Albuquerque beyond Breaking Bad

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Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque (Image: New Yorker)

A cult show Breaking Bad resumes tonight for its fifth (part II) and final season, completing the transition of a mild-mannered high school teacher Walter White, played masterfully by Bryan Cranston, into a drug cook and kingpin par excellence who calls himself Heisenberg. The show’s success spurred great interest in the city where it’s set and filmed, Albuquerque, New Mexico, to a point where even the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau provides a guide to exploring Breaking Bad locations. And local businesses are following the suit by offering popular new items such as blue ice candy – a nod to the show’s iconic blue meth – Bathing Bad bath salts, or Heisenberg’s Dark Ale.

Breaking Bad fans who make a pilgrimage to Albuquerque want to know: how bad is it really? Well, it tends to score on the high side (pun intended) among U.S. cities with substantive crime issues but has a long way to go to “top performers” such as Detroit. And of course the key principle of real estate – location, location, location – applies as it does everywhere, so neighborhoods vary.

Heisenberg apron

Heisenberg apron

I’m sure suburbs are nice but I can only speak for the area where I stayed, downtown – in Hyatt Regency no less, and… well, let’s just stay it wasn’t the most pleasant place. During the day streets seemed eerily empty with most fellow pedestrians being heavily tattooed young men with swaying gait and empty gaze. At night I wouldn’t advise strolling solo. Rachel Syme, a New Yorker writer who grew up in Albuquerque, aptly captured the city’s edgy feel in a recent article:

On television, Albuquerque still looks like the Wild West, a scorched, hazy, lawless place where rugged individualism might just tip over into criminal behavior at any moment—it’s not wholly inaccurate. (…) The isolated oddness of the Southwest dictates Walt’s transformation into a one-man axis of evil as much as anything else; the possibilities for empire can feel endless when the sky goes on forever.

Historic Route 66 that passes through the city, now as Central Avenue, was once Albuquerque’s main commercial corridor with treasured landmarks such as KiMo Theater (423 Central Avenue NW) to prove it. KiMo was built in 1927 in the beautiful Art Deco-Pueblo Revival style. The area declined in the 1960s when the construction of Interstate 40 diverted traffic, businesses, and shoppers away from downtown to the suburbs. KiMo narrowly escaped demolition but today is back to its past glory. There are other signs of downtown revival, with arts and entertainment venues, and interesting restaurants. My favorite unexpected find was Slate Street Café (515 Slate Ave NW), a perfect lunch spot for comfort food with a modern twist including country fried chicken and crispy asparagus fries.

East of downtown along Central Ave there is another part of Albuquerque on the rebound, Nob Hill. That stretch of Central historically had an interesting dual identity as both east Albuquerque’s main street and an important thoroughfare, part of Route 66. Today, in addition to quaint neon signs and roadside motels that are a blast from the past, it features trendy restaurants, cafes, curio shops (including mandatory Breaking Bad memorabilia), and some great murals.

KiMo Theater

Gorgeously restored KiMo Theater

Nob Hill

Nob Hill

Nob Hill

More Nob Hill murals

And then there is the Old Town, clustered around a Spanish central plaza just west off downtown that seems preserved in time and oddly carved out from Albuquerque’s urban roughness. This is the historic heart of the city, founded in 1706 and named after the viceroy of New Spain who was also the Duke of Albuquerque. The small plaza is anchored to the north by San Felipe de Neri church built in 1793 and surrounded by about ten blocks of historic adobe buildings with shops, restaurants, and art galleries punctuated by colorful alleys.

San Felipe de Neri Church

San Felipe de Neri Church

San Felipe de Neri

Beautiful church interior

Pueblo House Pottery

Pueblo House Pottery

Old Town Albuquerque

Old Town Albuquerque shopping, of course featuring flute-playing Kokopelli

New Mexico is famous for its Anaheim chili peppers and they are on display everywhere in the Old Town. Delightfully crimson – and hot – bunches of dried peppers are a common motif. And New Mexicans take their peppers very seriously: there is even The Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, the only international, non-profit organization devoted to education and research related to hot peppers.

Chili peppers

Chili peppers are everywhere in the Old Town

chili peppers

Red, white, and blue

From the Old Town I also managed to get a glimpse of another Albuquerque hallmark: balloons. The popularity of ballooning here is connected to the so-called Albuquerque box – a set of predictable wind patterns that can be used to navigate balloons. Every fall the city hosts the International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon event in the world. I missed the fiesta but nonetheless caught this great vista:

Albuquerque balloons

Colorful balloons soar against Albuquerque’s ultra-blue sky

Further afield the urban core of Albuquerque recedes abruptly and nature takes over. One amazing place just on the outskirts of the city that feels miles away in terms of wilderness and solitude is the Petroglyph National Monument, a 17-mile stretch of New Mexico’s West Mesa basalt escarpment. It is one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America with hundreds of symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. This place feels positively otherworldly and remote despite its proximity to the city…

Petroglyph National Monument

Petroglyph-rich escarpment to the left, Albuquerque in the distance

Petroglyph National Monument

Can you spot a petroglyph spiral here?

Petroglyph National Monument

My favorite one

Petroglyph National Monument

More petroglyphs

Petroglyph National Monument

Aliens were here, too?

Did I mention a close encounter with a coyote?

Petroglyph National Monument

Seeing this guy run across our path certainly was an unexpected adrenaline rush!

No visit to Albuquerque is complete without a vertical ascent via Sandia tramway just east of the city to the Sandia Peak rising at 10,378 foot in the Cibola National Forest. The best time to go: sunset! Amazing 11,000 square-mile panoramic views of Albuquerque and the surrounding New Mexico wilderness…

Sandia TramwaySandia TramwaySandia TramwaySandia Tramway Further away but certainly worth the drive is Bandelier National Monument, a unique place I already blogged about.

Albuquerque is a city of mixed influences – Native American, Spanish, Wild West settler, contemporary American. It is also a city of contrasts between struggling urban revival and breath-taking nature, between mundane and limitless. I felt this odd, exciting tension and Breaking Bad managed to capture it. In Rachel Syme’s words:

Breaking Bad is the first story to truly commit the full spectrum of New Mexico to film: the grandiose vistas, the soaring altitudes, the banal office complexes, the Kokopellis and Kachina dolls, the seamy warehouses, the marshmallow clouds. The show seems to root itself deeper in the landscape with every new montage. It has become our newest monument. (…)

We New Mexicans are, in many ways, car-bound consumers crawling over the landscape and its resources like other Americans, with the strip malls and Super Walmarts and S.U.V.s to prove it. And yet the state is a flurry of contrasts; the impoverished schools on the reservations struggle while bright scientific minds arrive in Los Alamos to split atoms. The sunsets are rosy, or blood orange, or sometimes a shocking lavender; the night is pitch black, punctuated only by Cassiopeia. This palpable strangeness, the juxtaposition of extreme mountainous beauty with a noir, dull flatness, is always the big surprise to newcomers.

Ready to watch the final season of Breaking Bad? Or better yet, visit Albuquerque and experience it first hand.

Watch and read on:

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