“Up, up and away…in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon!” The words and melody to the classic song by the Fifth Dimension were on repeat in my brain as we floated silently 1,000 feet above Albuquerque. Along with 11 others in our hot air balloon’s wicker basket, piloted by Troy Bradley of Rainbow Ryders, we watched the sun rise over the Sandia Mountains and took in the 360-degree view of our surroundings around and below us. Albuquerque was the ideal place to cross this special experience off my bucket list since it boasts one of the highest percentages of open space in the country.
Expected: Hot Air Balloon rides
My knowledge of the area prior to my visit was limited but there were several things I expected to see and do there, and others that ranged from a bit surprising to totally unexpected. Our hour-long maiden voyage in a hot air balloon was among those I’d count among the “expected.” It was exhilarating — not scary at all — ending with an easy landing on a local golf course, followed by a champagne toast.
I was familiar with the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, held annually during the first week of October. It is the largest balloon festival in the world! Rainbow Ryders is the festival’s official hot air balloon ride operator. They offer daily hot air balloon rides year-round, as do several other companies.
Sunrise flights are offered every day of the year; sunset flights are offered November through March. You can also schedule private balloon rides or even a hot air balloon wedding.
Visit the Balloon Museum, too! The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum was opened in 2005 on the Balloon Fiesta Park grounds. Our visit was fairly brief, due to our schedule. I’d love to go back to spend several hours taking in all the exhibits outlining the history of hot air ballooning, along with memorabilia and actual balloons on display.
Among the most unexpected things I discovered during my time in Albuquerque is that, along with being known as the Ballooning Capital of the World, it is also the Flamenco Capital of North America.
The biggest flamenco festival outside of Spain is held in Albuquerque every June, attracting attendees from all over the world, but that’s not all! A Bachelor of Arts in Dance with a concentration in Flamenco — the only such degree available in the U.S. — is offered by the University of New Mexico. The Conservatory of Flamenco Arts (CFA), a school of the National Institute of Flamenco, is also based here, where classes are available for anyone (from ages three to 70) wishing to learn this expressive Spanish dance form.
To gain a greater appreciation of flamenco, plan to attend a performance at Tablao Flamenco Albuquerque. We ordered traditional Spanish tapas and wine before becoming immersed in the hand clapping, percussive footwork, and intricate hand, arm, and body movements. A singer-guitarist accompanies the dancers, bringing each song to life. Performances are held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the Hotel Albuquerque in the heart of Old Town.
Unexpected: Award-winning wines
Even though I was aware that every U.S. state grows grapes and makes wine, I was not expecting to find truly exceptional wines in New Mexico. Its cold winters and hot summers may make it more challenging, but many of New Mexico’s 60 wineries receive high visitor and wine critic ratings, and have produced national and international award-winning wines.
I was also surprised to learn New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley is the oldest winemaking region in the country, thanks to Spanish missionaries who planted the first grapevines there in 1629.
Memorial Day weekend is a good time to taste wines from many of the state’s 60 wineries at the “Viva Vino” New Mexico Wine Festival, held in Balloon Fiesta Park.
During my time in Albuquerque, I visited these three award-winning wineries, all very different and highly recommended:
We lingered over a delicious lunch at D.H. Lescombes Winery & Bistro, located in the heart of Historic Old Town, and were treated to tastings of several wines from its Heritage series. You’ll hear the story of how a sixth generation French winemaker ended up in New Mexico and bottled the first vintage in 1984. While D.H. Lescombes’ vineyards and a tasting room are located in Deming, in the southwest part of the state, the winery has added bistro locations in Las Cruces and Farmington, and operates Hervé Wine Bar in Santa Fe.
Ever heard of a backyard winery? Now you have! Sean Sheehan opened Sheehan Winery in a building in his backyard in 2015 after working as winemaker for other New Mexico wineries for over 10 years. Two years later, in 2017, Sheehan’s Chambourcin received the Premier Award in the New Mexico State Wine Competition. In 2018, the winery submitted 31 wines and came home with 31 medals.
We were treated to a tasting at the winery and heard Sean’s story first-hand. You can, too, at regularly scheduled monthly backyard tastings, or at one of many festivals he attends throughout the year. See the website for a calendar of events.
We ventured outside the city to Albuquerque’s North Valley to reach Casa Rondeña Winery, established by vintner John Calvin in 1995. Surrounded by mature cottonwood trees in what is referred to as the Rio Grande Bosque (the Spanish word for woodlands), Casa Rondeña Winery is an award-winning one, having been chosen “Best Winery” seven years in a row by readers of Albuquerque the Magazine (Best Vintner, Winery, and Local Wine). After our tasting, we strolled through the Great Hall and expansive grounds, which have become a popular venue for weddings and other special events.
