Uniquely Albuquerque

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June 24, 2011

Experience the American Southwest at its best

Uniquely Albuquerque
Albuquerque’s colorful past stretches back to the 1300s when the Ancestral Pueblo people settled along what today is known as the Rio Grande River. The waterway provided precious irrigation for the natives’ crops, and trees along the banks provided firewood. By the 1500s, European explorers seeking gold found instead villages of mud, but that didn’t keep them from staying. By the late 1600s, the community along the river began to grow as Spanish missionaries settled in the area. In 1706, the burgeoning town was named for the Spanish Duke of Alburquerque (the extra “r” was later dropped from the name).

The westward migration of the 1800s brought Americans to the area along the Santa Fe Trail. Everyone from merchants and homesteaders to lawyers and tradesman established their homes and businesses in the broad valley where major routes met. The arrival of the railroad and, much later, Route 66, swelled the city’s population, which now stands at 800,000.

These days, Albuquerque thrives as a vibrant crossroads of history, commerce and culture.

Begin your tour by stepping back in time at Petroglyph National Monument, west of the city. After soaking up the history of the rock markings at the visitor center, walk along the trails to see the rock faces that bear ancient works of art. The monument’s estimated 20,000 carved images of people, animals and other symbols give glimpses into a compelling past.

Get a feel for the city’s Spanish heritage in Old Town, where you can walk in the footsteps of the city’s founders. Dominating the central plaza is the towering San Felipe de Neri Church, which replaced an adobe chapel that collapsed in 1792. In keeping with tradition, small adobe homes were established around the plaza for mutual protection. Today, these structures house shops that sell colorful clothing, blankets, jewelry and other items made by local artisans.

While in Old Town, you’ll see evidence of one of the city’s most interesting chapters. For three weeks in the early days of the Civil War, the Confederate flag flew over the plaza. When the Confederates retreated, they buried six canons near the plaza, and two of them are now displayed.

In the following century, the city hosted a new wave of visitors. Bordering the cluster of buildings in Old Town runs a stretch of one of the nation’s most famous roads, Route 66, known in Albuquerque as Central Avenue.

After World War II, Americans hopped in their cars in search of new adventures, and Albuquerque emerged as a popular stop on the Mother Road. The region’s rugged desert was a novelty for many travelers of that era, and, for some, learning that New Mexico was a part of the United States and not Mexico was a revelation in itself. Central Avenue’s colorful shops and restaurants evoke that innocent time.

Looking for in-depth exploration of the region? Albuquerque is home to numerous museums, and each focuses on a compelling facet of the Land of Enchantment and the world at large.

Ancestral Pueblo history, so important to understanding New Mexico, is on display daily at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. At 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekends, traditional Indian dancers and artists recreate the life of ancient tribes. During the summer months, dances are presented at 2 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays.

Visitors will find refuge from the warm desert sun at the Albuquerque Aquarium and Rio Grande Botanic Garden, both located in the sprawling ABQ BioPark. The aquarium’s 285,000-gallon shark tank is popular with youngsters, and thousands of saltwater fish and invertebrates native to the Gulf of Mexico thrive in carefully maintained environments behind glass. The Botanic Garden greenhouses display desert plants that thrive in the area as well as flora from other climates of the world.

Science buffs will relish the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History Museum, which traces the history of the atomic age from early research of nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses. Exhibits offer insights into the first atomic bomb detonation at the Trinity Site, located less than 100 miles away on desert land that is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

Albuquerque’s best-known event is the International Balloon Fiesta, which lifts off for nine days every October. As hundreds of balloons fill the skies, thousands of spectators turn up for the festivities, including participants in the 2011 Balloon Fiesta Samborees.

Visitors can experience the thrilling history of hot-air ballooning year-round at the Anderson–Abruzzo Albuquerque Balloon Museum on the edge of the fiesta grounds. Actual balloons and gondolas hang from the high ceiling in a dazzling display.

Likewise cruising high above the ground is the Sandia Peak Tramway, which travels over the Cibola National Forest on a cable for 2.7 miles, making it the world’s longest passenger aerial tramway. The journey takes visitors to the observation deck atop 10,378-foot Sandia Peak, affording an 11,000-square-mile panorama of the Land of Enchantment. Make the trip near sunset, and watch as the lights of Albuquerque glisten far below.

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