If you’re as obsessed with Breaking Bad as we are, you might want to take a tour of New Mexico. From the city of Albuquerque to the arid desert nearby, the region hosts a wealth of Breaking Bad filming locations and is well worth exploring in its own right.
According to series creator Vince Gilligan, it was pure chance that brought Breaking Bad to Albuquerque. Shooting was originally scheduled for California, and only moved to New Mexico to take advantage of tax breaks for filmmakers. That lucky change of setting, however, gave Breaking Bad an extra character – the brooding desert landscape that lends it the flavour of a latter-day Western.
While Breaking Bad’s cameras seldom dwell on recognizable Albuquerque landmarks, eagle-eyed devotees have mapped out real-life locations including the fast-food restaurant that became Los Pollos Hermanos, and the originals of Walter White’s house, Saul Goodman’s law office, and the retirement home where Gus Fring meets his explosive end. Stop-offs on Breaking Bad bus tours enable visitors to buy plastic bags of bright-blue candy, or Bathing Bad bath salts, that look remarkably like Heisenberg’s trademark blue meth.
Beyond such specific locations, though, lies the fact that New Mexico itself is imbued with an awe-inspiring sense of infinite space, and infinite possibilities. Much like Walter White, a humdrum high-school chemistry teacher who escapes his ordinary life to become crystal-meth kingpin Heisenberg, Albuquerque is a normal city perched on the edge of a primeval wilderness. To venture into the bleak no-man’s-land where they conduct their business, all White and sorcerer’s apprentice Jesse Pinkman have to do is keep on driving when the tarmac runs out. Search on Google Earth for ABQ Studios, for example, where Breaking Bad is based, switch to Street View and face in the opposite direction, and there it is: the boundless desert, stretching away to the horizon.
If watching Breaking Bad entices you to see New Mexico for yourself, you’ll almost certainly begin by flying into Albuquerque. Framed by the Sandia Mountains to the west, which glow a glorious gold at sunset, it’s a sprawling Sun Belt giant that still retains its Spanish core, centring on an ancient plaza. Two of its most conspicuous features barely make it to the screen in Breaking Bad: the Rio Grande river, which flows south through the city towards the frontier with Mexico, and the similarly mythic Route 66, which cuts across the centre en route to California. Both epitomize New Mexico’s historic role as the meeting place of diverse peoples.
The state’s longest-standing inhabitants, the Pueblo peoples, have been joined in the last half-dozen centuries by the Navajo and Apache, migrating south from Canada; the Spaniards, who headed north from Mexico during the sixteenth century, long before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock; and the Anglo Americans, who started to stream in on the Santa Fe Trail two hundred years ago. All those cultures continue to co-exist, making New Mexico a hybrid of the Old and New Wests, where Pueblo Indians, bedecked in turquoise body paint and eagle feathers, dance to the beat of deerskin drums at the foot of the same mountains that hold the secret laboratories of Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed and future weapon technologies are even now being devised.
Santa Fe, New Mexico’s oldest city, 95km north of Albuquerque – a cheap and easy day-trip on the wonderful Rail Runner light-rail system – is deservedly the prime destination for visitors. The strict rule that requires every building to look like it’s made of adobe takes some getting used to – even the multi-storey car parks look like Indian prayer chambers – but it’s a lovely place, small enough to explore on foot, and filled with monuments, restaurants, shops and galleries. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, where Jane kept promising to take Jesse but sadly never did, is just one of several excellent museums.
To explore the rest of the state, you’ll need a car, or perhaps a Heisenberg-style RV. Wherever you head, you’re guaranteed stupendous desert scenery; the southeast corner, for example, holds the dazzling dunes of White Sands and the underground labyrinth of Carlsbad Caverns, not to mention remote Lincoln, where Billy the Kid shot his way to fame.
It’s northwest New Mexico that’s most likely to fire the imagination though. Follow the green ribbon of the Rio Grande for 110km north of Santa Fe, climb to a high plateau overlooked by the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and you’ll come to Taos, where twin thousand-year-old pueblo dwellings – genuine adobe this time – stand as astonishing reminders of North America’s Native past. The rolling hills to the south hold time-forgotten Hispanic villages like Chimayó, where a tiny and impossibly pretty wooden chapel attracts Catholic pilgrims from throughout the southwest. Or head 100km west of Albuquerque to Acoma Pueblo, set atop an isolated mesa way out in the desert, and described by Spanish conquistadores five centuries ago as the most impregnable natural fortress they’d ever seen.
The brand new Rough Guide to Southwest USA is out on Oct 1st.