Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque: welcome to crystal meth country
Interest in Walter White and the town he calls home has never been higher
Published 30/09/2013 | 02:54
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan originally set his pilot script in Riverside County, California, just east of Los Angeles.
But New Mexico offered a 25 per cent tax rebate to film productions, so the action was transplanted another 750 miles inland to Albuquerque. Five seasons later, the show has shot just one scene outside the state: a faux interview with New York-based broadcaster Charlie Rose, from last week's, penultimate instalment. Even snowy New Hampshire, which featured in the same episode, was recreated in New Mexico's Sandia mountains.
In fact, Albuquerque appears frequently on film and TV. It has stood in for Las Vegas, LA, Texas, Ohio, Afghanistan, Iraq and the planet Mars. In No Country For Old Men, it was passed off as El Paso. The Manhattan set of The Avengers was actually constructed inside the abandoned Albuquerque rail yards. Breaking Bad, however, is the first truly high-profile screen project in which the city plays itself. And New Mexico’s deserts, its cloud-spattered skies, and its Pueblo Revival architecture have become indivisible from the drama.
It's just before closing time at the Candy Lady in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the quaint little sweetshop is still remarkably busy. Locals have long been familiar with proprietor Debbie Ball’s exquisite homemade fudge, but it’s another product that attracts the out-of-towners. Ball, who is 61, created the blue rock sugar that posed as crystal meth for the first two seasons of Breaking Bad, the pitch-dark TV drama about Walter White, a milquetoast chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine magnate.
The Candy Lady has been in business since 1980, but when the recession bit and the store faced financial oblivion, Ball took a leaf out of Walt's book and started pushing one-dollar "dime bags" of her blue meth candy to the public. After the show's star Bryan Cranston handed one to David Letterman on air last July, she sold 30,000 bags in 12 months, profits increased by 20 per cent, and the counterfeit Class A now accounts for a quarter of her daily sales.
Like its most famous fictional resident, Albuquerque has always been overlooked and underestimated, neglected by visitors to New Mexico in favour of its near neighbour, Santa Fe. But thanks to Breaking Bad – which comes to its dreaded conclusion last night – the city is in the middle of an unlikely tourism boom.
The ABQ Trolley Company's weekly tour of the show’s locations invariably sells out months in advance. Routes, a bike rental store, runs five separate "Biking Bad" excursions including "Walt's Descent" and "The Pinkman Experience".
A downtown spa's "Bathing Bad" bath salts became the second most popular product on the novelty mail-order site Firebox, behind a tent that looks like a VW van. The top seller at the city's Rebel Donut bakery is the Breaking Bad "Blue Sky" donut – topped with blue icing and sugar crystals.
The Candy Lady also sells Breaking Bad T-shirts, "Heisenberg" pork-pie hats, and $35 Pez dispensers doctored by a local artist to resemble characters from the series – Jesse Pinkman just sold out. "I'm meeting people from all over the world," Ball says, "who would never have been here at all if it weren’t for the show."
"Albuquerque itself has become… a really important character in our show," Cranston said recently. "It gave it a justifiable location. A sound, solid place that not many people have related to. They've seen Los Angeles, they've seen New York, but they haven't really seen Albuquerque."
Well, now they have. At Twisters, the fast food restaurant better known to Breaking Bad fans as Los Pollos Hermanos, the guest book at the counter has been recently signed by visitors from as far afield as Norway, South Africa, Bangladesh, Bolivia and Malaysia. Megan Mayo Ryan and her colleagues at the Albuquerque Conventions and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) were wary of the show's unsavoury subject matter when they first heard about it. Now they're all avid viewers.
Before Breaking Bad, Albuquerque’s main tourist draws were its native American art and annual hot air balloon fiesta, which begins on Saturday. The majority of visitors were middle-aged couples from neighbouring states. Yet in the 12 months since it was added to their website, the ACVB's Breaking Bad page has attracted 36,000 hits, many from the UK.
Ryan arranges to meet at the Grove café, where Gus Fring's former methylamine supplier, Lydia, likes to hold her assignations. It's at the corner of Walter Street. At a recent film tourism panel, Ryan recalls, she listened to representatives from North Carolina discuss their experience following the filming of The Hunger Games in their state, while a delegate from Florida explained how holidaymakers could visit the real dolphin star of 2011's Dolphin Tale. Breaking Bad presented less tourist-friendly attractions: a carwash, a fast-food joint, a private home. So the ACVB used those locations as jumping-off points for other activities. Ryan says, "We put together a visitors' map that said, 'If you go to the carwash, why not try this nearby museum?'"
