You might expect a tourist destination to be filled with tourist traps. You know, overpriced restaurants, gaudy shops offering cheap merchandise, and souvenir emporiums designed to get you to leave as much money as possible before you go. Old Town Albuquerque is most assuredly a tourist destination, but if the places we visited are any indication, it is delightfully lacking in tourist traps.
Our exploration of Old Town began at Old Barrel Tea Company. We’d noticed the sign for tea and honey tastings when we were making a bee-line (ba dum bum) for the bathrooms, and as Jim is a tea snob of the highest order - by American standards; he learned from Brits - we simply had to stop in to see if they were up to snuff.
Short story: we were chuffed to bits.
The store was filled with tea paraphenalia and accoutrements plus accessories and accents for the home. As we browsed, Paola, the young lady behind the counter, told us that the teas were blended by hand and shared the various terroirs where the honeys originated. Mountain. Desert. Floral. She knew it all. It didn’t take long for us to realize that she was fully invested in this operation, as in one-of-the-owners invested, and after a few questions we learned she owns Old Barrel with her sister- and mother-in-law.
Paola was the perfect segue from our emotional experience with Sir Tom to an afternoon of touristing. She eagerly shared her expertise. “That tea is hand-picked during a full moon. Oh, that honey? The bees only pollinate flowers with yellow petals. This honey is harvested from a side of a mountain three seasons after a drought.”
I might be exaggerating just a slight bit, but not by much. She passionately catalogued the various types of teas and introduced Jim to pu-ehr, a fermented tea that purportedly aids in weight loss, but more importantly tastes delicious. Then she provided me with an education in honey.
There is a distinct and remarkable difference in the smell, color, and taste of honeys based on where the bees are located. After trying at least seven different types, a veritable taste tour of New Mexico, we ended up taking home a jar of the Mountain Gamble Oak Honey, which grows 6,000 feet above sea level. This delicious nectar tastes of maple and cinnamon and you better believe we reserved it for special occasions.
Great. Jim’s a tea snob, and now Paola’s turned me into a honey snob.
With our bag of tea and honey we headed into the brilliant sunshine towards San Felipe de Neri Church. Its peach adobe bricks were a perfect color wheel contrast to the blue of the high desert sky, the towers topped with white crosses reaching towards the heavens.
Built in 1793, the church is the centerpiece of Old Town and is one of the oldest buildings in Albuquerque, and the parish itself dates back to the founding of the city. In the early 1700s a group of Spanish settlers and soldiers made the land at the bend in the Rio Grande their home, and in 1706 the Interim Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdés declared the founding of La Villa de Alburquerque. Named for the Duke of Alburquerque, the first “r” was later dropped because it was too darn hard to pronounce, but the town still goes by the nickname “Duke City.”
Because where Spaniards went, so went the Franciscans, the San Felipe de Neri Parish was founded that same year in a chapel on the west end of the square. After an uncharacteristically heavy rain in 1792 the poor building practically disintegrated, so the next year a new one was built on the north side of the plaza, and its massive 5-foot thick walls remain. The church and the buildings are in such good condition they seem Disney-esque. It’s hard to believe the church is more than two hundred years old, but it is, and its setting, flanked by cars and lit by streetlights, is a dichotomy. When you step inside the courtyard you can imagine a time before electricity, when the sound of a vehicle on the street was the clatter of wooden wheels and iron-clad hooves.
We continued heading north and came across The Christmas Shop. We absolutely had to stop because Jim is a professional Christmas caroler. “A what?” you ask?
(He gets that all the time. “You do what? I’ve never thought of that as a job!” Well, it is. I don’t see the man between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’m a caroling widow.)
Jim had spread holiday joy every December for more than two decades before starting his own company, The Caroling Connection, in 2016. We wanted to get a photo op (hello marketing!) at The Christmas Shop, but when we walked in we found out photos aren’t allowed. I’d say “Bah Humbug,” except there was a good reason for the rule.
This is not your typical mall Christmas store. The Christmas Shop has a row full of ornament-laden trees and a wall of tree toppers and a corner filled with nativity scenes, just exactly like you’d expect, except these aren’t items you can get at any ol’ seasonal market that pops up next to Auntie Anne’s. Many of the ornaments and decorations are made by artists from neighboring pueblos. The nativity scenes vary from the traditional to those representing Native Americans, and the woman who worked there told us that one of the nativity artists they feature has work in the Smithsonian. Plus, they make the original chili pepper lights right upstairs. Since the late 1970s they’ve been turning the chili pepper into a holiday decoration, including Chili Ristras complete with raffia bows.
We left empty-handed because - Merry Christmas! - you can order online. This was day 7, and with our bread mix from the Chickasaw Nation and our beer from Pete’s and our tea and honey from Old Barrel, not to mention all the stuff we needed to survive for 31 days away from home, we were going to run out of room, even in our roomy Kia Sorento. We left The Christmas Shop and walked the half-block to find Church Street Cafe and its rambunctious growth of prickly pear cactus flanking the entrance sign and a trio of metallic musicians atop the doorway.
You’d never know from looking at it, but Church Street Cafe is in the oldest building in Albuquerque and began life as a hacienda in 1706.
Seventy years before the Declaration of Independence, the Ruiz family built a house near the Rio Grande in a newly formed settlement. The home stayed in the family until 1991, when Rufina G. Ruiz died at the age of 91. After her death the home was purchased and renovated and became the Church Street Cafe.
The restaurant has thrived. When we arrived on that Thursday afternoon it was time for half-price appetizers, available with the purchase of an alcoholic drink, so we ate a bandito pie and drank a sangria margarita in a building that was older than America. (Thank you for the recommendation, Sir Tom!)
Our next stop was for ten-year-old me. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had a thing for amphibians and reptiles. My brother and I were always bringing home frogs and snakes from the nearby woods, which would quickly disappear whenever mom took them out for a “hop” or a “slither.” A block away from our B&B was the American International Rattlesnake Museum, and I just had to see it!
This animal conservation museum is filled with all things rattlesnake: snake posters, snake jewelry, snake sculptures (including a Frederic Remington), snake clothing, snake food, snake oils, snake movies, and snakes, lots and lots of snakes. In fact, they’ve got more varieties of rattlesnakes than the Bronx Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, the National Zoo, the Denver Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, and the San Diego Zoo combined.
That’s a lot of snakes.
Each of the 34 snakes lives in a terrarium designed to replicate its natural environment. There are rare specimens, such as the piebald Prairie Rattlesnake, and more common varieties from the American southwest like their six-foot long Western Diamondback. There’s even a live gila monster, which is spectacularly creepy.
The museum aims to educate and enlighten about the ways rattlesnakes and other “less desirable” animals influence our lives. Herpetologist Bob Myers founded the museum on May 5, or “snako de Mayo”, 1990, because he wanted to dispel some of the fear that surrounds the reptiles and show the many ways rattlesnakes have impacted our culture. After you’ve made it through the museum you’re rewarded with a “Certificate of Bravery” lauding your decision to turn your fear into fascination.
Certificates in hand, we slithered down the block to Bottger Mansion, another local treasure in historic Old Town Albuquerque.