In 2006, I decided to go on a road trip to southwestern Colorado to explore some of the wonders of the region including, in addition to many other places, Mesa Verde National Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument. This trip opened up my eyes and curiosity to the ancient inhabitants of the Southwest. Who were they, and why did they leave their homes?
Little did I know my recent trip to New Mexico would answer some of these questions. My trip took me to the final destination of the migration that began at Mesa Verde NP and moved to Aztec Ruins NM before settling in Chaco Canyon and moving to the “place prepared.” This is particularly interesting since the first two of those locations said they didn’t know where the people moved in leaving their homes. I haven’t been to Chaco, so I don’t know what they say.
Just south of Interstate 40 west of Albuquerque on the Acoma Indian Reservation is Sky City, the final home of this migration, which they call Haak’u meaning “a place prepared.” I didn’t know what to expect, but wanted to make the trip to this pueblo because I had seen a painting of the mission church. I thought that’s all I would find.
Haak’u sits on top of a mesa in the middle of a desert valley speckled with other fantastic rock formations and buttes. It is made up of more than 200 adobe and stone homes that are built in rows. Some of the structures date back nearly 1,000 years when the Acoma people first settled on top of this mesa after access to their nearby settlement on top of a neighboring rock was destroyed by lightning.
None of the buildings has any utilities except maybe a tank of propane or gas for cooking. The homes have been passed down generation to generation over the centuries. They are only occasionally used, except for the two big celebrations each year when many families gather in their ancestral homes.
I could go into the history of this place, but it spans almost a millennium. A better way to get the story of this fantastic place is to visit and go on the tour. Your guide will tell you all about the discovery and settlement of Haak’u, being mistaken as a city of gold by Spanish explorers, the colonization attempt, subsequent revolt and later recolonization by the Spanish. Your guide will tell you about the building of the pueblo and the mission.
This is a special place to the Acoma people culturally, historically and spiritually. That means not just anybody can go up to explore the pueblo. Visitors must go on a guided tour given by one of the locals unless you are visiting for one of the community festivals.
However, going on the guided tour is the best way to experience this national historic landmark. My guide was Robert. He gave such wonderful insights into the past, present and future of this beautiful place. Having a personal perspective and connection to the site helped him convey its importance to the visitors he led. Along the tour there were many other locals with tables set up to sell their world-famous pottery.
Now that I’ve been I want to return. If anyone wants to join me, I hope to make it to St. Esteban Feast Day next September 2. This is one of the two big celebrations held in the pueblo. Robert said more than 2,000 people attend. There is dancing, a ceremonial procession and lots of food and crafts. That sounds like an exciting look into the culture that’s lasted and adapted for more than 1,000 years.
To visit Haak’u go to Acoma and follow the signs to Sky City. Make a pit stop at the scenic overlook before descending into the valley. From there you can see the pueblo on top of the mesa in the distance. When you get in the valley, go to the museum and visitors center. There you’ll pay the entry fee and get your photo permit.
The tour will take you in a minibus up the road that didn’t exist until the mid-twentieth century and let you off near the mission. After your tour, you can ask to be taken back to artists to buy something you liked, get a ride back down on the next shuttle, or take the stone staircase reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings stairs to Shelob’s lair. This staircase was the only real means up and down for centuries, so it is an essential part of your experience unless you physically can’t do it.
Whether you’re interested in the ancient Southwest’s history or not, Haak’u is a must visit. The history, culture, architecture, religion, art and people make it a very special place in America – one that everyone should experience.