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USA: New Mexico: Acoma Sky City, Albuquerque, Carlsbad, Gallup, Las Cruses, Lincoln Town, Old Mesilla, Roswell, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Taos
New Mexico, USA: Everyday is Christmas day
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
You have heard the option of a red or a white. How about a red or a green? We are not talking wine. It's about chilies. And when you ask for Christmas, you will be smothered with a combination of red and green chilies. Welcome to New Mexico. Chili here is a way of life. Chilies for breakfast. Chilies for lunch. Chilies for dinner. Margarita made from chilies. Beer with chilies. Cookies with chilies. And above all, some desserts are preferred with chilies. There are over a hundred varieties of chilies grown in New Mexico. Locals say each one is more for the flavour than for the fire. There are 8 other reasons to visit New Mexico. Scenic beauty, arts & culture, outdoor adventure, historic allure, friendly people, dining out and endless sunshine.
Here's the route I plan to take. Numbers are in miles. Multiply by 1.60 for kms.: Day 1: El Paso - Las Cruces (50); Day 2: Las Cruces - Carlsbad (390); Day 3: Carlsbad - Gallup (411); Day 4: Gallup - Santa Fe (197); Day 5: Santa Fe - Taos (69); Day 6: Taos - Albuquerque (130). Add a hundred odd miles for side trips and detours.
I was to be in Albuquerque for a few days of business. Like always, I added a few more to soak in the best this State had to offer. It was around 1500 miles of experience teeing off from Las Cruses and finishing off in Albuquerque. Gateway airport is El Paso in Texas. El Paso shares international borders with Mexico. As you take the 50 minute drive to Las Cruses, you see to your left massive fencing that divides the 2 countries. No, I didn't see any Mexicans running! I checked into Hotel Encanto and crashed for the night. It was a 32-hour journey from home. The Hotel Encanto, from the Heritage Group, has 6 hotels in New Mexico. I found that the hotels have taken the efforts to make them as authentic with the local flavour as possible.
The next morning I was to move around Las Cruses. The visit started with a visit to Las Cruses Museum of Art and then to the adjoining Branigan Cultural Centre. At the time of my visit I was witness to some fine ceramic and tattoos respectively at the two locations. Admission is free, but a donation of $5 is expected from each visitor. Just behind the museum I stopped by Las Cruses Farmers Market which essentially is produce made or processed by the farmers. On weekends, the street bustles with activity. I made friends with a pecan cultivator. It was fascinating to see Lincoln, the farmer, passionately engrossed in shelling his pecans. I was told that New Mexico is the 3rd largest producer of pecans only after the States of Georgia and Texas.
I then drove for about 10 miles to reach New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum. Built over 47 acres, this interactive museum chronicles the 3000 year history of New Mexico's farming, ranching and rural life. It has live animals including a range of dairy cattle, beef cattle, mules and burros. Its here I got to know some interesting stuff. That America's President George Washington was the first person to mate a horse with a donkey to make a mule. That if a goat is housed along with the horse in his stable, will keep the horse's temperament in control. That just 70 miles away, there's the world's largest dairy that has over 25,000 cows. Various demonstrations happen on site including blacksmithing, sewing, weaving, quilting and dowsing. I was quite fascinated by the latter. Dowsing also known as water-witching is a technique for finding water or other things by use of a dowsing instrument which can be a Y rod - a forked stick or L rods - 2 wires into L's. I tried my hands and boy I did spot water (it was bottled water kept in a shoe box.) It's all about the sub-conscious at work. The museum offers good catering facility. That's were my lunch was. Admission fee is $5 per person. Discounts to senior citizens and children apply.
