Celebrating New Years in New Mexico
There’s no shortage of special holiday events happening in December throughout Albuquerque, New Mexico. There’s a Christmas Shop and Stroll on Nob Hill, the Twinkle Light Parade, the lighting of the Luminaries in Old Town and a synchronized music light show at New Mexico’s largest walk-through holiday production.
But, just because Christmas ends on the 25th doesn’t mean holiday spirits have to move on too. In fact, dozens of local businesses, restaurants and neighborhoods stay decorated with farolitos (paper lanterns) and holiday chiles long after most cities have wrapped up. Yes, it is spelled “chiles” with an “e” – the “i” spelling is for Texas.
Start your visit in Albuquerque among ten charming blocks of sun-dried earth, wooden boardwalks and carved granite. Old Town is just that, centuries old adobe homes, shops and former government offices with flat-roofs and soft colors dating back to the Spanish settlers of 1540.
In the heart of “Duke City” along the banks of the Rio Grande (which means big or great river) Old Town has stories to share around every corner. Many properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and legends and lores are shared through memorable walking tours including ghost tours in the evening. Landmarks abound including the San Felipe de Neri Catholic Parish, the oldest surviving building in the city.
Shop small at antique stores, art galleries, clothing boutiques and specialty venues in Old Town. Even if Santa got you everything you wanted at Christmas home décor and handcrafted keepsakes are deeply discounted after the holidays. It takes skill to weave together a chile pepper ornament or a lighted chile ristra or chile piñata and few artisans outside of Old Town do it right.
End your visit with the state’s official cookie, a slightly sweet butter biscochito with cinnamon and anise dipped in a steaming cup of cocoa with a dash of green chile.
With 10,000 square feet of space to explore dance, art, history and food, there’s something for everyone to learn at the Pueblo Cultural Center. But I have to admit, it was singer/songwriters Shelly Morningsong and her husband, powwow dancer Fabian Fontenelle that really sparked my interest in the culture of these proud Native American peoples.
When I arrived, I was escorted to a carpeted backroom where the duo was preparing a small concert for about a dozen listeners. There was no stage, no lighting and no audio monitors so I wasn’t expecting much. But as soon as Morningsong introduced her handcrafted Falcon flutes I knew I was about to hear something special – something pure, expressive and soulful.
Wearing a beaded 40-pound regalia decorated with symbolic imagery and melodic instruments, Fontenelle tapped into his descendants spirits to perform complex dance moves while his wife played. He shared traditional storytelling about his ancestry including his great, great grandfather, a famed Chief of the Omaha people. The duo have earned multiple accolades and been featured in films by Stephen Spielberg and on the History Channel and National Geographic Channel.
At 2.7 miles up the Sandia Peak Tram used to carry the world’s longest tram title, now it falls into second place with a 15-minute vertical ride to 10,378 feet that is still just as dizzying. In 1966 it was an engineering marvel and it still carries more than 9 million passengers a year for unparalleled views at the top.
I felt like I was in a hot air balloon as the tram glided me above the Cibola National Forest, over deep canyons of pink granite and past eroded spires. The rugged cliffs and pinnacles looked too precarious for rock climbing but my guide insisted that climbers attempt it.
Once on top, I peered west across the Rio Grande then north towards extinct volcanoes and finally west in the direction of Redondo Peak and the Jemez Mountains. Every vantage point offered a variety of vantage points from rock formations to natural vegetation to wildlife. The ski area just opened December 15 with snowmaking at full capacity so bring your Dynastars to catch air down Rob and Fred’s Run.
Even in January nothing stays cold for long including your feet, hands and heart when you visit these two staples in Albuquerque’s vast choice of restaurants: El Pinto and Sadie’s of New Mexico. Both carry an enviable Scoville Index that warms traditional plates like stuffed sopapillas (deep-fried puff pastry), chile rellenos and delicious tamale dishes.
