Albuquerque’s Museums and Adventures
By Candyce H. Stapen
Along with its lively mix of cultures, Albuquerque, New Mexico, has some great museums as well as the ultimate Albuquerque adventure: floating over the desert in a hot air balloon.
Dinosaurs rule at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, especially “Stan,” the second largest T-Rex ever found. Nearly 40-feet long and 12-feet high, his skeleton is a gigantic mix of room-high ribs and thick vertebrae the size of bricks. We discover Stan’s forbearers at “Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” the museum’s newest permanent exhibit, which opened May 2008. It features the only hall dedicated to Triassic creatures in North America. These smaller ancestors of the Jurassic era’s thumping big boys roamed the earth 251-202 million years ago. Phytosaurs, the top Triassic predator, impresses us too, especially since this 32-foot long crocodile-like creature roamed what became New Mexico when the land was lush, filled with tropical plants and marshes instead of sandy deserts.
Inspired? Then create Stan and his comrades at ¡Explora !, the city’s hands-on, not-just-for-kids museum. Here children and adults push, pull, twist, turn and build things. With almost no instructions in any area, we watch and then do, creating 8-inch bubbles from Frisbee-size wands. We help Scott, a fourth grader construct a Rube Goldberg-like chain reaction machine by setting the ramps that lead the golf ball down a track that flips a seesaw that topples a block. The museum’s so popular they had to create an adults-only night—the third Friday of every month—to stop some parents from pushing kids out of the way in order to play too.
Albuquerque also gains fame as the hot air balloon capital of the U.S. Find out about the first hot air balloons that lifted off in the late 1700s at the Balloon Museum. These big contraptions belching fire looked like monsters to the farmers in whose fields the balloons landed. The pilots proved they were civilized and friendly by offering the farmer’s champagne. This tradition continues today except now balloon riders drink the bubbly themselves. Our favorite exhibit: the virtual balloon flight. Even though we never master the art of decreasing the hot air at just the right time to land properly, we like trying.
And also flying. Albuquerque is known for its “ box,” the wind currents that come off the mountains and then combine with the air currents off the river. These create a pattern that allows pilots to lift off, float over the land and then return to the same spot, without really needing a chaser car. That’s what makes ballooning so special in Albuquerque. Something has to be really good to get us out of bed at 4:30 am, pick up time. After the balloons are inflated with fans, we climb into the basket. One of Rainbow Ryders’ pilots turn on the propane burners, blasting hot air into the envelope—the actual balloon—and we lift off, gently, and float up and over the city.