History Meets Hip and Happening in Albuquerque


by Debbie Stone


From hot air balloon rides and flamenco dancing, to museums and southwest cuisine, travel writer Debbie Stone shares her adventures in Albuquerque, New Mexico. on Big Blend Radio.


From my perch in the sky, the view is sublime. The iconic Sandia Mountains appear as sentinels of the high desert and the rugged lava escarpments provide a Mars-like topography. Below, the Rio Grande snakes through the expansive landscape, while matchbox size houses and buildings look like Lego constructions.

I’m floating high above this stunning panorama in a Rainbow Ryders hot air balloon. Our pilot in command is Troy Bradley, an experienced balloonist with almost 8,000 balloon piloting hours. He also holds 64 World Records in the sport and has claimed the title of New Mexico State Hot Air Champion four times. We’re in good hands!

The wind is gently carrying us up, up and away, as the ground unfolds before our eyes. Minutes ago, the sun rose, streaking the valley with red and orange hues. We are joined by other balloons, which provide pops of bright color against a now bluer than blue New Mexico sky. A few hover above, some below, and one even momentarily “kisses” our balloon. Another dips down into the river for a “splash and dash.”

All too soon, the ride ends and we’re on terra firma once again. Upon landing, we indulge in a post-flight celebration with a champagne toast to our aeronautical journey. We also receive proof of our ascension in the form of a certificate. Something to frame along with all the picture-perfect images!

A hot air balloon ride often ranks atop many travelers’ bucket lists. It’s not hard to understand why, as the experience is magical. It’s an unmatched way to provide a unique perspective of the environment. And what better place to embark on this enchanting journey than Albuquerque, the “hot air balloon capital of the world.”

Home to the famous International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, Albuquerque has long been a magnet for hot air balloonists and fans of the sport. The annual festival, which recently marked its 48th anniversary, draws almost a million people from across the globe. What started as a quaint launch of thirteen balloons is now a massive nine-day celebration with nearly 600 balloons participating, representing forty-one states and seventeen countries.

It’s a veritable feast for the senses, with the sound of balloon burners simultaneously igniting, the aroma of fresh doughnuts and breakfast burritos, the roar of the crowd as the balloons take to the sky and the look of awe on thousands of upturned faces, as they gaze at the stunning op-art canvas in the sky.

To complement your hot air balloon ride in the Land of Enchantment, stop in at the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum. Exhibits explore the past, present and future of ballooning, as well as subjects related to the science, engineering and technology of lighter-than-air aviation and other innovative forms of flight.

Ballooning is only one of many fun experiences visitors can have in Albuquerque. The city is a culturally rich and naturally beautiful metropolitan area with deep, historical roots. It boasts an exciting food and wine scene, a vibrant public arts program (responsible for bedecking the city with nearly a thousand paintings, sculptures and murals), fifteen museums, several hundred parks and greenspaces, shops and galleries galore and an abundance of outdoor pursuits to appeal to adrenaline seekers of all kinds.

As you explore Albuquerque, you might hear it affectionately called “Burque,” by the locals. It’s an easy way to shorten the town’s rather cumbersome name. You may also hear it referred to as “Duke City.” And although you might think this moniker has to do with John Wayne, aka, “The Duke,” think again. It actually refers to Spain’s Duke of Alburquerque (the extra “r” was eventually dropped), Viceroy Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, whom the city was named for back in 1706 when it was formally established.

A great way to get a broad overview of the town is to take the Best of ABQ City Tour with Albuquerque Tourism & Sightseeing Factory. It’s a fully narrated and entertaining experience that hits all the highlights, including the University of New Mexico campus, Old Town, Nob Hill, the BioPark, Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Route 66 and film locations of major motion films and T.V. shows, such as the critically acclaimed and awarding winning series, “Breaking Bad.”

Though modern and forward-thinking, Albuquerque still retains its connections to the past. Make sure you visit Petroglyph National Monument on the city’s west side to see the designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers some 400 to 700 years ago. The monument protects an estimated 24,000 images and serve as a link to the area’s ancient history, both cultural and geological.

Drive down historic Route 66, now Central Ave., for a flash-from-the-past view of vintage neon Route 66 signs and other artifacts lining the street. Fun fact: Albuquerque is one of the only places in the U.S. where the “Mother Road” intersects with itself (at Central Ave. and Fourth St.), thanks to a 1937 realignment quirk.

Stroll around Old Town, the heart of the city since its founding centuries ago.  Listed on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties as the Old Albuquerque Historic District, this charming site contains ten blocks of historic adobe buildings surrounding Old Town Plaza. Among them is San Felipe de Neri Church, a Spanish colonial church originally constructed in 1793.

