Exploring culture, food, and Route 66 fun in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Saturday, July 14th, 2012. Filed under: Architecture Destination Guides Food Legendary Landscapes New Mexico

The youngest member of the Yellow Bird Dance Group gets ready to perform at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque.

The drum is a heartbeat, faster than mine. Apache Crown dancers pace the circle, bodies painted, pine boughs bobbing at their hips, bells the size of tangerines adding an edgy jangle. With cotton sacking disguising their human features, feathers dangling from where their eyes should be, the dancers are eerie, otherworldly. My heartrate rises to the rhythm of the drum. Something’s about to happen. I just don’t know what.

White Mountain Apache crown dancers at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Note the rounded traditional clay oven, or horno, in the background.

Before arriving in New Mexico, what I knew about native cultures of the Southwest could have fit into a very small basket. At the top of my must-see list in Albuquerque was the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The multilevel, semicircular building was inspired by the prehistoric ruins of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon in the northwestern part of the state. Inside, we would find keys to understanding New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo cultures.

Far more than a repository of art and artifacts telling the history of Pueblo peoples, the IPCC is a vibrant meeting place to experience contemporary Native American culture. We had budgeted two hours for the center and ended up spending nearly five. Much of it was spent chatting with people, like fine artist Kathleen Wall from Jemez Pueblo who was demonstrating her traditional clay figural work.

The IPCC’s Pueblo Harvest Café was packed for Sunday brunch/lunch. While platters of waffles and pancakes were delivered all around us, Pat and I both opted for traditional mutton stew with fresh, warm tortilla. The savoury, clear stew was one of our most delicious experiences in New Mexico.

San Felipe de Neri Catholic Church (1793), on the Plaza.

We spent the rest of the warm afternoon as urban archaeologists, exploring Albuquerque’s history through its architecture which reflects Native American, Hispanic and Anglo influences. The heart of Old Town is the leafy Plaza, laid out in 1706. We began at the old adobe church of San Felipe de Neri (1793), then spent some time poking into a few of the area’s 200 shops and galleries. The buildings are as interesting as what they contain, with time-burnished wood vigas (beams) supporting handsome 19th-century and Pueblo Revival buildings.

Architectural detail, Old Town.

Route 66 passes through Albuquerque as Central Avenue. Cruising along, we spotted architectural gems like the Pueblo Deco KiMo theatre (1927) downtown and the remnants of Streamline Moderne motor courts further east in Nob Hill.

The Pueblo Deco style KiMo Theatre (1927).

Albuquerque’s first suburb is the city’s hip strip with vintage boutiques, shops, trendy restaurants and bars finding new homes in funky old buildings. Nob Hill has three sites on the National Register of Historic Sites. One of them, Jones Motor Company (1939), is now a popular brew pub and patio. Kelly’s Brewery fully restored the Art Moderne gas station with many of its original design elements, including Texaco pumps. It’s a great place to quaff a cool one while watching the parade of Harleys and classic cars rumble down the Mother Road.

Nob Hill neighborhood is a fresh mix of old and new.

The local beer scene is rapidly growing, with two more microbreweries slated to open this year (check out Albuquerque Beer Geek to stay on top of that all-important beer news).

A detailed map and guide published by the City of Albuquerque points out old motels, drive-ins and more on old Route 66.

Reluctantly, Pat and I put down our foam-flecked glasses and saddled up before the neon came on. We had a sunset to catch. A drive into the Sandia foothills and ride up the spectacular Sandia Peak Tramway is the classic way to end a day, or stay, in Albuquerque.

The Sandia Peak Tramway is the world’s longest aerial tram, taking visitors 5,000 feet above Albuquerque in about 15 minutes. Bring a jacket!


Watching the sunset over the Rio Grande Valley from Sandia Peak.

Warm, welcoming and very relaxing for a city its size, Albuquerque has a thriving arts scene and repeatedly ranks in the top ten best big-city art destinations. The city has several world-class museums and one of the country’s oldest public art programs, evident right out of the gate at Albuquerque International Sunport.

The city struck me as particularly welcoming to children and perfect for family vacations. The ABQ BioPark inspires wonder and stewardship with its  zoo, botanic garden, aquarium, beach and two narrow-gauge trains. Day trips from Albuquerque are almost too numerous to count: ancient ruins, active pueblos, hiking trails, working ranches, lavender farms, old mission churches, artist colonies and several National Scenic Byways.

The view over Albuquerque from Sandia Heights.

We stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn Albuquerque North so we could make an easy return in the dark from the Sandia Peak Tramway (it’s also close to Balloon Fiesta Park). With a fully-equipped kitchen (including dishwasher), laundry, grocery shopping service, lobby lounge, breakfast buffet, swimming pool and even a basketball court to keep kids busy, it would be very easy to set up house there for an extended stay.

When to go:  With four distinct seasons and 310 days of sunshine, Albuquerque is a true year round destination. Two big events, the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow (April) and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (October), have earned a place on the ABA’s 2012 list of best events for group travel in the U.S. and Canada. Foodies will want to visit in late August, when the scent of roasting green chiles is in the air. Christmas is another big draw.

For a full calendar of events and more trip inspiration, see  the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Other useful links:  New Mexico Tourism and New Mexico Centennial 2012.

You’ll need a car to cruise around Albuquerque, preferably a vintage Impala or 442 GTO like these spotted in Old Town.

All photos taken by Lesley Peterson.

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