Travel: America’s Ancient City in the Sky
Driving along the narrow blacktop road toward New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, as you round a sharp bend and the road plunges down to a windswept grassy plain for the final couple of miles, you can barely make out the jagged roofline of the legendary “Sky City.” It looks like a mirage.
North America’s oldest continuously inhabited city sits high atop a seemingly unscalable sandstone mesa, its cliffs rising 370 feet above the surrounding terrain. For more than 2,000 years the Acoma tribe has thrived in the face of droughts and invasions. Indeed, the pueblo’s enduring legacy seems to defy probability, which is a big reason so many travelers to New Mexico make visiting Acoma a top priority.
In May 2000 Acoma faced a new challenge. Its visitor center, a modest building at the junction of two roads near the base of the mesa, burned to the ground. Lost were priceless artifacts and interpretive exhibits as well as the staging area for guided tours of Sky City. The Acoma people responded to this calamity with their usual determination. They commissioned a brand-new facility that would bring Acoma into the twenty-first century while carrying forth its rich and ancient legacy. On May 27, 2006, the tribe formally opened the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, a stunning 40,000-square-foot, $15 million facility that serves not only to welcome visitors to Acoma but as a gateway to indigenous culture throughout the Southwest.
The Cultural Center pays tribute to Acoma in a number of ways. Architecturally the stacked-sandstone walls and T-shaped doorways recall the ancient dwellings of northwestern New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde, both of which have ancestral ties to present-day Acoma. Many artisans who live at Acoma lent their talents to the project by carving beams, working metal, and constructing pottery chimneys. A noted Santa Fe-based architect, Barbara Felix, along with Tom and Sara Easterson-Bond, designed the building, aiming to “build a cultural center both for visitors and for tribal members.” The structure “represents what’s happening up on the mesa without replicating it,” she said during its opening ceremony.
Inside the Cultural Center, the intimate but sophisticated Haak’u Museum contains airy, light-filled exhibit spaces with soaring ceilings. The museum will mount different shows throughout the year; right now it’s exhibiting “The Matriarchs,” which showcases the development of Acoma’s rich pottery tradition, and “The Cotton Girls,” a display of rare Acoma textiles. You can watch a short introductory film on Acoma’s history in a 67-seat theater, which also regularly presents live music and dance, as well as lectures and seminars on Native American culture. On the plaza behind the center, you can assist in the preparation of Acoma bread using a traditional horno (outdoor oven), and you can stroll through a garden and cornfield irrigated strictly with rain runoff, as Acoma farm fields have been for generations. There’s also a cafe that serves traditional Indian fry bread and other regional foods.
If the former visitor center fell a bit short in conveying the magnificence of Acoma’s skyscraping pueblo, the new facility is a perfect fit. It’s built of many of the same elements found in the ancient Sky City dwellings: stone, wood (especially evident in the beautiful latilla-and-viga ceilings), clay, mud, mica, pottery, and corn.
Once you’ve explored the cultural center, take one of the tours led by Acoma tribal members of Sky City itself. A bus will carry you along a paved road that snakes up the back of the mesa (the road was built in 1969; before that, only steep, primitive trails led up and down the slope). The tour continues on foot through San Esteban del Rey mission, a massive adobe church built in 1629. The Spanish, under the aegis of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, conquered and enslaved the Acoma people in the mid-1500s and forced them to construct this spectacular place of worship that now towers over the community. The tour then passes through the village, mostly three-story adobe dwellings built in the traditional Pueblo style and still occupied by members of the Adobe tribe, some of whom you’ll encounter selling their handcrafted pottery and jewelry.
Acoma lies roughly an hour’s drive west of New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque, and two hours from Santa Fe. The tribe also operates the 132-room Sky City Casino Hotel, an upscale, modern resort just off Interstate 40 and a 20-minute drive north of the new Sky City Cultural Center. Staying at the hotel affords you easy access to the pueblo, and it’s also a good base for exploring other important pueblos and historic sites in the region, such as Chaco Canyon, Zuni Pueblo, and the town of Gallup, which has long been famous for its bounty of Indian trading posts.
The Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum (800-747-0181, www.skycity.com) is open daily, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through October and from 8 to 5 November through March. Admission is $4, and tours of Sky City Pueblo cost an additional $10. Sky City Casino Hotel (888-SKY-CITY, www.skycity.com) is off I-40 at exit 102.
—Andrew Collins has worked as an editor and writer on more than 100 travel books.
Article SourcePosted: 2006-07-14