We came to Albuquerque New Mexico for its Annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. We left with a better understanding of the city, its and the state’s history, its wine, plus more about hot-air and gas balloons than we would have imagined.
Albuquerque was founded in 1706 as a colonial outpost and agricultural center. As with most Spanish colonial cities, the old town streets radiate in a grid off of a central plaza that is flanked by one building representing the authority of the state and another building representing the authority of the church. The U.S. expanded the town into a military garrison and major supply post during the Mexican-American war to protect the settlers who were moving into the region. The 1980s railroad arrival further accelerated growth,
Albuquerque rests in a valley framed by two mountain ranges which form the so-called “Albuquerque Box” which makes the valley so well suited to hot-air ballooning. One of these ranges, the 10,678-foot Sandia Range, shares its name with the Indian word for watermelon, which generally describes the color of the range when the setting sun’s rays hit it from the other side of the valley.
In addition to taking part in the city’s 51st annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, we took time to visit some of its more interesting neighborhoods and museums, taste wines at some local wineries and eat at multiple restaurants.
Old Town Albuquerque
The city’s Old Town has narrow streets and alleys, wrought-iron decorations, and quaint patios. We began exploring in the central Plaza with its adobe-like San Felipe de Neri Church. It was built in 1793 to replace the original 1706 church that fell in a storm.
A government building used to occupy the opposite side of the plaza. Today, however, it has been replaced by commercial buildings. These and the surrounding blocks host a range of shops, boutiques, galleries, and artist studios. Large wooden overhangs provide shelter for dozens of local craftspeople to sell their wares.
Over the last few years. Old Town has also become a popular home to a growing number of wine-tasting rooms, craft breweries, and brewpubs. Around Balloon Fiesta season, balloon themes come to the fore: balloon T-shirts, models, Christmas tree ornaments, paintings, photographs, spinners, lawn decorations, and more.
Our brief walk through the smallish Old Town spilled over into the neighboring Sawmill District which was a residential district in the late 19th century. A sawmill and railroad spur were brought into the district in the early 20th century. Today the district appears to be dominated by small offices, and a couple of large hotels (Hotel Albuquerque and Hotel Chaco).
The district’s current highlight is the large (25,000 sq ft) artisanal Sawmill Market. The food court offers a range of foods—including pizza, tapas, waffles, tacos, pasta, Mexican, and popsicles—from several local providers.
Nob Hill District
Nob Hill is a very different neighborhood that is located about a mile and a half from Old Town Plaza. The rather rundown urban area was once an office, commercial, and theater district. We walked the five-block stretch of Central Avenue (part of Historic Route 66) passing dozens of vacant storefronts. Other than a handful of young adults at the Food Hall, about the only people we saw during our visit on a very unrepresentative early Sunday afternoon were homeless.
However, we saw several clues that the neighborhood may come to life at night as an entertainment and party venue based on marquee lists of upcoming events. We passed at least three theaters that appear to largely house concerts. The five-block stretch that we walked also has over ten large bars and entertainment venues. This is in addition to the Central Food Hall and several other inexpensive food restaurants (ramen, dumplings, sushi, pizza, sandwiches, etc), a distillery, game rooms, and tattoo parlors. Additional evidence of its partying days comes from a sign posted on a small landscaped lot.
Still, the area does have its charms. First among them are a few Art Deco-styled buildings:
- The 1927 Kimo Theater is the premier representative of what is called the Pueblo Deco style.
- Next door is a Deco-inspired wrought-iron gate
- A few blocks away is the Alvarado Transportation Center, a large, generally Pueblo-style transportation center (for trains and buses).
- The neighborhood also has several murals and a few public sculptures.
The Center is a museum and space that presents the history and culture of the state’s 19 historic Native American Pueblos. It displays hundreds of artifacts (baskets, pottery, jewelry, paintings, etc), in addition to providing regular lectures, classes, and on certain weekends (including Balloon Fiesta weekend, of course), a day of Native American dances and art/craft fair in the courtyard.
The museum’s permanent exhibit tells the story of New Mexico’s 19 Native American Pueblos and its people. It begins with a sensitive portrayal of Indian beliefs, beginning with the circle of life, the interconnection of and respect for all things (from the earth, the sky, the land, water, seasons, and animals), and the importance of community. They celebrate and pray to these through dances and prayers. Through storytelling and pictures (such as pictographs like those in the Petroglyph National Monument, they transfer their history, their beliefs, and their knowledge.
The center examines their reliance on dry farming and hunting, the functionality and the symbolic meaning of the painting on their pottery, the patterns of their textiles, and the religious significance of their drums.
