New Mexico Magic
Stroll Albuquerque’s Old Town, sample Santa Fe’s chile heat
and float high over Taos
By Van Sheridan
(Scroll down to see a slide show.)One after another, the hot-air balloons rise to the occasion. Up and far away, they resemble upside-down psychedelic lightbulbs illuminating blue skies.
Below, crowds cheer, as they do every year at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Flying high after four decades, the nine-day event kicks off this year on Oct. 1 with a mass ascension at sunrise, then a "balloon glow" in the evening when the lighted capsules are tethered to the ground.
Organizers expect about 800,000 spectators and 500 balloons -- compare that with the 13 balloons in 1972. Ever since the first festival, riding in a hot-air balloon has been a rite of passage in the Land of Enchantment.
Albuquerque sits on a stretch of plain sheltered by the Sandia Mountains, and while it's known for the largest hot-air balloon rally in the world, I've decided to ride the skies over the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos. I was told that the high-desert mesa there boasts a surreal bird's-eye view. But first, I had to fly into Albuquerque by plane. From there, it would be an easy hour drive to Santa Fe, then another two and a half hours to Taos.
The Chile Trail
Before driving to Taos, however, I toured Albuquerque's Old Town, populated with quaint restaurants and boutiques. The adobe-lined historic section spreads across 10 blocks. Here, Spanish dons gathered to make decisions, such as rejecting the railroad's proposal to lay tracks through their town. The rail line was built east of the Old Town instead. People followed the tracks and built homes nearby, and modern Albuquerque sprawled around the original center. The Old Town remains a cultural beacon, with seven museums, shops and art galleries.
At the center of this landmark is the oldest building in the city, the 218-year-old church of San Felipe de Neri, flanked by Pueblo-Spanish adobes that once belonged to early settlers and have been converted into restaurants and art showrooms. Behind the cathedral is the Church Street Cafe, housed in one of the oldest residences in the city. The rambling hacienda was the home of the Ruiz family for generations until it started serving chile-fueled specialties in 1993.
New Mexicans are chile savvy, and I wanted to bring back plenty of chile powder because about 80 percent of peppers consumed in the U.S. are imported. Local varieties are hard to come by, so during my trip I stopped by the farmers market in Santa Fe. Here, I found chiles in abundance.
Ziploc bags with green and red powders were stacked on tables throughout the bustling market. I was a few months shy of the fresh green chile season, when the scent of roasting peppers pervades the air at the Railyard, a 50-acre train depot that was converted three years ago into a local and tourist attraction with farmers markets, art galleries, restaurants and bazaars.
Many varieties of the fruit are grown in New Mexico, often on small farms such as that of Amadeo Trujillo, whose chile powder blends are sold for a couple of bucks at the market. Several stalls away, Shirley Martinez is known for her curlicue-shaped Chimayo chiles. "Chimayos are hotter than Hatch, but fragrant and mildly sweet," she said.
Hatch peppers flourish in the town of Hatch, in southwest New Mexico, and Chimayo peppers grow in Chimayo, north of Santa Fe. Like grapes, chiles take on unique characteristics of the soil and can vary in taste. Some cooks will use only chiles grown in certain regions -- or even by specific families. The backbone of the kitchen, Martinez said, chiles aren't just a spice -- they're a way of life.
During my trip, a common question was, "Would you like red or green?" It was asked by my waitress at La Plazuela restaurant in La Fonda on the Plaza. The historic hotel dates to the 1920s. Many enchiladas have been served here with red or green chiles -- or, as I learned from Santa Feans, you can have both by saying, "Christmas!"
La Fonda provides a front-row seat to the downtown Plaza, which spins off for several blocks with shops, restaurants and galleries. The hotel faces the north side, where the Spaniards built the Palace of the Governors in 1610. It provides shade for shoppers from around the world who make the pilgrimage to the Palace's portal, where American Indian artisans sell their silver and turquoise jewelry every morning. Their pieces are original and can't be mass-produced.
Art and history surround Santa Feans, from the gallery-lined Canyon Road to a dozen or so state and private museums. The New Mexico Museum of Art is anchored by works of Santa Fe and Taos artists. In 2009, the New Mexico History Museum opened steps from the Palace. Its maps, diaries, household goods, weaponry and prehistoric antiquities chronicle the lives of early settlers and Native Americans.
But for an up-close glimpse of what native life might have been like before the Spanish conquistadors, I had to cross the ochre desert, dotted with sagebrush and junipers, then ascend to about 6,900 feet above sea level to reach Taos on a mesa at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
A Sacred Place
Traveling on Highway 68, past small towns and up canyons and sweeping bends, I reached the vast plateau that had been split into halves by seismic and volcanic activity eons ago. Lava continues to flow below the rim. At the rift's bottom, the Rio Grande River runs from its headwaters in Colorado through New Mexico, along the Texas-Mexico border, to the Gulf of Mexico.
I walked across a 1,280-foot bridge to reach the other side of the Rio Grande Gorge, feeling lightheaded as I looked down at the river 650 feet below the deck of the fifth-highest span in the U.S. The modern marvel straddles the gorge 10 miles west of Taos. But just two miles north of town lays an ancient wonder.
Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited by the Tiwa tribe for more than 1,300 years. After a December storm, the village is a dreamlike winter wonderland, with snow coating the five-story adobe dwellings that have been built side-by-side and layered on top of each other. Through the years, noted photographer Geraint Smith has captured their images.