I envied those who were relaxing with a glass of wine on the patio. Next time!
Information about more area wineries and Albuquerque’s craft breweries can be found at this link on the Visit Albuquerque website.
Expected: Southwestern Food
I was, of course, expecting to find great Southwestern food in Albuquerque, and I wasn’t disappointed. I discovered local New Mexican cuisine blends Native American and Spanish flavors, and its signature ingredients are red and green chiles, prepared in a variety of ways — smoked, roasted and made into sauces.
Dining tip: Let your server know you’d like to sample both red and green chile by saying “Christmas.” My taste buds (and stomach) can’t handle much spice, so no “Christmas” for me. Chiles on the side, please!
We were treated to dinner at the largest New Mexican restaurant in the state — El Pinto. More than 1,200 guests can be seated in three large indoor dining rooms, a cantina, and five patios. Start your evening as we did at El Pinto’s bar, where you can choose from over 160 tequilas! The family-owned restaurant, which has been around for a half century serving grandma’s family recipes, started a salsa division in 2000. We were given a tour of the production facility, located behind the restaurant, which makes 2,000 cases a day.
Expected: Native American culture
New Mexico has the fourth largest American Indian population, numbering around 193,000 among 23 Indian tribes, including 19 Pueblos (communities of Native Americans; each is a sovereign nation), three Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation.
I was expecting that Native American influences would be strongly felt in New Mexico, but I wasn’t familiar with the state’s specific tribes and Native American traditions. The time we spent at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which features a museum (open daily, 9-5), restaurant and gift shop, was a big help, and since we visited on Saturday, we were able to watch traditional Native American dance performances in the Courtyard. This is the only place in North America to offer them every weekend year-round, along with exhibits of weaving, pottery, jewelry, clothing and photography from each of the 19 area pueblos.
While experiencing Indian culture was expected, I was not aware that Albuquerque hosts the largest pow-wow in the United States and North America. If you’re in the area on the fourth weekend in April, plan to attend the annual Gathering of Nations. More than 565 tribes from around the United States and 220 from Canada travel to Albuquerque to participate.
Unexpected: Film Tourism
If you are a fan of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul TV shows, you may be aware that they are filmed in Albuquerque. For me, it was unexpected. Johnny Depp, Tina Fey, Chris Hemsworth and Bryan Cranston have all spent time filming in Albuquerque. Visit film locations for Transformers, Avengers and others on a New Mexico Film Tour.
Albuquerque enjoys more than 310 days of annual sunshine, keeping film crews on schedule with limited weather-induced delays. (That’s great news for hot air balloon enthusiasts, too!)
There’s more to discover
Our three-day visit did not allow enough time to explore everything Albuquerque has to offer. Although we were based in Old Town, there was much more to discover in the historic district, including its many museums, shops, galleries and restaurants. On my list for a future visit is The Turquoise Museum, where some of the world’s rarest, most collectible pieces of turquoise and turquoise jewelry are housed in a downtown “castle.”
Along the Rio Grande River near downtown is the ABQ BioPark, which includes a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium and Tingley Beach with stocked fishing ponds. Unexpected fact: The BioPark is the top tourist destination in the state of New Mexico, attracting more than 1.5 million visitors annually.
And finally… The Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway was closed for maintenance during our visit, but next time I hope to be able to take the tram to the crest of the Sandia Mountains (10,378 feet) and stay for a meal or drink at Sandiago’s Grill at the Tram.
Where to stay in Albuquerque
While there are many excellent accommodation choices in Albuquerque, after experiencing a three-night stay at the Hotel Chaco, I can wholeheartedly recommend it as a base for your visit. The 118-room boutique hotel, opened by Heritage Hotels & Resorts in 2017, is located just a block away from Old Town shops and restaurants.
It was named for Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After learning about its significance as a cultural center for the Ancient Pueblo people between 900–1150 AD, I hope to return to tour of one of the largest series of structures built by man in North America. Day trips from the hotel to Chaco Canyon, which include guided tours, activities, and a gourmet lunch catered by Hotel Chaco, are offered by Heritage Inspirations on Saturdays, April through June and August through October.
The hotel’s architecture and design elements, including original Native American artwork, reflect aspects of Chaco Canyon throughout. On our first evening, we dined in its rooftop restaurant, Level 5, which, apart from offering a gourmet menu, is also a fantastic place to enjoy a cocktail while overlooking the city and watching the sun set over the Sandia Mountains. Hotel amenities include a pool, fitness center, and yoga classes; it’s pet-friendly, too!
A huge thanks goes to Visit Albuquerque for hosting me and my fellow writers on this pre-conference trip, prior to attending the annual conference of the International Food, Wine, Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Land of Enchantment.
Featured photo at top of post: Hot air balloons over the Rio Grande © Ron Behrmann