They built homes of stone and adobe (a mix of mud, water, and plant fibers) that are both sustainable and provide natural cooling and heating by absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night. Animals are honored as sacred gifts of nature. They kill only what they need and use virtually every part of the animal, from its meat, its hides, and the feathers of birds. They approach plants the same way. Virtually every part of the yucca is used for everything from food and shampoo to moccasins and sewing needles. Dried dung is burned as fuel. It center discusses the importance of beans, squash, and especially corn which, in addition to being a staple of their diets, is almost sacred.
Exhibits tell the history of the people, from their ancestral roots to the 12th-to-13th century arrival from Mesa Verde (see our post on Mesa Verde), the indignities, subjugation of their religion, and the torture and enslavement they endured at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, governors, and missionaries. However, they regrouped when Po’Pay brought the 19 pueblos together to at least temporarily (for 13 years) drive the Spanish from the territory. When the Spanish returned, they were, at least temporarily, more accommodating. When the Mexicans gained control of the land, the Spanish were too involved with their internal conflicts to exert much control over the pueblos and left them pretty much to themselves.
The Americans, however, were another story. Although they allowed the pueblos to select their leaders, Americans took Native Americans’ land and water, moved them to reservations that were too small to allow them to sustain themselves with farming and hunting, and sent their children to boarding schools. This both deprived the communities of help in their fields and stripped the children of their histories, their cultures, and their tribal identities, but also helped destroy the future of their communities. And then there are the voluntary changes that people made that eroded traditional values and practices, such as using processed foods rather than adhering to culinary traditions.
The museum also had a gallery dedicated to rotating exhibits (a primarily photo-based exhibition focused on maintaining cultural ties) and a space for exhibiting art of pueblo members. During the hot-air balloon fiesta, the mural-lined courtyard had tables on which members exhibited and sold their own arts, crafts, jewelry, textiles, pottery, and so forth. In the courtyard’s center, rotating groups of traditional dancers entertained visitors.
And to make full use of the center’s facilities, we also sampled, or should we say devoured a meal from the Indian Pueblo Kitchen (see below)
Thousands of pre-historic Indian petroglyphs are carved or etched into (rather than painted onto) the walls of Boca Negra Canyon, many of which are accessible via self-guided trails. Although we had visited the site many, many moons ago, this trip gave us time for only a very brief stop at one (Boca Negra Canyon) of the Monument’s four sites. We walked two of the short, interpretive trails in this open-air museum to see about 100 images estimated to have been created about 500-700 years ago. As with most Indian images, the images are intended to tell stories, many with spiritual importance. The trails also provide an opportunity to at least briefly explore the harsh, arid landscape.
The museum tells the history of hot-air and gas ballooning. In 1783, a test flight of a hot-air balloon in France carried a duck, a rooster, and a sheep before the next flight which carried a man on a low-altitude flight of six miles, This was followed the same year by the first gas balloon.
It didn’t take long (1799) before man felt compelled to use this new invention in war, primarily for surveillance and soon thereafter for identifying and tracking coordinates for artillery attacks. During the Civil War with the Union, the United States created the U.S. Balloon Corps. Both the Union and the Confederacy leveraged hot-air balloons in their fights. Balloons’ use in the U.S. Civil War led to pilots offering paid rides to tourists and paid barnstorming shows at fairs
Balloons were increasingly used in WWI. Japan launched 10,000 “balloon bombs” toward the U.S. in WWII with at least 1,000 of them landing between Northern Michigan and the Mexican border, apparently with little meaningful damage.
The museum tells the stories of multiple balloon adventures:
- The first successful crossing of the English Channel in 1785;
- A failed attempt to fly a manned balloon over the North Pole;
- Several attempts to cross the Atlantic in the 20th century. These included Ed Yost’s 1976 effort to pilot the Silver Fox over the ocean. While it fell 700 miles short of its goal, this effort was instrumental in raising awareness of and interest in ballooning and led to Ben Abruzzo’s first successful crossing in 1978.
And if a balloon can cross the Atlantic, can’t one fly around the world? This proved to be more difficult than suggested in fanciful novels and movies. It was first achieved in 1999 by the Swiss adventurer Bernard Picard, who slashed the time of Jules Verne’s imagined 80-day journey by circumnavigating the planet in a non-stop journey of just under 20 days. American Steve Fawcett, meanwhile, currently holds the record of completing his 20,626-mile flight in less than 15 days.
