New Mexico enchants with balloons, chiles and a ‘Breaking Bad’ tour – Orange County Register

Rising 10 stories tall, the planet’s largest flying pig is surreally inflating near my feet, while overhead a real therapy dog named Bandit co-pilots a soaring multicolored hot air balloon. Hundreds of propane-fueled spectacles create a rainbow-bright kaleidoscope in the skies of quirky Albuquerque — look there’s Yoda!  I’m in the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World,” which is in the “Chile Capital of the World” although I’ll get to that peppery part later.

Albuquerque’s famed annual International Balloon Fiesta is like some fantastical, jolly fire-breathing city. For nine days in October, thousands of spectators arrive pre-dawn and meander among flattened balloons as they ginormously expand into eye-popping rows of towering wind-spurred wonders. Just after sunrise, with a whooshing sound and heat of their burners, it’s a mass magical up, up, and away. Wait, is that a floating cheetah?

Holy cow! Massive dairy mascot Airabelle gets ready to launch at the 49th International Balloon Fiesta. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

The balloon extravaganza isn’t the only high during my first trip to vibrant New Mexico. Albuquerque, as fellow “Breaking Bad” fans know, was the backdrop of the hit series, so I’ll tour past film locations in a derelict RV that resembles Walter and Jesse’s rolling meth lab. I’ll also visit nearby history-rich Santa Fe, where I’ll be on the tail of Billy the Kid when I’m not on the Margarita Trail.

Alert your tongue. New Mexico may be the only state with an official question enacted by its Legislature: “Red or green?” refers to what kind of chiles you prefer when ordering cuisine. (Many locals answer “Christmas,” which means both.) This spicy staple is everywhere. Green chile kimchi, green chile pesto, red chile mustard, cherry chile truffles, chile door wreaths, candles, car air fresheners. I lip-smack New Mexican-made hatch green chile white wine and chimayo red chile red at Noisy Water Winery in Albuquerque’s 1706-founded Old Town. A kick indeed.

Afterwards, I amble down adobe-lined streets to The Candy Lady and chat with Debbie Ball, the cheeky 69-year-old owner who was once picketed for and still sells X-rated chocolate phalluses. She also was enlisted by the prop department of “Breaking Bad” to cook up fake clear and blue crystal meth used on the show’s five seasons — it’s actually rock candy that she deals to tourists at her store.

The Candy Lady shop made the fake blue meth for “Breaking Bad” and features this catchy display. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

“We sell a little dollar dime bag and a $10 distributor bag. People say, ‘How come it’s not labeled?’ I say, ‘Since when do you label drugs?’ It all comes in little brown bags.” (Note to self: don’t put in my carry-on.)

For the Balloon Fiesta alone (the purported birthplace of the breakfast burrito), New Mexico nails its Land of Enchantment nickname. Set in a 72-acre park, the hypnotic jamboree features a slew of events including evening Balloon Glows, when it appears massive teardrop-shaped neon UFOs commandeer the grassy field. Next year is the 50th anniversary ( with more stratospheric surprises.

The “Dawn Patrol” launches before sunrise at the Balloon Fiesta to check wind speeds, currents and landing sites. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

I’m planted on earth my first festival day, before being invited to sail the next morning with Bandit “The Balloon Dog,” a mellow 9-year-old Queensland heeler who when aloft pokes his furry head out the window of the passenger wicker basket. Unfortunately, brisk winds cancel our flight and others on two separate festival days. “One problem would be landing,” says pilot Jeff Haliczer, a retired special ed teacher and Bandit’s dad. Finding enough terra firma is already tricky — ballooning is year-round in Albuquerque, so residents are asked to lay out a huge “X” or a white sheet to indicate its OK to plop on their property. (Just thinking how insane it would be to see 60-foot-wide Hamlet the hog descend in your backyard.)

