where you need to visit as this is the single best preserved piece of Route 66. Seven hand-painted murals adorn the entry, the bison skull light fixtures are original and, unapologetically (and yes, this was pre-Nazi) there are swastika motifs throughout the theatre, an ancient and once positive symbol, forever ruined, so don’t get your panties in a wad when you see them. Ultimately Albuquerque is an oasis in the dessert, a mirage that exceeds its visual promise and a trip you will remember, especially the food!
Interior motifs at the KiMo Theatre



Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloons, http://www.rainbowryders.com/
Sandia Peak Tramway, http://www.sandiapeak.com/

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