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Albuquerque: Breaking Bad fever

There’s a giddiness in the air not usually associated with waiting at a chain fast food outlet in the interchangeable suburbs of a US city. On a particularly identikit stretch of American soullessness, a burrito joint called Twisters is doing an unexpectedly roaring trade. Punters are having to compete for space to sign the guestbook.

Albuquerque: Breaking Bad fever
Image: By John Phelan (Own work) (CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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The secret is contained in the ‘Los Pollos Hermanos’ logo painted on the wall by the entrance. Twisters at 4257 Isleta Boulevard SW, Albuquerque, is better known to millions as the front for Gus Fring’s meth lab in Breaking Bad. And a couple of posters on the wall proudly confirm that it’s the real deal — as they do outside the Lazer Tag in the Hinkle Family Fun Center and just about any other place that has made a fleeting appearance in the chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord saga.

Albuquerque has finally taken Breaking Bad in an enthusiastic embrace, long after the show put on a somewhat unusual public display of affection for New Mexico’s largest city.

It’s a city that displays a certain awkwardness in the spotlight. It’s not a look-at-me kind of place, like ultra-arty state capital Santa Fe, just an hour up the interstate. Albuquerque tends to keep its head down, go about its business and enjoy one of the planet’s most enchanting climates. Sun comes as standard, the surrounding desert conditions make it one of the world’s hot air ballooning hotspots and if it gets too hot, the longest cable car ride in the US will take you up to cooler climes. Namely, the 10,500ft Sandia Mountains that loom over the city like Table Mountain looms over Cape Town.

Megan Mayo Ryan, the local tourism authority’s senior communications manager, admits Albuquerque was reluctant to buy into the Breaking Bad hysteria due to its dark subject matter. “The popularity of the show during the later seasons helped the Albuquerque tourism industry take notice,” she says. “But once operators started offering tours and experiences related to the show, we had more to promote from a film tourism perspective.”

The ABQ Trolley Co was the first to stumble across Breaking Bad’s unusual tourism appeal. One of the company’s co-owners, Jesse Herron, says the BaD tour was supposed to be a one-off, held on 15 July 2012 to coincide with the start of the show’s fifth series. “Tickets sold out in the first day, so we added another tour. Tickets for that sold out even quicker.”

The tour loops round otherwise unremarkable sites such as Los Pollos Hermanos, the infamous car wash, and Walter White’s house, but it’s selling out up to three months in advance. Others are muscling in on the act too. Routes Rentals is offering Breaking Bad-themed cycling tours and the tourist board has put together a map of locations for those who want to explore them at their own pace.

Ambling around Albuquerque, dipping between microbreweries and classic retro Route 66 architecture, some of the density the show is renowned for begins to unravel. The title of the episode where Hank is killed — To’hajiilee — comes from the name of the desert Indian reservation where the climactic scene was filmed. About an hour west of downtown, it’s also where Walt’s original trousers-off meth lab disaster took place.

And then there’s the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, where Walt conducts his first negotiations as his drug kingpin alter ego in Series Two. A little scout through the displays throws up something rather interesting. The name of the German scientist heading up the Nazis’ atomic research during the Second World War? Well, it’s none other than Werner Heisenberg…