Legacy lives on in New Mexico. From Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent paintings to the continued celebration of Navajo and Apache culture, artistic inspiration can be found just about anywhere. The so-called ‘Land of Enchantment’ is every bit as bewitching 100 years on from when O’Keeffe first visited. If not for the contrasting palette of Badlands and white dunes, then for the state’s growing buzz: which can largely be attributed to Albuquerque’s hot air balloon fiesta, as well as the ‘one who knocks’…
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1. Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 🎈
You may be surprised to know that the world’s biggest balloon festival is held in New Mexico (and not in Cappadocia). What started off as only 13 balloons in 1972 has gradually risen to 600 — adding a special touch to the state’s already awe-inspiring landscape. Held annually across the first week of October, this 9-day event attracts around 800,000 visitors: many of whom come from out of state.
From Saturday 7th to Sunday 15th October this year, Albuquerque will reach new heights once more. Aside from the more traditional hot air balloons you’ll find floating each day, Thursday and Friday’s attractions are on the unusual side. The Special Shape Rodeo offers pilots the chance to get creative with their designs — whether that means flying an iconic cartoon character, or a shameless sponsorship. Star Wars’ fans, get ready to geek out. There’s a high chance that you might spot Darth Vader floating in the sky.
2. Good vibes in Santa Fe 😎
Santa Fe is not like other capitals. Its nickname is ‘the city different’ for starters. This can be attributed to the 1920s when officials ordered that all buildings must stay true to Pueblo architecture. Santa Fe’s sunset-tinted cityscape not only makes this capital historically fascinating, but sets it apart from the high-rise buildings you’ll find everywhere else in America.
Only around 88,000 people live in Santa Fe, but roots have been firmly planted for generations now. In this time, artists, adventure-lovers and spiritualists alike have all been drawn into the desert for good reason. Determined to capture this stunning natural landscape, Santa Fe has quite the collection of galleries under its name.
Booking a ticket in advance for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is highly recommended. Easily one of the most significant artists in the 20th century, O’Keeffe’s paintings — such as her famous flowers and animal skulls — helped to shape modern art as we know it. Uncover her history at the gallery for $22 (children can go for free).
Art enthusiast or not, everyone should experience Meow Wolf whilst in Santa Fe. This permanent exhibition adds new meaning to the term ‘immersive’ as you wander a total of 70 rooms: created and curated by local artists. Things are not as they seem in this suburban house, where even the refrigerator can transport you into a different dimension. Tickets start at $36.
3. Native American culture 🦅
As the home of 23 indigenous tribes and 19 Pueblos, the Native American community is deeply ingrained into New Mexico. From one of the oldest hot springs in America which is unique in offering four types of healing waters, to the UNESCO protected Taos Pueblo, New Mexico provides insight not only into an otherwise underrepresented society.
In addition to visiting these enriching destinations, consider a trip to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. Passionate to share the Indigenous people’s narratives and perspectives, this museum has one of the most detailed collections of Native American artifacts you’ll find.
More concerned with issues facing Indigenous communities in the here and now? Add the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) to your itinerary.
Unlike other museums documenting Native American history, MoCNA is unique in framing the work of artists today. At present, the museum is hosting 2 exhibitions. Those being ‘The Art of Jean LaMarr’ — a profound visual artist whose work has challenged racial prejudice — and ‘The Stories We Carry’. The latter is a curation of over 100 artists’ contemporary jewellery: featuring extraordinary colours and cultural symbols.
4. There’s never a dull day outdoors🖼️
It’s hard to believe that so much variety could be packed into a single state. Attractions like the White Sands National Park is a world apart from the Carlsbad Caverns, despite being only 3 hours away from one another. There’s a larger-than-life feel to New Mexico’s great outdoors — as if it was dreamt up by a Hollywood production designer. Even the sunsets are unusually vivid (thanks to the high altitude), adding a sense of warmth to a desert that borders on isolation.
It comes as no surprise that New Mexico would be the setting of several Blockbusters — including City Slickers (1991) and Magnificent Seven (the remake, 2016). Ghost Ranch is particularly coveted for its wild oasis landscape: providing lush forestland that occasionally breaks up the sea of red rocks. Saddle up for a horseback ride across the mesmerising terrain to truly experience that Old Western feel as seen on screen.
You could also embrace your creative side. Follow the same footsteps as visionary artist Georgia O’Keeffe — either by a sketching tour or stopping off at her paintings’ real-life locations. O’Keeffe was so captivated by Ghost Ranch’s haunting beauty that she made it her home for many years. Whilst you cannot go inside the Ghost Ranch estate, you are still welcome to drive past it.
5. Breaking Bad 🧪
Initially set elsewhere, New Mexico quickly became fundamental to the storytelling of Breaking Bad (2008–2013). Despite the show’s final episode being a decade old, the dark comedy drama is timeless due to just how well-written the characters and overarching themes are. So much so that on Rolling Stone’s ‘The 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time’, it made the Top 3 spot (beaten out only by The Simpsons and The Sopranos, for those wondering).
The majority of real-life locations can be discovered in Albuquerque alone — and so a self-driven Breaking Bad tour is more than doable. Stopping for a meal at Twisters (aka Los Pollos Hermanos) is the most obvious choice, as is a trip to the Candy Lady. As far as memorabilia goes, a bag of blue hard rock candy to take home is up there; since this specific brand was used as “crystal meth” in the show. Good luck with airport security.
If you’re uninterested in car hiring, not to worry as there are multiple Breaking Bad themed tours that you can sign up for instead. ABQ Breaking Bad RV Tours are amazing at what they do — receiving 5-star reviews on TripAdvisor so consistently that it has earned them ‘Traveller’s Choice’ for 2023. Aside from riding in a replica of the famous Breaking Bad RV, the best part of this 3-hour location tour has to be the staff’s kind attitudes and enthusiasm for both the original material — and the subsequent spin-off show, Better Call Saul.