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The ancient pueblo of Acoma is aptly nicknamed. Known as the Sky City, it commands the most exotic location of any inhabited place in the United States — the top of a 370-foot-high mesa in New Mexico, a natural citadel of golden rock, an island in the sky.
It’s also amazingly well-disguised.
I’d driven there from Albuquerque in late afternoon, turning south off Interstate 40 at the Acoma tribe’s booming casino complex and picking up a small, scenic road. At first it ran past scattered homesteads — old stone houses, trailers, a few brand-new ranches — but for most of its almost 20 miles, it took me through a gorgeously empty landscape of red and gold mesas, polka-dotted with plump, dark cedar shrubs.
Finally the road curved, and the vista I was waiting for opened out above a wide valley, studded with mesas and giant rock towers, like sentinels along a sacred way.
I pulled over where the road starts down, got out of the car and, as usual, stared in awe. The Sky City was right there in front of me, 3 1/2 miles away, but its camouflage is so perfect, I couldn’t see it, though I knew where to look.
I drove a mile closer, down onto the valley floor, and still saw nothing but banded mesas and golden rock. I had to drive another full mile before I could finally distinguish the twin bell towers of San Esteban del Rey, Acoma’s 1629 Spanish mission church, rising above the fringe of little flat-roofed houses along the mesa rim.
This place, which last month became the nation’s 28th National Trust Historic Site, is North America’s Machu Picchu, but in some ways it’s more impressive: It’s older than the mountaintop ruin in Peru, and it’s still alive. Acoma people have lived up there for more than a thousand years.
The Sky City mesa is a tribal emblem, and the nickname functions like a brand. But its real name, Haak’u, means “a place prepared,” a reference to a cosmic promise made to the tribe when it first emerged into this world.
“It was already foretold at the time of emergence that there was ‘a place prepared’ — in all senses of the word — for our eternal occupancy,” Brian Vallo, director of Acoma’s brand-new cultural center, explained while the center was being finished. “It is the traditional homeland of the Acoma people. A very sacred place.”
The Pueblos are different nations
Twenty pueblos — the Spanish word can mean village, tribe or individuals — survive in the Southwest. One tribe, the Hopi, lives in northeastern Arizona. The 19 other pueblos are in New Mexico.
The pueblos are different nations, speaking different languages. They look different from one another, too. Taos is famous for its ancient pair of multistory apartment buildings. Jemez, beside a mountain river, has narrow, tight-knit lanes and the feel of a Greek village. And Acoma — well, Acoma is like nothing else in this country.
But those are superficial differences. All the pueblos share something more important — a powerful belief system so encompassing and so interwoven with every aspect of daily life that even to call it “tradition” or “religion” is to limit its scope. It is deeply rooted in the land, and the pueblos have managed to hang onto it for 400 years, ever since the Spanish conquest.
Whenever I visit, I try to imagine what it is like to inhabit the pueblo world, where everything is sacred, where everything has meaning, where everything — and everyone — is connected to everything else.
“The connections to place and people — that’s home,” Vallo said. “And that’s a lot.”
Imagining a world so complete is like trying to picture a color that isn’t in the spectrum, and it turns every trip to this part of the Southwest into a spiritual journey.
Acoma Pueblo has the feeling of home
It was a long way, in more than miles, from the sacred Sky City back to Acoma’s Sky City Casino-Hotel and Travel Center on I-40 — so far that at first I had trouble picturing them in the same universe, let alone the same landscape.
But the casino complex and its huge, adjacent truck stop are the economic engine fueling Acoma’s future, and that future includes the preservation of its past. Gaming revenues paid for most of the tribe’s new $17 million cultural center, which opened at the foot of Haak’u mesa last May.
The handsome center is intended to be many things, Vallo said, but they all involve the concept of home — a home where visitors can feel welcome; a home for repatriated Acoma artifacts; a home where the Acoma can study their language and heritage.
From my room in the casino hotel, I could look across the swimming pool and see the force that is driving Acoma’s economy now: the raised roadbed of Interstate 40. It took the place of old Route 66, and it’s still the Mother Road across New Mexico.
Rivers of semi trucks glittered in both directions, and steady streams of them were pulling off at the Acoma exit to tank up and let their drivers fire down.
Inside the casino hotel, there were the familiar clangs, whoops and jingles from the gaming hall off the lobby. But the complex does not serve alcohol, and the hotel was surprisingly tasteful and quiet. It felt more like a community center than a subset of Las Vegas.
