Albuquerque has established itself as the hot air balloon capital, with more than 500 balloons participating in a spectacle of bold rainbow colors floating in a sky-blue background. But outside of the first two weeks in October, when hundreds of thousands of viewers gather for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, most Coloradans perceive the city as a necessary flight destination to get to their “true” vacationland – Santa Fe or Taos. What they don’t realize is they’re missing the vibrant cultures, outdoor adventures and passionate small-business owners in Albuquerque.
Step into rich culture
Two main cultures infuse a sense of the sacred, as well as a vibrancy into Albuquerque.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center connects visitors to Mother Earth. Its mission: to preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture by sharing their respect for the land through drumbeats, dance and song.
“Everything is beautiful,” the elder says as he introduces traditional dances. “Song is how we pray. Everything is based on prayer. When we move our legs, we stimulate Mother Earth to rain.”
He continues to explain how Pueblo culture sings prayer as they plant and pick cotton, spin yarn, fashion dance regalia, and bless feathers with prayer.
The National Hispanic Cultural Center showcases art in all dimensions: visual, performing, history, literary and media. Visitors learn about Hispanic culture throughout the world, as the center features 400 years of historic and contemporary Hispanic arts and achievements in the 16-acre campus. Frederico Vigil created one of the standout pieces: a 45-foot terra-cotta-colored tower, which portrays centuries of Hispanic history.
The National Institute of Flamenco performs regularly, spreading its contagious visceral dance with audiences.
Visitors also can experience aspects of the two cultures outdoors. The Petroglyph National Monument is a 17-mile long area, but a plethora of the prehistoric images of animals, insects, people and geometric designs come to immediate view within a short walking distance. Other petroglyphs, as Pueblo people tell it, reveal themselves only when the right spiritual presence comes along.
The Salinas Mission Trail takes visitors back to Indian ruins, prehistoric trade routes and mission churches built in the early 17th century.
Gran Quivira holds the most extensive pueblo and mission ruins, with two churches and excavated structures.
Acoma Sky City is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. The pueblo community sits on a 70-acre sandstone mesa, 367 feet above the valley. The central plaza dates back to 1100 A.D., and a museum acquaints visitors with the 1,000 years of history.
A stop at Pimentel & Sons opens up a new vision of guitars, and the passion behind them. The brothers are following in their father’s footsteps, fashioning custom guitars starting at about $1,500 and soaring to $15,000 and more.
“It’s soul to soul, guitar maker to guitar maker,” says Rick Pimentel, explaining how he creates each guitar to match the exact tone and look the musician desires.
Meet the palate pleasers
Albuquerque seems like the perfect place for spicy food – and it is, particularly at El Pinto – but it’s also home to The St. James Tearoom, Torinos’ @ Home, and St. Clair Winery & Bistro.
St. Clair’s patio is the perfect place to enjoy the family’s award-winning wines. Six generations of vino making has led to more than 70 different varieties and is the largest winery in New Mexico. Master chefs pair gourmet cuisine with the wines.
Torino’s @ Home is only open for breakfast and lunch, and though it’s located in a strip mall, the food is anything but ordinary. Daniella and Maxime Bouneou are almost always on site, and chatting with Daniella is an absolute must. The Italian-born restaurant owner is a firecracker – part foodie, part stand-up comedian, and someone you don’t want to say a ravioli she makes needs basic marinara sauce (if you do, first she’ll school you in traditional Italian cooking, then you’ll be thanking her for not messing with her recipe). She and her French husband present authentic Italian and French meals, not some cardboard spaghetti and meatballs.
“We don’t open any can,” Daniella says in her heavy accent, commenting on their fresh ingredients. “We want to make it exciting; food is important … Here, it’s really like you come to Italy.”
