So you’re scheduled for a conference or business trip to Albuquerque. Or your husband’s mother’s brother’s wife’s daughter-in-law lives there and just begged you to come visit. You’re thinking, what the heck is there to do in Albuquerque? Why would anyone want to have a business conference there? Why would anyone want to LIVE there? Isn’t that in the desert? Isn’t it awfully hot? Isn’t it true that not even Bugs Bunny could not find Albuquerque in the enormous flat mound of dust and tumbleweeds that is the southwest?
Well, I’m here to reassure you that Albuquerque isn’t that terrible after all. There are a few (though not a huge amount) of interesting things to do, the landscape is pretty impressive, especially if you haven’t been to the desert before, the heat is really not that bad, it’s too high for scorpions and tarantulas, and the southwest feel is truly unique to this part of the country. There is a native american influence on culture and art (though we just call them “indians” around here, despite the non-politically correct stares that that word attracts on the east coast, it’s what pretty much everybody uses here, even the native americans themselves), and also a lot of mexican/hispanic influence. There is a three-way mix of cultures (hispanic, white, and native american) which has forged a unique culture niche in New Mexico. Weather is usually great here, with clear blue skies almost every day. The sun is very strong, partially because of the altitude. If you’re out in the afternoon in the summertime and you’re too hot, step into the shade and you’ll notice a temperature difference you won’t find in most other climates. Make sure you wear sunscreen, and remember that even when it’s scorching during the day, the evening is going to be cool (there is no moisture in the air to hold the heat in after the sun goes down) so be prepared with a light sweater even if it seems like a crazy idea during the day. If you come in the winter, though, it WILL be cold. I know it’s the desert, but we have four seasons. So don’t expect eternal heat, though it’s no blizzard region.
Albuquerque is high desert, with some low, brushy vegetation, wide open spaces, and dramatic mountains as a backdrop. Albuquerque’s altitude is around a mile (5,200 feet), so if you’re coming from sea level, you may feel a difference, though it’s generally not too bad at this height. If you get a little sleepy during meetings you can blame it on the altitude! I would wait a day or two, though, before heading up on top of the mountains, just in case, if that is on your itinerary. The Sandia mountains are named so because Sandia means “watermelon” in Spanish, and the mountains, being on the east side of the city, turn a bright pink during the sunset when the weather is right (and the weather is most of the time right). If you’re interested in the mountains you can take the Tramway up to the top and look out over the whole city. You also see the barrenness of the landscape surrounding the city (Some find this depressing, but I think it’s interesting) and the starkness of the mountainsides. Sandia Peak, which is where the tram takes you, is around 10,600 feet. If you’re not used to going up on top of mountains, remember that it’s going to be a lot cooler up there than it is at the bottom. But the view of Albuquerque is fantastic. One thing that is interesting to see is the Rio Grande river which runs through the city – if you don’t see it immediately from up there, you can recognize it from the line of green through the otherwise brown scenery – full of trees and vegetation growing around the banks of the river. The Rio Grande itself it’s actually that grand, though (not here anyway)…it’s pretty shallow and pretty muddy. But it is much-needed water for this area. Unfortunately it’s a little pricey to take the tram up to the top of the mountain, but if you haven’t been in a lot of high places, it will probably be worth it. Your other option is to drive up to the peak. If you like scenic twisty drives, this one is for you. The most direct path goes up the “back” of the mountain (on the east side, away from the city) but there is also a dirt road which climbs up the west side, which starts on Tramway road and is a little more adventurous, but very cool. I don’t recommend it in a rental car, however. There are lots of hiking opportunities on this side of the mountain, and even some short hikes to small caves that you may find interesting. Specifics for hikes can be found in a local trail book – they often change so I won’t recommend something specific here.
