New Mexico’s largest city has grown out, not up, covering 163 square miles of high desert in a wide valley between the Sandia Peaks and the plateau country beside the Rio Grande. Albuquerque is just northwest of the geographic center of the state at the intersection of I-25 and I-40. With 600,000 residents, it has about a third of New Mexico’s population. It is the state’s business center, with headquarters for companies ranging from banks to microchip manufacturers. Sandia Laboratories, with 7,000 workers, is one of the largest employers, as is the University of New Mexico. Kirtland Air Force Base is another large employer. In recent years, an active Asian community has joined the city’s population mix of Indian, Hispanic, and Anglo residents.
In 1540, Pueblo people were living on the river banks of the Rio Grande when Spanish explorer Coronado passed through. Native Americans had farmed here for 15 centuries. In 1706, Spanish families established the town of Albuquerque. It was named for the Duke of Albuquerque and viceroy of New Spain. It became a stop on the extension of the Sante Fe Trail. Its river attracted settlers who lived in adobe houses around San Felipe de Neri Church, which was the central plaza, and today is the center of the Old Town.
The city’s emergence as a military outpost and railway transfer point between the East and Southwest gave it new importance in the last half of the nineteenth century. In 1899, the University of New Mexico was founded. Today, with 9,500 workers, it is the city’s fourth largest employer and the state’s most influential educator. In the early part of the twentieth century, many tuberculosis patients sought treatment in Albuquerque, which led to the construction of sanatoriums; this began the strong medical presence in the city.
Summer rainstorms bring dangerous flash floods to Albuquerque, when dry arroyos swell with water that rushes down hillsides onto streets. Floods as high as 3 or 4 feet may rise up, and can vanish with clearing skies as quickly as they formed. Another unusual aspect of the city is the Sandia Peak Aerial Tramway, which rises about 3 miles, in just 18 minutes, to the Sandia Crest in the 10,678-foot-high Sandia Mountains. This is a quick trip from the cholla cactus and high desert heat to a windy, pine-covered summit with excellent views of the Rio Grande greenbelt and surrounding lands. Sandia Peak Ski Area is filled with downhill and cross-country skiers in the winter months. In warmer months mountain bikers, hikers, and sightseers ride the ski area’s chairlifts. Dusk is the most spectacular time on Sandia Peak when the sun disappears behind West Mesa, casting a rosy glow across the city before nightfall.
The Old Town has a wide range of shopping opportunities, from cheap and gaudy to expensive. Visitors can take in the 1706 San Felipe de Neri Church, enjoy the grassy plaza, and explore the narrow back streets adorned with 300-year-old adobe houses. The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, a modern building set off by a lifesize dinosaur, looks at the area’s past and present, including the creation of the Earth, DNA, volcanoes, and dinosaurs. The Albuquerque Museum of Art, History, and Science features 400 years of New Mexico history, with maps, Spanish armor and helmets, blacksmith shops, and blankets. Also near the Old Town is the Turquoise Museum and the American International Rattlesnake Museum, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of live rattlesnakes. Center is a museum, gift shop, gallery, and restaurant that provides an in-depth look at the state’s 19 pueblos. It has displays on history, languages, pottery, clothing, tools, and art. The National Atomic Energy Museum is at Kirtland Air Force Base. It covers the development of atomic energy and displays replicas of bombs dropped during World War II.
Albuquerque’s best-known and most popular event is the spectacular October balloon fiesta, in which more than 1 million people watch from the launch area as hundreds of brightly colored balloons fill the sky. The pilots and crews are from all over the world. The Albuquerque International Airport services the area, and train and bus service is available.