All About Albuquerque

Breaking Bad in New Mexico’s largest city

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones       

ALBUQUERQUE – NEW MEXICO’S LARGEST CITY – launched into the public consciousness through the wildly popular television series, Breaking Bad. Over the course of the series’ five years, the high desert city became a character in the plot and local tourism enjoyed a business surge as devotees make ABQ a stop on their travels through the Southwest.

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But aside from a small screen setting, Albuquerque has a rich history that stretches back hundreds of years. In our search for significant Native American sites we drove 40 minutes outside of town to the traditional pueblo community at Acoma Sky City. It was the perfect follow up to our visit to Chaco Canyon, since the Acoma people have Chacoan roots – they settled here when the great houses at Chaco Canyon were abandoned around 1200 AD.

“This is a place where tribal members can come back to the heart of the Acoma people,” explains our guide Robert as we depart for a 90-minute guided tour of the mesa top village.

new-mexico-townAlmost a dozen families representing traditional clans (including the Antelope, Sky, Roadrunner) still live in small adobe homes on top of the flat-topped sandstone hill, with no electricity and no running water. Taking the guided tour is the only way to visit their community. The tribal members encourage – and welcome – visitors who want to learn about Acoma’s culture and history.

“There are sacred sites here that mean a lot to us,” says Robert, “and there is symbolism here. For example, the number three is important as it represents the areas of settlement – Mesa Verde, Aztec, Chaco – before we came to this spot. The main ladder at the large kiva has three posts to honour the number three. The original village layout is three rows of small homes, aligned east-west.”

THE TOP OF THE MESA is a dry, windswept, largely treeless space (the one cottonwood tree is jokingly called the “Acoma National Forest”) but it is rich in historic buildings and cultural significance. It is peaceful and quiet; the smell of wood smoke drifts through the village’s dirt lane ways. Cliff swallows dart along the bluff’s edge and large black ravens ride the thermals.

The people of Acoma first encountered the Spanish conquistadors in 1540 as Coronado was searching for the famed Seven Cities of Gold and land to claim for New Spain. It is not a happy history. Coronado’s men thought the mesa rocks shimmering in the sunset was the site of a city of gold. They attacked, conquered and pressed many of the Acomans into slavery to build the enormous adobe San Esteban del Rey Mission Church.

“Our religion is connected to the land – rocks, trees, skies, birds, everything,” says Robert. “But the Spanish wanted to convert us to Christianity. The church’s massive ponderosa pine beams were cut and carried here on the shoulders of Acoma men. These beams are more than a foot in diameter and 40 feet long, but they were never allowed to touch the ground as they carried them from Mt. Taylor and up to the mesa top. Today we practice portions of both Catholicism and our own religion.”

new-mexico-museumAt the base of the mesa is the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum (the name means “a place prepared”), a state-of-the-art facility that captures the essence of ancestral places including Chaco, Mesa Verde, Aztec and the cultural pathway of the Acoma people. There are displays of the pottery of the region and on special event days visitors are able to experience the dance and music of what many consider to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America.

NEXT: AN ALBUQUERQUE PRIMER

AN ALBUQUERQUE PRIMER

TO DO:

You can tour many of the locations featured in Breaking Bad by trolley, RV, bicycle or self-guided in your own vehicle. Stops include The Candy Lady in Old Town Albuquerque who created the candy (meth) that became its own character in the ground breaking television series.

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History tells the story of the Atomic Age and the Cold War. Some of the guides are retired engineers and scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and at Los Alamos producing the first atomic bomb.

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EATING:

Albuquerque’s 66 Diner is a 50s-style blast from the past when Route 66 (“It runs from Chicago to L.A.”) was celebrated in song and folklore. The thick milkshakes (just milk, ice cream and flavours) have been voted ABQ’s best shakes eight years in a row. The walls and the menu are peppered with American nostalgia, from a collection of 500 PEZ dispensers to the popular Green Chile Cheeseburger.

Sandiago’s Mexican Grill – at the base of the tram up the Sandia Mountains – serves a Tres Queso Relleno (tortilla-crusted poblano chile filled with goat, Mexican cotija and Monterey Jack cheeses and topped with chile sauce) that was one of the best Southwest foods of our trip.

Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse recreates a Prohibition-era speakeasy: no sign out front and to gain entry you need to knock on an unmarked door and whisper a password mailed to you with your reservation confirmation. The eatery was a favourite with the Breaking Bad cast. The signature entrée is the Los Ranchos Star, a 20-oz ribeye that leaves plenty for leftovers. The gangster ambience saturates, from the password-coded entry to the costumed wait staff.

 

Who’s writing

Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).