Southwestern history, culture, and museums abound in the town that will host FMCA’s 71st International Convention in March 2004.
By Beverly Edwards, F65254
What mile-high city is rich in natural and cultural history, has a mild year-round climate, is bisected by one of the most famous highways in the world, can be seen from the world’s longest tram, and hosts the largest and most-photographed hot-air balloon event in the world?
If your answer is Albuquerque, New Mexico, give yourself a pat on the back. Most people associate any reference to a mile-high city with Denver, which lies 450 miles north of Albuquerque. Although that Colorado city has its share of outstanding features, Albuquerque has plenty, too.
To fully appreciate Albuquerque’s eclectic assortment of attractions takes at least two or three days, and even then, you probably will leave many stones unturned. Fortunately, FMCA’s 71st International Convention, March 16, 17, and 18, 2004, will afford a wonderful reason to visit and spend time exploring this town. The convention will be held at Expo New Mexico, the New Mexico State Fairgrounds, a popular location for many Albuquerque events.
A good way to begin your tour of Albuquerque is to get an overview “” literally. An aerial tramway climbs up the side of the Sandia Mountains that rise to the east of the city. The 2.7-mile ride is breathtaking as the world’s longest single-section cable aerial tramway carries passengers 3,819 vertical feet. When you reach the top, you’ll be standing on a mountain ridge that is 10,378 feet above sea level. Below, Albuquerque (population 448,000) fills and sprawls up the sides of a natural bowl-shaped valley where the sun shines an average of 310 days each year. It is a magnificent view that can be enjoyed from the deck or window-side tables at a mountaintop restaurant. You are welcome to try out the local cuisine or enjoy your own picnic on the deck.
You’ll soon learn that you are indeed standing on a ridge. Just a few feet behind the restaurant and Forest Service museum, the terrain drops away to a valley on the east side of Sandia Peak. In winter when snow covers the ground, skiers use a chairlift to the slopes; the rest of the year, the lift carries visitors on a round trip down the mountainside. Hiking trails in this area let you explore the mountain. For the best of both worlds, plan your visit for a late afternoon and linger long enough to see a fantastic sunset. Phone (505) 856-7325 or visit www.sandiapeak.com for more information.
Back in the valley, your first stop should be Petroglyph National Monument, which is situated in the northwest part of Albuquerque. Here you will see evidence of the dawn of the area’s cultural history. Carved into an escarpment of black rock left behind by eons of volcanic activity are 17,000 ancient Indian petroglyphs. More than art, they reflect the lives of the people who occupied the area as early as 1000 B.C. Most of the figures and symbols were created between A.D. 1300 and 1540. Dancers, priests, shamans, mythical creatures and symbols, and a variety of animals and geometric designs have provided historians with an insight into the culture that preceded the American Indians who continue to call this vast high desert home. Interpretive trails lead visitors to some of the more accessible drawings. Phone (505) 897-8814 or visit www.nps.gov/petr for more information.
To continue tracing the history of the area’s first inhabitants, make your next stop at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, located on 12th Street, between downtown and Old Town. This handsome structure is patterned after a traditional pueblo that surrounds an open, common area. On Saturdays and Sundays, Indian dancers festooned with feathers and swirling skirts repeat the steps that have been handed down for many generations. Each performance has a significant meaning.
Surrounding the open area are shops filled with genuine art and artifacts from the 19 Indian pueblos that own and maintain the center. In addition, an excellent museum contains exhibits from each of the pueblos. For a taste of today’s American Indian cuisine, stop in at the museum restaurant. Phone (800) 766-4405 or visit www.indianpueblo.org for more information.
The Old Town portion of Albuquerque is full of museums and sights. For instance, not far from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, which traces the natural history of the area. On display are gigantic dinosaur bones; more recent discoveries include a dinosaur egg and fossilized dinosaur skin. Visitors can experience the turbulent forces that formed the area in an “Evolator,” which simulates volcanic activity, and learn about the Ice Age that followed. In the DynaTheater, you can become a part of the on-screen action, and the LodeStar Astronomy Center offeres views of the universe in a domed theater. The museum is open daily. Phone (505) 841-2800 or visit www.nmnaturalhistory.org for more information.
At this point it might be a good time to stroll about Albuquerque’s historic Old Town, especially since you can park in one location and walk to the natural history museum and the birthplace of the city. Lest you think the United States was first settled by Europeans on the East Coast, you should know that the community that became Albuquerque was founded 70 years before the beginning of the American Revolution. (It will celebrate its 300th birthday in 2006.) At that time the area was under the flag of Spain, and King Philip gave colonists permission to settle along the Rio Grande Valley. They named the town after the Duke of Alburquerque, viceroy of New Spain. (The first “r” in his name was somehow dropped over time.) The town’s nickname, Duke City, commemorates this history.
Little has changed in the appearance of the adobe structures that surround the plaza. But rather than providing shelter for residents as they once did, they are now restaurants and shops filled with handmade jewelry, blankets, ponchos, and paintings. Some merchants display their wares on blankets spread on the sidewalk along one side of the plaza.
No visit to the Old Town plaza is complete without seeing San Felipe de Neri Church and Museum, first erected in 1706 and rebuilt in 1793. It continues to be an active Catholic church, and on any weekend you might see a colorful wedding party emerge through the doors.
In keeping with their cultural tradition, Albuquerque’s Hispanic residents enjoy colorful fiestas and festivals at the plaza. Mariachi musicians perform on a stage in the center of the plaza, playing lively well-known songs of New Mexico for singing and dancing. It goes without saying that the plaza is the center of activity for Albuquerque’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.
While in Old Town, you also may want to visit the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History, which offers permanent and traveling exhibits, as well as a sculpture garden. Phone (505) 243-7255 or visit www.cabq.gov/museum for more information.