Turned back to town and then I drove for 10 more miles to Old Mesilla. By the way, double 'l' is pronounced a 'y' in Spanish. Located on the banks of Rio Grande, Mesilla is a very old settlement and has a lot of historic significance. It was way back in 1848 when USA had to go at war with Mexico. Having won the battle, Mesilla became part of the United States. Rio Grande separates Mexico from the USA. Las Cruses happened much later. I was on a walking tour and my guide was from Old Mesilla itself. She was the 6th generation. She took us around the village making frequent stops to give us insights into the history of the village, the trial of Billy the Kid, the ghost stories, architecture and not to forget the good old days were the Old Mesilla was home to bars, brothels and churches. The order of priority was centuries old. Thankfully, bars and churches are still around. When in Old Mesilla, a drink is highly recommended at the Double Eagle which is a historic dining establishment on the Plaza. Very elaborately made, it's every room has a story to tell. Of course, they have a ghost story too. They have actually a booklet, describing as to why every room is what it is. Just across the road stands La Posta de Mesilla which is were I had my dinner.
Next morning was to begin early. My next destination was Carlsbad which is about 400 miles away. On the way I crossed the White Sands Missile Testing Range. Obviously, it's out of bound for visitors unless they are carrying a special permit. It's here where the missiles are tested. Hectares and hectares of land belong to the establishment. The first atomic bomb was tested on this location. Driving further up for about 30 minutes I had to halt at the Border Security Check Point to show my papers. I wonder why in the middle of the highway was the necessity. Anyways, 2 minutes delay didn't really bother me. My first planned stop for the day was White Sands National Monument. It was like being on snow bang in the middle of the dessert! The monument is spread across 275 square miles and attracts over 440,000 visitors every year as also some very special species that can survive the hostile conditions. You can walk in dunes of gypsum that glow like snow under the sun. Why, the park even has a full moon trip during the summers as also a sunset stroll in the evenings. Visitor need to pay just $3 to get in. A must see.
15 miles further up I crossed Alamogordo. The town is heavily occupied by the military, thanks to the activities around. A 60 minute drive took me up to an elevation of about 9000 feet in the Sacramento Mountains. I took a break for coffee at The Lodge in Cloudcroft. This is a beautiful property going back a century and boasting United State's highest golf course. Thanks to the high altitude, the golf ball really goes a long way… so is said. Well, even The Lodge has a ghost story. This time round it was Rebecca's, a maid in the hotel. Looks like New Mexico has a fair share of ghosts, albeit harmless. The Lodge has a 5 storey tower that worked as an observation towers during the Sacramento Mountain Railway days. Guys went up and rang the bell of two kinds - one each to announce the arrival of passengers and the lumberjacks. Tourism and logging was a big industry. The narrow gauge train ran from El Paso to Santa Fe. That was then. There's no train today. A car's just fine.
It's a scenic drive through the mountains that is home to Lincoln National Forest. Once past the mountains, I hit the plains. For as long as the eye could see, I could see nothing save for the land mass punctuated with cactus of various kinds (one of the variety is Mescalero that was fermented by the Apache Indians; these days we love to call it tequila). New Mexico has the 5th largest land mass in the country only after Alaska, Texas, California and Montana. New Mexico is quite unlike the 49 other States in the sense that it has history that goes back thousands of years. Pueblo (village in Spanish) people have been around centuries; Apache Indians (migrated from Canada) came in later about 600 years ago and finally the Spanish who came in 200 years later.
The next rest room stop was at Artesia. I walked around the town a bit and was surprised to find some great sculptures on the streets as also heritage walkways. Probably, the name of the town suggests! Driving continued for couple of more hours. After crossing several oil wells and ranches I reached Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Away from sunlight lies the underground world of Carlsbad Cavern. It is an incomparable realm of gigantic subterranean chambers and fantastic cave formations. Stalactites and stalagmites of unprecedented sizes have been created over millions of years. Using the elevator I went down 750 to reach the caves. Self guided tour is what I took. Fee in just $6 per person. Another must to see in New Mexico. For the night I checked into the Best Western. Next morning will probably my longest driving day.
Started off early and in an hour's time I was at Roswell, a name synonymous with UFO's. I definitely wanted to check out the UFO Museum, but before that I made a quick stop at Anderson Museum of Contemporary Arts. On display were works of art created by artists who actually work in spaces provided by the museum. Creative artists are welcome to apply and if they are chosen, they get to stay in independent quarters with their families for a year. They also get a stipend to meet with their living expenses. And they get a studio space too. The creative amongst us, may want to check this out.
