S3, E5: Unpacking Albuquerque

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, host Aislyn Greene visits Albuquerque to unpack the Southwestern city’s outdoorsy roots.

In season three of Unpacked, we’re introducing “Unpacking,” a series that explores some of our favorite destinations around the world. First up: Albuquerque, land of hot air balloons, chiles, and some fantastic outdoor spaces.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week, we’re debuting our very first “Unpacking” episode, where we dive into the story of a particular place. This particular place is known for its chiles, being the place where Breaking Bad was filmed and, of course, hot air ballooning. So maybe you’ve guessed it already, but yes, today we are talking about Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The story of Albuquerque is a story about outdoor spaces. This Southwestern city is one of the oldest in the United States. It sits within the Rio Grande Valley, which was created 10 million years ago. So the connection with the land runs deep here, infusing everything from the hotels you might book to the New Mexican wines you’ll drink.

Let’s start from the top. Literally.

I am more than 300 feet above the ground, in the Sandia Peak tramway that’s zooming me—and a bunch of others—up to the top of Sandia Peak.

Sandia tram operator: As you look around [at] the cliff faces surrounding us, I’m sure you’ve noticed they have a reddish-pinkish hue. This is actually where the Sandia Mountains get their name from. “Sandia,” meaning—

Guests in tramway, in unison: Watermelon.

Sandia tram operator: Yes, when the first Spanish conquistadors came to the Native American settlement in Albuquerque, they looked up at these mountains during sunset to see them look a bright pink that made them think of a nice slice of watermelon—and the name has stuck ever since.

Aislyn: The mountains are a lovely shade of pinky red as they zip by, though we’re far from sunset. We reach the top and I step out into chilly alpine air. Most people head for the shorter, easier trails, but I want something a bit quieter. So I follow the La Luz trail, which zigzags along the side of the peak. This, by the way, is also the trail that you can use to hike up or down if you want to skip the tram. (I recommend down becauseit’s 7.5 miles one way.)

About a half an hour later, I stop. I still haven’t encountered a single other person on the trail. It’s late November, but the skies are blue, the sun is warming me. With 310 days of sun each year, this is a city that does outdoors right.

It’s so quiet. I only hear the wind and the leaves rustling. I can’t believe I’m only 15 miles from downtown Albuquerque. The city feels a world away. But I know that Sandia Peak is much more than an incredible recreation spot. It’s also sacred land. For the Sandia people, who have lived here for more than 700 years, the mountain is a spiritual source as well as a food source. We’ll hear more about the Sandia people [and the Sandia pueblo], as well as the other 18 pueblos in the state, later in the episode.

But for now, I simply acknowledge that I am walking through the traditional homelands of the Tiwa people. And I know that as a visitor, I have much to learn.

When I arrive in Albuquerque, it’s late. The city glows, beckoning as we land. I pick up my rental car and slowly make my way to Los Poblanos. If you’ve been to Albuquerque, you may have heard of the inn. It’s famous for its iconic, lavender-covered campus designed in 1932 by John Gaw Meem, the architect known as the “father of Santa Fe style.”

As I drive north toward Los Poblanos, I notice that it’s getting increasingly darker. And by the time I park and turn off my lights, it’s utterly dark. I step out. I look up, and bam: I’m hit with the clearest night sky I’ve seen in the last year. The stars twinkle down as if to say, “Yep, we’re still here and we’re still gorgeous.”

It feels at that moment like a blanket settles over me, calming and tranquil. And that feeling continues as I check into my very cozy room. There are hardwood floors, colorful rugs, and a separate living room and kitchen, with a gas fireplace that I immediately turn on.

Sleep, as you can imagine, comes easy that night.

When I wake the next morning, a very different sight awaits. The sun is rising, clouds are streaking over the sky, a perfect day for a walk around the 25-acre grounds with Sarah Sheesley, director of marketing for Los Poblanos.

Sarah Sheesley: Sothese are our culinary gardens, and we have a bunch of herbs and edible flowers and various perennials and annuals here and then out in the fields beyond.

