Green or red? as I stand at the counter of one of Albuquerque’s trendy Flying Star Cafes, I’m pondering my answer. Half the people here in my home state prefer red chile, a sauce made from dried, ripe red chile peppers that has a smooth, earthy flavor. The other half go for the green, made from roasted unripe peppers. I choose the third option: I tell the server I’d like my burrito to be smothered with both kinds of chile. "You mean Christmas?" she asks. Exactly.
Albuquerque is a little like its chile—it offers lots of richly flavored options. Wherever you tread in this high-desert gem in central New Mexico, you can sample an array of different cultures: Native American, Spanish, Mexican, Anglo, and, more recently, Asian. As Danny López of the National Hispanic Cultural Center puts it, the city’s traditions—both old and new—are visible everywhere, from its turquoise jewelry to its hot air balloon races. "You don’t just see Albuquerque," López says. "You feel it."
Despite Albuquerque’s cultural charms and its natural beauty, located as it is next to the rosy faces of the Sandia Mountains, it’s an even bet you haven’t been here. Of course, now is the perfect time to come. The city turned 300 this year and has spent the last few months welcoming visitors who’ve come to celebrate the milestone birthday.
The city’s roots go back farther than 300 years. The Ancestral Pueblo inhabited the area as early as A.D. 600 and conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led the Spanish into the Rio Grande valley in the 1540s. But it wasn’t until 1706 that Governor Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdez officially founded the city. Albuquerque—named for Spain’s 10th Duke of Alburquerque—was a sleepy hamlet for more than a century. (The town dropped the first r in the mid-1800s.) Then in 1880, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrived, bringing with it a flood of Anglos from the East Coast.
Another growth spurt followed the 1926 completion of Route 66, which cuts right through the heart of the city to form a link between Chicago and Los Angeles. In the 1950s, waves of Americans pointed their cars to the southwest in search of ridiculously blue skies and motels resembling oversize tepees. A lot of the action in Albuquerque still takes place on part of the historic roadway, now known as Central Avenue, which remains an ode to both stylish architecture and 1950s kitsch.
Old Town, just off Central, shouldn’t be missed. Home to some of the city’s original adobe buildings, with their distinctly Spanish vigas (wood beams) and latillas (wood-slatted ceilings), the area’s walkways are now lined with trinket shops, art galleries, and open-air restaurants.
Old Town is also within easy walking distance of several top attractions, including the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Among my favorites is the National Atomic Museum, where you can view a letter from Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt discussing atomic energy. The quaint Turquoise Museum features more than 65 types of the blue stone, from green-hued Manassa to robin’s-egg blue Persian. The American International Rattlesnake Museum houses more than 30 rattler species in vivaria.
This is a stimulating city to feel your own way through and decide for yourself what you like. For me, the best way to cap off a day is on the Sandia Peak Tramway as it climbs steeply for 4,000 feet to the top of the Sandia Mountains, seeming to barely miss the daggerlike granite below. The terminus easily affords the best view in town of the exploding New Mexican sky. You’ll ride back down understanding why people from around the world keep finding their way to Albuquerque. All that culture—and classic sunsets too.
Illustration by Neil Gower
This article was first published in November 2006. Some facts may
have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA’s Arizona & New Mexico TourBook and Albuquerque map. For additional information, contact the Albuquerque Convention " Visitors Bureau: (505) 842-9918, (800) 733-9918, www.itsatrip.org.