A couple of weeks ago, I heard an ad on the radio for an Amtrak offer that was impossible to refuse: $66 for a one-way ticket to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I was sold.
New Mexico wasn’t a state on my bucket list, but taking an Amtrak train was. I’ve flown, bused, and driven in the United States, but I’d never taken a train before. So a couple of hours after I heard the ad, I hopped online and immediately booked my ticket.
I’ve browsed Amtrak tickets periodically and they’re always a little on the pricier side. A one-way ticket to San Diego, for instance, costs $37. That’s around the cost of a tank of gas (depending on gas prices & how many gallons the tank is), which is enough to get to and from San Diego. Compared to that, this deal was really incredible: A roundtrip total of $132 for a total commute time of 33 hours!
When I made the decision to do this, I had zero clue as to what I wanted to do there, and I ultimately decided that I would wing the trip. The only research I did prior to booking the ticket was on affordable accommodations and if the weather was bearable. I figured I’d plan my itinerary closer to my arrival, or just do absolutely no research and just ask people what I should do and see once I got there.
In the end, I wound up doing a bit of both: I did some research at the last minute and sought recommendations from locals.
Fast forward to my departure on a Friday evening. I was killing time at Los Angeles Union Station and a few hours before my train was scheduled to leave, one of my friends texted me:
“I feel like Albuquerque is safe”
“isn’t it a small town?”
I actually hadn’t bothered to check how safe the city was. I knew Albuquerque existed, but I never actually heard much about it. How bad could it be? For the sake of giving my friend an informed answer, I did a quick search on the Internet, and what I found sent me into panic mode.
Those statistics drove my mind into hysteria for a couple of minutes.
Why did I not do more research before booking my ticket??????
In those moments, I was frantically considering the ways I could proceed with my barely planned trip:
1. Find another city relatively close to Albuquerque that I could go to instead. Maybe I could get off the train somewhere in Arizona? But then how would I get back? My return ticket to LAX was from ABQ.
2. Go back home and spare myself the possibility of being harmed in America’s fifth most violent city. I could sacrifice $132 for safety.
3. Hop on the train and give Albuquerque a shot since I already bought the ticket.
These look very logically thought out and organized in list form. But at that time, they were all jumbled up in my brain and I was mentally scrambling to decide on the best option. I tapped away furiously at my phone for a few minutes in an attempt to discover ways that I could still make this trip happen without jeopardizing my safety: I searched for things like nearby cities, and which neighborhoods were safe in Albuquerque.
Finally, I stumbled across an answer on Google Maps. An image of New Mexico had filled my rectangular screen, and as I was pinching and unpinching the map and dragging it around, I saw that Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, was only an hour away.
YES. A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE.
I found out there was a hostel there, so I called right away to see if there were any rooms available. Fortunately there were since it’s a slow season.
Then I called the hostel in Albuquerque to ask what the cancellation policy was so that I could change my plans and go to Santa Fe. Because I was calling less than 24 hours before I was scheduled to arrive, I assumed there would be some sort of cancellation fee. I was honest and told the guy I was concerned about how safe I would be there. In a disappointed tone, he responded saying that he has lived in the city for 15 years, has never had any problems, and that the media blows up how horrible the crime actually is.
Since there was a hostel there, I figured they must have a market for travelers and that the city must attract at a reasonable amount of visitors. (I later learned that the hostel apparently fills up during the Albuquerque International Ballon Fiesta every October.) So I decided to try my best to imagine that the stats that caught me off guard were exaggerated and just stick to my original plan.
When it came time to board the train, I made my way to my seat, made myself comfortable for the long journey ahead, and hoped for the best.
Arriving in Albuquerque
After a 16.5-hour train ride, I arrived in New Mexico’s most populated city, home to over 500,000 people. I’d read an article the night before about how the train station, the Alvarado Transportation Center, was filled with people who used and dealt drugs, an unwelcome sight for visitors. But it didn’t seem that bad to me (though it may have just been a good day), so that was a good sign.
The station is 0.8 miles away from the hostel, and my dilemma at that point was whether I would take a bus, an Uber, or walk there. Since the guy I had spoken to at the hostel said he had walked between the hostel and transportation center many times, I decided to get there using my two feet.
With my belongings in my backpack and a paper bag filled with food in my hand, I made my way to Route 66 Hostel. The walk was pleasant and I didn’t at any point feel like my life was in danger. I did notice, though, that many of the establishments were closed (I was walking at around 11am/12pm, so that was kind of surprising, especially since it was a Saturday) and that there were many vacant spaces available for rent. It struck me as pretty deserted for a weekend day.
Once I checked into the hostel, I decided to walk to the nearest grocery store (only 0.4 miles away!) to stock up on food for the week.
