The main purpose of this trip was to attend the International Hot Air Balloon Festival in Albuquerque. It had been on our agenda for some time. We took a few days away from Albuquerque and explored Las Vegas, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos.
by RoBoNC on July 5, 2012
We left Flagstaff Arizona and headed to Albuquerque for the annual hot air balloon festival. Because of our excursion through the Petrified Forest National Park and some other national parks in western New Mexico, we decided to spend the night somewhere halfway between Flagstaff and Albuquerque. I enjoy reading the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die and I also have the sequel that covers just the United States and Canada. I consulted the book to see what attractions it suggests visiting and it lists the town of Gallup as one of it destinations to visit. Since Gallup is the largest city between Flagstaff and Albuquerque and is conveniently located off of I-40, we decided to make this our stopover. Gallup is known as the "Indian Capital of the World" because of its location near so many different Indian tribes. The Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi tribes along with some smaller ones are located in or near Gallup. The fastest way to Gallup is of course on I-40, but the most scenic route would have to be on the famous "Mother Road" Route 66. At times, we would get off the interstate and travel Route 66 to admire the buildings and road signs of an era long ago. We drove into Gallup on Route 66 as it crossed Highway 491. This highway until 2003 was labeled Route 666. However because of the association with 666 and devil worship it was redesignated as 491. It is still known as the Devil’s Highway. Our hotel, a Comfort Suites, which although isn’t fancy or historical, does sit along Route 66. So I can say we stayed at a hotel on the Mother Road. The heart of Gallup where Route 66 cuts through is filled with old motels easily identifiable by its large lighted signs and blinking letters to make sure it gets your attention. To would-be travelers, many of the motels advertise that it has air conditioning and color TV as if at one time, that was a luxury which we take to be standard today. Perhaps the most famous of these motels along Route 66 is the El Rancho Motel. This motel is on the National Register of Historical Places and many Hollywood actor and actresses stayed here while making many of the films that were shot in Gallup during the 40’s and 50’s. Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Katherine Hepburn are just some of the guests. To really feel the spirit of Route 66, it must be seen at night when all of the lights make the street come to life. The El Rancho hotel with its pink lights and flashy sign makes sure that no one will miss it. To find our dinner choice, we used our Iphones and using the app Yelp, we found the El Metate Tamale Factory. It had great reviews and since we love tamales, it was a no brainer. We drove to 610 W. Mesa Ave and our route took us through residential neighborhoods. When we arrived, we discovered that the restaurant is a house which has been converted and it lies within a residential neighborhood. I was at first nervous because some of the houses seemed run-down and I wondered if we should be here at all. We were probably early for dinner because at 6pm we were the only ones there. The only person working there was the cook who was busy making tamales. Since the other staff was not there, he acted as our waiter and cook. We told him that we wanted tamales. Within ten minutes, we had freshly made tamales that he had made earlier that day. The food was phenomenal and it was cheap. Had it not been for Yelp, we would probably not have eaten here because of the neighborhood. We were glad we came here and it satisfied our hunger for New Mexican cuisine. Before we left Gallup, we made a stop at Richardson’s Trading Post. This place sells jewelry, clothing, and other handmade items. The items are made by the different Indian tribes and are sold on consignment. My wife bought a handmade turquoise pendant made by the Zuni Indian tribe. Richardson’s allows Indians to make money from their crafts while allowing tourists and residents to buy authentic items. After doing a little shopping, we headed south out of Gallup on Route 610 to visit a few more national parks. El Morro National Monument lies about an hour away. The drive takes you through the Zuni and Navajo Indian Reservations. El Morro has been an important campsite for hundreds of years and is an important site among the Native Americans. The highlight of El Morro is a large sandstone bluff that contains a pool of water at its base. This pool of water is important because of El Morro’s remote location, travelers who may have been trekking for days found the pool of water a reliable place to refresh and recuperate before heading back out. Along the sandstone bluff carved into the stone are inscriptions with dates and names of those stopped here with some dating as far back as the 17th century. It is known as Inscription Rock to Americans, but the Indians have many different names for it. As of 1906, it is illegal to carve anything more into the rock. There is a $3 entrance fee to visit.
