Last month, Jen and I spent a little over a week traveling through New Mexico. It was the first time either of us had stepped into that curious state and I’ve been meaning to do a post about our travels there ever since. I figured I might have written about soaking in hot springs with Russian nuclear physicists and Native American air traffic controllers. Or perhaps I would have described walking miles though drifting sand dunes while not-so-stealthy stealth fighters ripped through the flawless blue sky overhead. I probably would have mentioned pushing buttons on aging and obsolete computers that were piled to the roof in a store that sells salvaged goods from a nuclear laboratory. I would have written about climbing icy ladders up the side of a cliff to peer at the sacred kiva of a people who had centuries ago dug their cities into the rock walls of what is now New Mexico. I think I would have let it slip about how bright the stars shine in the high-altitude, low humidity mountains outside of Santa Fe and talked about how both the mountains and stars are even more beautiful when you are visiting what might be the only Japanese-style onsen in the country. I might have written about meeting the surveyor and the cosmetologist and their humorous quest to find a road that exists mainly in historic road-side informational signs. I’m sure that, at the very least, I would have recommended the food, which comes in my two favorite flavors: spicy and spicier.
Instead of writing about these things, though, I thought I’d quickly (and, well, lazily) link to all our very favorite places we visited while putting 1000 miles on the rental car. Just like our travel guides, I’m only listing those things that we thought were truly great and that we wouldn’t hesitate to check out again.
- Satellite Coffee (Albuquerque): Need to raise your IQ and your energy levels a few points? Well, if you’re like me the quickest and easiest way to do that is with a steaming hot cup of caffeine. Satellite Coffee, which has 6 locations around Albuquerque, makes an excellent caffeine refueling station. Plus, at least one of their locations looks like it was hit by a UFO.
- Ten Thousand Waves (Santa Fe): An onsen is a Japanese hot spring that combines geothermally heated pools with beautiful Japanese architecture and gardens. The downside of Japanese onsens is that they are hard to find outside of Japan. And, yet, one seems to exist in the mountains just outside of Santa Fe. A beautiful yet fairly expensive place, Ten Thousand Waves is the perfect way to relax after a hard day of hiking, skiing, museum going, or sightseeing. You can rent private pools, relax in the communal pool and sauna, or go for the whole spa treatment. Either way, you'll be provided with a kimono, sandals, and cucumber water. It's not necessarily a place for the modest nor the thrifty but a visit is a treat and, afterwards, you'll be too relaxed to worry about a travel budget anyway.
- Flying Star Cafe (Albuquerque): This restaurant is reasonably priced, is open late, serves tasty food, and is just plain cool. Owned by the same people who run Satellite Coffee, the Flying Star might be how people in the 1950's imagined diners would look in the future. While there are several locations around Albuquerque, I highly recommend the downtown one (723 Silver Ave SW) as it has an especially cool retro-futuristic feel going for it. The huevos rancheros with red chili were especially tasty and they also have a lot of good options for vegetarian/vegan types.
- International Balloon Museum (Albuquerque): I’ve been to a lot of different museums in my various travels but this is the only one that I’ve ever visited which focuses solely on balloons. I’m not talking about the little bend into animal shape or fill with water and throw at your neighbor type balloon. No, this is a museum dedicated to those vessels that sail through the skies based on centuries old lighter than air technology. The museum has a lot of great exhibits that range from the history of ballooning to balloon simulators to airship models to Jules Verne’s writing about balloons. There is also, of course, scientific explanations of how hot air and gas balloons work. For the true balloon enthusiast, the highlight has to be the gondolas from famous balloons - those that were the first to launch into the stratosphere, cross the oceans, or even attempt to go around the ocean. Admission is quite reasonable (we paid less the $5 bucks) and the volunteer staff are both knowledgeable and very, very enthusiastic. I would love to visit the museum during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, in which thousands of hot air balloons are launched nearby.