That walk felt like one of the longest 0.4 miles of my life. The route was through a residential neighborhood, but there was an eerie vibe. All the trees were bare (because it’s February), and apart from cars driving by on nearby roads, it seemed too quiet for a weekend afternoon. It was not popping at all. On the other side of the street, a dog barked several times as I walked by, and I just hoped it was on a leash or contained within the walls of a high fence.
What it’s like getting around
If you’ve been following Backyard Destinations for some time, you’ve probably noticed I have a tendency to take public transit whenever I’m traveling. I do this because it allows me to observe the city without having to focus my attention on the road, because it gives me an idea of what it might be like to be a local who takes public transit, and because it reduces my environmental foot print.
I’m sad to say I didn’t find Albuquerque’s public transit helpful – even locals told me it flat out sucks – and I didn’t take a bus at all while I was there. Aside from the one between the hostel and the transportation center, there weren’t any lines that made it substantially easier for me to get to attractions. (For example: from the hostel to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Google Maps’ first recommendation is to just walk the whole 1.7 miles. With a bus, there would be 0.7 miles of walking to a stop, riding the bus for 10 stops, and then walking another 0.7 miles. Another option was to take two buses with a total commute time of 29 minutes.)
With a limited amount of time in Albuquerque, walking would have cut into that even more. So I just walked and Ubered the entire time.
One of my most memorable walks was to ABQ BioPark Zoo. It was only a 0.7-mile walk, but I was on high alert looking over my shoulder and darting my eyes around my surroundings the entire time. It involved walking through a residential neighborhood, which, similarly to the walk I made to the grocery store, was eerily quiet. I noticed some houses had dogs, and while there were fences containing them them, I’m willing to bet that if the dogs really wanted to, they could find a way to jump over it easily.
After I was done at the zoo, I requested an Uber. Walking back would’ve been too stressful.
Mixed responses on safety
I got to talk to a bunch of people who live in Albuquerque, including hostel staff, Uber drivers and local jewelry makers, and there was no consensus about specifically what places to avoid. Some said the area where the hostel is was okay, while others said to be careful in surrounding blocks (like the neighborhood I walked through to get to the grocery store); one guy said to just be indoors by 2am and I’d be fine; one lady told me she’s usually home by 7pm or 8pm and that I shouldn’t walk around with my camera because then people will know I’m a tourist, which might not be a safe image to put out there. One Uber driver said back roads should be avoided because they’re isolated and that’s where people might try to harass you.
Fast forward to a few days when I decided to spend the rest of my time in Santa Fe: one guy told me the violent crime is no joke and that a day ago, the body of a graduate student was found at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque. The student was shot to death and is the city’s ninth homicide investigation this year. This guy I talked to lives in Albuquerque and also told me that where he lives, police come by two to three times a week as part of their routine to monitor domestic violence in the area.
Another guy told me grew up in Albuquerque and has never felt like the crime was as bad as the neighborhood.
On my last day in the city, I saw some young adults who looked like they were in their late teens/early 20s about to break out in a fight at a gas station.
Photo of a street in Albuquerque during an Uber ride back from ABQ BioPark Zoo to Route 66 Hostel. I never took any photos of the street while walking because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
I didn’t want Albuquerque’s crime rate to completely deter me from giving it a chance and seeing what it has to offer, but it’s definitely not the friendliest travel destination, especially if you want to use public transportation and/or walk around. Many of the locals I spoke to claim there is a lot to do in the city, and I don’t doubt that. I’ll be writing about the few places I was able to see there. But as a first-time visitor who was cat called twice while walking on a main road and felt uneasy walking a mile or less in any direction from the hostel, my experience wasn’t very vibrant and was confined to just a few nearby places.
Visitors who come with a car will probably have a better time in Albuquerque. Who’s going to cat call you when you’re driving in a car?
Still, I have no regrets about having spent some time in the city. One thing that made it worthwhile are the people who live there – at least the ones I talked to. Everyone was friendly, helpful, nice, and they know what spots are worth your time. And, as always, it’s people who add color to travel experiences.
Claims about safety Albuquerque are all over the place, but in the three days I was there, I didn’t feel like it was as bad as what I had read on the Internet. (I survived unharmed and came out 100% alive!) By “5th most violent city” I was imagining that things were happening regularly in plain sight. As with all cities, you really just have to exercise common sense, follow your gut, don’t meander around alone at night, and stay away from certain areas.
This spontaneously planned trip with minimal preparation led me to a city with one of the highest crime rates in the United States, but it also lead me to a state I would have otherwise not visited. (Thanks for the deal, Amtrak!) The places I got to see were beautiful, and I hear the International Balloon Fiesta in October is amazing. I definitely wouldn’t mind coming back to Albuquerque to see that.
Most importantly, though, is that because of this trip, I was reminded of how lucky I am to live in a safe city and that I get to call Southern California my backyard 🙂