Down With the Mtz: Blog #2, 48 Hours in "Duke City"
Albuquerque, New Mexico: Basic facts
Population: According to Wikipedia (based on 2017 Census estimates) approximately 558,000 people. It is the most populous city in New Mexico.
Elevation: officially 5,312 feet above sea level (slightly higher than Denver, CO)
Travel time from Denver: Around 55 minutes (via air) or 6.5 to 7 hours (via car).
"Up", Up and Away in Albuquerque
Albuquerque is a city I have passed through on a number of occasions over the years without ever really spending any time there. As a native Coloradoan, we tend to think of New Mexico as our older cousin to the south. When you hear Coloradoans talk about New Mexico, it is usually about Santa Fe and Taos or occasionally about White Sands, Roswell or Route 66, but almost never about the state's largest city.
The occasion of Albuquerque's annual International Balloon Fiesta seemed like a perfect time to explore ABQ a little bit more so that I could see what I may (or may not) be missing in the Mountain Time Zone's fifth most populous city*.
The ABQ Cinematic Universe
I am fully aware that more recently, Albuquerque has garnered more attention because the area is frequently featured in television and movies. This dates back to an aggressive, state sponsored tax incentive program which launched in the early 2000s. ABQ Studios--recently purchased by Netflix--opened in 2007 and has been used extensively by shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Godless and Briarpatch to name just a few. In addition, the "Breaking Bad universe" in particular also makes creative use of actual locations in and around Albuquerque, so that many TV fans are very familiar with the look of the city even if they have never set foot there.
This is as good a time as any though to remind the reader of the "rules" I have for this particular travel blog: I never spend more than 48 hours in any destination, I try to keep the total travel budget under $1000 for the stay (preferably much lower) and I focus on the sights or neighborhoods in my MTZ cities that are not the "known" tourist attractions. All of this means that doing a "Breaking Bad" location tour was not going to be in the offing for this trip. One of my Lyft drivers assured me that if you're a big fan of one of those shows, you can get good value out of one of the tours, especially the Breaking Bad RV Tour. I'll include a link below if you're interested, but you should know that I did not take the tour nor am I getting compensated for including the link. As a fan of the show, I guess it is something I can come back and do one day, but for this blog, I concentrated on the balloons and the local food.
Overall Impressions of the City/2 Best Meals
I enjoyed my stay in Albuquerque. Why wouldn't I? It was a vacation--a place or an experience would have to be pretty darn awful for me to not find things to enjoy. But all in all, I will say that I found "ABQ" to be a little underwhelming.
You expect there to not be very much greenery--after all, ABQ is in a high altitude desert valley. But there's a sameness to all the browns laid out under the big, frequently cloudless skies that does wear on you after a while. This is not a city with a dynamic downtown, interesting architecture or an abundance of nearby, easily accessible natural scenery. Sandia Peak and the nearby cliffs does loom pretty impressively over the northern part of the city, but coming from Denver I was surprised at the relative lack of nearby mountain views. Otherwise, this is a city of low slung, single tract homes, a lot of stucco and a lot of dirt.
New Mexican cuisine is another matter however. It is packed with flavor, enhanced by the smoky, peppery seasoning of the state's famous green chile and it is a kind of Mexican cuisine that tastes bolder and more authentic than your run of the mill Tex-Mex or other more "Americanized" Mexican foods. I have moderate GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), so I have to moderate my intake of very spicy foods and take an over-the-encounter acid inhibitors beforehand to ensure that I don't have a very unpleasant time after the meal. So not every meal I had in Albuquerque was New Mexican cuisine. But I had a pair of lunches that stood out:
- My first meal in ABQ was at a small place right down the street from my hotel called the New Mexico Beef Jerky Company (1540 Candeleria Road). This place is designed more for to-go orders, with only a handful of tables and no real decor to speak of, located right off of I-25 just northeast of Downtown. I had a steak and potato burrito, with excellently grilled steak, diced potato, egg, green chiles and cheddar cheese that was bigger than a typical Chipotle burrito but much more favorful--and it was $8, a very reasonable price for what you get. The NM Beef Jerky Company is a little hard to find, but if you're in that neighborhood, I recommend it.
- I had lunch on my second day there at the popular Monroe's on Lomas. It was Sunday and there was a large, noisy birthday gathering at one table, but it was still a very good meal. This was another Lyft driver recommendation, and it was worth it. He suggested the blue corn enchilada plate flat (pictured below) and at $10 it was more than worth it. The "Puerto Rican" beans on the side were also exceptionally well-seasoned and I felt like it was a good value meal in a friendly location. The neighborhood wasn't much to look at (just NW of Downtown, near the famous Old Town), but if you seek it out you probably won't be disappointed.
But I didn't spend my 48 or so hours in Albuquerque just eating. I was drawn there by the city's most famous annual event and that was definitely worth a trip.
International Balloon Fiesta
Starting in 1972 as a stunt hosted by a local radio station, the International Balloon Fiesta is now the second largest annual gathering of hot air balloons in the world. For nine days each October, the Fiesta hosts up to 500 (or more) hot air balloons at a special fairground that has been built for it. I don't love fairs, which is most of what the Fiesta actually is, but seeing the dozens of balloons gathered on the grounds, inflating simultaneously, was one of the most memorable experiences of my life to date.
I passed on the early morning, creepily titled "Mass Ascension" which is the most famous event at the Fiesta and opted instead for the evening "fire up". At sunset, all the balloons present inflate and fire up their furnaces simultaneously, causing the balloons to glow and roar as the sun goes down. It is quite a sight! Fun fact though: balloons don't take off at night, which seems obvious, but was news to me. Still, for relatively little money you can spare yourself the fear of taking off and still get an album's worth of photos just wandering the grounds and taking in the spectacle. If you're more of an early riser (recommended arrival time for the mornings is between 4 and 5 am), then check out Mass Ascension.
Round trip flight: $330.60 on Frontier (includes stretch seating because I'm 6'2", but it wasn't that much of a difference).
Hotel: 2 nights at Quality Inn/Downtown-Northeast $526.80 including taxes. (NOTE: During non-Fiesta times, the same room would have been about $89 a night)
Meals: 3 meals away from the hotel (not including "fair food" at the Fiesta) totaled $39 before tip.
Fiesta Entry fee (includes shuttle bus service): $16.50
Rideshares: $86 before tips. (7 Lyft rides, including to and from airport, at an average cost of $12.28 per ride)
Approximate total excluding gratuities: $1033.90 (Over by $33.90)
*The 4 Most Populous MTZ Cities Are: 1. Calgary 2. Edmonton 3. Denver and 4. El Paso, TX.
Should You Go?: Yes, but if you live in the Mountain Time Zone, you'll save money driving. If you plan a longer stay, especially during the Balloon Fiesta, try Airbnb instead of a hotel.