The museum also profiled and showed models of numerous other ambitious ballooning adventures that never quite achieved their objectives including:
- The 1953 Strato-Lab, which never achieved its objective of flying a man into the stratosphere; and
- The sophisticated 1992 Earthwinds Hilton double-balloon, whose top balloon was filled with helium and the bottom with compressed air.
The museum also traced the long and continuing history of weather balloons, which took over from limited weather kites in the late 18th century when a French scientist sent thermometers, barometers, and other instruments aloft to explore the chemistry and dynamics of the atmosphere. By the late 19th century instrument-packed balloons rose until they burst, parachuting the instruments and recorded data to the ground for subsequent retrieval and evaluation. By the 1920s, the U.S. Weather Service began launching increasingly sophisticated weather balloons that could transmit results back to earth in real-time by radio. In 1937 a network of radio stations was created to facilitate real-time comparisons from balloons around the country and ultimately, much of the world. And lo-and-behold, weather/surveillance balloons continue to make the news in 2023, as when a Chinese balloon crossing the United States created a global incident.
Of course, the museum also discussed sport ballooning, its national and international governing bodies, licensing requirements, balloon races, the role of women, and other events. Another section profiles the history of ballooning in Albuquerque. It explains the ideal wind and heat conditions of the “Albuquerque Box” attributable to its surrounding mountains and Sid Cutler’s pioneering 1971 recommendation that a local radio station sponsor the World Balloon Championship race. The race, which took place just after the city’s first 1972 Balloon Fiesta, attracted 13 such balloons (which was claimed to be 1/3 of the total global fleet of privately-owned racing balloons) and helped launch a tradition that continues to this day.
A juried show with more than 200 artists is one of several large festivals (including the Harvest, Grecian, Folk, Mozart, and Hot-N-Rio Music Festivals) that are held during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Although we were excited to learn about the festival, we were not impressed by the primarily Southwestern-themed art. The fair also had a smaller tent devoted to regional culinary goods and another to music.
We began with spiced, duck fat-fried oysters (thick, flavorless batter with warm chorizo salad and chimayo-blackened toast and roasted bone marrow with grape tomatoes and guava BBQ sauce. We followed this with blue-corn-buttermilk fried quail (where again, a thick tasteless batter disguised the taste of the protein) with herb salsa, green chilis and chilled potato salad. The Chilean sea bass with sofrito risotto, and lemongrass beurre blanc was by far, the best dish of the meal. It was difficult to find a suitable wine from their very limited list. We ended up with a 2019 Rodney Strong Chardonnay and a more interesting 1019 Torvel’s “The Juvenile” Australian Syrah blend. Only after looking up wines after the meal on our phones did we realize that the restaurant had a more interesting wine list available only by the bottle that we were never given. And that said something about the service, which began very good, faltered through the meal, and ended up poorly.
We both enjoyed our dishes that were perfectly cooked as requested. Joyce went with the roasted Norwegian cedar-plank salmon with dill-mustard sauce accompanied by also perfectly-cooked French green beans, and marble potatoes. Tom’s wood-grilled lamb loin was equally good. It was served with brocollini and very tasty Yukon Gold mashed potatoes with herb butter. We added a bottle of Siduri 2021 Santa Rita Highlands Pinot Noir.
We ended up sharing a pan-seared Norwegian Salmon. The first try was overcooked, but the replacement was cooked a perfect medium rare. It came with béarnaise sauce, a dry (which virtually no discernable cheese) potato gratin, and creamed corn with a bit of a bite from chili. Although we were less than impressed with the one dish we had, our server was very good and anxious to help us plan our trip to the city (although we were, unfortunately, leaving the next day).
At our lunch at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Joyce returned her first overcooked native beef burger and was given one that was perfectly cooked with cheddar, lettuce, and tomato. Tom literally gorged on what turned out to be a platoon-sized order of chips and salsa (most of which he couldn’t eat), blue-corn onion rings (tasty, but with too much breading for his taste), and a huge blue corn enchilada with melted cheese, squash, corn, onion and shredded lamb with “Christmas” (a combination of green and red chili) and pueblo beans.
Tom began with a shrimp ceviche followed by PEI mussels steamed in Semillon butter sauce with spinach, red onion, and sun-dried tomatoes. Both were fine, but Joyce was more pleased with her summer berry salad with heritage lettuce, local feta, and mimosa dressing,
Joyce ordered a taco salad with ground beef at one of the city’s premier Mexican restaurant. It was very good and more than enough for lunch. Our server suggested that Tom get a half serving of a shrimp fajita. It still was huge with eight large shrimp and piles of sautéed peppers (green and red) and onions on the sizzling platter. And what else to have with Mexican food? Margaritas of course.