Budget Travel: Albuquerque

Summary: Albuquerque, founded in 1706 by a group of Spanish colonists on the banks of the Rio Grande, has grown into a sprawling southwestern city that creeps up the Sandia and Manzano Mountains to the east and out onto the mesa to the west where it meets the National Petroglyph Park Monument. On the southern end, Isleta Pueblo halts it’s sprawl, and to the north is Sandia Pueblo.

If you drive into the city at night from the west, it can look like stars. From a distance during the day, Albuquerque can look like an oasis. For an outdoor enthusiast, a history buff, or someone interested in the arts, there is an array of things to do that won’t break the bank or bleed your wallet dry. With the airport right at the city’s edge, and the train and bus stations close to downtown, Albuquerque is quite accessible, however, don’t stop here. I’d use Albuquerque as a stepping off place to see more of New Mexico, but take a few days to enjoy what it has to offer on your way in or out.

Getting In: Bus, train, plane, car, bicycle–you pick. Albuquerque is an accessible city with inexpensive travel options. Airlines have much competition which helps keep the prices down. Continental and Southwest are the best bets. Amtrak also has a stop here, as does Greyhound. Albuquerque is on the way to other places, so why not spend time here if you’re making a cross-country jaunt?

If you do arrive without a car, I’d rent one. It would make life easier and give you more options of places to go in the city in the quickest amount of time–as well as take drives to Santa Fe, Acoma Pueblo or Bandelier National Monument. In 2008, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express opened. It’s the communter train between Santa Fe and Belen and points in between.

There is an extensive city bus service and many tourist sites are accessible by foot from Central Avenue, the Albuquerque’s main artery that goes from east to west. Bring water along if you’re walking. It gets hot if you arrive after April and before October. It’s a dry heat, so if you perspire, you won’t end up soaked.

Although, I haven’t done this option, if you arrive with a bicycle, you can hop on a bike trail at the airport. Here’s a link to the details.

Where to Stay: As the largest city in New Mexico with the major airport located here, there is an abundance of places to stay. Think of a chain hotel, and you’ll find it. If you’re looking for funky, stay in one of the independently owned hotels on Central Avenue, part of historic Route 66. As a word of warning, choose carefully. A friend and I thought it would be fun to stay in one when I lived in Albuquerque and I think it might have been a flop house. Let’s just say one of the TV channels offered more than I anticipated and one didn’t need to pay extra. To find a recommendation, contact Route 66, the organization dedicated to keeping this historic road thriving. Stay close to Nob Hill, University of New Mexico or Old Town.

Where to Eat: Albuquerque is where you can eat your fill of Mexican food and never get bored. You’ll be asked if you want red or green chilie. Try green chilie at least once. One place to dry a dose of the good stuff for breakfast, lunch or dinner is at The Frontier across from the University of New Mexico. You can’t miss it since it takes up almost a whole block. Try the cinnamon rolls. I repeat. Try the cinnamon rolls. They are legendary.

Two other inexpensive places for great Mexican fare are Garcia’s Kitchen and Los Cuates. Garcia’s Kitchen started out in one location across from Old Town. Now there are seven. I’m partial to the original. There are two Los Cuates on Lomas directly across the street from each other. The south side of the street is the original. The north side has margaritas. Whichever Mexican restaurant you head to, enjoy the sopapillas with honey. Oh, how I miss those.

For a Route 66 dining experience, eat at the Route 66 Diner. Although the original burned in 1995, the rebuilt one reflects the time period.

To pick up food to take along on a bicycle or hiking outing, head to the La Montanita Co-op Market in Nob Hill.

Things to Do:

As a centerpiece to your visit, head to Old Town which is the oldest part of the city, but has been transformed into a area rich in shopping and things to do. The plaza is at the heart of the area and is where the 300 year old San Felipe de Neri Parish church, still stands. The church has a museum and a gift shop which reflect the Spanish influence.

You could browse Old Town’s shops for hours. Things to buy range from ticky tacky to high-end gorgeous. I’d browse before you buy. One thing to pick up that I think is a hoot is an adobe house incense burner. For wonderful arts and crafts, check out Amapola Gallery. It’s a cooperative that showcases the work of about 40 artists.

Also in the Old Town area are Rattlesnake Museum, Turquoise Museum, Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, and Explora, a museum that integrates art, technology and science. Also, there’s the National Atomic Museum. which gives a nod to Albuquerque’s military and nuclear science connections. This spring, the museum will change to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.

Not far from Old Town is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, perhaps my favorite attraction. There’s a museum that covers the history and life of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. The gallery and gift shop is superb, plus the restaurant is a wonderful place to get a Tewa taco and green chile stew. If you want authentic Indian jewelry, this is where to get it. It’s high quality and reasonable. Take time to look at the murals on the outside walls of the building that surround the courtyard. For dance performances and other events check the calendar.

If you’re museumed out, Albuquerque is made for outdoor exploration. Bicycling is incredibly popular and something that’s doable in any season. Trails are extensive. For suggestions on where to bike, check out this page of RideThisBike.com. Here’s a link to bicycle shops to help you scout out a rental.

Test your mettle by hiking up Crest Trail in the Sandias. The trail goes up one of the mountainsides in a series of switchbacks. If you want to get to the top an easier way, take the Sandia Peak Tramway and hike back down. Bring a windbreaker or a sweatshirt, even in summer. At the top you can get chilled if you’ve hiked up. Trust me. I know. Although hiking in the Sandias offers the stunning views of the city and the challenge of pacing your climb to not poop out before the top, hiking in the mesa around the Petroglyph National Monument is also satisfying. Imagine who walked here before you.

In winter months, downhill skiing and cross-country skiing in the Sandias is another outdoor option. Because the temperatures in the city are much higher than the backside of the mountains, you could conceivably ski and golf on the same day. For the best and least expensive thing to do in Albuquerque, head away from the city and watch the sunrise or sunset.