Between Las Vegas and Albuquerque on Interstate 25 lies New Mexico’s capital city, Santa Fe. As one of the oldest cities in the US, it has very important historical and culture significance not only to New Mexico, but the rest of the country as well. Everywhere you go in the city, you are exposed to the rich history dating back centuries. There are important historical structures such as San Miguel Chapel, which is the oldest standing church structure in the US, was originally built in 1610. The Palace of the Governors is the country’s oldest continuously occupied public building. It was originally built by the Spanish as the seat of government in 1610. The New Mexico Museum of History now chronicles the history of New Mexico through exhibits. The Palace of the Governors is located in Santa Fe Plaza, which has been the heart of downtown for over four centuries. The plaza is filled with specialty shops, clothing stores, restaurants, and scattered amongst it all are the gems of Santa Fe’s history. The plaza can get very crowded, so I would advise caution when driving around. The plaza is worth the visit and it is best experienced on foot. Even if you are not a shopaholic, this is a great place to pick up some genuine Native American artwork and handcrafted items. Santa Fe is not only known for its history, but also for being a center for the arts. There are a huge number of artists and galleries in Santa Fe. The most well known artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, has a museum dedicated to showcasing her works. You could literally spend a week or more visiting art museums and galleries. However, we only had a couple of days in Santa Fe so we skipped most of the art and cultural sites and focused more on the historical areas. After visiting the Palace of the Governors and Santa Fe Plaza, I stopped off at the New Mexico State Capitol. This capitol building is unique from the other states’ capitols in that it is entirely rounded. It is nicknamed the Roundhouse. While the Palace of the Governors may be the oldest capitol building in the US, the "Roundhouse" is the third newest capitol, built in 1966. Santa Fe’s attraction to art is evident in the design of the building. Looking down on the capitol from above, the building was designed to resemble the Zia Sun Symbol, the same symbol on the New Mexico state flag. The New Mexico State Capitol has four floors. The second floor is the ground floor and visitors may access all of the floors except for the first floor which contains the House and Senate chambers. As I walked inside, I didn’t notice any security guards or metal detectors. I walked right inside and began roaming the floors. From past experience visiting other state capitols, it was nice to be able to walk right inside without the hassle of being screened. However, looking back on it now, with how easy it was to enter the capitol, I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing that there isn’t security. Although the first floor is closed to the public, you can still see the House and Senate chambers from the balcony located on the second floor. The other two floors are mainly offices for the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and other legislative leaders. Although I skipped out on the art tour of Santa Fe, my visit to the capitol still allowed me to experience and admire the artistic abilities of New Mexico’s artists. The Capitol Art Foundation houses many different styles of artwork from paintings, sculptures, and furniture throughout the public floors of the capitol as a way to promote the arts and history of the New Mexico people. With only a few days in Santa Fe, we decided to take a half day trip to Los Alamos. The city’s claim to fame was the creation of the atomic bomb used to drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which came to be known as the Manhattan Project. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is still in operation although with a different focus. It conducts research in national security, medicine, renewable energy, and many others. The closest I could get was as I drove by the front gate along the highway. My intention of going to Los Alamos was to visit Bandelier National Monument. It is a 33,000 acre national park that preserves the homes of the Pueblo people. Our visit to the park did not go as planned. The Las Conchas wildfire threatened Los Alamos and it severely destroyed a majority of the Bandelier National Monument. After it was extinguished, it burned over 150,000 acres including over sixty percent of the monument land. It was the largest wildfire in New Mexico history as well as the US until the next year when the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire which also started in New Mexico surpassed it. The fire has now led to flash floods especially in the most visited part of the park, the Frijoles Canyon. The fire required a mandatory shuttle bus ride from the town of White Rock, about ten miles away from Los Alamos. Because of the children and not having access to a car and most parts of the park, we decided to forgo visiting until a later time. As of this writing, the park still has many alerts in effect and a shuttle bus is still required. Be sure to check the conditions and alerts before making a visit. All was not lost by not being able to visit Bandelier National Monument. We did our next best thing, wine tasting. We visited the Don Quixote Distillery and Winery located about twenty minutes south of Los Alamos. We input the address into our GPS, 236 Rio Bravo Los Alamos, NM. We passed the distillery twice and I figured the GPS was wrong because I was in a residential neighborhood. I was looking for some commercial building. Come to find out we were in the right place. The distillery is located in the owners’ house and when I slowed down in front of the address, I noticed the sign for Don Quixote Distillery and Winery. We pulled up in the driveway and entered the tasting room. A couple of minutes later, the owner, Ron Dolin, emerged and gave us a sampling of their many different wines. They have four different wine lines incorporating the history of Los Alamos and Santa Fe. Their Manhattan Project line consist of fruity unaged wines and the City Different line which takes its name from Santa Fe’s nickname are dry barrel aged wines. The Don Quixote Emotion wines are the fruity wines such as the Apple Ice wine, Cherry Sherry, Rose Petal, and Plum Wine. Their private label line consists of two wines, a