- Bandelier National Monument (near Santa Fe): This small national park is about a 45 minute drive from Santa Fe and centers on Frijoles Canyon, which, 600 years ago, was the home to several communities of Ancestral Puebloans. The canyon contains a large amount of restored ruins of a number of different dwellings and kivas. The Main Loop and Alcove House Trails wind their way along the canyon walls and you can climb ladders up the cliff sides to check out various caves and dwellings. The Falls Trail leads to some beautiful views and is nice if you'd like to do a longer hike.
- Riverbend Hot Springs (Truth or Consequences): The sleepy town of Truth or Consequences is famous for its little 1950's style developed hot springs motels and it seems like it would be hard to find a place better than the Riverbend. The Riverbend is a funky and inexpensive hot springs place located on the banks of the Rio Grande River. There are four public pools (you can also rent private tubs) that are all outdoors and feature great views. The hotel ranges from hostel style dorms to rooms with shared baths as well as full private rooms. The owners are very friendly and the water is great.
- The Black Hole of Los Alamos (Los Alamos): Los Alamos is a weird town. It has a population of around 13,000 people and about 10,000 of them all work at the same place. That place is the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), the birthplace of the atomic bomb and one of the few known centers that, even today, does nuclear weapon research. There’s a fine and free museum in town that highlights all the benefits of nuclear energy and atomic weapons. However, the best place to check out is the Black Hole, a store that is self described as being a "recycler of nuclear waste". It’s a huge sprawling thrift shop that sells used equipment from the LANL. It sells everything from filing cabinets to atomic bomb detonator cables (only $5 each) and cryogenic equipment and Manhattan Project souvenirs. For some good background info on the store and the very interesting owner, Ed Grothus, check out this 2006 Esquire article. At any rate, you can spend hours wandering around the aisles of the Black Hole wondering what each thing did and wishing you could bring some parts home for that atomic powered robot that you were always planning on building.
- White Sands National Monument: The US is blessed to have many areas of open sand dunes and I’ve visited several of them. However, none of them compare to White Sands. The name is apt – the sand at White Sands is very white. It is white to the point of looking like salt or even snow and, when visiting in winter, it’s easy to imagine you’ve somehow took a wrong turn and ended up in Antarctica. At any rate, bring suntan lotion and sunglasses, and be sure to hike the whole loop of the Alkali Flats Trail.
- American International Rattlesnake Museum (Albuquerque): After entering through the large gift shop, I expected this place to be a somewhat cheesy tourist trap. However the museum was quite interesting. It features row after row of glass aquariums filled with rattlesnakes and other types of desert reptiles (including my favorite, Mollie the Gila Monster). In fact, it is home to the largest collection of different species of live rattlesnakes in the world, which are only separated from the visitor by thin panes of glass. It’s impossible, though, to leave the place without learning something, even if it’s only how beautiful some of the snakes can be.
- The Turquoise Trail: When driving between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, skip the Interstate and take the scenic route along Highway 14, also called the Turquoise Trail. This back road route winds its way through scenic and funky little towns. It’s definitely worth stretching your legs and grabbing a coffee in Madrid and Cerrillos.
- Burt’s Tiki Lounge (Albuquerque): Sometimes when you’re in a land locked state and you desperately need a tropical vacation, the easiest solution is to head for a tiki lounge. Burt’s Tiki Lounge, located downtown at 313 Gold Ave. SW, is the way to have a island holiday in a single night. It has affordable drinks, friendly bartenders, live music, and a weekly pub trivia contest (in which we managed to not even place in the top ten on the night we visited). Unlike some island bars, there's never a cover charge at Burt's.
- Blake’s Lotaburger (Everywhere): Why grab just another burger from just another national chain, when you can grab a lotaburger from a New Mexico chain? With 76 locations across the state, Blake’s Lotaburger serves some good burgers that can only be had in New Mexico. I recommend trying the a lotaburger with green chili.
- Free Museum Night (Santa Fe): Santa Fe is home to many nice museums and a lot of them are free on Friday nights after 5pm. Since many of the museums are close together (and some of the ones in the Plaza area are small), it’s easy to visit two or three before they close for the night.
If you haven’t already found it, I’ve posted a photo album from our trip. I’m sure there are more places and corners and cliffs and secrets to check out in New Mexico. I can’t wait to fire up my hot air balloon and hope that the wind currents carry me back there soon.