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10 Winter Days: a tour of New Mexico. Part 1: North and Central

Southwest Airlines had to cancel 70% of their flights on December 25. Even if you were neither in an area impacted by winter storms or going to one, your flight may have been coming from an area hard hit by the elements.

Holiday decorated (with lights) pickup truck in the Old Town of Albuquerque
Holiday decorated pickup truck in the Old Town of Albuquerque

We left Oakland Airport at 6 am to go to Las Vegas for our connecting flight. That flight was cancelled, and the one we were re-booked in was delayed. And delayed. We arrived in Albuquerque around 6 pm. Las Vegas Airport is NOT my favorite place to hang out, but I discovered the local brand (Ethel M) of chocolates, that helped soothe the pain!

We had reserved a medium car (the smallest we could get) via Southwest from Alamo. Interestingly we were offered a pickup truck instead! We declined.

Route 66 Sign at Sandia Peak Inn reception
Sign at Sandia Peak Inn reception

1: Albuquerque at Sandra Peak Inn. We thought we’d be in the old downtown, but that was over a mile away. It’s hard to know exactly what you are doing when you’ve never been to a town! After checking in, not having had a meal since 8 am, we went to Old Town to find dinner. But it was Christmas night and all the restaurants were closed. Repeat: all of them! The malls on the main road were dark, the hamburger joints were closed too. We were despairing, but then headed towards Hotel Albuquerque and found their eatery , Garduños, was open… hallelujah !

It’s no joke that the chili pepper appears to be the New Mexico mascot. The (Mexican style) food was good, the margarita too… but I was dizzy with the spiciness of most of the food, including the salsa offered with the complementary corn chips. I would recommend the « corn cake » side. It was delicious and…. not spicy!

Our motel was located on a busy road, so it was not very quiet, but otherwise the room was comfortable.

After the (free) breakfast, we found two attractions that appealed to us: the National Museum of Nuclear Science and the Petroglyph National Monument.

The Museum (there is an entrance fee) led us through the entire history of nuclear science and of course the devices that ended WW II with Japan, destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What I didn't know, was that the Nagasaki device, called the Fat Man, was much more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima. We read about the Nazi effort to develop the technology and why it probably failed. We saw the shelters built in the 1950s, and popular culture around nuclear threats (movies, comics, games...). Outdoors were displayed missiles and airplanes such as the fabled B52.

After finding lunch at a Hispanic supermarket, El Super (I had a wonderful entire grilled fish for about $5.50), we went on to visit one of the several Petroglyph sites. We climbed a hill, passing hundreds of ancient drawings.

Some subjects were recognizable and others not. However those who created them must have had their own reasoning.

In the evening, we researched restaurants and found that almost none were open. A French style restaurant was open, but had long waiting times. We decided to try it anyway. We arrived at Lescombes Winery and Bistro around 6:45 pm and were given a wait time of 40 mn. However, we realized that we could eat at the bar immediately. The bartender, a young lady, was very friendly and efficient. The food was great and the wine, excellent: from a New Mexico winery (in the southern part of the state) belonging to the owners of the restaurant.

The next day, after a fitful night, we almost missed breakfast at our motel. We set off immediately thereafter for Santa Fe.

2: Santa Fe

In Santa Fe, we were able to use HomeExchange. We were very happy not to be in another motel right away. The home we were in was very well organized, and charming.

We didn’t hang out too long: the next day, snow was forecasted, so we set off first for a decent cup of coffee and food, at another French place called Clafoutis. Again, it was very busy, but we sat outdoors (Covid is still around!) so we didn’t have to wait. Then we set off for Bandelier National Park, about an hour away. Unfortunately upon arrival, we were informed that the parking lot was full: « return in 40 minutes! »

We set back off for Los Alamos to keep the nuclear theme going. The museum didn’t appear to be any more exciting than the one we had visited the day before. We asked a soldier at the entrance to the research facility where we could go. He told us we could drive through the campus, after showing our IDs, and continue to another National Park, Valle Caldera. While driving through the research facility, no videos or photos are allowed.

We drove up to a height of 9,000 feet and found a large « field » surrounded by hills. At the Visitor Center we watched elk through a telescope. We asked for a pass to drive to an area further inside the park. We hiked a bit… but there was some ice and snow and it was cold, and getting dark, so we didn’t last too long.

On the way back I saw some animals near the research facility - donkeys? No, elk!!! We showed our ID again, and returned to the main road to return to Santa Fe. This time we had dinner « at home,» after a stop at Trader Joe’s.

On the next day, rain and snow were forecasted. We didn’t see climbing up ladders to visit caves in this weather, but didn’t want to stay inside, either. So we drove 2 hours to visit the « earthships » near Taos. These are homes that are built to re-use products such as tires, bottles… and water is re-used in 4 cycles. The community exists since the 1970s, founded by the architect Michael Reynolds.

On the way out, we drove over a bridge that had many people crossing it on foot (it was very cold out) and realized it was over a deep river gorge. We parked and walked over it also; the view was incredible. Later, we realized that we had been on the famous Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.

We drove on to Taos for lunch at A La Cart World Street Food - a small eatery, easy to miss from the road. The menu was very extensive, with a great variety of influences. Total for 2 sandwiches and coffee, around $30.*

We tried to visit the nearby Pueblo, but sadly the community had experienced a couple of losses and was closed to visitors.

We found free parking at a municipal lot and ambled around the Plaza, surrounded by shops selling jewelry, clothing, and more. I had my eye on a necklace by a local artist… it was $500 on sale. Not quite in my budget!

Back in Santa Fe, after a short rest, we went out for Margaritas and appetizers at Del Charro, a well-known watering hole, and visited the local downtown area and the plaza, decked out with lights for the holidays. It looked magical. Again, rather expensive stores surrounded the plaza, with some very original merchandise.

The next day, it had snowed, and the temperature was below freezing. It was decreed museum day; in any case museums are plentiful in Santa Fe. I decided to visit the New Mexico Museum of Art.

There were 2 exhibitions: “Western Eyes,” paintings from the 20th century often including Native Americans or New Mexico; and “Transgressions and Amplifications: Mixed-Media Photography of the 1960s and 1970s,” showing photography in a variety of forms; I found the latter fascinating. Both exhibitions include many female artists.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing and eating homemade food, as our stomachs were craving simplicity.

On the last morning in Santa Fe, we cleaned up and set off to the southwestern part of the state.

*Note: cost of food in restaurants is shown without the tip.

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