The nearby National Atomic Museum fascinates visitors with the story of how mankind has harnessed the atom, from the days before the first atomic bomb to the current use of atomic energy. A film shown at the museum, Ten Seconds That Shook the World, documents the events of World War II and the emergence of atomic power. The museum is open daily. Phone (505) 845-6670 or visit www.atomicmuseum.com for more information.
Now that you have explored Albuquerque’s history, you don’t have to go far for a look at the Albuquerque of today. You’ll find it at Albuquerque Biological Park, which consists of the Rio Grande Zoo, the Albuquerque Aquarium, and the Rio Grande Botanic Garden. The Biological Park is a few blocks west of Old Town.
The use of modern animal management and natural habitats has resulted in the Rio Grande Zoo’s ranking as one of the best in the country. A captive-breeding program has been established at the zoo for threatened and endangered species. The aquarium tells the story of the Rio Grande, from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Special attractions include a shark tank with floor-to-ceiling viewing windows, an eel cave, and a tidal pool.
Next-door to the aquarium is the botanical garden, with a 10,000-square-foot conservatory that houses a desert pavilion filled with plants from the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, and a Mediterranean pavilion that replicates the climate and plant life from that part of the world. Outdoor exhibits are equally impressive, as fountains and flowers are arranged in theme gardens. A ceremonial garden sheltered by tall hedges and trees provides an intimate place for weddings and private parties, and in the native garden, visitors can study indigenous plants. Perhaps the most fanciful section is the children’s fantasy garden, where tots can play among gigantic replicas of fruits and vegetables and even explore the inside of a huge pumpkin. The butterfly pavilion is popular with children and adults.
The gardens are arranged around a lake that has a stage where music lovers can enjoy evening concerts during the summer. With the changing seasons, the gardens take on a new look, coinciding with the flora of the grasslands, mountains, arroyos, and sand hills of New Mexico.
The zoo, aquarium, and garden are all open daily, and combination or separate admission tickets are available. Phone (505) 764-6200 or visit www.cabq.gov/biopark for more information.
Many other museums are located in Albuquerque, and they’re all listed in the city’s free visitors guide. Be sure to look it over before you visit Duke City.
Since its founding, Albuquerque has been an important trade center. With the American westward movement, two events ensured the city’s importance: the arrival of the railroad in 1880 and the 1926 building of U.S. 66, the Mother Road, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Many of the sites featured in this article are accessible along the original route of this famous highway. Keep your eyes open for diners, motor courts, and service stations that date back to the heyday of this road. If you’re a fan of Route 66, be sure to obtain a copy of the “Historic Route 66 Map & Guide,” which includes information about several existing reminders of the road. It’s available from the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Albuquerque enjoys four seasons, and each one attracts visitors to the area. As spring approaches, the desert comes alive with colorful blossoms and wildflowers. Melting snow fills small streams tumbling down the mountains, beckoning outdoor enthusiasts to put away their skis and hike the trails that lead into the mountains. In March, when the FMCA convention will take place, temperatures typically vary from a high of 61 degrees to a low of 33 degrees.
Each April more than 3,000 American Indian dancers converge on Albuquerque for the annual Gathering of Nations Pow Wow, and May brings the Albuquerque Wine Festival. Summer is filled with special events such as the “Flicks on 66” film festival and a wide assortment of art and antique shows. Mountain bikers ride the trails at Sandia Peak. The Rio Grande beckons thrill seekers with float trips and whitewater rafting excursions through its canyons. And golfers can hone their skills on the city’s many golf courses. The New Mexico State Fair in early September heralds the coming of another season.
Fall is highlighted with the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot-air balloon event in the world. This extravaganza takes place from the first weekend through the second weekend in October and attracts hundreds of hot-air balloonists from around the world. The balloons come in many colors and shapes, but the special shapes category is getting larger by the year. This includes balloons that look like cows and cartoon characters, automobiles and stagecoaches, and just about everything else. Having a motorhome parked adjacent to the launch site is without question the best way to attend this event. Many FMCA members will be able to experience visiting Balloon Fiesta Park when they attend the convention this March, since they will be parked there. For more information about the balloon fiesta, phone (888) 422-7277 or visit www.balloonfiesta.com.
Skiers make their way up the nearby mountains to the well-groomed ski slopes all winter long, but winter’s best show takes place on Christmas Eve. Visitors from near and far descend on Albuquerque to see the famous display of luminarias (paper sacks holding candles steadied in sand). As darkness settles on the city, thousands of luminarias glow from sidewalks and rooftops. It is a warm and wonderful way to celebrate this special day.
With interstate highways leading to it from every direction, Albuquerque is one of the country’s most accessible cities. Except for the immediate area around Old Town, broad streets and avenues crisscross the city, and parking is available within easy walking distance of all the attractions mentioned in this article. Most locations can accommodate large vehicles.
Albuquerque is a lovely and lively place to visit. Just allow yourself enough time to truly enjoy all the area has to offer.
Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 26866
Albuquerque, NM 87125-6866
Albuquerque Central KOA
12400 Skyline Road N.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87123
Albuquerque North KOA
555 S. Hill Road
Bernalillo, NM 87004
American RV Park
13500 Coronado Freeway S.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87121
Balloon View Homes and RV Park
500 Tyler Road N.E.
Albuquerque, NM 87113
Enchanted Trails RV Camp
14305 Central N.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87121
High Desert RV Park
13000 W. Frontage Road S.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87121
Isleta Lakes & Recreation Area
4051 Broadway S.E.
Isleta, NM 87022
Palisades RV Park
9201 Central Ave. N.W.
Albuquerque, NM 87121
Stagecoach Stop RV Resort
3650 Highway 528 N.E.
Rio Rancho, NM 87124