Let’s not forget that Santa Fe is just one hour’s drive through the vast-seeming desert. There are more than rumors that in the next few years a commuter railroad (already operating in and around Albuquerque) will eventually go to Santa Fe from Albuquerque, hopefully with a connection direct to the airport. That would make the hour-long jaunt up north absolutely simple for business travelers, for example, which now can only be done with a rental car or expensive shuttle service. Santa Fe is another true cultural center for the area, and the capital of the state. The plaza and shops are similar to old town in Albuquerque, but nothing can feel quite like Santa Fe. Both there and in Albuquerque’s old town, the shops are not lined up on the street but are attached and inter-woven with courtyards and cute alleyways, so make sure you wander of the street a little bit if you want to see everything. The layout is like this because the shops are in old adobe houses, inter-connected for families and with connecting courtyards and corridors. There is also the Santa Fe opera a little bit north of town, if you are into that kind of thing. It is very famous, though, and you should look into buying tickets early if you interested in going there. The Santa Fe Opera House is unique because it is basically an outdoor setting, and you see the sun set as you watch an evening show. Of course, the almost constantly clear weather of the New Mexico desert allows for this. Near the opera house you can find the outdoor Santa Fe flea market, which has imports from all over the world, and also native american work, local artists, local tastes, and lots of southwest jewelry (almost all silver, mostly turquoise and amber if you like those). But this, like all of Santa Fe, is a tourist area – don’t look for used items in the flea market, and watch out for ridiculous prices. It’s very interesting to look around, but a bit pricey for spending. Be especially wary of native american pottery – make sure it’s authentic if that’s what you’re after, even if they advertise it as “indian pottery” it may be made in Indonesia or something. And half-price sales are common so don’t fall for it, they just double the prices first. Still, you may find good souvenirs here if you are careful with your money.
Also in Santa Fe’s downtown (plaza area) you will find two Spanish churches (Cathedral of St. Francis and a smaller one whose name I don’t remember but is interesting because it has a “miracle” spiral staircase, built with no supports by an unknown wandering craftsman) and an art museum which is also nice and pretty unique. However, the museum is not very big so I recommend buying a ticket both for the special exhibit at the time, and the regular museum, since the special exhibit space is almost the same size as the rest of the museum. They have some interesting collections, but also because of the size, much of their collection is not on display so ask what is being shown before getting too excited about seeing works of Georgia O’Keefe or Ansel Adams. There is a separate Georgia O’Keefe museum if you are into that, but I haven’t personally been there so I can’t make much of a recommendation. If you ask around about how to get there, a drive out to Chimayo may be interesting. It is a small town famous for native american weaving and for a small church with “healing dirt”. In truth, there’s not a lot there, but the drive is scenic, the church is pretty interesting (not your typical “empty” cathedral), and there is an excellent New Mexican restaurant and Bed and Breakfast there called Rancho de Chimayo, where you can have authentic meals sitting outside and on a weekend, hearing southwest music as well.
A note on Interstate highway traveling in New Mexico – you may think the drive is boring when there is “nothing” all the way to the horizon, but I still enjoy that “boring” drive if I look around me. Get over that “why do people want to live here” feeling and realize, you’re not forced to stay here, but take a look at how beautiful it really is. If you like storms (they are one of my favorite things), and you’re lucky enough to be here in the rainy season, you’ll notice in this flat land you can see the weather all around you, weather often so far away it is starkly different from where you are. You see it pouring on one horizon, blazing sun on the other, and black with lightning directly ahead of you. Be prepared for pretty sudden weather changes, both in and out of town, as cloud systems blow across the flat ground pretty readily. Just out of town, if you look to the west you’ll see three gentle, extremely worn-down peaks on the horizon, remnants of old volcanoes. West of Albuquerque there is even a huge lava field near a town called “Malpais”, which means “bad country” in Spanish. Though I haven’t seen it, my Albuquerque-native friends have highly recommended that if you haven’t seen a lava run before. It’s about a half-hour drive east on Interstate 40. Also, especially if you are not from a “wide open and flat spaces” kind of area (for example, anywhere on the east coast), take notice of how you can see the highway stretching for miles and miles ahead of you. This especially dramatic when you come over the crest of a hill and see the highway stretch the next horizon. Again, some find this depressing, but just seeing it one time can be awe-inspiring.
