9 Things to Know: Down New Mexico way

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It's not quite true that you can't hear a sound while floating some 2,000 feet above the ground beneath a giant hot air balloon. There are plenty of "whoas" and "wows" from fellow riders in the 10-person wicker basket as they catch sight of one breathtaking vista after another.

And there's also the occasional loud WHOOSH as the pilot releases a blast from one of the two propane burners above the basket, sending a shot of flame and superheated air deep into the eight-story-high balloon above, nudging it still higher into a bright blue sky.

It's also not quite true that you can't steer a hot air balloon. Of course it's going to go where the wind takes it, but the wind blows in different directions at different altitudes, and an experienced pilot can eventually climb or drop to wherever the wind's blowing the way he wants the balloon to go.

We'd rolled out of bed long before dawn for our recent ballooning experience -- because early morning provides the most stable weather conditions -- and it turned out to be well worth the interrupted sleep as we floated silently -- well, almost -- over the outskirts of Albuquerque, gaping at the pink-hued Sandia Mountains and the winding Rio Grande Valley far below.

After about an hour aloft, we bumped to a landing in an empty field, helped deflate the balloon, then waited for the Rainbow Ryders chase vans to show up and ferry us back to our launch spot, where we were treated to a champagne toast.

Since Oct. 6, Albuquerque has been jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of balloonistas and hundreds of balloons, all in town for the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest gathering of its kind. (The fiesta ends today.) We visited the area in late summer, when the weather was a little toastier but the crowds were a lot smaller.

Known as the "Ballooning Capital of the World," Albuquerque offers hot air ballooning year-round, not just during the fiesta. But with the region's daily sunshine, it's hardly the only outdoor pursuit. There's also hiking, mountain biking, golf, canoeing and kayaking on the Rio Grande, and in winter there's skiing and snowboarding in the Sandia Mountains.

Here are nine things to know if you're thinking of taking a trip to Albuquerque:

1. Either an aerial tramway or a chairlift can take you through the Cibola National Forest to the top of 10,400-foot Sandia Peak, where you'll find panoramic views of thousands of square miles of New Mexico's landscape.

2. The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is an impressive storehouse of Native American culture, food, artwork and entertainment that focuses on the state's 19 tribal pueblos, or settlements.

3. Petroglyph National Monument, located in a canyon outside of town, features thousands of spiritually significant "petroglyphs," or designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock more than 500 years ago. Viewing trails afford close-up looks at the ancient artwork, but watch out for rattlesnakes.

4. Families could easily spend a whole day at the nature-themed ABQ Biological Park, the state's top visitor destination. It includes a zoo, botanical garden, aquarium and historic beach.

5. There aren't many folk art museums like Tinkertown, a rambling 22-room labor of love created by a single man and containing a weird collection of miniature animated towns, circuses, fortune tellers and outright wacky memorabilia, not to mention a 35-foot antique wooden sailboat that survived a 10-year voyage around the world.

6. New Mexico may be the only place with an official state question: "Red or green?" referring, of course, to one's choice of chile -- not "chili," as that refers to a meat dish, while "chile" is a pepper. Chile is served on nearly every imaginable food here, from eggs to enchiladas to even McDonald's hamburgers. One of the best places to taste chile -- red or green -- is at a sprawling restaurant called El Pinto, which among its indoor rooms and patio can serve more than 1,000 people at a time.

7. If floating through the sky isn't enough ballooning for you, check out the International Balloon Museum, which uses colorful hands-on exhibits to demonstrate the science and history of the hot air balloon. Among the more interesting items are samples of the Japanese balloon bombs that were floated over the western U.S. during World War II.

8. Albuquerque's Triple A baseball team, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is called the Isotopes -- an apt name, because the state has so many science and military facilities. But the real source of the name is the Fox TV show "The Simpsons," which features a team by that name that was supposedly going to leave town for Albuquerque. To honor the show, there are life-size statues of Homer and Marge Simpson inside Isotopes Park.

9. It's not yet completed, but Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, N.M., is still worth a side trip. The world's first commercial port built just for blasting tourists and payloads into space, it's being developed along with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and expects to launch its first paying passengers -- at $200,000 a head -- in 2013.

For more information: Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-284-2282 or www.itsatrip.org.

"9 Things to Know" is a feature that appears occasionally in the Post-Gazette's travel pages. It spotlights a destination by highlighting a handful of things that visitors might like to know.


Mike Kelly, a travel writer and editor, is a former reporter with the Toledo Blade. You can reach him at Kelly.writer@yahoo.com.


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