Aislyn: We’re surrounded by the inn’s gorgeous lavender fields. They aren’t blooming now but will become a riot of purple in June and July.

Sarah: This whole property, originally it was, it’s been farmed for millennia, um, by the Pueblo people that have lived here for a long time. And then over the years it was farmed in different ways. And then the Rembes, they moved to the property in the ’70s and just lived here with their family for 20 years before they decided to open it up as a small B&B and started growing organic lavender.

Aislyn: The Rembes still own and operate it, by the way. Los Poblanos is so deeply connected to the earth that it extends to all facets of the inn. Since the ’70s, Los Poblanos has used lavender in lotions and salves, soaps and honey. Now they even use it, along with other botanicals, in their two new gins, which are delicious And, of course, lavender shows up on the plate at the on-site restaurant, Campo. And the inn has much bigger ideas, Sarah tells me as we walk into the busy restaurant.

Sarah: There’s lots of good stuff on the menu that connects to, like, the bigger stories of the land.

Aislyn: Sarah tells me that Los Poblanos is working with New Mexican farmers to bring back heritage grains to use in the kitchen, in the on-site bakery, and to sell at the farm shop. Head chef Chris Bethoney also sources as much meat as possible from New Mexican suppliers. And he really loves working with corn, a New Mexican staple.

Sarah: So we grind our own corn, nixtamalize it, and then make masa, and all the tortillas are made from scratch.

Aislyn: That’s a lot of work to, you know, make your own masa.

Sarah: But he’s found a way to build it into operations. He’s always preserving things. We have things like jujubes and walnuts and the hawthorn, and it shows up on the menu in all kinds of ways you wouldn’t expect.

Aislyn: We’re going to come back to food. But first, let’s explore how modern Albuquerque came about. The city’s commitment to its outdoor spaces goes back to the early 1960s.

Elaine Briseño: There was a guy who had moved here. His name was Rex Funk, and he came from California in the ’60s, the late ’60s, and he had seen this, like, massive development there. You know, strip mall after strip mall. I mean, people are on top of each other, and it’s really sad, especially, like, Orange County. They had these great orange farms and all this, like, farmland, and it’s just gone.

Aislyn: That’s Elaine Briseño. She’s a local journalist and a history buff.

Elaine: Think of how great that would have been to kind of preserve that for people, to say, like, “Not only is this our history, but here is part of, you know, a different part of life, not just the urban kind of setting.” And so he didn’t want that to happen here.

Aislyn: It’s dusk now and we’re standing inside the Bachechi Open Space, a 27-acre park in the North Valley that’s not far from Los Poblanos. Birds soar in the distance, and all around us, people are walking or running or biking or wheelchairing. But this wasn’t a sure thing back in the 1960s, when urban sprawl was . . . well, sprawling. At the time, there was a big push to turn the Rio Grande—which is just steps from us—into what would essentially be a huge ditch.

Elaine: They had wanted to pave, put, like, an artificial, paved . . . kind of like a giant ditch. So, you know, kind of get rid of the river, flow the water through there, and rip out all the trees because they thought they were taking up too much water.

Aislyn: Elaine says there was also a paper mill that wanted to move in and cut down all the trees in the mountains and use the water for the business. The people—inspired by Rex—said, “Uh-uh. Not in my backyard.” Much political back-and-forth ensued, but eventually this led to Albuquerque’s Open Space program, now part of the Parks and Rec Department. And Rex became their first superintendent. In the 1970s, they built the city’s iconic Paseo del Bosque, a 16-mile forested multiuse trail that parallels the river. “Bosque,” by the way, means “forest” in Spanish.

Forty years later, there are now 30,000 acres of open space in Albuquerque alone. The city is only 120,000 acres in total. That means that one-quarter of the city is park land. And that means that nature is very accessible here, Elaine says. A quick note before we hear from her again. After our park visit, we transitioned to a restaurant, so you’re going to hear some restaurant chatter.