white and a red. My wife, who loves red wines, after one sip, immediately wanted their Red River Red, which was produced for the ski resort community of Red River, New Mexico. They not only make wines, but spirits as well including vodka, bourbon, gin, and brandy. I was intrigued by their Blue Corn vodka. While I was talking with Ron, he told us that he is an engineer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and his wife, Olha, who is from the Ukraine, is the brains behind their operation. Although I was not able to meet her, he told us that she grew up in a family of distillers and learned the secrets of making vodka. Who better to know how to make vodka then someone from the former Soviet Union? They were able to take their knowledge of vodka distillation and combine it with blue corn, which is the sweetest of the four different corns and widely popular in New Mexico. I sampled the blue corn vodka and it goes down so smooth. It is truly a spirit that you can drink straight up. He also told us why their wines and spirits are unique from many others. Because of their high altitude, 7000 feet above sea level in the Jemez Mountains, alcohol boils at 180 degrees instead of 212 degrees. The lower temperatures allow the spirits to cook off eliminating the burnt smell and taste found in most spirits. Ron also designs and builds every still used at their distillery. The wines and spirits were unique and tasted great. We decided to buy a bottle of wine and vodka. The only problem is that you cannot buy it there. It has to be shipped. Because of New Mexico liquor laws, they are not allowed to sell them on site. He is hoping to change that in the future. All of their wines and spirits can be bought online at www.dqdistillery.com. They can ship to every state except Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland, and Massachusetts and to thirty-one different countries. If you get a chance, this is worth a stop or at the very least, order a bottle to try.
Las Vegas is filled with hotels, casinos, world-class shows, and it is a city that never sleeps. Excitement abounds everywhere; that is if you are in Nevada. However, I happened to be in Las Vegas, New Mexico which has none of that. But what it does have is a rich history filled with tales of the Old West from famous lawmen to ruthless outlaws. The city was an important stop along the Santa Fe Trail. Although it has lost most of its importance since then, it continues to recognize its role in history and it has become a leader in education. Las Vegas is home to New Mexico Highlands University and the United World College of the American West (UWC-AW). The UWC-AW is a two year independent boarding school that is highly competitive consisting of about 200 students from 80-90 countries. Most of the graduates go to attend prestigious universities. The UWC-AW is the only United World College in the USA and one of thirteen around the world. We decided to stay in Las Vegas because we wanted to get away from Albuquerque for a few days. We wanted to see some other parts of the state, but most importantly, to relax and unwind after almost two weeks of traveling. Las Vegas is in the northeast corner of the state along Interstate 25, about two hours from Albuquerque. There are not a lot of attractions within Las Vegas, but I found a museum that surprised me. I am an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt and there was a museum dedicated to him and the Rough Riders, the name given to his unit that fought during the Spanish-American War. I was so surprised about finding this museum because I had no idea that Las Vegas had any connection to Theodore Roosevelt. Because many of the soldiers in his unit were from Las Vegas, it was decided that the first reunion of the Rough Riders would be held here in June of 1899. Roosevelt attended that first reunion. The Rough Rider museum is very small. In fact, it is so small that it shares the same building with the courthouse. Although small, it has a wealth of information and memorabilia related to the Rough Riders. While I was speaking with the curator, she told me that the last reunion was sometime in the 1970’s when only two of the soldiers were still alive. A short distance away on the Plaza in downtown, which is where Las Vegas was founded, stands the Plaza Hotel. This hotel was built in 1881 and it was the site of the first Rough Rider reunion in 1899. It is still a functioning hotel and although we did not stay here, I took a walk through it. The inside of the hotel seems practically unchanged from the 1800’s. Because our Las Vegas city tour was pretty brief, we noticed two National Parks that were not far away. This first one was Fort Union National Monument, about twenty miles north of Las Vegas. Fort Union is literally in the middle of nowhere. It used to be the largest military fort in the region. It was originally built in 1851 and remained in use until 1891. Today, the park consists of the second of three forts built on the site as well as the ruins of a third. There is a $3 entrance fee, which is also good at Pecos National Historic Park and visitors may walk one of two self-interpretative trails. The first one is 1 ¼ trail or there is a smaller half mile trail. As you exit the interstate heading to the park, there are ruts along the road and through the fields marking the Santa Fe Trail. The highway that closely follows the original trail is known as the Santa Fe Trail National Scenic Byway. Less than an hour south of Las Vegas in the opposite direction is Pecos National Historic Park. The park preserves the Pecos Pueblo. These pueblos were built around 1100 AD. A 1.25 mile self-guided trail leads you through the ruins as you gain a perspective of how the Pecos people lived. Also along the trail is a church which was built in 1625, which was later destroyed in 1680, but the foundation remains. A smaller church was built on the original foundation in 1717. The park also consists of Glorieta Pass Battlefield, a civil war battle that took place near the ruins. There is a 2.3 mile Civil War Trail which requires a visitor to sign in and a gate code will be given to you that allows you access to the battlefield. Admission is $3 which allows access to Fort Union National Monument as well. Las Vegas may not have the lights and glamour of its cousin in Nevada, but it’s proximity to a few different National Parks as well as Santa Fe and Albuquerque made it a great place to stop, relax, and recharge before coming home.