Established in 1962, El Pinto is located in the beautiful North Valley thriving by making the best salsas and sauces in the world. Their claim to fame is well deserved as they partner with local farmers for the best organic handpicked chilies in the state. Chef Patrick Hancock took the time to show me how his kitchen staff prepare Grandma Josephina Chavez-Griggs famous pork tamales. The recipe includes red chile sauce, masa harina, lard (tastes better than shortening), garlic, onion and pork shoulder. The fatty formula has been widely enjoyed by political and entertainment celebrities like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Cosby and many more. I cooled down my tongue with Mexican-style custard called Flan de Crema.
Sadie’s of New Mexico has a similar family-owned reputation whose recipes have been passed down for generations. Their menu brags that they are home of the world’s largest stuffed sopapilla with a seven-pound eating challenge that’s been seen on the 2011 episode of Man vs Food Nation with Adam Richman on the Travel Channel. I avoid the heartburn and safely order the perfect proportion of trim lean grilled pork chop together with frijoles and papitas.
Leave yourself plenty of time to explore one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America – the Petroglyphs National Monument escarpment. There are twenty thousand petrogylphs chiseled into the lava rock by ancestors of Pueblo tribes and Spanish settlers from as early as 400 to 700 years ago. Unlike pictographs that are popular in the Southwest petrogylphs are not painted resulting in longer lasting images.
I stopped to interview Park Ranger, Larry Gore who stressed the importance of the icons.
“It’s a mystery, of course, what the Petroglyphs mean but in our age of information overload I think it’s kind of nice to have a mystery.”
Some of the sacred symbols take on a human form while others appear more like animals or insects. In truth the only the person who can testify what and why they were carved is the carver himself, or herself.
Trails are open year round from dawn to dusk that pass five volcano cones and through a narrow corridor between the Rinconada and Piedras Marcadas Canyons. Careful of rattlers! The new amphitheater offers open-air evening lectures with stadium-style seating for stargazing.
A little Christmas tree inside my Route 66 suite twinkled and danced like Waterford crystal. It lulled me to sleep amid Victorian antique furnishings, black and white photographs, Route 66 memorabilia and local biographies. The bright pink Bottger Mansion in the heart of Old Town is the perfect place for a long sleep after a rowdy night of ringing in the New Year.
The charm and character of the historic B&B are wonderful and owners Kathy and Steve dote over you like grandparents. They quietly start stirring at the crack of dawn to prepare a breakfast of crispy sausage, plump pumpkin pancakes, fresh fruit and steaming coffee.
When you inquire about New Mexico they can’t help but beam proudly. They speak ABQ (short for Albuquerque) better than any travel agent or written narrative. Several mornings are spent jotting down their suggestions and stories. Others feel the same way because many of their guests are returning customers.
After you’re done swilling Champagne be sure to ‘hop’ to the many popular microbreweries in ABQ, some that have recently opened in 2012 – the newest being the Broken Bottle Brewery. And just because its beer doesn’t mean a red chile combination doesn’t qualify.
The Broken Bottle Brewery offers the Anomole Stout with just that along with cinnamon and cocoa. This is not just a novelty for tourists, chile cerveza has been consumed by the New Mexican capita for years. The color of the chile; red, green or yellow defines the heat intensity so be sure to ask your bartender how much fire and flavor your tongue can withstand.
20 First Plaza NW, Suite 601 Albuquerque, NM 87102 1-800-284-2282
OLD TOWN ALBUQUERQUE
PUEBLO CULTURAL CENTER
2401 12th St.
SANDIA PEAK TRAM & SKI AREA
30 Tramway Road NE
PETROGLYPH NATIONAL MONUMENT NATIONAL STATE PARK
6001 Unser Blvd, NW
BOTTGER MANSION OF OLD TOWN BED AND BREAKFAST
110 San Felipe Street NW
Albuquerque, NM 87104
A HISTORY TOUR OF OLD TOWN
303 Romero Street NW
Plaza Don Luis – N120
Sonja Stark runs Pilotgirl Productions, a full service video production company based near Albany NY. She’s a regular contributor to GoNOMAD. Read her blog Pilotgirl’s travel blog, or read more of her stories on GoNOMAD.
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