Coming back to UFOs, it was on July 4, 1947 that a field near Roswell witnessed electric storms and the next morning there was silver substance sprayed allover. The government tried its best to hide the fact because they did not want to spread fear amongst the citizens, keeping in mind the war clouds. Till date, the information on that is classified and it's believed that the reports are stacked up in Area 51, an out of bound location in the State of Nevada. Since the first sightings, a museum was built to display information about UFOs - the only of its kind in the world. Some of the exhibits out there were quite shocking.
The next stop was Lincoln Town in Lincoln County. The entire town is a State Museum that takes you back 125 years. It has been preserved exactly what it was in good old days. Its here were Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to be hanged. Clever as he was, Billy escaped the prison but not before killing two officers on duty. I walked the town which was about a mile long. Sure Billy the Kid would have had equally dangerous contemporaries, but I guess his smooth talk made him more famous.
10 miles further up is the Smokey the Bear museum. About 50 years ago, an orphaned bear who survived the forest fire was rescued and named Smokey. Since then Smokey the Bear has become a symbol that warns about forest fires. It's common to pass signs in mountain ranges that alert drivers about the intensity of a probably forest fire.
Another 2 hour drive saw me in San Antonio that has become famous because of Owl Bar and Grill. The grill has been around since 1930 and is famed for its burgers. They have been featured in all major gourmet magazines and television shows. Good place to dig into one of their signature burgers (of course they use green chilies) and rest a bit before heading out again. By the way, San Antonio is where Conrad Hilton was born and first offered a room on rent. The rest is history.
Two hours further up is Acoma Sky City, home of the Pueblo of Acoma. Pueblo is the Spanish equivalent of a small village. Native Americans called Indians have been living for thousands of years. There are only 20 Pueblos in the United States of which 19 are in New Mexico and 1 in Arizona. There are 13 clans in all. And each one fiercely preserves their traditions, culture and values. Perched atop a mountain, I took a guided tour of the Pueblo. My guide was Kristin. Her tribal name was Hiiwaits'a (pronounced hewetsa) and was from the antelope clan. Each of the 13 clans has a name which typically is either an animal, bird or a flower. The government has reserved vast amount of land for the natives. These reservations are independent nations having their own government and laws.
This 60 minute trip was indeed fascinating. It transformed me back in 1700s. There are about 15 families living up there. While every Pueblo have different set of customs, here are some of the highlights of the Acoma. They bury their dead in layers, graves are 40 feet deep; Men do the digging, women build the tombs; Women are all powering; The youngest daughter inherits the family wealth; Mothers or grandmothers name the child, however the child has the freedom to choose a name of their choice (reason why my guide has an Irish name); You can't marry somebody from the same clan, but they must marry only within the 13 clans; Marriage outside of the clan will forfeit their rights; There's no equivalent for the word divorce in their language; Spanish invaded and converted them into Catholics. Entry fee is $10 and $10 needs to be paid for photography. Strict rules apply to take pictures. Make it a point to read the conditions carefully before entering any of the Pueblos.
For the night I checked in the historical Hotel En Rancho in Gallup. Built in the 30s the hotel is bang on the Historic Route 66. The hotel was built as a home for the movie makers who came to Gallup to shoot Westerns. Every room is named after a star that stayed at the hotel but not necessarily in the same room. My room was named Jackie Cooper, a comedian of his era. The hotel was quite a favourite with John Wayne and Ronald Reagan. The room was quite spacious, but the bathroom small - reminded me about London city hotels, but no regrets whatsoever. Rooms start from $70. Gallup is a nice little town which is famed for its Indian jewelry making and trading. 90% of the Indian jewelry market belongs to Gallup. The city is a good base station to make day trips to few Pueblos around, treks and of course hot air ballooning, which I was anxiously looking forward to doing the next morning. But that was not to be. It snowed the previous evening. Moreover low flying clouds and forecast of showers ruined the plans. However, when you guys are out there, do opt for a trip that costs about $150 per person and lasts anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. Well, in the next few days I will be in Albuquerque - the hot air balloon capital of the world. Time and weather permitting; I will try my luck out there.
