This article has been updated on November 3, 2020.
In New Mexico, there is a 370-foot high mesa that is home to an ancient indigenous culture—the Acoma people. Dubbed “Sky City,” the village on the mesa—Acoma Pueblo—is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States.
Acoma Pueblo was built sometime between 1100 and 1250 A.D. It’s a beautiful place known around the world for a particular style of pottery design and the fact that visitors can actually tour the pueblo and mission and hear the story of the people who still live there and carry out the traditions of many generations of Acoma people.
There are 300 homes and structures on the mesa, which are owned by Acoma women (the Acoma have a matrilineal society). The adobe and wood homes are passed down through their families, many of whom carry on a pottery tradition as a source of income. The centerpiece of the village is the two-story Mission San Esteban del Rey which you can also tour.
Visiting the Acoma Pueblo Visitor Center
Hour-long guided tours take visitors to the Acoma Pueblo Visitor Center. You will see the ancient pueblo, the mission, and have a chance to shop for Acoma pottery.
Before or after the tour, make sure you spend time at the beautiful, modern cultural center. The cultural center has an Acoma pottery museum, Native foods café (great Pueblo-fusion cuisine), and gift shop.
In the courtyard behind the cultural center, you may have the opportunity to see Native dancers and visit the vendors who set up shop during tourist season. There is no charge to enter the cultural center and to shop with the vendors in the back courtyard.
Tips for Visiting Acoma Pueblo and Taking the Tour
The Pueblo is open most days, although opening hours vary with the season. The website will have current information. The last tour of Sky City leaves an hour before closing. Usually, the pueblo is closed to tours June 24th and 29th, July 10th to 13th and 25th as well as the first and/or second weekend of October and the first Saturday of December for ceremonial and cultural reasons.
Touring Sky City
Sign up for a tour of the old pueblo high atop the mesa, Sky City. Reservations can be made in advance, which is a necessity in the busy summer tourist season. A shuttle will take you up the hill and an Acoma guide will take you around the village, through the mission, and past many pottery vendors who sit outside their adobe homes. Some of the guides are Acoma-born college students who are home for the summer.
You will need a separate ticket if you are going to be taking photographs. They will give you the ticket to attach to your still camera or smartphone. Videotaping or sound recording is prohibited.
Dressing for the Pueblo
Wear walking shoes or boots as the streets and paths are uneven, slather some sunscreen, and don a hat. Modest dress is required by the Acoma people. Be respectful of where you are walking and stay with the tour. You’ll be walking past people’s homes and right into their yards.
Center of the Pueblo
When you tour the church, built in the 1600s, follow the guide’s instructions and take in the stories. Your guide explains how the Pueblo people were invaded by the Spanish and then, during the Pueblo Revolt, how they overcame and expelled the Spanish.
When you are inside the mission, look up to see the thick beams. These vigas were trees that the Native people, under the direction of the Spanish friars, carried for more than 30 miles from the far-away San Mateo mountains. My guide pointed out that they were told they could not let the sacred beams touch the ground during the journey.
Ending the Tour
Toward the end of the tour, you will probably be shown a natural mica window in a little adobe home which, originally, was the only type of window the people had to let some light through the thick walls. There are original touches like this throughout the pueblo even though the families, who live there primarily in summer, have been adding modern amenities and rooms to their homes.
When the tour is over, the guide may give you the option of taking the shuttle back, walking down the access road or even taking an ancient set of stairs carved into the sandstone cliff. I highly recommend taking these stairs if you are physically able.
As you descend the stairs, you’ll get a sense of how the Acoma people accessed their mesa-top home before the road was built. Let your mind wander to the stories you heard on the tour. Perhaps you’ll envision an Acoma woman of past times climbing the stairs with a pot of water on her head or basket of corn strapped to her back.
The people of Acoma sell a range of pottery ranging from cute tourist ceramic sculptures of kitties and quail to traditional art pottery costing thousands of dollars. You can ask the vendor if the pottery they are selling is traditional clay coil-made pottery or painted ceramic (used for souvenirs like mugs and dishes).
If you are a serious pottery collector, consider asking for a special “Buyer’s Guide” who can walk with you and let you visit your favorite potter. There isn’t much time for serious pottery buying on the short cultural tour, so you may want to come back if you are a collector and spend some additional time with an Acoma potter.
Making Acoma Pottery
Traditional Acoma pottery is made using the clay found in the hills surrounding the Pueblo. Potters usually have their own special place for digging the clay.
Highly sought after around the world, the thin-walled and delicately decorated pottery of Acoma is well known. True collectors are knowledgeable about the heritage of the famous pottery-making families. You may just meet their descendants. To get a sense of the history and design of the pottery, take time to visit the museum in the visitors center.
Designs of Acoma Pottery
The designs on the pottery often depict the local deer, bear, and surprisingly, parrots. You’ll also see geometric patterns. While parrots are not native to New Mexico, the people of Acoma were probably introduced to the birds brought to the area by traders from Mexico. Excavations on the mesa have revealed the skeletons of parrots and it is thought that they were raised by the Acoma people.
The Acoma people often paint the thick-billed parrot on their pots. The colorful parrot symbol, unique to Acoma pottery, is said to be associated with rainbows representing rain, always welcome in that arid high desert environment.
My Favorite Acoma Pottery
Potters will explain their pottery making and traditional firing methods to you. Emil Chino, a favorite of mine, showed me the yucca plant that he uses to make brushes for the fine designs on his pottery. I’ve had to ask for a special buyer’s guide to take me to Emil Chino’s family home to visit, take in the views of the valley, and look for a piece of pottery to purchase. I’ve visited Acoma Pueblo four times and have four special pieces of Acoma pottery to treasure and decorate my home.
Buying directly from the artist is the best way to purchase a traditional Acoma pot. It is okay to bargain respectfully. Many potters will ship your purchase for you. Emil Chino shipped a large pot that I purchased while on tour and it arrived beautifully packed and in perfect condition accompanied by a detailed hand-written description of the design on the pottery.
If you are able to start a Pueblo pottery collection or wish to add Acoma pottery to your treasures at home, you can prepare by reading a book on Pueblo pottery.
Visiting During a Festival or Feast Day
If you time it right, you may be able to visit Acoma Pueblo during a special time where there will be food and dances. These days are open to visitors. Please note that cameras are not allowed at festivals.
- Governor's Feast at Old Acoma the 1st or 2nd weekend of February
- Santa Maria Feast Day in McCarty's the first Sunday in May
- Harvest Dance at Sky City and the San Esteban Feast Day September 2nd
- Holiday Arts and Crafts Fair Thanksgiving Weekend
- Luminaria Tour December 24th to 28th
When You Visit Acoma Sky City
From I-40, take Exit 102. Acoma Sky City is located 45 minutes west of Albuquerque and one hour east of Gallup. If you are coming from Gallup, exit north of Sky City at McCarty's and follow the somewhat small signs to Acoma Sky City. It is a beautiful drive with impressive rock formations and great scenery. There are also day tours from Albuquerque that can take you to Acoma. When you are on the reservation, don't take photos until you get a permit.
The Acoma people run a small casino and hotel right off I-40. It’s an inexpensive but comfortable place to stay when visiting the area. Please note: the hotel is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. For more ideas on road trips in New Mexico, have a look at these New Mexico articles by Wander writers.