Old Town today is a mecca of shops, restaurants, galleries and museums, one of which is the popular Albuquerque Museum. Dedicated to preserving the art of the American Southwest and the history of Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande Valley, this beloved institution features everything from conquistador helmets and Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes to Cochiti pottery and the display case from Fred Harvey’s Alvarado Curio Shop. Leave time to roam the sculpture garden, which includes 53 works of art by many of the important sculptors of the region. The large scale, multi-piece, “La Jornada,” which occupies an entire corner of the property, is hard to miss. Reactions are varied to this controversial sculpture that presents a juxtaposition of Native and Western world views.

Further down the street is the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. You’ll know the place by the two life-size dinosaurs stationed at the entrance. Exhibits take visitors on a journey through time, detailing the formation of the universe, major geologic changes and the age of the dinosaurs. Additionally, there’s a planetarium with a full-dome theater, featuring multimedia presentations on astronomy and space science.

Kids and kids-at-heart will enjoy Explora, a hands-on learning center with interactive exhibits and activities to spur imagination and creativity in the fields of science, art and technology. Also nearby is the BioPark, home to the aquarium, zoo, botanic garden and Tingley Beach. Yes, Virginia, there’s a beach in the middle of Albuquerque! Well…it’s actually a few ponds for fishing and boating, flanked by walking and cycling trails. Nevertheless, this urban recreation area is a favorite oasis for residents and visitors alike.

Many travelers to New Mexico are interested in Hispanic and Pueblo Native American cultures, as both have been integral to the development of the state and continue to have an effect on the fabric of its character. The National Hispanic Cultural Center is dedicated to the study, advancement and presentation of Hispanic culture and offers music concerts, theater performances and film screenings throughout the year; while, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center preserves and perpetuates Pueblo Native American culture, history and art. Exhibits at the latter represent all nineteen pueblos in New Mexico, with displays documenting prehistoric times to the present.

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center also offers demonstrations of traditional native dances from the various pueblos, accompanied by live music and narration. And if you want to taste authentic cuisine, the top-rated onsite Pueblo Harvest restaurant incorporates traditional Pueblo flavors into contemporary cooking. The menu includes a Pre-Contact section with entrees emphasizing the flavors found in indigenous diets before Europeans colonized the Americas. Featured are such dishes as bison flank steak, New Mexico trout, elk pot roast and green chile stew.

Albuquerque is also proud of its niche museums. Race car enthusiasts will want to check out the Unser Racing Museum, which celebrates the accomplishments of multiple generations of New Mexico’s native racing family, the Unsers. And if you’re a herper, you’re in luck, as the International American Rattlesnake Museum houses the largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes in the world. In fact, it has more types than the Bronx, Philadelphia, National, Denver, San Francisco and San Diego Zoos, all combined!

The Turquoise Museum, a personal favorite, is a trove of treasures for those interested in learning everything there is to know about this sought after gem. Housed in an 8,500 square-foot castle (once a private residence), smack dab in the middle of downtown Albuquerque, this fifth generation, family-owned and operated museum is chockful of exhibits detailing the formations and geology of turquoise, its mining techniques, history, mineralogy, lapidary and more. You’ll learn how turquoise forms, which cultures are famous for the gem, why some pieces are blue and others are green, how the stones are shaped and polished, what are the most prolific mines and how much it’s worth, among other fascinating facts.

The museum has fifteen of the most collectible pieces of turquoise art from cultures all over the globe on display, including the famed George Washington Stone, along with turquoise samples from over 100 mines, 400 pieces of drool-worthy jewelry and an exquisite turquoise chandelier comprised of 21,500 pieces of turquoise.

One of the biggest eye-openers in the museum is the Imitations Gallery. The art of imitating turquoise has been around for many years and you’ll be shocked to learn that ninety-five percent of all turquoise on the market is imitation. Exhibits detail the various imitation processes and explain how other stones and materials may contain dye to look like turquoise. A section on reconstituted or “stove-top” turquoise shows how very small turquoise stones are mixed with a binding agent, then poured it into a mold and dried, before being cut into slabs and finally used as natural turquoise in jewelry production.

You’ll definitely require nourishment while exploring this fascinating destination. Fortunately, Albuquerque knows food, and you’d be correct to assume it dominates when it comes to New Mexican and Southwestern cuisine. See PART TWO of my story here.

For all things Albuquerque: www.visitalbuquerque.org

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and to all seven continents.

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