By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Really, it’s not that hard to spell. Just remember, there are three Us and a couple of Qs.
Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city, has a history that stretches back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors. They were responsible for its name and their influence persists 300 years after they founded the community. Straddling the river banks of the Rio Grande and in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains, the city is more than just a pit stop along the road to New Mexico’s art meccas and other better-known tourist destinations.
Albuquerque hosts an international fiesta that draws hundreds of hot air balloon pilots each October (this year, Oct. 5-13). You have to pay to stake your spot on the launch field, but the colorful spectacle can be seen for free from nearly anywhere in the city. And while you can pay for a balloon ride any time of year, a good pair of hiking shoes, a bicycle or a car can get you a free look at everything around town, from neon signs along historic Route 66 to the dormant volcanoes and lava escarpment that border the city’s west side. And be sure to enjoy the mild climate, sunsets and starry nights while you’re exploring.
RIO GRANDE BOSQUE
A 16-mile recreational path runs from one end of Albuquerque to the other along the cottonwood and willow forest that borders the east side of the Rio Grande. The path is accessible from many points. In some spots, dirt trails lead to the river’s edge, providing opportunities to see migrating cranes, geese and other wildlife. The riverside forest — known to residents as the bosque — changes colors with the seasons.
From Albuquerque, you can take a scenic drive up to Sandia Crest, an overlook at the top of the mountain range that faces the city.
A mile above the surrounding landscape, the crest offers expansive views. If you’re more adventurous, put on your hiking shoes and head either north or south from the observation area to see limestone laced with brachiopods and other fossils. Remember, at 10,678 feet (3,255 meters), the air is thin up there.
OLD TOWN PLAZA
At the heart of Albuquerque is Old Town Plaza, the San Felipe de Neri Church and several blocks of historic adobe buildings that now house restaurants, galleries and other specialty shops. Walk along the plaza’s portal and you’ll find American Indian artisans from nearby pueblos selling silver and turquoise-laden jewelry and other items.
HISTORIC ROUTE 66
Reserve a few hours to take a self-guided cruise along Old Route 66 — now Central Avenue. You’ll pass the historic KiMo Theatre in downtown Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico campus, countless diners and dives, and the eclectic boutiques of the Nob Hill Historic District. The highlight though is the collection of neon signs — many of them vintage — that get to buzzing around dusk.
A few nondescript locations around town have become famous in just the last few years thanks to AMC’s hit television series “Breaking Bad.” Go online, print out a free map to the filming locations scattered around the city and don’t forget your camera or smartphone. You won’t be able to resist taking a “selfie” in front of the Dog House Drive In or Twisters, called Los Pollos Hermanos on the show.