Albuquerque, New Mexico – June 1999
Summer in Albuquerque means one thing: Heat.
OK, maybe there are a few other things going on too. But the major summer activity is finding ways to avoid the heat.
Founded (more or less) by the Spanish in 1706, Albuquerque today offers a variety of strip malls and places with names like “Fox’s Booze’n’Cruise.” Wait – there’s more, too.
Admittedly, much of Albuquerque’s attraction lies in hosting a few major events (like the Gathering of Nations powwow every spring, or the autumn hot air Balloon Fiesta, in a later installment) and in the fact that it makes a convenient base for exploring New Mexico (it’s much more affordable and far less annoying than either Taos or Santa Fe).
But aside from all that, the town itself does have a few things to offer.
Most of Albuquerque’s sights are conveniently located along Central Avenue, the famous old Route 66.
Old Town, at the Western end of Central, is – you guessed it – the old Spanish part of the city, and worth a look. Its center is the Old Town Plaza and the San Felipe de Neri church, which look just the way you’d imagine an old Spanish town center to look – complete with endless souvenir shops. Wander off into the side streets to get away from the crowds and kitsch. But if you’re shopping for souvenirs, Albuquerque’s cheaper than Santa Fe.
A bit further east (navigation is easy: the Sandia mountains are in the east of the city, at the end of Central – you can’t miss ’em), between 2nd and 8th Streets, lies Downtown. In June, July, and August, Downtown plays host to the Summerfest, a series of free outdoor Saturday shindigs celebrating the food, music and dance of different parts of the world – the Caribbean, or Cajun, for example. This involves bands, food and drink, and is generally a lot of fun. The Downtown area also hosts several bars and concert clubs, so it’s a good place to be on a Saturday night.
Closer to the middle of town (and also on Central) is the University of New Mexico, with about 25,000 students. Starting at the university and moving eastward lies what at least tries to be the hippest part of Albuquerque – it’s certainly where the most students hang out, even during the summer. If you’re looking for bagels, tattoos, used books or a place to sit and pretentiously drink coffee, this is the place.
Unless you’re heading for the mountains (more on that in a later installment), the university area – which ends around Carlisle Blvd. – is as far east as you’ll want to go. From there, Central offers mostly strip malls, along with a few drug dealers and the occasional hooker.
If you’re interested in the history and culture of the Southwest, definitely visit the museum of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The exhibits, designed by the 19 New Mexico Pueblos, offer a fascinating and worthwhile insight into the history of the native peoples of the Southwest (entry $5, $1 for students).
One last note – Albuquerque is almost a mile above sea level. You’ll probably go through some altitude adjustment due to lower concentrations of oxygen in the air. Allow time to adjust before going out on any long hikes, and wear sunscreen – the air is thinner, and so the sun is more intense.
Also, since this is a desert, there’s something like a 40°(F) temperature difference between day and night. Even in the height of summer – June, July and August, when temperatures during the day can be in the 100s – you’ll need a jacket or sweater for the evening, and a fairly warm sleeping bag for camping. And before the heat scares you off, keep in mind that the lack of humidity means those 100-degree-days feel a lot cooler than they sound – really!
The dryness does have a few other side effects – you may not be able to wear your contact lenses for long periods of time (though I’ve never had a problem with it), and the combination of dryness and altitude may give you bloody snot. (You wanted the nitty gritty info, you got it.)
Albuquerque, on the Rio Grande, is the largest city in New Mexico (pop. 600,000), and the most popular summertime activity is finding things to do in air conditioned spaces. Nonetheless, it’s still worth visiting (though if you have your choice, you might try for September or October instead, when the heat dies down a bit).
If you drive into Albuquerque – Interstates 25 and 40 intersect here – don’t be put off by the ugly parts of the city you’ll see. If you do plan to drive here, be aware that New Mexico has some of the worst drivers in the world: assume that the guy next to you has no clue what he’s doing, and drive defensively.
If you’re flying in, the Albuquerque International Airport is not far from town. It’s a 15-minute drive from the airport to Central Avenue (which offers some cheap motels – my personal favorite is the funky decorated Aztec Motel, 3821 Central NE, $22/single – and a youth hostel, at 1012 Central SW). Some buses service the airport.
Albuquerque’s public bus system isn’t totally hopeless, but forget going anywhere after dark (most buses run from 7 am to 7 pm).
Bus routes, schedules, fares.
Lots of general area info (events, maps, history etc) and many useful links.
The Alibi, a free weekly local paper with all the nightlife info you’ll need.