Elaine: You can walk out your front door, and especially if you live in the valley, you’re in a forest in, like, five minutes on foot. So it doesn’t take all this planning. You don’t have to say, “Oh, on this day we’re going hiking,” you know, because you really don’t.

Aislyn: And the city is still looking forward. The next day, I meet with Terry Brunner, the director of the city of Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Agency, an organization that’s spearheading a new type of trail here.

Terry Brunner: So the rail trail is going to be a seven-mile loop around the downtown, and it’s going to connect to our Bosque river trail. It’ll be a bike and pedestrian trail. It’ll take about four years to build, but what we’ll look at today is kind of the first section that we hope to break ground on in the spring.

Aislyn: We’re walking on a weeded gravel path bisected by rusty train tracks. It’s about five minutes on foot from the Sawmill Market, Albuquerque’s upscale food hall, and just minutes from Old Town.

Terry: OK, so up here is kind of this really rich corner of stuff that we have going on. We have the Albuquerque Museum on one side of the street. We’ve got the Natural History Museum and Explora Science Museum just down the street. So this is an area for a lot of activity. And this is going to be the entrance to the rail trail right here.

Aislyn: It’s a bustling corner, culturally. But it used to be where trains hauled lumber in and out of the area. And under architect Antoine Predock, who lives here in Albuquerque, all aspects of the city’s history will be preserved.

Terry: Along 12 stops on the trail, we’ll have little, you know, historic reflections on Albuquerque, Native American culture, Hispanic culture, industrial areas. And that should help people, as they kind of move through the trail, really reflect on what Albuquerque is all about.

Aislyn: As we walk, Terry tells me that the rail trail will connect to the 16-mile Bosque —remember that Rio Grande park that started it all?—creating a roughly 23-mile stretch of connected pathway. In the early stages of the project, Terry and his team traveled to New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Detroit to study their rail trails. And one of the things that they realized was that the trails have revitalized areas of the cities.

Terry: This will roll through some industrial areas that no one ever checks out, um, hasn’t seen much interest in years. And, you know, as we toured other trails around the country, we saw that, like, they kind of, you know, can’t stop the number of bars and restaurants and cafés and public areas that people want to get to via their trails. So we think it can really invigorate the city and give it a lot more attention in the areas covered by the trail than they’ve seen in a long time.

Aislyn: One of the most exciting parts of the trail is that it’ll connect Albuquerque’s historic neighborhoods.

Terry: Clockwise, [it] connects to Wells Park, which connects to our downtown; connects to the traditional Hispanic community of Barelas; and, uh, and then also back over to our Old Town community as well. So, we think it will be a really nice way to, I think, to connect all those areas. And for people that are visiting, they’ll not only see those areas, but there’ll be these stops along the trail to learn a little bit about those areas and why they’re so important.

Aislyn: Terry has high hopes for what it can do for Albuquerque.

Terry: There’s a lot of stuff that attracts people beyond the city sometimes. I think this can bring people back into the city to maybe see, you know, Albuquerque’s eclectic nature in different ways.

Aislyn: As the days roll on, I experience more and more of the city’s outdoorsy spirit, sometimes in unique ways. I hike through Petroglyph National Monument, where I meet a park ranger named Boyd, who gives me the lay of the land as we look out at the Sandia Mountains.

Boyd, park ranger: Those are about 10 million years old for the uplift. This lava flow from those volcanic fissures is 100,000 years old.

Aislyn: So they’re babies, comparatively.

Boyd: Yes, geologic—it sounds like a long time to us, but geologically speaking, it’s just a blink of an eye.

Aislyn: At Hotel Chaco, I get a hot stone massage using stones pulled from the Rio Grande.

Joanna, massage therapist: Are we doing a hot stone massage today?

Aislyn: Yeah!

I even take a bike and taco tour with Routes, a bike shop in Old Town. Routes rents bikes, but it also has some really cool bike tours, including tours of Breaking Bad sites, urban art, and their latest offering, which combines tacos and history, such a great combination. My guide is a pink-haired woman named Heidi. She starts the tour by telling me that Charlevoix, the very street we’re standing on, was once a street of ill repute.

