Links mentioned in this episode:
- Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
- Capulin Volcano
- Carlsbad Caverns
- White Sands National Monument
- Taos Pueblo
Welcome to the JJO Travel Podcast.
The podcast about Traveling, Trips, and Vacations to help you get the most out of your vacation time.
Hi, My name is Lee Wiegman and welcome to the podcast. I am late! Like many podcasters before me I am behind schedule with this episode, and the schedule I had hoped to keep.
When I decided to create the Journey Journal Online I envisioned releasing an episode every other week, but I do work a full time day job and I am a man of many interests and commitments, so I am just running a bit behind, but never fear, I have lots of material that I want to put into future shows and for this week I want to talk about one of my favorite places in the US, the state of New Mexico.
Actually, It was kind of a surprise to me that it was one of my favorite places, because I hadn’t really intended to go back so many times, but for a few years while my wife and I lived in Denver Colorado, we found that we kept taking vacations there and found that we really liked the spirit of the place and the warm sunshine.
So, Why should you considering visiting New Mexico? I bet if you are from the east coast of the US or from outside the US you haven’t considered it. It doesn’t have what some people might consider big “tourist attractions” in the sense of theme parks or major resorts that attract many tourists. I think the landscape, the Native American culture, the history and the food give an authentic feel to a place that is still a bit rugged and open. I now like to tell people that I used to think driving across Kansas there was nothing, until I drove through New Mexico. To see miles of Southwest desert with cactus and yucca and tumbleweeds – I’m talking REAL tumbleweeds – will give you a feeling of solitude and appreciation for nature in a harsh environment.
New Mexico is more than just the desert, though. It is festivals and National Parks, historic towns, atomic bombs, Native Pueblos, green chile, and the mother road for all road trips, Route 66. When I lived in Denver it was relatively close as far as things go out West. Becky and I would take road trips in Fall or Winter – except for the one time we stupidly went in June driving a car without air conditioning. That was extremely hot and I wouldn’t recommend it. You could also road trip from Arizona, but if you are from further away, you will probably want to fly into Albuquerque. Oh by the way – you can also ski here!
Albuquerque is a city of roughly 500,000 with a greater metropolitan population of around 800,000. It is home to Kirtland Air Force Base, the University of New Mexico and nearby Sandia National Laboratory. There is an Old Town that is full of shops and restaurants that have great southwest arts and crafts as well as the New Mexican food that can be found only in this region. The cuisine is a mix of Mexican, Native American and Tex Mex. I would describe it as spicy and earthy. Many of the dishes center around green chiles that have a wonderful aroma all their own when they are fresh roasted in the outdoor markets.
The big draw in Albuquerque is the Albuquerque International Balloon fiesta http://www.balloonfiesta.com. Every year in October the worlds largest collection of lighter than air aircraft put on an amazing show all around the city. These are hot air and gas balloons of all shapes, sizes and colors. I guarantee it is like nothing you have ever seen before. Even if you think you have seen multiple balloons launch at a fair or festival, this show begins at dawn with a mass ascension of over 500 hot air balloons. Because the winds blow in different directions at different altitudes, you can see balloons taking off into the distance for about two hours straight, and then once they get high enough they catch the wind going the opposite direction and all fly overhead as tiny specks in the sky. It is rumored that the best pilots can land almost back in the same spot! They also have several night time events where the balloons stay tied to the ground and all light up the night with color. For variety there is a special shapes rodeo where for one day only balloons with out-of-the ordinary shapes fly over Albuquerque. this can be anything from Mr Peanut to a chile pepper to sharks and dragons.
If you want a ride there are companies that offer rides for sale or you can sign up to help chase. Chasing involves following along in a ground vehicle to where a balloon will land and helping to get the balloon deflated and packed up. It’s great fun to try and have a passenger as spotter for the balloon while you pick your way through back roads finding your way to where you “think” they are going to land.
The festival draws around 100,000 visitors, so you will need to plan ahead for accommodations, but there is a fair atmosphere with vendors and almost anything that looks like or is shaped like a hot air balloon is sold there. I have personally been to the festival once, and I hope to go again some day. We stayed with friends of a family member who graciously opened their home to us and gave our family bed, couch and floor space. I would count it as a festival you have to see at least once in your life.
New Mexico seems to have an abundance of National Parks and National Monuments. If you are going to spend some time here and visit the parks I would recommend an annual pass – or what used to be the Golden Eagle pass. It is good for access fees and entry fees into all national parks, monuments and some Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management sites.
First up on my list of parks is the Capulin Volcano. It is a little off the beaten path and there isn’t much else around it, but it is really neat because it is a perfect cone shaped volcano that you can drive up to the rim and even walk the mile circumference around. No worries, the volcano has long been extinct and the only changes now happen from water and wind erosion.
If you are into caves, and Becky and I are suckers for caves, then you need to see Carlsbad Caverns. Like most caves open to the public, the park service offers guided tours to get you into some of the most popular and impressive chambers of the cave. Limestone formations like the rock of Ages and the Witches finger are fantastical and impressive. The formations here seem to ooze and drip from all sides. The immense size of the big room will have you craning your neck to see all of the formations hanging down above you. The path down into the cave is a series of switchbacks and you will want some good shoes or boots for walking the paths in the cave. If you like caves, or even if you’ve never been in a cave this one is impressive. Also – if you are claustrophobic and think you might skip it for this reason I believe there are some short tours that just go into the big room, which you should feel fine in if you were comfortable, say inside a large cathedral. Check at the visitors center for detail about the tours.
