Acoma Pueblo (Sky City, NM)



Our third visited pueblo was one that surprised us. Known in artistic circles for their intricately decorated clay pottery, the Acoma people have one village perched on a 365-foot mesa high above the surrounding valley. Guided tours are the only way to visit the village, more commonly known as Sky City. Photography permits for a fee are also available.

Though the Acoma share a common ancestry with the Zuni and Hopi, including similar gods and spirits and a matrilineal society, they seem to have adopted material culture much more readily. The Sky City Cultural Center is second to none, a modern facility that houses a gift shop, cafe and museum, with massive wooden front doors that suggest a Spanish influence. In fact, the Spanish seem to have converted the Acoma to Catholicism, which the Zuni and Hopi have long since largely rejected, even though the Acoma took part in the 17th-century Pueblo Revolt against the Spanish with the other surrounding tribes. The Acomas have Spanish surnames and the church in the pueblo (San Esteban del Rey Mission, on the National Register of Historic Places) still conducts mass and church services.

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church

San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church

The homes atop the mesa, the original architecture still evident, seem to have been partially renovated using more modern materials, including double-pane glass windows and modern doors. Even though the pueblo still is not electrified nor does it have running water or sewage system, large propane tanks and modern-day honey buckets are in use.

Acoma homes are more updated than those of most other pueblos

Acoma homes are more updated than those of most other pueblos

Propane for fuel

Propane for fuel

The Acoma have also recently opened a large casino, something that the Hopi or Zuni have not or probably never will do.

View of valley from mesa top

View of valley from mesa top

The pottery is much sought-after by collectors. Pots exhibit complex geometric patterns on thin clay walls with fluted rims and often decorated with a characteristic black paint made from pulverized hematite rock. The coveted, hand-coiled pottery is very expensive, but more affordable ones made from pour-molded stock have the same meticulous hand-painted patterns.

acoma_seed_pot

Acoma seed pot (Wikipedia)

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Lava Central: El Malpais National Monument (NM)


Lava, lava, everywhere. New Mexico might as well be called the Volcano State for all the young, exposed and hardened lava flows that are virtually everywhere. I had always thought that Oregon and Washington laid claim to the largest lava flows ever to have happened on the continent, but New Mexico is not lacking in that regard. One of the best ways to get a close look is the Acoma-Zuni Trail, part of El Malpais National Monument.

Hiking on the lava flows of Acoma-Zuni Trail is a formidable challenge. First of all, it’s a treacherous and strenuous walk over jagged lava rock. More importantly, over its 7.5-mile distance, you could easily get lost if not for the many cairns that have been erected over the landscape. It’s a wonder how ancient Puebloans navigated between Zuni and Acoma for over a thousand years. Aside from memorizing the landscape or using cairns, how did they do it without modern-day footwear? Our ambition today was to do a little exploring of the landscape, venturing only about a half mile in before returning to the parking spot. The trail is part of a vast volcanic field in New Mexico, formed over a period of 100,000 years. The trailheads are located along Highways 53 and 117 at either end. The latest eruption occurred only 3,000 years ago during what is called the McCartys lava flow, the youngest in the state. Much of the national monument and the conservation area around it showcase the volcanic field, including El Calderon, the monument’s most prominent cinder cone; rugged lava flows and tubes; and many other spatter and cinder cones, all surrounded by massive sandstone pillars and mesas.

From the eastern trailhead (Highway 117), the first half mile was quite easy—a sandy footpath past piñon pines. Eventually, we reached the rugged lava field, relatively young geologically speaking at 3,000 years old. Without our durable hiking boots, any other kind of footwear would have gotten shredded in no time. The terrain is very uneven, requiring much climbing up and down. Following park brochure advice, once we reached one cairn, we looked for the next before continuing on. The lava flows were very impressive, especially the pahoehoe kind with its ripply patterns.

Pahoehoe lava flow

After a certain point, we decided to go back and “retrace” our steps. This was harder than it sounds because nothing looked familiar. We just pointed ourselves in the opposite direction and eventually found the original dirt trail that led back to the car.

Not far from the Zuni-Acoma Trail stands the largest natural arch in New Mexico, La Ventana. A short trail leads up to this natural feature, but you can only look at it from a distance at trail’s end. In contrast to the young lava flows, the towering sandstone cliffs, of which La Ventana is a part, are 200 millions years old.

la-ventana