Sun was playing hide and seek. Good enough motivation to do a small trek at the Red Rock Park on the way to Santa Fe. I opted for the Pyramid Trek that took me up to the canyons. Got a good view of Church's rock. After the little trek, I headed to Santa Fe about an hours drive away. Santa Fe is the Capital City of New Mexico. I was charmed by this lovely city. Good to see arrays of adobe (a combination of mud and straw) homes none more than 2 storeys tall. The 400 year old Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the Loretto Chapel with the "miraculous staircase" is must see. However, Plaza is where the action is. Out there, in one of its corridors, The Palace of the Governors allows natives to sell their works of art. I am told the things you get to buy are reasonably priced and authentic. Anyway, shopping is not my forte. I chose instead to walk many streets for 3 to 4 hours. Santa Fe attracts over 2 million visitors every year and is proud to be the 2nd largest art market in the world only after New York City. A visit to Canyon road should prove the point. The road and the by lanes have well laid out store fronts each specializing in displaying works of art from around the world. Even if you are not rich, there's absolutely no harm in walking along with those who are. Art and music, they say go hand in hand. Sante Fe has a beautiful Opera. Newly renovated, the seats have a screen that translates the opera on stage in English and Spanish language. The opera is very well known for their apprentice program. That night, I checked in at The Lodge a beautiful hotel located atop a small hill and over looking the massive veteran's cemetery and the mountains beyond. Taos would be my destination the next morning.
I covered the distance of 55 miles to Taos in about 90 minutes. My first stop was Millicent Rogers Museum - a personal collection and that of some donors - of over 8000 items all things native. I was intrigued by the exhibits that ranged from jewelry to textiles, ceramics to paintings, baskets to sculptures. I was amazed to see how the natives made their floor using 3 ingredients; straw, mud and buffalo's blood. Reminded me of my grandma's house back in India were our ancestral home was layered by cow dung. I am told that makes the room quite antiseptic.
The next stop was the famed Pueblo of Taos. Arguably this Pueblo is the most scenic of all Pueblos and indeed the world's first condominium housing system. Entry to this world heritage site is $10 and you pay an additional $5 for use of camera. History goes back 1000 years when the first Pueblos arrived on the scene here. There are 40 families, holding about 2600 people live in here. The tribal council is composed of over 30 former tribal leaders and appoints the officials of the governor's office and the war chiefs. The governor and his 9 officials are concerned with civil and business issues within the village and the relations with the non-Indian world. Every tribe is tied deeply to their village and they make it a point to fiercely protect their land.
Taos is an excellent base to do many day activities including skiing, horseback riding & sleigh, spa treatments (Ojo Caliente, established in 1868 is the oldest natural health resorts in the US), hiking, biking, fly fishing and more. I made a trip abut 25 miles up to Angel Fire to experience horse sleigh ride. Two massive drought horses easily pulled our sleigh with 8 people on board through knee high snow. And according to the driver, this was a cake walk. A typical 90 minute sleigh ride with a dinner will cost about $65. For the ski enthusiast, Angel Fire offers many slopes and because of low chair-lift fees, the destination is very popular with families. Taos offers many shopping opportunities and is quite a favourite for art lovers, thanks to its many art galleries. That night I stayed at Taos Inn right near the Plaza.
Today was my final destination and I was to reach Albuquerque by late afternoon. I took the same road back, but opted for a detour from Espanola. Few miles up on the road to Los Alomos is the Puye Cliff Welcome Centre. The centre offers excellent Burritos (which was to be my breakfast). 7 miles off the highway are the Puye Cliff Dwellings. Up on the hills on an elevation of 11,500 feet are the ancient dwellings. Carved on the side of the cliff are homes which were inhabited more than 1,100 years ago. Guided tours are available that can last up to 3 hours. However, I did a quick one. I reached the top through the trail and droved down back.
45 minutes thereafter I was in Santa Fe. While I could have taken the Interstate 25 to reach Albuquerque, I opted to reach the destination using the Turquoise Trail that's a scenic drive through the mountains and through the historic village of Madrid. The village is now home to galleries and restaurants which was once a thriving mining town. The movie Wild Hawk was shot here. 45 minutes after a little stroll through Madrid, I was at Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque ready for a few business days ahead. Hyatt Regency is a good business hotel very well located just opposite the Convention Centre. My room was on the 17th floor over looking the town and the Sandia mountain range beyond.
