I guess one of the perks of cross-country train travel is that you have the rare opportunity to enjoy the change of scenery when you travel from one region to another. This experience is pretty much non-existent for air travel while you need to invest more time to cover the same ground if you go on a road trip. During my backpacking trip across the United States in summer 2010, our desire to reach the Grand Canyon necessitates us to pass through the state of New Mexico and we decided to pin Albuquerque as a designated stop.

Sandia Mountains
The Sandia Mountains provide a stunning backdrop to Albuquerque.

If you want a glimpse of the old Wild West of arid landscapes, tumbleweeds and abandoned churches in the middle-of-nowhere, this is the train ride to get on. The breathtaking scenery also provides context on America’s natural and cultural diversity that is totally different from where I studied (Pennsylvania) but has a common ground in being part of the “United” states. Apart from the desolate desert scenery, here are three things to do while you’re in Albuquerque.

GET YOUR CHILE ON AT CECILIA’S CAFE

If you ask me to sum up Albuquerque in one word, it’ll be “chile.” It is one of the states in the Southwest where the locals take their hot and spicy seriously. Albuquerque is big on their red and green chiles with the latter being the fiery sibling; it has become a staple to New Mexicans as much as cili kicap is to Malaysians. If you only have one meal to try here, it has to be at Cecilia’s Cafe, having reached No 45 in Travel Channel’s Chowdown Countdown with their famous 10 lbs Fireman’s Burrito. Meagan and Mike, our kind Couchsurfing hosts, brought us there for breakfast where I had huge plate of Huevos Rancheros (Rancher’s Eggs) with green chiles of course. What really got me hooked to Tex-Mex food is the heat and spices used to flavor up the dishes, which really jives well with my South East Asian palate.

A hearty plate of Huevos Rancheros with spicy green chile to start the day. Photo courtesy of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog.

TRAVEL BACK IN TIME AT OLD TOWN

This is where you can see a piece of the old West. Located west of downtown, Old Town was established by the Spanish in 1706 and marked by historic the San Felipe de Neri Church on the north side. After a big meal, it’s best to meander around the plaza where you can immerse yourself in the cute flat-roofed adobe architecture found dominant throughout the state. Being the number one attraction in Albuquerque you’re bound to get an influx of tourists in the area but it’s still worthwhile for you to indulge in some handicraft shopping at the Trading Post or try some red chile chocolate courtesy of the controversial Candy Lady.

Adobe architecture abound at historic Old Town.
Clockwise from left: San Felipe de Neri Church; dried chiles as decoration; handicraft shopping at the plaza.

DELVE INTO NEW MEXICO’S HISTORY AT ALBUQUERQUE MUSEUM

While Old Town dishes out the style, the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History provides the substance. Located east of Old Town, the museum is part of a complex together with the Museum of Natural History, Explora, Turquoise Museum and Rattlesnake Museum. It acts as a repository of art and artifacts from the American Southwest thus making an excellent crash course on understanding the state’s intertwining history with the Native Americans, the Spanish colonists and later Mexico. Expect to see archaeological findings of ancient tribes from the Rio Grande Valley, conquistador treasures of New Spain and a melting pot of colorful contemporary folk art.

Indulge in the strong Spanish-Mexican cultural ties at the Albuquerque Museum.
Strong Spanish & Catholic historical ties can be seen at the Albuquerque Museum.

Nowadays, Albuquerque is famously known to be the home of Breaking Bad where you could actually sign up for a Breaking Bad Tour. Setting aside your drug-dealing high-school teacher, this town is worthy of a visit if you ever plan to venture to the Southwest. My only regret is that we could only spend two full days there so we hadn’t enough time to take the Sandia Peak Tramway or explore the Petroglyph National Monument but it was two days well spent. So, if you’re ever in Albuquerque do soak in the sun, dance in the dunes and if it gets too cold at night there’s plenty of chile to heat you up.


This post is part of The Great American Adventure backpacking trip in summer 2010 with two of my buddies. With Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass, we visited 11 cities, 4 college towns, 2 national parks and 1 town dubbed The Sex Change Capital of the US.

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