"The first time I visited Taos was 1984 on Thanksgiving weekend. The sights and sounds blew me away," said the Welshman who now resides in Taos. "We were at Taos Pueblo that day, and it snowed. I remember the scent of cedar burning and smoke billowing from chimneys. The light at the end of day was slicing across the landscape, and it was pretty magical."
The snow had long melted by the time I arrived in Taos Pueblo with the tourists. The sun spilled forth, causing me to squint, even behind sunglasses. A warm, dusty breeze carried with it the herbaceous, floral scent of sagebrush. Jesse Winters, a 22-year-old college student, led a group around his ancestor's adobe village of only about 100 full-time residents.
Most of the 3,500 tribe members still live on pueblo land, but outside the "old walls." Inside, residents hold with tradition and live without electricity and running water. Drinking water comes from a stream outside their front doors.
In 1992, this unique community was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and ever since, Taos Pueblo has seen increasing foot traffic and public curiosity about its history and traditions. Yet, Taos Pueblo remains an enigma. Many events are opened to the public, but many others are not, such as rites of passage into the kiva, a room for religious rituals.
A sense of sacredness wraps Taos like a cozy blanket. The imposing presence of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a subrange of the Rocky Mountains, casts a long shadow over Taos Pueblo and the town of Taos. Included in this chain is Taos Mountain, called The Mother because it resembles a lounging pregnant woman. Some believe it possesses great power, attributing their successes or failures to whether "she" chooses to "smile on you" or "spit you out."
Most locals aren't from here, observes Taos resident Susan Embry. They were lured here for one reason or another. The ones "accepted" by the mountain will find something to do to keep them here. Others move on.
"I know it sounds weird, but there's something to it," said Ed Smith, who owns the Pueblo Balloon Co. Smith, even with his quirky sense of humor, is a no-nonsense former computer consultant who stumbled into his career as a balloon pilot.
Smith had just picked me up at the Hacienda del Sol, a picturesque bed-and-breakfast blessed with both a backyard view of Taos Mountain and owner-cook Gerd Hertel, who once held the position of corporate executive chef at Norwegian Cruise Line. I regretted missing his fresh, multicourse breakfast.
But balloon rides in New Mexico are best done just after dawn, when winds are most calm. It was 5:30 a.m. when we drove toward the Rio Grande Gorge, still dark and too early for the shops, galleries, museums and restaurants around the postcard, old-world town square to open. In a few hours, Taos' historic district would be active with tourists drawn by the hippie charm of this compact art community of about 5,500 residents.
"Taos is laid-back," Smith said. "This is where you go to drop out of the rat race."
Two decades ago, Smith took his first balloon ride while vacationing in Atlanta. He was hooked, and right afterward, he bought a hot-air balloon. "My first balloon ride cost me 200 bucks. The second one cost me $40,000," laughed Smith.
Smith stopped his truck to check the wind. "Now, this is very scientific, high-tech stuff," he said, releasing a purple helium balloon and watching it float gently upward. It's not uncommon for Smith to cancel a balloon flight because of gusty winds.
"OK, we're good," he said, instructing his three guests to get back in the truck.
The vehicle rolled down the freeway and crossed the gorge bridge. Then, suddenly, Smith pulled off the road and cut through sagebrush and cactuses before bringing the truck to a dusty stop somewhere in New Mexico's rift valley.
Smith and his three-man team of balloon chasers put us to work. We were instructed to hold the balloon flap open so that a gigantic fan could blow cool air inside. When the balloon was halfway puffed up, the burner attached to the basket was switched on. Heat mixed with morning air inflated the cloth canopy fully. We climbed in, with Smith at the helm.
The basket lifted off the ground and floated gently toward the gorge. Eventually, we descended into the miniature Grand Canyon, and minutes later, we could hear the rushing water of the Rio Grande just a few feet below. Above us, a family of bighorn sheep scaled the rocky walls.
Too soon, Smith cranked up the burner and we floated upward again. As the balloon rose to about 2,000 feet aboveground, tensions unraveled. All thoughts of home and work drifted away. The mesa seemed to stretch on forever. Juniper trees, desert blossoms, low-slung adobe homes and cars melded together to form an earthy canvas beneath us.
New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra takes his employees ballooning every year. Smith said, "Deepak understands that it's hard to think of anything else when you're up here, taking in this view. It's just you and blue skies."
See New Mexico on a Southwest Tour
You can visit Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos -- as well as other enchanting Southwest locales -- on itineraries designed by escorted tour operators. Accommodations, some meals, sightseeing and free time to explore are covered in the up-front rate, and participants travel between destinations by comfortable motor coach.
Houston-based travel discounter Vacations To Go offers several itineraries that visit all three of our New Mexico gems. The 12-day "Enchanted Southwest" trip from budget company Cosmos starts at $1,439 per person, with a few departures remaining this fall and 10 more trips scheduled for next April through October. Also in 2012, Trafalgar Tours offers the nine-day "Colorful Trails of the Southwest" from Phoenix, with rates from $2,149 per person.
Globus wraps Santa Fe and Taos into its 11-day "Routes of the Old West" trip next year (from $2,289), but you also can opt for an itinerary that tacks on visits to the mass ascension and evening "balloon glow" of the Albuquerque balloon festival; two such departures next year are priced from $2,799.
For more information, visit Vacations To Go or call a travel agent at (800) 680-2858.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2011. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.