The Oldest and Longest "Highway"?
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro
Between the New Mexico cities of Las Cruces and Albuquerque is the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, a good place to learn about El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, or the Royal Road to the Interior. The Heritage Center gives an overview of the 1500 mile historical route from Mexico City to Santa Fe. Some historians even extend the route to Taos and Veracruz. El Camino is the oldest and longest continuously used "highway" in the U.S. and Mexico and it closely follows the modern-day Interstates 10 and 25 from El Paso, Texas, to Santa Fe. That will be the route of this story.
El Camino Real International Heritage Center is located in a very appropriate place. It might seem to be in the middle of nowhere, but after a little thought, it is the perfect location. Only five minutes drive off Exit 115 of I- 25 and thirty miles south of Socorro, the Heritage Center tells the story of El Camino Real with exhibits, period artifacts, displays, and traveling exhibits about the trail and the establishment of colonies in New Mexico. It is suitable for all age groups. Visitors can explore the history and heritage of the trail from Mexico to Santa Fe as it appeared 300 years ago.
The Heritage Center overlooks the dry desert of the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death), the lower Rio Grande, and El Camino Real trail. The remote desert location is appropriate because it shows a sense of the climate and the long dusty trail endured by the early travelers, spending six months or longer on the trail to reach Santa Fe from Mexico City. The Jornada del Muerto was the most dreaded stretch of the journey because, even though it was ninety miles in length and took nine to ten days (at 8-10 miles per day), and contained no water or shelter, it still saved several days taking this route rather than the path along the longer 120 miles bend of the Rio Grande River. That is the appropriateness of the location of the Heritage Center.
Most historians say the use of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro was used from 1598 through 1885. It began to decrease in use in the mid-1880s with the advent of the railroad, which transported people and supplies along the Rio Grande in hours rather than weeks. But, in the early 1900s, automobiles traveled El Camino Real, serving as the first highway from El Paso to Santa Fe. That restored life to the old trail again for a short period. Except for a portion between Las Cruces and Socorro, I-25 follows the Rio Grande, rather than the 90-mile waterless shortcut through the Jornada del Muerto.
There is much to see and do in El Paso and Santa Fe, and travelers are probably aware of most of their attractions. But perhaps the attractions of the smaller towns along El Camino Real may not be so publicized.
Bosque del Apache (Spanish for "woods of the Apache") National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best in North America. Tens of thousands of birds, including Sandhill cranes, Arctic geese, and many kinds of ducks, gather each autumn and winter there. The 57,191-acre refuge is located at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert, and straddles the Rio Grande, approximately twenty miles south of Socorro.
Belen, New Mexico, is another of the towns with mileage noted on the signs along I-25. Besides art galleries and a great little restaurant called Pete's Cafe, the Harvey House Museum is located there. Harvey Houses sprang up over the Southwest along railroads ran by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (ATSF). The Harvey Houses were combination restaurants, hotels, and newsrooms that catered to the train travelers of the late 1800s. Fred Harvey was an Englishman that moved to New York to start a restaurant business. After the Civil War, the restaurant business declined, but the railroads flourished. Mr. Harvey saw an opportunity and joined with the president of the ATSF and created what was to become a profitable business. The Belen Harvey House was one of more than a dozen in New Mexico. At the peak of his career, there were 84 Harvey Houses across the Southwest.
Just northeast of Belen is another special spot, Tome' (pronounced To' mi), New Mexico. Just outside of town with its numerous art galleries, Tome' Hill is the site of an annual Good Friday pilgrimage. In 1947, Edwin Berry made a promise to God and kept it. As a military policeman during World War II, he saw friends killed in battle and narrowly escaped death himself. He promised God that if he returned safely from the war, he would build a monument where all the faithful could go to give thanks and to worship God. Berry and his friends began fulfilling the promise in March 1947, by carrying building materials on foot and by mule to the top of Tome' Hill. After a year, the project was complete and three massive crosses stood vigil on top of El Cerro de Tome, or Tome' Hill. And still do today. Besides the crosses, there are over 1,800 petroglyphs (rock drawings) that have been documented and catalogued by archaeologists from the University of New Mexico. The oldest petroglyphs are believed to be about 2,000 years old. Many represent the animals that are still in the area today, such as the coyote.
The climb up Tome' Hill is steep, but definitely worth the effort for the views from the top. It not only is a physical, but also a spiritual experience. At the foot of Tome' Hill is a steel sculpture called La Puerta del Sol (the Gateway to the Sun) that commemorates El Camino Real and Tome' Hill.
The city of Albuquerque also is situated on El Camino Real and the Rio Grande. Just a few special things to do and see relate to the outdoors and dining. The city has an average rainfall of just below ten inches, and is sunny most of the year. Since Albuquerque is the hot air ballooning capital of the world, it would seem that taking to the air is one must-do activity. The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, the world’s largest, takes place each October, when there will be from 500 to 700 balloons in the sky at one time. It is probably the most photographed event in the world, drawing a huge crowd of balloonists and spectators. During the festival, there is only one company licensed to take visitors aloft from the Balloon Fiesta Park, where the mass ascensions occur. That is the Rainbow Ryders of Albuquerque. Of course, they offer rides at other times.
Because Albuquerque is the hot air ballooning capital of the world, it seems natural that there would be a hot air ballooning museum. And there is. It is the Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum and is filled with interesting historical artifacts of ballooning and other flying-related endeavors.
A jeep tour in the mountains is another unique experience. New Mexico Jeep Tours has a variety of tours available to see ancestral Pueblo ruins, ghost towns, volcanic necks, and other unusual geological formations, or can customize one to suit your needs. A jeep tour will allow visitors to get an up close perspective of natural New Mexico, rather than the standard touristy attractions.
But there are standard touristy things to do and see within Albuquerque also. Historic Old Town is the city's cultural center, with seven museums and more than 100 shops, galleries, and restaurants around the centerpiece -- the 1793 San Felipe de Neri Church. Dine at El Pinto, one of the best restaurants in Albuquerque. It is a favorite among locals and visitors alike. It features New Mexican cuisine, which blends Native American and Spanish ingredients and prepares dishes with Albuquerque's signature ingredients, red and green chiles.
Historic Route 66 passes through Albuquerque, and is called Central Avenue. It goes through Old Town and the downtown business district. There is a tour available for download on the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau website.
Closely associated with the Native American heritage is the Petroglyph National Monument outside Albuquerque. It stretches seventeen miles and protects a variety of cultural and natural resources which includes five dormant volcanic cones, hundreds of archeological sites, and an estimated 25,000 petroglyphs carved by Native American people and early Spanish settlers.
Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe are a group of Indian pueblos and reservations that attest that the Native American influence still is a large part of culture of the region. That and the importance El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro had on the Spanish arriving in the Southwest make the diversity of cultures of New Mexico a great place to visit, explore, and savor.