Passion also pours through twin brothers John and Jim Thomas, owners of El Pinto, which their parents founded. Now it’s the largest restaurant in New Mexico, with enchanting, intimate patio dining and an impressive indoor venue filled with photos of famous people the Thomas’ have won over with their salsa and green chile sauce (they’ve even cooked in the White House). Jim Thomas knows everything about chili, from soil composition to harvesting and processing (traditional fire roasting and pealing green chilies by hand), which translates to quality El Pinto products, sold in more than 10,000 grocery stores nationwide.
Albuquerque may not seem like the most natural place to host formal tea luncheons, complete with ornate English décor, but the St. James Tearoom has garnered a strong following. Co-owner Mary Alice Higbie wanted to find a way to help people slow down in the fast pace of the world, so she turned to the British tradition of tea. She selects the finest teas and serves them with finger food, from savories like chicken piccata and zucchini muffins to soft, sweet scones and chocolates and cakes. Private nooks and a patio decorated by theme allow guests to settle in and unwind.
“Tea is about reflecting and slowing down and relationships,” says co-owner Daniel Higbie.
And, to satisfy a sweet tooth, stop at the Golden Crown Panaderia, where 73-year-old owner Pratt Morales makes people feel like kids again by giving them a free biscochito (the official state cookie) and shares his passion for bakery like no one else.
Between biking, golfing, hiking, the longest aerial tram in North America at Sandia Peak ride, and museums including the recently added Balloon Museum, Albuquerque offers more activities than a visitor can see in a week, much less a long weekend. So, the town also offers a variety of accommodations.
Perhaps the most unique and relaxing is Los Poblanos Historic Inn and Cultural Center, a 16-acre farm dedicated to growing more than 75 types of organic food, herbs and flowers. Guests can stay in one of 20 New Mexican style suites, complete with wood-burning fireplaces, traditional artwork, carved beams and antique furnishings. Outdoors, the serene setting transports people back in time, and the included organic breakfasts are unforgettable. www.lospoblanos.com
Nativo Lodge is a hotel that feels more like an inn that pays tribute to the Native American culture with Navajo rugs, hand-carved murals, river rock and pine-bundled columns five stories high and a glass elevator to take in the beauty. www.hhandr.com/nativo.php
Like any destination, Albuquerque offers fascinating museums and family attractions, including the International Balloon Museum, jeep tours, trolley rides on Route 66 and distinctive neighborhoods (www.abqtrolley.com), paddling adventures (www.quietwaterspaddling.com), ghost tours (www.toursofoldtown.com) and more. And if you don’t make it to the Balloon Fiesta, you can book a flight anytime; the longest-running operation is Rainbow Ryders, Inc. (www.rainbowryders.com). No matter what season, Albuquerque offers a plethora of activities and cultural entertainment – it even has a ski area.
Plan a (packed) long weekend
Arrival first night, dinner at: St. Clair Winery & Bistro, www.stclairwinery.com
Day One: Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (dances at 2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays through August, then just on weekends at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. IndianPueblo.com
Lunch at Torino’s @ Home: www.torinosfoods.com or St. James Tearoom, www.stjamestearoom.com
Petroglyph National Monument: www.nps.gov/petr
Explore Old Town by walking or see Route 66 and Albuquerque’s neighborhoods by trolley (www.abqtrolley.com)
Dinner: St. Clair Winery & Bistro: Tucanos Brazilian Grill, www.tucanos.com
The Salinas Mission Trail: www.nps.gov/sapu/index.htm
Bakery: Golden Crown Panaderia, www.goldencrown.biz
Acoma Sky City: http://sccc/acomaskycity.org (lunch is available at the café)
Flamenco dance: www.nifnm.org or meet world-acclaimed Pimentel craftsmen and see how they build their custom guitars. www.pimentelmusic.com
Dinner: El Pinto Restaurant & Cantina, www.elpinto.com
Note: The 40th annual Balloon fiesta is always in October. For more information on the festival visit www.balloonfiesta.com or on Albuquerque, visit www.itsatrip.org or call 800.284.2282.