Situated atop a 367-foot sandstone bluff in a mountainous valley in New Mexico, at an altitude of 6,460 feet above seal level, the Acoma Pueblo continues the ancient vigil it has kept over this sun-soaked, sacred valley for 861-years. In ancient times, the only way to access the pueblo was via a hand-cut staircase that was carved into the sandstone.
Located off I-40 seventy miles due west of Albuquerque, the Acoma Pueblo, also known as “Sky City,” has existed here since 1150 AD, earning the title of the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. It is a globally known destination for travelers interested in natural beauty and American Indian history, with more than 250 dwellings that have changed little over the last eight centuries. None of these historic dwellings have electricity, plumbing or running water. Visiting Acoma Pueblo is an opportunity to peek into the past and learn about an ancient, still thriving culture where ancestral ceremonies, traditions and language are still going strong.
The Acoma Pueblo includes the San Esteban del Rey Mission. The construction of this Catholic Mission began in 1629, and is one of the few Spanish missions to have survived the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Raw materials needed for the mission required the Acoma people to move haul approximately 20,000 tons of earth and stone from the canyon floor up the sides of the mesa. The 30-foot beams required for its construction were carried 30 miles from Kaweshtima, or ‘Mount Taylor Mountain.’ Today, the mission represents the largest inventory of 17th century building material in the state. The mission is kept in perpetual maintenance by the Gaugashti, Acoma men designated “church caretakers.” This is a life-long commitment, and thus the Gaugashti are highly respected by fellow tribe members.
The Acoma Pueblo is a Registered National Historical Landmarks, and in 2007 was made the 28th National Trust for Historic Preservation site (NTHP), securing professional support from the NTHP in turn for helping them expand their preservation activities beyond pueblo maintenance and preservation into community development. The Acoma themselves have also created the Pueblo of Acoma Historic Preservation Office, which alongside the Acoma Language Retention Program and Acoma Higher Education Program serve to protect their heritage while embracing their futures.
Today, the federally recognized Puebloe of Acoma tribe have 4,800 members. Spiritual leaders of the tribe live in the pueblo year-round, while other tribal members may live there part time.
So where does one start when visiting Acoma? A good jumping off point is the Sky City Cultural Center The 40,000-square-foot center is considered the gateway to the Pueblo, where you book a guided tour, do some shopping at the Gaits’I Gift Shop, have a bite to eat at the Y’aak’a Café and survey the incredible art in the Haak’u Museum.
Guided tours of the pueblo are $20 for adults (there are discounts for seniors, military personnel, college students, children, and a family package). The tour takes visitors on a roughly ¾ mile jaunt through the pueblo, with opportunities to check out wares from local artisans along the route as well as take in the incredible view of the rock formations in the valley below. Permits for cameras to immortalize the sights must be purchased at the cultural center beforehand.
To fuel up, the Y’aak’a Café has a bevy of culinary delights, from red chile beef posole and traditional lamb stew to blue corn pancakes and Pueblo tacos, made with fresh fry bread, beans and chicos, and your choie of steak or chicken breast.
The Haak’u Museum serves as a portal to the Acoma’s past as well as an education and research institute dedicated to preserve their history, revitalize their lost art forms, and retain their traditional language. There are also, of course, stunning exhibits. The exhibit “Beloved People and Beloved Land” on display now is a collection of sculptures, paintings, and jewelry. The museum also boasts the Ts’ikinum’a Theater, which offers visitors a chance to take in the Acoma’s history and culture through video.
In order to help sustain the economy of their people and retain their history and culture, the Acoma Pueblo established the Acoma Business Enterprise. This includes ownership of the Sky City Casino & Hotel, located 45 miles west of Albuquerque off of exit 102 on I-40 and the Acoma Big Game Trophy Hunts, which offers elk hunts, as well as pronghorn, mountain lion and black bear hunting. All the animals are free and roaming.
Fall is a fantastic time to visit the Acoma Pueblo, as temperatures cool off without getting too cold.