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Albuquerque, New Mexico Travel Guide

International Balloon Fiesta, Petroglyph National Monument and the Turquoise Trail

Traditional Native American needlepoint turquoise bracelets

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Where to Stay Where to Eat What to See & Do

They don't affectionately call it "Albuquirky" for nothing; if your timing is right, you can bear witness to two of the city's most memorable festivals. First up is the famed Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show in early March, when thousands of chile-heads from across the nation congregate to get a taste of the latest in hot sauces, salsas and other high scorers on the Scoville scale. The first week of October, meanwhile, brings with it the celebrated International Balloon Fiesta, when the entire sky is filled with colorful orbs for days on end. The event is the largest of its kind in the world, for good reason: it was in Albuquerque that the first modern hot air balloon was launched by Sid Cutter to celebrate his mother's birthday several decades ago. Moreover, the local weather provides the best conditions in the world for ballooning; the so-called Albuquerque Box Effect facilitates precision flying.

The International Balloon fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the largest of its kind in the world

On a year-round basis, however, one of Albuquerque's greatest blessings is its proximity to so many extraordinary landmarks; just a short drive in any direction enables you to enter whole new worlds. For instance, on the western outskirts of town, the Petroglyph National Monument is an anthropological and horticultural treasure. Based on the escarpment of five extinct volcanoes, it contains more than 20,000 carvings of animals, human figures and symbols made over the centuries by Pueblos Apaches and Navajos, as well as Spanish explorers, but it's also home to stellar native plant species such as globemallow, cane cholla and prickly pear. The park is easily explored on several short trails, but as you traverse them, be aware that the Pueblos consider the entire 17-mile-long stretch sacred. There is no camping or lodging, but picnicking is allowed. Visit Las Imagines Visitor Center, located at 6001 Unser NW at the junction of Western Trail, for more information.

Some of the carvings that can be seen at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Keep heading west on I-40, and you come to Acoma Pueblo and the fabulous Sky City, an ancient settlement built on a 376-foot high mesa. In 1599, Sky City was the scene of a desperate battle between the Spaniards and the warriors of Acoma Pueblo; today, though it has no running water or electricity, Acoma families take turns living there for a year and consider the custodial duty a great honor. From April through October, tourists can take an hour-long guided walking tour that culminates at the historic San Esteban del Rey Church and Convent, one of the most significant buildings in New Mexico. Acoma is also famous for its intricately painted pots; outstanding examples of Acoma pottery are housed in museums around the world. The finer and smaller the brushwork, the more expensive the pots will be.

Take a more northwesterly route, through the village of Bernalillo, and you will eventually reach the Jemez Mountains. This cool, verdant oasis is a year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts. The Valle Grande, an immense caldera formed when an ancient volcano erupted eons ago, became the Valles Caldera National Preserve in 2000. With reservations, the pristine 89,000-acre area is open for hiking and fishing; the Valle Grande Trail is an easy hiking trail through dense forests with magnificent clearings. Another renowned sight in the Jemez is Bandelier National Monument, an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Anasazi people in a narrow canyon. An asphalt trail winds through the canyon, but visitors can also climb narrow wooden ladders into some of the restored dwellings and kivas, or ceremonial chambers.

Remnants of a mulit-story dwelling at Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico

If you head north up I-25, you can visit the historic pueblos of Santo Domingo and San Felipe. Santo Domingo is known throughout the Southwest for the quality of its turquoise and silver jewelry. Every Labor Day weekend it holds an arts and crafts fair where visitors can browse traditional and cutting-edge tribe-made pieces at prices much lower than you would find in galleries, while indulging in samples of pueblo cookery, including the delicious bread baked in the beehive-shaped adobe ovens called hornos. (Get information on any one of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.)

To the east of the city is Tijeras Canyon and North Highway 14, a National Scenic Byway also called the Turquoise Trail. It wanders through some of New Mexico's most colorful areas. If you drive the two-lane road all the way to Santa Fe, the trip will take about an hour, but half the fun is stopping along the way. Golfers will go gaga over the award-winning Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club in Sandia Park. The 18-hole course offers both challenges and stunning views; if you're hungry, the clubhouse serves good sandwiches and upscale salads. A further drive takes you through the tiny towns of Golden, Madrid and Cerrillos, former coal-mining ghost towns that have become artist colonies. Madrid, the largest of them, is home to the historic Mine Shaft Tavern — known for its thick, home-style burgers — plus galleries and funky stores along Main Street.

Rio Grande Valley in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is America's oldest wine-growing region

Back within city bounds, oenophiles can have a field day frolicking in the Rio Grande Valley. Harvesting grapes since 1629, it's America's oldest wine-growing region. The acclaimed Gruet Winery specializes in sparkling wines, including a N.V. Brut and a Vintage Grand Rosé, from vineyards that, at an altitude of 4,300 feet, are among the highest in the United States. The tasting room is open Friday and Saturaday until 7 p.m. and noon-5 p.m. on Sundays. Lesser known but every bit as enjoyable is the scenic Casa Rondeña Winery, whose portfolio of handcrafted wines ranges from Bordeaux-style Meritage to Sangiovese. Set amid ancient cottonwoods in Albuquerque's North Valley, the handsome tasting room is open daily from noon to 7 p.m.

And now that you've whetted your dinner appetite, it's time for one last chile fix. You'll have noticed that New Mexican restaurants tend to be casual and inexpensive, serving hearty specialties like enchiladas and burritos, all smothered in green or red chile — or both. Green chile is made from green chili pods, often state-grown, and can be incredibly spicy. Red chile, made from dried, mature red pods that are soaked and puréed, is generally milder than green. Ask for "Christmas" to sample both, the way the locals do. While you'll find the stuff on just about any menu in town, if you're game for one last jaunt, make reservations for dinner at The Corn Maiden, located at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa on the Santa Ana Pueblo, where it gets a decidedly elegant makeover in various dishes on the special-occasion menu.

The Corn Maiden Salon at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

It should be clear by now that what you may have thought of as sleepy desert country is in fact thriving with culture, color and creativity. Still, it's the silent beauty of the landscape that will forever beckon you back.

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