Before going on to another park I wanted to mention a short but fun stop. Ever hear about a certain alleged crash in the New Mexico dessert with a government cover-up conspiracy theory? Do you believe alien beings crash landed right here in 1947? Well, whether or not “ you believe” Roswell, NM has taken on the role of hosting alien enthusiasts in a kitschy way that is good for a laugh and a lunch stop. There is a UFO museum and stores that sell tacky alien-related gifts. They even host a “Cosmic-Con” Sci-fi film festival in the summer time. I wouldn’t make this a big destination, but its worth a stop if you are driving through and are open to the alien fun.
Further south in the state is White Sands National Monument. This park makes you feel like you in some remote part of the world, and you can hardly believe that this is in the United States. The name of the park pretty much says it all. It’s the largest gypsum dune field in the world, and the park was created to preserve it. You can hike around on the dunes, and do what my wife and I did when we re-enacted a scene from Star Wars, where the Storm trooper pops into frame and says “Look sir, Droids”. I know – we are huge Star Wars geeks.
Surrounding the park is the nearby White sands Missile base, which by the way can cause the road to the park and the park to close if they are actively testing missiles. Also nearby but only open to the public twice a year is the Trinity site where the world’s first atomic explosion was tested in preparation for the bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. A lot of the research and testing of the Manhattan project happened out here in the desert at a time when tourism probably wasn’t on many people’s minds.
Swinging back up near Socorro, NM, because I’m into geeky science stuff, I have stopped at the VLA or Very Large Array of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. If you have seen the move “Contact” with Jodie Foster, then you have seen the VLA. It is pretty amazing in person. The huge radar dishes can be moved around on double railroad tracks to configure the array into a wide-angle or telephoto like view of the sky. There is a self guided walk around the main area of the array with a small visitors building and a view of the large maintenance building. It’s great for photographs and good fun for geeks of all ages.
Santa Fe was the reason I first visited New Mexico so I’ve saved it for last. I planned a trip here during our first Christmas break while living in Denver. Becky and I had a week where the company we both worked for closed between Christmas and New Year’s so it was the perfect time to road trip south out of Denver. Santa Fe’s history from the Native tribes through the Spanish colonization and then the American expansions are a great tale. The town itself keeps building ordinances that dictate buildings must keep the adobe look so even the McDonalds and Super-8 hotels look like and adobe pueblo. The old town square has some great old Spanish architecture and there is a museum called the palace of the governors that you can walk through to get a taste of the region’s history. There are actually quite a few museums in Santa Fe and I’ll put a link in the show notes for http://santafe.org/Visiting_Santa_Fe/Museums/index.html. There is an outdoor market that sells Native American arts and crafts. In fact this whole area is great for finding art, and jewelry of turquoise, silver and copper. If you’re looking for a painting, pottery, tapestries and rugs, and other Native and western themed items there should be something here in anybody’s budget to take home. The New-Mexican style food was great here and a remember a really tasty green chile and pork stew served with tortillas on the side that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. When we stayed we didn’t have a lot of money so we were in a budget Motel. I think it was the Super 8, but it was really just our launching point and a bed for the night. We camped some of the trip as well, and the National park campgrounds are affordable and really nice and quiet for tent camping.
Near Santa Fe is Bandelier National Monument. this park preserves the remains of an ancestral pueblo people’s settlement. These are some of the most interesting remains that I have been through because you get to walk through and up close to the foundations and see some of the petroglyphs in the canyon walls. There is a series of wooden ladders to take you up to a ceremonial kiva. this was a round structure with a ladder through the center of the roof, and in the recreated example here you can actually climb down in and get an idea of the size of this round structure that was thought to be used for important ceremonies. I have a great photograph I took from the inside, that is one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. Look for it on the website. Apart from the kiva the settlement can be seen from above. The excavations of the foundations are arranged in a large ring. The fact that this land has been inhabited for 10,000 years is really something to contemplate. – Don’t you just love history?
A short trip up the road is the Taos Pueblo. the Pueblo is a living community and a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been inhabited for about a thousand years, and is still inhabited by Native American families. The artists in the community sell their art and crafts and visitors to the site pay an admission (plus a camera fee to take pictures). After seeing the ancient ruins of Bandelier, It is neat to go to Taos and see people living and working in an actual setting that people have been living in for a very long time.
For some history that is a little more modern you can visit Los Alamos. The Los Alamos National Laboratory is still operating here and the Bradbury Science Museum gives you a taste of what went on in this area to shape our world during the 20th century. The secret Manhattan Project in the early 1940’s developed the first nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan to end World War II in the pacific. Here you can see exhibits about the beginnings of the nuclear age, and learn about the secrecy of the project. The first device called the Gadget was developed here and detonated in Socorro as I mentioned before at the Trinity site. Research continued on into the Cold War and the museum also leads into that time period. This is the stuff that shaped our modern politics and I love to get insight into this history that I never felt got covered in our school history textbooks.
New Mexico is huge, and the things I’ve described here were seen in multiple trips to the state. If you want to visit you will either need time or need to focus on one area. There is a lot of driving involved and you will definitely be on more of a do and see things trip instead of a sit and relax trip. Accommodations were affordable at the time compared with other cities, but you should look into some camping for a truly authentic desert experience. The desert sunrise is a beautiful thing.
I hope I have inspired you to take your own journey to New Mexico and catch a little of the spirit of the Southwest. I’d love to hear from any listener, and I know there are some out there. There are several ways you can connect with me. The show notes, and blog can be found at www.journeyjournalonline.com. There you can leave a comment to a blog post or episode or use the contact form to send me a message directly. You can also like the show on Facebook at http://facebook.com/journeyjournalonline. And lastly, my personal Twitter name is @PintBrewer. Please please please contact me and let me know what you think of the show. I’ll take criticism as well as compliments, but I’d like to hear from someone just to know you’re out there!
Once again, thanks for listening and until next time, Enjoy your journey!