Fire-prevention mascot Smokey Bear was one of 80 special shapes at the 49th International Balloon Fiesta. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Basically, pilots can control a balloon up and down but they depend on currents at different altitudes to travel horizontally. “I chew gum when I fly so I’m able to spit over the side and watch as it falls to see what the wind layers down below are doing,” pilot Cindy Heinrich explains. “Some pilots also drop little bits of shaving cream or whipped cream.”

Santa Fe’s historic Federal Building is now the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and a standout downtown. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

From Albuquerque, I drive one hour to atmospheric Santa Fe, the oldest capital city in the U.S. You can literally step back four centuries strolling downtown among adobe Pueblo and colonial landmarks of the Spanish, Mexican and indigenous past. Native American artists sell turquoise jewelry under the portico of the low-slung 1610-built Palace of the Governors, home of 19th-century governor Lew Wallace while he penned the best-selling tome, “Ben Hur.” Billy the Kid lived here during his young teens, supposedly washing dishes at what is now the La Fonda Hotel. Later, after the notorious outlaw was wanted for murder, Wallace refused to pardon him.

I’m peering at the plaque denoting the jail site where Billy spent three months in 1880-1881, when a spiffy guy approaches and cajoles, “Come in, I’ll give you a sample for your eyes.” It’s now a shop marketing pricey cannabis skin care products. Around the corner, a competing plaque also claims to be the prison where The Kid cooled in a cell.

Popular chile wreaths are sold at a Santa Fe shop alongside cow skulls reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Since Santa Fe is artsy, I’ll soon gape at renowned paintings of a horse’s skull and a ram’s cranium at the esteemed Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Then on to the tequila-splashed Margarita Trail. Don’t try this in one stint, but trailblazers can get their $3 “passport” stamped (good for discounts and prizes) at 42 places concocting special libations such as Smoked Sage Margaritas and Strawberry-Jalapeño Margaritas. Santa Fe is also a gastro mecca — top marks go to Sazon restaurant, although being a veggie I passed on the chile-infused garlic-citrus baby grasshoppers.

“We call this time-traveling for the palate,” says Bonnie Bennett, co-owner of Kakawa Chocolate House, which makes sacred Mesoamerican cacao drinks from 2,500-year-old recipes. I lap up a Chile Chocolate Elixir.

Live killer snakes and odd artifacts are on display at the American International Rattlesnake Museum. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

Back in Albuquerque, I confront my worst fears. Hello, albino Western Diamondback and your writhing cousins. The American International Rattlesnake Museum boasts more species of slithery venomous serpents than anywhere in the world. It’s also likely the only museum that presents patrons with a “Certificate of Bravery.”

Next, I’m inside a deliberately dinged-up duct tape-patched RV with an onboard “meth lab” outfitted with “cooking” apparatus. “This is a 1987 Fleetwood Bounder, the same make and model used on ‘Breaking Bad,’” enthuses tour operator Frank Sandoval, who portrayed a background DEA agent on one episode. “Obviously we put the bullet holes in the door.”

Guests on the Breaking Bad RV Tour get to walk through a working car wash that was the fictional money-laundering front on the series. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

The Breaking Bad RV Tour is a hoot. Sandoval yells, “Rolling!” and plays video clips of scenes before arriving at the corresponding 20 film locations. We eat breakfast burritos inside Los Pollos Hermanos, the fast-food front of drug kingpin Gus Fring. (It’s really called Twisters.)  We walk through the car wash that was the money-laundering business for Bryan Cranston’s lead character, Walt. We glimpse Walt and wife Skyler’s tract home from our frayed seats.

When the wild tour ends, I head to a former mental hospital. That would be the restored Hotel Parq Central and its rooftop Apothecary Lounge. Here, you’ll have a prime seat for one of Albuquerque’s stellar perks —  blazing sunsets that paint the vast Big Sky in psychedelic reds and orange. Truly the perfect spot to hoist a Southwestern-style Prickly Pear Margarita — just don’t make mine with a red-hot chile salted rim.