Acoma Pueblo, or "Sky City," sits atop a mesa about an hour’s drive west of Albuquerque. Be sure to take exit 108 and head south off I-40 if coming from Albuquerque. No road signs guiding you to Acoma from this exit. All signs direct you on a roundabout route further west that just happens to pass by the Acoma Casino and Hotel. Coincidence? I think not!
Acoma Pueblo access is strictly controlled. Check in at the Visitor Center. It’s $10 for the 1½ hour guided tour and another $10 for a photo permit. Years ago, tours started in a dusty, desolate parking lot with a ramshackle wooden shelter for shade. An old school bus, probably made available for tourists after being judged unsafe for hauling kids to school, brought visitors to the top of the mesa.
Now there’s an adequate Visitor Center with a better one under construction. A van, like those used to ferry people from airport terminals to rental car lots, takes tourists to the top. Guides are polished and professional, giving a nice mix of tribal culture, pueblo history and personal anecdotes.
Tours start in the 375-year-old pueblo church, San Estoban del Rey. All church building materials, including 75-foot-long wood roof beams taken from Mount Taylor, 30 miles away, were carried to the mesa by the Acoma men. Beams were not allowed to touch the ground during the journey - it sounded almost impossible, until the guide explained they rested on Y-shaped supports when necessary.
Pueblo life is simple. There is no electricity or running water, although an access road built years ago for a John Wayne movie makes it easy to drive to the top of the mesa now. Only about 30 people live in the pueblo year round, but it is still quite active. Pottery makers and other craft workers commute daily to sell their wares to visitors, and tribe members from Albuquerque and elsewhere use their buildings as vacation homes, coming up from the city on weekends or for festivals.
No pets are allowed on the mesa. Two community dogs, Dog 1 and Dog 2, are shared. On our tour we were followed by another, named Stray Dog. During festivals, returning Acoma tribe members may bring dogs; when they leave, some dogs remain behind. Eventually, they get sorted out and returned home, but Stray Dog hadn’t yet been claimed. He seemed to enjoy the tour, though!
At the end of the tour there are options: (1) take the bus back to the Visitor Center; (2) return to one of the pottery or food vendors (an escort is provided – you are not allowed to wander freely); or (3) walk back to the Visitor Center. Be sure to take the walk. While the stairs are undoubtedly recent, the handholds cut into the sides of the path are ancient. It gives a sense of how secure, protected and isolated the mesa must have been.