But the evening was mine. And so was the night. Old Town Albuquerque is where I headed. I was told there's a Ghost Tour that's been acclaimed by Travel & Living Channel in their Weird Travels show. Legends, folklore and history come to life as you embark on an intriguing excursion through 300 years of haunted history. The historic buildings and dark alleys conceal the long-forgotten secrets of battles, murders, hangings and hidden cemeteries. Old Town is said to be the most actively haunted locations in North America. Unfortunately, during the tour I did not carry my digital camera. I was told that visitors have captured many curious and unexplained phenomena. Keep that in mind. Well, $20 well spent. I don't think I will have the time to visit during daytime for the historic Old Town tour that would have taken me through quiet patios, brick paths, wrought iron benches, adobe structures, an old church and its many restaurants.
On a lighter note, The Albuquerque Museum of Art is just adjacent to the Old Town. Before catching up with the ghosts, I made it a point to visit this fabulous and spacious museum. Albuquerque has 5 museums. Probably, this would be the only one that I will be able to see.
On one of the evenings, after completing business, I was invited to dinner at the El Pinto Family Restaurant. Now, don't let the name misguide you. The restaurant was established in 1962 about 20 minutes drive from town. I was happy to meet with the owners Jim & John Thomas who are better known as the salsa twins. The restaurant has been a favourite of many celebrities from Hollywood and The White House. Hung on its walls were pictures of George Bush, Mel Gibson, Hillary Clinton, Jack Nigger amongst many others. By the way, the restaurant cooked food at the White House. If you are in Albuquerque and long for authentic Margarita and Mexican food, this is the place to be.
Okay here's one for the road. Or should I say sky? My flight back home would leave Albuquerque at 3:20 in the afternoon. Which means, if wind favours me, I could do hot air ballooning as well as ride the Sandia Tram to top of the Sandia mountains.
At 6:30 AM the next morning I was in the van of Rainbow Ryders. They are amongst the largest hot air balloon operators. I was picked up by Phil, a good car driver as well as an experienced hot air balloon pilot. We were on the field by 7 AM. There were few more passengers. 3 balloons would take off that morning. One would hold 12 passengers and the other 8. Mine was the smallest. We were 6 in all, including Phil. Rolling out the basket, the envelope, the burners and then inflating the balloon is quite an art. It certainly is a topic in itself which I shall deal with separately some other time. For now, I will be brief.
The balloon was ready to fly in about 30 minutes. My balloon had the capacity of 160,000 cubic feet. In other words the balloon could hold equal number of basket balls. There were two burners. Each had the capacity to generate 1.5 million BTU (British Thermal Units) of heat. Just so you get an idea, a good quality home heater generates about 1,000 BTU. The balloon has vent at the top and at the sides. Yes, balloon with holes. The two vents allow the pilot to maneuver height and rotation (along the balloon's axis). Very gently we started ascending. It was a cloudless morning with a gentle breeze. That morning we achieved a maximum height of about 1000 feet and a speed of just 1.5 miles/hour. The direction of the wind decides were you would go. The pilot has very little control over it. The vans below follow the balloons. After about 60 minutes of breathtaking view and exhilarating experience, our balloon landed in an open field about 5 miles away. The vans were ready to receive us.
From the fields I headed to the Sandia Peak Tramway - the world's longest aerial tramway. The base was at an elevation of about 6000 feet. I went up the tram in about 15 minutes, covering a distance of 2.7 miles to an elevation of 10,378 feet. I spent couple of hours at the top soaking in the winter sun and the 360 degree view covering 11,000 square miles which at the very least was amongst the best I had ever seen. Thanks to the clear visibility that day. Atop, I had my lunch (a hearty burger, fries & coke) at High Finance - a good restaurant.
It was 1:30 PM. I reached the airport at 2:00 PM in time to board my flight to Los Angeles to Mumbai via Hong Kong. That calls for 32 hours. More or less; depending on head or tail wind.
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