Tracking tourists at Acoma Pueblo
Haak’u draws a different crowd, but it, too, draws large numbers: In summer hundreds of tourists a day descend on a village of fewer than a dozen families.
To protect it, the tribe has been tracking tourism to the Sky City for more than a century. Tours are now the only way you can visit the mesa. Small buses shuttle visitors up there from the new cultural center at its base, on a road built in 1950 for a John Wayne movie.
The rules are strict: No photography without a permit, no wandering off, and you need to get the name right.
“It’s pronounced AAAAH-coma,” my group’s tour guide said firmly. “We aren’t in a COMA!”
The houses of the Sky City are plain and boxlike, one or two stories, made of stone or adobe plastered with mud. Gusts of wind whip through the narrow streets, flinging sand against skin and into eyes. There is only one small tree — “the Acoma National Forest,” my tour guide joked — and the blistering New Mexico sun always feels as if it’s right overhead.
The mesa-top tours take about an hour under that sun. The guides move fast, and they cover a lot. Pause, and you’re guaranteed to miss something — an ancient window made of mica, for example, or the hole in the cemetery wall that allowed lost spirits to come home, or an explanation of the tribe‘s matrilineal system — how the youngest daughter inherits from the youngest daughter, down through time.
But visitors do pause — caught by stunning views at the end of every lane, by the tables of distinctive black-on-white pottery set out in front of artists’ homes and by the food — apple turnovers, straight from the oven, and fry bread so fresh that the grease burns your tongue.
A lot of these tourist pauses, I suspect, are really just ways of extending the experience.
At the end of the tour, the guides always offer a choice of how to get back: Ride the bus back down the mesa, or take the hidden foot trail that the Acoma people used for centuries before the road was cut.
I always choose the trail.
Almost vertical in places, it follows a steep, narrow slot in the cliff face. Getting down safely requires trusting the ancient builders, who knew what they were doing when they carved the footholds and handholds.
I turned around to face the yellow rock and then descended as if I were on a ladder, reaching my toes down step by step, sliding my fingers into ancient niches.
Of all the good experiences on this trip, that descent was the best. I liked feeling that I fittted into something that went so far back in time, with so many connections to other people — even if they could never be my own. The scale of the steps was human, and the warm, golden stone felt good and secure against my hands. It felt, in fact, like comfort.
Getting to Acoma Pueblo
Acoma Pueblo is about 60 miles southwest of Albuquerque, N.M. Round-trip, restricted airfare between Kansas City and Albuquerque recently started about $130.
For information on Acoma, call the tribe’s main number, 1-888-SKY-CITY, or go to www.skycity.com. The ancient mesa-top village may be visited only by guided tours, which begin at the new Cultural Center ($12 adults, $11 seniors, $9 ages 6 through 17, free for children younger than 5).
Tours go daily, unless a snowstorm blocks the roads, so call ahead in winter.
For an excellent introduction to pueblo cultures, visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, 2401 12th St. N.W.; (505) 843-7270; or go to www.indianpueblo.org. Adult admission this year is $6, $5.50 for seniors, $1 for students (college students need ID), free for children younger than 5.
The Weather at Acoma Pueblo
Central New Mexico, though dry, does get snow in winter, particularly if a bad storm has ravaged the Great Plains. Average February temperatures in Albuquerque range from a high of 53 to a low of 27.
Food and lodging near Acoma Pueblo
At Acoma, the best place to eat and the only place to stay is the Sky City Casino-Hotel and Travel Center on Interstate 40. The pleasant, quiet hotel rooms run $89 standard, $119 suite. For reservations, call 1-888-SKY-CITY.
The hotel restaurant offers huge portions, a good buffet, some traditional foods and reasonable prices. Snacks and good pizza are available inside the casino, and there’s a busy McDonald’s at the truck stop.
The new Sky City Cultural Center, worlds away at the base of the ancient city’s mesa, also has a restaurant; it serves such traditional items as blue corn porridge and blue corn pancakes for breakfast, and Acoma oven bread and lamb stew for lunch. Again, prices are reasonable.
Acoma Cultural center
Last May, Acoma opened a remarkable new cultural center at the foot of the Sky City mesa.
The $17 million project, mostly funded with gaming revenue, is the biggest investment the tribe has ever made, said Brian Vallo, the center’s director.
The center’s first-rate museum was designed to hold an expanding collection of Acoma pottery, weavings and other cultural objects. The museum also includes climate-controlled storage, a requirement for the return of tribal material under federal law.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Catherine Watson is a former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. | Catherine Watson, Special to The Star