Heidi: The bike shop used to be a brothel. And uh, this was a gunslinger gambling hall, so things like showgirls and people just like—wild, wild west basically, you know. And we still are in different formats wild, wild west, you know—people are just doing what they want to do.

Aislyn: As we pedal out to our first taco stop, a coffee-restaurant-event-space called Old Town Farm, Heidi shares how Albuquerque likes to beautify itself.

Heidi: When you pay your taxes here, 1 percent of that goes to the arts. So we commission people to, like, maybe a local artist or maybe someone from another country that’s known as a muralist and maybe also a tattoo artist. So they’ll, you know, they’ll bring them in and they’ll get paid for it. Albuquerque likes to have things kind of be pretty in different formats, like, like the bridges and stuff. They’re just not concrete.

Aislyn: But one of my favorite ways to taste the outdoors is to literally taste it. By drinking and eating. Tacos, yes, but also many other things.

Justin de la Rosa: You know, New Mexican in its own way is, you know, the soul food of the Southwest.

Aislyn: That’s Justin de la Rosa, a local food writer and director of outlets for the Sawmill Market, that food hall I mentioned earlier in the episode. We’re at El Patio, a restaurant that’s famous for its green chile enchiladas. So that’s what I order, of course. Justin is definitely a fan of the chilesAlbuquerque is famous for.

Justin: There’s just something really comforting about, you know, like my dad’s green chile stew or, you know, something that’s completely smothered, kind of drowned in, in this, you know, amazing sauce that’s unique to where we are.

Aislyn: But he’s quick to point out that the city has much more to offer.

Justin: We have, like, a really great Vietnamese and Asian scene here. Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have, uh, Coda Bakery that does, like, just some of my favorite bánh mì sandwiches I’ve ever had.

Aislyn: There’s also a bunch of local chefs on a mission to raise awareness and increase New Mexico’s local ingredients. Places like Campo, the restaurant at Los Poblanos and—

Justin: Another one up here is, uh, Mesa Provisions, Steve Riley. Um, they do a great job of just maintaining that, that sort of heritage of, you know, the farmers, the grains, everything like that. Farm & Table is another one as well. People who are just really about, like, you know, keeping it within the state.

Aislyn: There’s also a special complex being built for just this purpose. At the top of the episode, I mentioned the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. Well, now I’m standing in front of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, also known as the gateway to the 19 pueblos.

As I enter, I see a busy restaurant serving classic pueblo dishes, a gift shop that sells pueblo art, and a wall with photos featuring the 19 governors who make up the pueblo council of governors. The sprawling center is part of a city block owned by the 19 pueblos. There’s a beautiful spa called Rainwater Wellness that uses Native-made bath and body products, a Starbucks with Pueblo architecture, a Holiday Inn Express, a bar and grill, and Four Winds, a popular convenience store. And soon there will be a complex that supports Native farmers. Originally, it was supposed to be an entrepreneur center. But then COVID happened, says Bill Stimmel, the entrepreneurial director.

Bill Stimmel: What we saw during COVID was the national food system broke down, but the local food systems did not. And it’s really shone a brighter light on local food systems throughout the country and especially here in New Mexico in terms of, how can we invest in local food systems and how can we avoid what happened back in 2020.

Aislyn: Now they are working on a multi-phase project that will start with food and agriculture to meet the demands they’ve seen in the last couple of years. The 7,500-square-foot building will house a commercial kitchen, cold storage and transportation to help people get product from farms to the complex. There will also be a demonstration kitchen and a classroom. One of the goals is to inspire younger generations to enter agricultural work.

Bill: There are 25,000 farms in the state of New Mexico. About a quarter of those farms are Native owned, about 5,000. But that number has been dwindling overall and Native owned in recent years.

Aislyn: And that’s just the first phrase. The second and third phases will expand cold storage opportunities and maybe even expand into light packaging and manufacturing. Because the ultimate goal is to change the food system.