Miguel Jaramillo had just lost his job in retail when he found his calling as a Breaking Bad super-fan. The 28-year-old Albuquerque native, who shaves his head and grows a Walt-shaped goatee whenever the show is on the air, has logged some 70 locations on his Instagram account, " Breaking Bad Locations", which now has more than 11,000 followers. This year he launched an app, Touring Bad, which lets visitors take a self-guided smartphone tour.
Standing outside the White family home, on a quiet residential street in the city's northeastern suburbs, Jaramillo points out the spot on the driveway where a set of truck skid marks from the episode "Ozymandias" were visible until very recently. Its real occupants are a friendly, retired couple who have owned the house since it was built in the 1960s. "They're great with fans, as long as the fans are respectful," Jaramillo says. "They've had a few try to break into the back yard and take pictures of the swimming pool. A couple of people tried to throw pizzas onto the roof."
Naturally, there are those in Albuquerque who would prefer their city not be known for a show about crystal meth. In the local newspaper, following her first interview about her controversial candy, Ball says she "was the subject of all the letters to the editor, and all of them were bad. The people who object assume that the show is glorifying meth, and it absolutely isn't." Ball ought to know: her daughter-in-law died from a meth overdose last year.
The state's government is certainly happy about the Breaking Bad effect. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez recently signed the so-called " Breaking Bad bill", bumping up the tax-break for film productions to 30 per cent. There are persuasive rumours that JJ Abrams plans to shoot parts of his forthcoming Star Wars sequel there, while Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul is expected to begin shooting shortly.
Interest in Walter White's hometown is at its peak, and will inevitably decline after tomorrow night – when, one way or another, Walt will surely meet his end. Yet Keith West-Harrison of Great Face and Body, creators of the "Bathing Bad" bath salts, disagrees that Albuquerque's Breaking Bad moment must pass. "The Sopranos ended in 2006," he says, "but there's still a tour company in New Jersey charging $46 a head to go see where so-and-so got whacked."
Reality TV: The locations
1. Jesse Pinkman’s House
9809 Margot Street, Albuquerque, NM 87104
Jesse’s house is in the upmarket Country Club neighbourhood of Albuquerque, just around the corner from a location in the John Travolta comedy Wild Hogs (2007) – which was set in Ohio.
2 Java Joe’s
906 Park Ave SW, Albuquerque, NM
The café below Tuco’s HQ from season one, where Walt first identified himself as Heisenberg – and blew out the windows with a batch of fake, exploding meth.
3. Combo’s Corner
Corner of 1st, 2nd and Atlantic Streets SW. Approx address on Google maps: 863 2nd Street SW
This nondescript intersection has seen a lot of Breaking Bad drama: it’s where Jesse’s pal Combo was shot, and Walt ran down two rival drug dealers in his Pontiac Aztec.
4. Albuquerque Rail Yards
Commercial Street SE NM 87102
The railway yards were used to shoot the now-iconic “All Hail the King” Breaking Bad poster campaign. A regular filming location, they were also the site of the New York set for The Avengers.
5. Los Pollos Hermanos
4257 Isleta Blvd SW, Albuquerque, NM 87105
Gus Fring’s restaurant is really Twisters, a real South-western fast-food chain specialising in burgers and burritos. According to Miguel Jaramillos, however, the best breakfast burrito in Albuquerque can be found at Golden Pride BBQ, Chicken & Ribs.
6. The Grove Café and Market
600 Central Ave SE
The upmarket café where Lydia met Walt, Mike and, more recently, Todd, is at the corner of Central Avenue and – would you believe it – Walter Street.
7. The Crossroads Motel
1001 Central Ave NE, Albuquerque, NM
This motel, known as the “crystal palace,” was the home of meth-addicted prostitute, Wendy.
8. A1A Carwash
9516 Snow Heights Circle NE, Albuquerque, NM 87112
The A1A carwash (motto: “have an A1 day!”) is in fact the Octopus carwash motto: “Many hands to serve you.”
9. The White House
3828 Piermont Dr NE, Albuquerque, NM 87111
Walter White’s home has been owned by the same now-retired couple since it was built. They’re friendly with fans, unless the fans try to throw pizzas on to their roof.
10. Saul’s Office
9800 Montgomery Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87111
Saul Goodman’s office is now home to a nightclub called Hooligans.
11. The John B Robert Dam
Corner of Juan Tabo Blvd and Osuna Rd NE
Map coordinates 35°8’20”N 106°30’52”W
This photogenic spot is where Jesse and Walt were told to wait for the vacuum cleaner repair man.