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One of the main things you need to know when traveling to Albuquerque is that chile is New Mexico's culinary focus; the state is so obsessed with chile that they even have a Chile Pepper Institute (www.chilepepperinstitute.org) devoted to education, research, and archiving information related to the humble capsicum. But of course there is so much more to Albuquerque than just its position as the center of southwestern cuisine par excellence. It is a thriving arts and cultural mecca, the melting pot of rich Pueblo Indian and Hispanic communities, and the gateway to a rough and rugged landscape that entices and amazes with color, texture and variation. It is also the ballooning capital of America and the crowning glory of the local event calendar is the annual International Balloon Fiesta (www.balloonfiesta.com) which takes place in early October (this year October 4 to 12).

With so much to do, see, experience and taste, it may be difficult to fit everything in, but here are my Albuquerque favorites:

What to Do

  • Wander through the plaza and surrounding streets of Old Town and discover historic adobe architecture and shaded placitos oozing south western charm.
  • Wake up early to take a hot air balloon ride (tel. 800/725-2477; www.rainbowryders.com) over the Rio Grande Valley. Spend an hour drifting in the clear blue skies over Albuquerque, followed by a champagne breakfast for $155 per person.
  • Walk among the rock formations at Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument (www.blm.gov/nm/st/en/prog/recreation/rio_puerco/kasha_katuwe_tent_rocks.html) and be awestruck by the beauty of volcanic eruptions and erosion. Entry is $5 per vehicle and the scenery is priceless.
  • Discover some of the new Hispanic world's finest artists and craftsmen at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (tel. 505/246-2261; www.nhccnm.org). In particular don't miss the stunning "Meso Americhanics" -- de la Torre Brothers exhibition running until February 22, 2009.
  • Come across rattlesnakes, coyotes and road runners while wandering among the ancient Indian rock art at Petroglyph National Monument (www.nps.gov/petr). Over 20,000 carvings, 350 archaeological sites plus a series of dormant volcanoes await you in an area considered sacred to the Pueblo people.
  • Visit a historic Indian Pueblo and experience Native American culture, past and present. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (tel. 866/855-7902; www.indianpueblo.org) arranges "Into the Sunset Western Pueblo" day tours to the neighboring Pueblos of Acoma (Tuesdays and Thursdays) for $80 for person and $60 for children aged three to five years, and Zuni (Wednesdays and weekends) for $90 and $70 respectively. Prices include transportation, lunch and guided tours.
  • Cruise along the Nob Hill stretch of Route 66 and check out some of the best Art Deco architecture in the country including Nob Hill Business Center, 3523 Central Avenue- currently an Obama/Biden '08 campaign office, and various kitschy motels with great signage. Download a free walking tour map at www.rt66central.com/route66/walking-tour/walking-tour.pdf (PDF file).
  • Visit the Kimo Theatre (www.cabq.gov/kimo) in the downtown area -- an outstanding example of classic Pueblo Deco style theatre with gorgeous original Native American design features blended with traditional Deco details. Don't miss the faux buffalo skull lights, dioramic murals of Indian villages, the totemic proscenium arch and the plaster ceiling beams made to look like rustic logs. Open daily and entry is free (except for performances and concerts).
  • Enroll in a southwestern cooking class and learn how to make authentic green chile, enchiladas, corn tortillas, sopapillas, and biscochitos (the New Mexico state cookie). Blue Plate Special (tel. 505/255-2583; www.eatblueplate.com) in conjunction with the University of New Mexico runs three hour traditional New Mexican cuisine classes, including eating the dishes you have prepared at the hands-on sessions for $55 per person.

Where to Shop

Agape Southwest Pueblo Pottery (tel. 505/243-2366; www.agapesw.com) in Old Town features the arts and crafts of 17 of the 19 local pueblo communities plus the ceramic works of a number of Navajo and Apache artists from New Mexico and Arizona. Less for tourists and more for serious collectors and appreciators of indigenous arts.

