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Why Albuquerque, New Mexico, Is the Most Exotic American Big City

Ann Abel / Senior Contributor / Forbes

Why Albuquerque, New Mexico is the most Exotic American Big City

New Mexico has always embodied the exotic: deep multiculturalism, the mythology of the American West (and a truckload of cinematic Westerns) and epically enormous landscapes. The state has one of the longest histories of European settlement in the United States. It was the birthplace of the atomic bomb and the setting for an untold number of spiritual awakenings.

With international travel still in limbo, New Mexico is now the accessible-exotic. Can’t commit to that African safari? The wildlife spotting at Ted Turner’s vast and highly luxurious Vermejo reserve is superb. Missing a dose of European art culture? There’s the world-class gallery scene in Santa Fe and Taos, not to mention the Santa Fe Opera. Curious about ancient civilizations? There are the impressive structures built by the Ancestral Puebloan people in Chaco Canyon between 850 and 1250 AD.

While I am always in favor of the exotic, I spent the past six weeks in New Mexico for exactly the opposite reason.

For me, New Mexico is home, as familiar as it gets. Born and raised in Albuquerque, but living far away for nearly 30 years (20 of them spent chasing the exotic around the world), I joined an untold number of Americans living abroad who came back to be vaccinated.

Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque
Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque

While I was here, I decided to see what had changed.

Nothing, it turns out. And everything.

The mountains rising up from the east of Albuquerque have, obviously, been here for millions of years. For two weeks, I hiked alone each day in the foothills. It was enough. I was out there with the shapes and the shadows, the flowering cactus and the high desert wildflowers as they came into bloom. In the late afternoon, everything takes on a pinkish cast, which is why the range is named Sandia, Spanish for “watermelon.”

Also here for a long time is the city’s Old Town, which dates from the early 18th century. (Although trade between Native American groups had already been going on for centuries before Europeans arrived, the city was was formally founded in 1706 as part of the provincial kingdom of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, a Spanish colony. And yes, a reckoning with that history is under way.) Some of those early adobe structures still stand, including the San Felipe de Neri church, from 1793; the lively High Noon Saloon, from 1785; and the Church Street Café, from sometime in the early 1700s.

The oldest natural landscape within the city is the forested waterfront alongside the Rio Grande, in what locals call the Bosque (Spanish for “forest”), a green area of gnarled old cottonwood and graceful coyote willow trees and small urban farms. It’s now a 4,300-acre state park with a 16-mile bike trail.

That trail led me to Los Poblanos, an historic grain farm that now has 25 acres of organic lavender fields, cottonwoods and formal gardens. The central buildings were designed in Pueblo Revival style in 1932 by the state’s most famous architect, John Gaw Meem (born and raised in Brazil but arrived in the New Mexico desert after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis). The preservation-minded project includes a small museum, a farm shop selling lavender and other local products, a well-regarded restaurant and a small but soon to be expanded inn.

If all of that was familiar, the new Albuquerque surprised me.

The rooftop at Hotel Chaco, Albuquerque
The rooftop at Hotel Chaco, Albuquerque, New Mexico

That started with the boutique Hotel Chaco, a four-year-old property that’s easily the most stylish in town. Its design is reminiscent of Chaco Canyon and other nearby pueblos, and it’s filled with an impressive collection of contemporary Native American and New Mexican artists. The in-house art outpost, Gallery Hózhó, represents a number of those artists and competes with the galleries in Taos and Santa Fe.

Even if you don’t care about all that, it’s a stylish and comfortable place to stay, with 118 big rooms and thoughtful amenities. Its rooftop bar, Level 5, is one of very few in the city, with a sophisticated design (and prices to match), good food and drinks, and striking view of the mountains behind the city.

And the trusty convention-friendly Hotel Albuquerque next door, where I must have attended a dozen weddings, has gotten a fresh re-do. It’s still redolent with Spanish-colonial style but somehow more contemporary, particularly the garden areas. It’s also celebrating Spanish tradition with the city’s only flamenco bar, a partnership with the nonprofit National Institute of Flamenco, which is also based in Albuquerque. At the hotel’s outpost of the New Mexican restaurant chain Garduño’s (now owned by the same parent company), they’re out to show that margaritas can be more than sweet slush, with interesting combinations like peach, ginger and thyme.

Both hotels lie between Old Town and the new Sawmill District, a kind of “work, live, play” neighborhood that the city hasn’t seen before. The anchor is the Sawmill Market, Albuquerque’s first food hall (à la Time Out Market in bigger cities), which has 22 independent food stalls from local chefs and restaurateurs, serving everything from Gulf seafood to Vietnamese street food, and a sit-down restaurant. It opened in March 2020, closed, opened again, closed again, and is now finally getting a chance to find its footing.

If the Sawmill District is planned, the neighborhood on the other side of the hotels is finding its artistic groove more organically. Just east of the Old Town, there’s a neighborhood full of colorful Victorian houses with artworks in their front yards. Many are the work of the same sculptor, while others are from neighbors who have just gotten into the spirit, justifying those people who insist on calling the city “Albu-quirky.”

Those Albuquirks have a number of compelling new gathering places. Bike In Coffee is a small café within Old Town Farm, one of those historic urban farms beside the river. It’s a colorful, relaxed and progressive place, where anyone can enter on a bicycle but cars have to pay a fee to park.

Craft beer scene in Albuquerque

Like any self-respecting American city, Albuquerque now has a lively craft brewery scene, but the most interesting has to be Bow and Arrow, which is the only Native-woman-owned brewery in the country. The specialty is wild and sour beers, some using local ingredients like sumac berries and Navajo tea. I didn’t get a chance to visit, but the tap room is said to be one of the most welcoming spots in the city.

The wine landscape is getting more interesting as well. For example, Vara Winery & Distillery is a new project that pays attention to the historical connection between Spain and New Mexico. The tasting room offers a variety of wines produced from grapes grown in Spain and California, cava-style sparklings and vermouth-style aperitifs. There’s a good food menu to match.

Heritage Inspirations’ Bobby Gonzalez leads a tour in Old Town Albuquerque

But maybe the thing that's making Albuquerque even more interesting right now is the thing that’s presenting the centuries-old history and the city’s developments in a thoughtful way. Heritage Inspirations is a new tour company that is determined to show visitors the real magic of New Mexico. (It was Heritage Tours that connected me with Bobby Gonzales, an excellent guide and 14th-generation New Mexican, who gave me new perspectives on Albuquerque’s Old Town, the Bosque and the contemporary scene.)

Founder Angelisa Murray spent her childhood summers in northern New Mexico, home to part of her family. After a career working for companies like Four Seasons, Backroads, and Butterfield and Robinson all over the world, she felt called back to Taos, where she created New Mexico’s first high-end, authenticity- and sustainability-minded travel company. She gets both the luxury side and the cultural immersion side.

Great Kiva, Casa Rinconada, Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

The company does dream trips, like deep dives into the Taos Pueblo, led by Native American guides, equinox retreats at Chaco Canyon, and glamping outings in some of the most scenic parts of this state. This is epic stuff. But even for something as simple as a half-day tour of Taos’s artisan scene or a bike excursion around Albuquerque, the company doesn’t take half-measures.

“I believe in experience to the core of my being,” says Murray. “Heritage Inspirations takes its name from my own heritage, and my life’s work and experience, and especially my own love letter to New Mexico.” She continues: “I want to create an unforgettable encounter with New Mexico.”

Through her eyes, I got a new appreciation of my hometown. And I almost forgot, for a few hours, that Breaking Bad also took place here.


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