We headed down to "Old Town", which is an historic district in Albuquerque, which dates back to the founding of the city by the Spanish in 1706. Old Town consists of ten blocks of historical adobe buildings surrounding a central plaza. The plaza consists of retail stores, restaurants, and museums. We ventured down there on a Sunday to get some authentic New Mexican cuisine before heading up to Las Vegas. We quickly learned that Sundays in Old Town is a very popular place among residents and tourists. We drove around aimlessly looking for a parking space. When we finally did, the restaurants had long waits. With two children in tow, waiting thirty minutes to an hour for a table was not an option. While we walked back to our vehicle, we did admire some of the historical buildings such as the San Felipe de Neri Church which was built in 1793. Old Town is a great place to walk around and admire this historical section of Albuquerque which did not even become part of the city until the 1940’s. We ran into a couple while walking around Old Town who recommended going to Sadie’s for lunch. They said that it is one of the most popular places in Albuquerque for New Mexican food. We loaded up the family and headed over there. It was still crowded because it was Sunday, but we only had to wait fifteen minutes. As we salivated while looking over the menu, we were brought a basket of sopaipillas to tame our hunger. Sopaipillas are a fried pastry served in some South American countries and common throughout the American Southwest. It can be served as a dessert or as a main dish filled with toppings found in tacos and burritos. We had them as an appetizer served with a side of honey. I ended up ordering the stuffed sopaipilla dinner filled with carne Adovada. The filling is a variation of Adobada, which is pork marinated in a red chili sauce. Carne Adovada is popular in New Mexican cuisine and is chopped or cubed pork cooked in a red chili sauce. It is spicy and the waiter will usually tell you that before you order it. My wife had the Chalupa with ground beef. All their meals are served with frijoles (black beans) and papitas (homemade fries). Papitas are pretty much like fried potatoes. You can also ask for either red or green chilies or order it Christmas style for both. It wasn’t until we were already seated at our table that I realized that Adam Richman from Man versus Food showcased Sadie’s on one of his shows. Sadie’s is home to the world’s largest stuffed sopaipilla. I asked the waitress to explain the sopaipilla challenge. You have one hour to eat a seven pound sopaipilla. The challenger must sign the waiver and be at least 18. You will be assigned a special table and given one set of silverware, but you may use your hands. The challenge is overseen by a Sadie’s employee. You will be disqualified if anyone assists you in eating or cutting the sopaipilla or if you leave the table for any reason. You will also be disqualified if you get sick or show signs of sickness. The price of the sopaipilla must be paid in advance. If you are one of the few who have ever won the challenge, you will be rewarded with a T-shirt, photo, certificate, a jar of Sadie’s salsa, and the price of the meal will be refunded. Your name will then be immortalized on the Sadie’s Stuffed Sopaipilla Challenge Wall of Fame. I didn’t see the Man versus Food episode, but since I didn’t see his name on the wall, I am guessing he didn’t win the challenge. The food was phenomenal and after eating my sopaipilla dinner, I couldn’t imagine eating the seven pound one. Sadie’s was just what we were looking for and we were not disappointed.