Bill: Food sovereignty is a very important initiative, um, that we’re hoping to help, um, with many Native entrepreneurs. Um, food security is another huge initiative throughout the state, um, and we’re hoping to fulfill some of those needs as well.

Aislyn: We’re looking at the current construction, seeingwhat will eventually become the center. And Bill tells me they have already made a deal with La Moñtanita, a local co-op, opening a flagship location across the street from the center. Once the co-op opens, it will feature Native produce, both in its fresh form and as something that’s transformed in this very center.

Later that evening, I head for a beer—at one of the coolest breweries in the city.

Missy Begay: We’re turning eight next year, and we have, you know, gained some recognition as being the first Native women–owned brewery in the country.

Aislyn: That’s Missy Begay. She was born in Albuquerque and raised on the Navajo Nation, also known as the Diné Nation. Her wife, Shyla Sheppard, was born and raised on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, where she is a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nations). And together, they launched Bow & Arrow Brewing in 2016. As you can tell by the noise in the background, we’re actually at the brewery as Missy tells us about what she and Shyla are trying to do with their company.

Missy: Our special spot is taking really unique ingredients that are native to the Southwest in terms of landscape or Indigenous culture and finding a way to gently infuse those in beers and then, you know, surprise people.

Aislyn: It’s a Thursday night and it is busy. I’m sipping a delicious pilsner called Denim Tux that happens to be made with a special ingredient.

Missy: So not only is the name a nod to the official wardrobe of the Southwest, right? You can never get enough denim in your wardrobe. But what we do is take the grain bill of this and split it with local blue corn from Santa Ana Pueblo. So it’s an Indigenous corn native to the Southwest that imparts a really light, earthy flavor. So using a really, like, heritage grain and a very classic American beer has done really good for us.

Aislyn: In addition to making really freaking good beers with Indigenous ingredients purchased locally, Missy and Shyla are working to further the visibility of Native people through something called the Native Land initiative.

Missy: We brewed a beer called Native Land, and it was all to just kind of acknowledge the land of the Tiwa people that our brewery sits on. And then other breweries are like, “That’s really cool. How can I do something similar?” And then we’re like, “We should do a collab.” So what we do is we, we brew, like, a base recipe and all the breweries around the country brew it and they use the same label. And they donate proceeds from that beer to local Native American nonprofits.

Aislyn: They’re in their third year now and have raised close to $100,000 for nonprofits that support ecological stewardship, access to ancestral lands, and revitalization of traditional agriculture and foodways. They’ve also opened a second taproom in Farmington, New Mexico, three hours north. It’s right on the cusp of the Navajo Nation, four corners where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona meet.

Missy: We chose that spot because we really wanted people to, like, go visit, of course support like the local tourism there. But there’s a lot of really cool, like, state parks and national parks out there, like the Bisti Badlands, which our Bisti Hard Seltzer name comes from.

But it’s at the Gateway right to, like, the Monument Valley and Bears Ears and it’s just, like, a lot of really cool things happening out there. So through that taproom, just trying to expand into more of, like, rural farming area has been really interesting. So hopefully next level we can, like, do more things to, like, protect land through our Native Land initiative.

Aislyn: The next morning, I’m back at Campos at Los Poblanos, meeting with Dylan Storment, director of wine and spirits, talking about New Mexico’s other great beverage.

Dylan Storment: So, um for those who don’t know, I mean, we are the oldest wine producing region in North America.

Aislyn: There are three AVAs, or American Viticultural Area, in New Mexico: the middle Rio Grande AVA that goes all along the Rio Grande river, then there’s Mesilla Valley and Mimbres Valley. But historically, people have not come to New Mexico for the wine, Dylan tells me

Dylan: I think for a long time there was some misconceptions that New Mexico wine, like people came here and they wanted to drink wine from other places in the world. And like we, you know, collaboratively as a group [are] really trying to kind of bring light to all of these community partners and, you know, show people traveling here—and also locals, because locals, I think, shared that misconception.

