With a population of about 550,000 people, Albuquerque's a big city by New Mexico standards. In fact, it's the only big city. More than 40 percent of the state's residents live in the area.
Downtown's few tall buildings rise near where Interstate Highways 25 and 40 intersect. As in any urban area, the highways sometimes look more like parking lots as cars and trucks inch along.
Sixty miles to the north is another New Mexican city that gets a lot of attention from the outside: Santa Fe, with its distinctive feel. For those trying to decide where to spend their New Mexico time, knowing the character of each city is key.
With a population approaching 70,000, Santa Fe is where the Santa Fe Trail and the Old Spanish Trail converged nearly 200 years ago. These days, Santa Fe's slowest-moving traffic often is found along Canyon Road. Drivers deliberately creep past the old adobe homes that now house scores of inviting art galleries.
Folks in Santa Fe proudly point to its nickname: "The City Different." In fact, "different" is a word that commonly pops up as New Mexicans contrast Albuquerque and Santa Fe as tourist destinations.
"I love both cities but for different reasons," said Bonnie French of Waxlander Art Gallery (www.waxlander.com). "I seldom miss a balloon fiesta in Albuquerque. Yet in Santa Fe, there is the culture."
That culture is evidenced by the diverse group of artists — not only painters but actors, opera singers and writers — that has embraced Santa Fe for decades.
"It's always been a very culturally rich area," said David Eichholtz of David Richard Gallery (www.davidrichardgallery.com). "It's a small town, yet it's just packed with all these (creative) people."
As Eichholtz pointed out, Santa Fe is the country's third-largest art market, based on total sales. Some visitors can afford only to window shop — and people from Albuquerque sometimes joke that, when visiting Santa Fe, they bring along their checkbooks just to buy some ice cream.
Buying art in Santa Fe can be pricey, but savoring it needn't be. Amid the city's 250 galleries are no fewer than seven art-themed museums showcasing everything from Spanish colonial to folk art. There also is a museum devoted to Georgia O'Keeffe, who spent decades in northern New Mexico. "She fell in love with the adobe buildings, the churches (and) the Latin culture," Barbara Isham, a docent at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, pointed out.
O'Keeffe's best known for her paintings of flowers. One of them, "Jimson Weed: White Flower," sold last year for $44 million. But Isham tells visitors that flowers make up just a fraction of the prolific artist's work — 244 out of a total of more than 2,000 pieces. Her wide-ranging skills are showcased within the downtown museum.
To mingle with the locals — throngs of them — the Santa Fe Farmers Market (www.santafefarmersmarket.com) is a must. Starting at 7 a.m. each Saturday year-round (and Tuesdays in the warmer months), thousands flock to the recently revived Railyard (www.railyardsantafe.com) district. Vendors sell not only local produce but baked goods and native crafts. Live entertainment adds to the festive atmosphere.
The nearby depot is the northern terminus for the Rail Runner Express (www.riometro.org), a commuter train linking Santa Fe and Albuquerque. A one-day pass costs just $10. From the train station, downtown Santa Fe is about a 20-minute walk. There's also a free shuttle.
In need of an energy boost? Head to Kakawa Chocolate House (www.kakawachocolates.com) near the lower end of Canyon Road. The emphasis is on "elixirs," hot cups of chocolate blended with everything from chilies to lavender to vanilla. The concentrated cocoa, which is full of theobromine, provides a natural pick-me-up.
A different natural high awaits in Albuquerque. One of the city's most popular tourist attractions, the Sandia Peak Tramway (www.sandiapeak.com), shuttles visitors to the mountaintop in just 15 minutes.
At an elevation of 10,400 feet, walkways and two restaurants offer views of the sprawling city far below. While Santa Fe can be walked, it quickly becomes obvious that in Albuquerque, visitors need a car.
Hot air balloons often are what people most associate with Albuquerque. The International Balloon Fiesta (www.balloonfiesta.com) draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each October, but the history of ballooning can be experienced year-round at the educational Anderson-Abruzzo International Balloon Museum (www.balloonmuseum.com).
The front of the museum looks like a balloon that's being inflated — an appropriate design because the fiesta's hundreds of balloons ascend from a park just behind the building.
Inside, guests learn that a human first rode in a balloon in 1783 in France. Fast-forwarding, the museum displays the fiberglass gondola in which a record-setting crossing of the Pacific from Japan to Mexico was made last January. Visitors can try their piloting skills in a challenging flight simulator.
A premier attraction, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (www.indianpueblo.org), is owned collectively by New Mexico's pueblos, sovereign nations that are home to a few hundred or, in some cases, a few thousand Native Americans.
In a well-curated exhibit, the struggles specific to New Mexico's indigenous peoples are shared in a timeline, from the government seizure of native lands to the winning of voting rights in 1948. The art of all 19 pueblos also is interpreted; artists often create and sell their work in a central courtyard.
Museum director Travis Suazo said it's important to share the culture not only with tourists, but also with some Native Americans.
"We do have pueblo youth who are not connected to their communities and live in an urban setting," he explained. "We hope we can help fill some of that disconnect."
Albuquerque's quirkiest museum has to be the American International Rattlesnake Museum (www.rattlesnakes.com), just steps from the boutique-lined plaza in Old Town (www.albuquerqueoldtown.com). It's the result of founder Bob Myers' lifelong fascination with reptiles.
Myers started the museum after leaving his job as a high school biology teacher.
"I kiddingly tell people that (teaching) was far too dangerous, so I went back to rattlesnakes, where I'd be safe and secure," he said.