So what is there to do in town? Well, you have the typical entertainments – games, bars, and even a small amusement park. But the unique things to see are the old town plaza and shops and the hot air Balloon Fiesta in October. The Old Town shops I mentioned are pretty similar to what you will see in Santa Fe – a central plaza which is historically the “center of town” from when the town was a much smaller settlement, and lots of intertwined, hidden and not hidden shops of all kinds. In general, Santa Fe shops are a bit more expensive since it is a little more “fashionable” for tourists there, so you might want to consider your shopping in Albuquerque instead (this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t LOOK in Santa Fe!). The most famous event in Albuquerque out of the whole year is the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. It is a hot air balloon extravaganza, one of the biggest in the world. And people really do come from all over the world to participate. Obviously, you are just lucky if you are in Albuquerque the first two weeks of October, and the rest of the year this doesn’t apply as an activity, but I’ll talk about it anyway in case you want to schedule your trip (or are forced to come here) in that time period. Here’s the story with the balloon fiesta – some people just plain like hot air balloons. If this is you, you are going to LOVE it. There are more than 300 balloons ascending in one morning at times, and it is an impressive sight. They also have evening shows with entertainment and balloon glows (balloons on the ground lighting up with their torches), and special days for unique shaped balloons. If you can’t think of anything more boring or bothersome than getting up at 4:30 to watch balloons fly into the air, here is my advice: no matter how bad you think it will be, it is worth seeing once. Go once. Because this is something rare, and you may actually be impressed by all the colors in the sky. But keep a close watch on the weather to avoid disappointment and hate in the event of a balloon-less windy or rainy morning. Don’t go if the weather is bad.
Surprisingly, Albuquerque has a very nice botanical garden, despite being nestled in a dry, dusty climate. There are a nice variety of flowers and a butterfly garden ( a greenhouse like structure with plants that butterflies like and of course, lot and lots of butterflies fluttering all around you). A cute space lined with ivy is clearly the set for many weddings. There is a pond with the usual pond ducks and geese. There is also a great “children’s garden” which I am sure will amuse you as much as any child. That was my favorite part. When you go the botanical gardens you can buy a ticket for the three attractions of the zoo, aquarium, and gardens, which can all be seen in one day. They are all nestled closely together. The aquarium is small but nice, the zoo has very nice habitats for the zoos I have seen, and the price for all three is pretty reasonable. These are all nice places to go if you start to feel sick from the brownness of everything (a common sickness for people from greener climates after a couple of days here). You’ll notice that not only the ground and the mountains are brown, but so are the buildings, the light poles, and the highway bridges. It’s a celebration of the tradition of adobe houses here. Many of the houses, especially in Santa Fe, are still made of real adobe (thick walls made of mud, meant to keep the houses cool in very hot weather), while others are just imitation, tan-colored stucco walls made to look like adobe. It takes a while to get used to this look, but when you adjust you start to see the beauty of these homes and buildings (for some really nice example of non-residential adobe edifaces, see the University of New Mexico campus – it doesn’t have your typical college buildings). The university campus is complete with several museums, but I have never been to any of those so I can’t vouch for whether or not they are interesting. Central to campus, though, is the duck pond, which yes, is just a pond but must be one of the greenest places in the city aside from the botanical gardens and is a nice place to spend the afternoon if you need to relax and read a book or some papers.
Last, make sure that while you are in New Mexico you don’t miss out on the unique New Mexican cuisine. They say that the state question is “red or green?” because that’s what they ask you at restaurants to find out with kind of chile (which is actually a chile pepper sauce) you want on your dish. And they ask you all the time because they put chile on EVERYTHING. You can even get McDonald’s hamburgers complete with green chile. It can be pretty spicy, so be careful, but do give it a try. New Mexican dishes are similar to Mexican dishes, but in my opinion less greasy, with lots of chile piled over whatever you have. Also, try some guacamole and chips. It’s more pricey than salsa at a restaurant because avocados are not cheap, but it’s so worth it. And I’m pretty sure the homestyle, chunky guac you will find around here is better than the packaged “guacamole soup” (when it is more like a liquid and less like mashed avocados) they serve up in imitation mexican restaurants and other places outside the southwest. Last, if you’re at a decent new Mexican restaurant they will serve you sopapillas with every meal, which is like a puffy, fried dessert bread that you eat with honey.
So, it’s not so bad, is it? Give us a try. If nothing else, it is worth it to see the desert once and soak in some strong sun, and have taste of the southwest atmosphere and food. Enjoy!