For a long time I have wanted to attend the International Balloon Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My wife and I decided that since our oldest child was four and our youngest was just over a year and we were expecting another child in December, that this was the best time to attend. We figured with three children we would not be taking many more flying trips. Our trip consisted of visiting Arizona and New Mexico, but the entire trip was centered around the balloon festival. The festival is held at the beginning of October and it last for nine days. Although there are different events each day, the majority of them take place on the weekends. Each day is broken up into two sessions, a morning and an evening. Mostly through the week, there are no evening events and just a few events during the morning. The morning sessions begin at 5:45am and the evening sessions usually begin at 5:45pm, however some events begin as early as 4pm. Admission is $8 for adults and children 12 and under is admitted free. The balloon festival is held at the International Balloon Fiesta Park in the northern part of the city, just off of Interstate 25. The park is 365 acres and the launch pad is 78 acres, the size of 54 football fields. There is a limit of 600 balloons for the festival which was imposed because of the growth of the city and a lack of landing zones. However, in 2000 before there was a limit, the festival had a record of 1,019 balloons participating. We arrived in Albuquerque on Saturday, the first day of the festival. Our plans were to attend the evening session that night and go to the morning session on Sunday. We left our hotel and headed to the festival on I-25 which is on the east side of the park. Police officers and lighted signs are located all around the park so no matter what road or direction you are traveling you will be able to find your way to the park easily. For an event that draws over 100,000 spectators, parking was not a problem. Parking cost $10 and there are golf carts that will shuttle you from the parking lots to the park. It is free, but just make sure you tip them. For those that do not want to fight the traffic, the festival does offer park and ride. We entered the park and located around the perimeter of the launch pad are concession stands, souvenirs stands, and ATM’s. We arrived just in time to see the America’s Challenge Gas Balloon Race take off from the launch area. Gas balloons use helium or hydrogen to stay aloft which is denser than air as compared to hot air balloons which uses propane. Gas balloons can stay aloft for days while hot air balloons cannot. The other big difference is cost. Propane cost about $40 to $50 for a two hour flight while it cost about $5000 for two or three days worth of flight in a gas balloon. The number of balloons in the race varies but this particular year, 2011, there were eight. The winner is the balloon that travels the farthest. The winner of this race went to two pilots from the United Kingdom and Australia. They landed near the Canadian border about sixty miles north of Minot, ND after traveling almost 72 hours, three straight days. After the gas balloons took off, we waited for nightfall to watch the Balloon Glow. This event is when most of the balloons gather on the launch area and they ignite their propane flame which makes the balloon glow. It is an impressive sight to watch all of the balloons light up in unison. The Balloon Glow draws a huge crowd and it is followed by the After Glow Fireworks Display. The next morning we headed out very early to make sure we got to the park in time. Although events start as early as 5:45 with the Dawn Patrol, the main event is the Mass Ascension which begins at 7am. The Dawn Patrol is just a small number of balloons that fly at night until it is light enough to see the landing zones. The balloonists use the Dawn Patrol to get an idea of wind speed and direction. We left our hotel at 4:30 to head to the park. The exit that leads to the park off of I-25 is Alameda Blvd, which is the main road just south of the park. Traffic was backed up on the exit ramp for about a half of a mile and that was just before 5am. By the time we got to our parking space, bought our tickets, and entered the park, it was about 6:45. We barely made it for the Mass Ascension. Plan to leave early and expect to wait in traffic. While we waited, we did have the glow of the Dawn Patrol as they hovered over the park. We entered the park and secured us a nice spot on the northern part of the launch field. What makes this hot air balloon festival so unique is the interaction between the balloonists and the spectators. You are able to watch the balloon being set up as they take it out of the truck, fire up the propane until they have lift-off, and then watch it as it glides through the air. The balloonists will talk to you and discuss exactly what they are doing and why. One balloonist even picked my son up as they ignited the propane so that he could feel the heat that it gives off. I was expecting to see a lot of balloons, but the experience of being around the balloons as they lifted off was surreal. The highlight of the festival is the Mass Ascension. All of the balloons in the festival lift off from the launch field in phases. After the last phase is finished, the sky is filled with over 600 hot air balloons. While most of the balloons are the traditional ones, the festival is also made up of unique shaped balloons. There was a balloon shaped like a beer bottle, a house, a shark, and even Darth Vader. Balloonists from around the world attend this event. There was a balloon from China, Brazil, and many others. After the balloons have lifted, you will notice that they follow a box pattern around the launch field. Mornings are very cool in Albuquerque in October which is why the morning events start so early. These cool temperatures are ideal flying conditions for hot air balloons. But more importantly, Albuquerque has some predictable wind patterns which are exploited to the balloon’s advantage. By manipulating the wind, it allows the balloons to follow a box pattern which allows them to make five or six passes easily around the launch field. In between events, be sure to check out the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque Balloon Museum. It is located on the grounds and it documents the last thirty years of the festival and the history of ballooning. This festival was well worth the trip. The balloons, in their uniqueness and size, will amaze children and adults. It was everything I thought it would be and more. It is a trip not to be missed.
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