Aislyn: Dylan says there’s a community of wine folks who are working hard to share the beauty of New Mexican wine. He says Bordeaux varietals do well in the state, as do Rhône varietals like syrah and grenache. And there’s even a lot happening where Los Poblanos is, in the North Valley.

Dylan: There’s so many vineyards surrounding us, and it’s, uh, it’s really cool to see over the last 10 years seeing this little air pocket of Albuquerque become such a, such a hot spot.

Aislyn: If you eat at Campos, you’ll see these winemakers on the menu. The night I dined there, I had a fantastic sauvignon blanc from Sheehan Winery in Albuquerque.

Dylan: One of my main focuses of creating a wine list was to have, you know, a full page dedicated to New Mexico and finding those key producers and bringing light to them. Because we had so many people that were traveling here to Los Poblanos. And another big goal was to make sure that they weren’t just going to Santa Fe. They were coming and stopping in Albuquerque first and experiencing this.

Aislyn: There’s one iconic thing we haven’t talked about—and it’s possibly the best way to see all of Albuquerque’s outdoor spaces in one gulp. Ideally, before a glass of wine.

Murray Conrad: All right, ladies and gentlemen, there is something I like to say every time we take off and that is we are flying!

Aislyn: Yes, we are flying. With our mustachioed pilot Murray Conrad, who along with his wife, Julie, owns World Balloon company. As we take off, I can feel the basket moving gently in the breeze. It’s a perfect morning: not too windy, cool but not freezing, with a cloud-streaked sunrise lighting up the sky. We hit 5,600 feet above sea level, and Murray tells us there are two reasons that Albuquerque is famous for its ballooning.

Murray: Number one, over 300 days a year we can fly. Number two, is our, our winds. So there’s a phenomenon called the Albuquerque Box. If the box is working, we’ll fly all over town, come right back to the same field in one hour.

Aislyn: There are more than 300 balloon owners in the city. But Murray and his wife, Julie, who is also a pilot, learned from the master.

Murray: So Sid Cutter—for those of you who are not from, from Albuquerque—is the father of ballooning in Albuquerque. So in the early ’70s, their mother was celebrating her birthday and him and his brother owned Cutter Aviation at the Albuquerque International Airport. And they wanted to do something special for mom. They bought a hot air balloon.

Aislyn: Murray says that Sid just . . . figured it out. And he loved it. It didn’t take long for the other balloon owners in the world to figure out he had a balloon. So in 1973, they all got together in Albuquerque for the very first World Balloon Championship to see who was the best balloonist.

Murray: So we’ve been in business since 1973 because it didn’t take long before everybody in town was saying, “How can I get a ride in one of those?” So that’s where it came from. We’ve had different owners through the years, but 50 years later, we’re still flying, still in business.

Aislyn: And that competition went on to become the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the annual hot air balloon celebration. In 2024, it’ll take place from October 5th through the13th. And hot tip: If you want to join, come during the week when it’s a little less nutty.

I asked Murray if he still loves every ride, and why ballooning is so alluring.

Murray: It is not—you know, when you fly in an airplane, you get that little thing to look out of and pretty soon you’re up above the clouds. In a balloon, you’re looking right down on God’s creation. You can see hundreds of miles here. I mean, if it wasn’t cloudy, you would have seen the mountains of Santa Fe and Taos, Grants, New Mexico, and it’s just amazing.

Aislyn: Albuquerque is amazing. It can be so easy to focus on Santa Fe, but the next time you’re planning a trip to the Southwest, go and find yourself a little slice of Albuquerque’s outdoors.

And that wraps our first episode of “Unpacking.” I’ll link to all of the businesses that we mentioned here in the show notes, and I’m also working on a list of the best places to eat and drink in Albuquerque, including where to try wine, which will come out on March 1st. I’ll link to it in the show notes, once it’s out.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com and be sure to follow us on Instagram and X. We are @AFARmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing always makes that easy. And be sure to rate and review the show on your favorite podcast platforms. It helps other travelers find it. And if you ever want to ask a question or suggest a topic for coverage, you can reach out to us at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin. And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.