Skip Maisels (tel. 505/242-6526; www.skip-maisels.com) in the downtown area is an emporium of Native American arts with everything from ceramics to animal skin drums, dolls to arrows. It also is the largest selection of Indian jewelry in the southwest. Built by Morris Maisel in the late 1930s on old Route 66, it is now considered a city landmark and prices are generally lower than comparable stores in Old Town.

Sumner & Dene (tel. 505/842-1400; www.sumnerdene.com) for an extensive collection of locally made arts, crafts, jewelry, furniture and gifts at particularly affordable prices. Look out for the sculptural dolls by Ruth Morris, sculptures by Leighanna Light and Doris Burton and unique metalwork products by Drew Coduti and Kevin Burgess

Mariposa Gallery (tel. 505/268-6828; www.mariposa-gallery.com) on Route 66 (Central Avenue) in Nob Hill has a beautiful collection of works by local artists. The gallery, open daily, has been running for 35 years and is one of the oldest contemporary craft exhibit spaces in the country.

Where to Eat

Don't be afraid to try chile in all its guises. Remember, if it gets too hot, don't drink water -- that will just spread the heat around your mouth. Drink milk or take a spoonful of sour cream to douse the flames.

Voted the best Nachos in America, El Pinto Restaurant (tel. 505/898-1771; www.elpinto.com) is an Albuquerque institution. This place seats 1,000 people but you never feel crowded as the restaurant is spread over a series of rooms, patios and gardens. Try the Adobada style chile ribs, green chile chicken enchiladas, chile rellenos (all made with locally grown organic chiles) and stuffed sopapillas. There is also a low-fat section on the menu. An average three course meal will set you back less than $30. El Pinto makes exceptional salsas and sauces on the premises, so you can pick up a few jars to take home while you are there.

La Fonda del Bosque (tel. 505/247-9480; www.nationalhispaniccenter.org) is located at the Hispanic Cultural Center and has been voted one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the country. It is rare to find a quality restaurant at a museum complex but La Fonda will not disappoint. Order a la carte or enjoy the bargain $9 Muy Bueno Buffet that includes regional specialties like mouth-watering guacamole, sopapillas with honey and delicious desserts like flan and coconut chocolate cake (available Tuesday to Saturday). The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday to Sunday.

Pueblo Harvest Café (tel. 505/843-7270; www.indianpueblo.org) is the only Native American owned restaurant in Albuquerque and it is part of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. It offers beautiful views over the Sandia Mountains and two exterior horno ovens are used to prepare traditional pueblo bread, game dishes and seasonal specialties. The chefs are Navajo, Zuni, and Apache, and weekend evenings and Sunday brunches feature live entertainment on the patio.

Zinc Wine Bar and Bistro (tel. 505/254-9462; www.zincabq.com) on Route 66 in Nob Hill is a lively restaurant serving contemporary international cuisine from an open kitchen. Signature desserts include sour cherry white chocolate brioche bread pudding and pineapple upside down cake.

Where to Stay

The four-room Adobe Nido Bed and Breakfast (tel. 866/435-6436; www.adobenido.com) is a boutique property with only four rustic-style rooms, located in the North Valley close to Old Town and Downtown. Each room has a double bath tub with jets and WiFi. Room rates start from $119 per night including a healthy breakfast. There's a three-night minimum stay during the Balloon Fiesta.

The historic 1930's La Posada de Albuquerque Hotel is an Albuquerque landmark. It will reopen after extensive renovations in March 2009 under the new moniker Hotel Andaluz (www.hotelandaluz.com). The centrally located chic boutique property promises to be the city's finest and will feature 107 luxurious rooms with environmental initiatives like 100% of its hot water generated through solar energy. Room prices will range from $129 to $249 per night.

Hacienda Antiqua (tel. 800/201-2986; www.haciendantigua.com) is an 18th century classic adobe hacienda that oozes southwestern architectural ambience. Features eight traditionally decorated rooms, in-season room rates range from $149 to $229 per night plus taxes (March through October plus Christmas and Valentines Day) and off-season rates range from $129 to $169.

Note: The author traveled to Albuquerque as a guest of the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.itsatrip.org).