You don’t have to go very far to experience the Land of Enchantment.
Destination: Las Cruces.
“Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way”
Steppenwolf sang it best in “Born to Be Wild” – there’s just something magical about a road trip. In our exasperatingly over-scheduled world, there’s something transcendent about throwing out the itinerary and setting off on an open-ended adventure. No plans, no obligations, no iPhone alarm reminders. Just an adventurous spirit, “like a true nature’s child,” exploring and experiencing. While the entire Southwest provides enough wide open spaces to satisfy even the most restless gypsy, we felt a pull toward our easterly neighbor, New Mexico. The Land of Enchantment seemed like the perfect place to satisfy our vehicular wanderlust, with the added bonus that one of its most storied and interesting cities, Las Cruces, is less than six hours from Phoenix. We packed our bags, gassed up the car and hit the road.
The drive to Las Cruces is blissfully simple – a straight shot on the I-10 East. After driving for a couple hours, we heeded our hunger twinges and stopped for breakfast in Tucson at The B Line (621 N. Fourth Ave., Tucson, 520-882-7575, blinerestaurant.com). Cage-free eggs, carne asada, potato and cheese burritos hit the spot, as did the icy NOLA chicory coffee we ordered for the road at Sparkroot (245 E. Congress St., Tucson, 520-623-4477, sparkroot.com). Downtown Tucson is a great pitstop, with plenty of restaurants and shops to fill the time while you’re stretching your legs.
Our next stop was a detour to Whisper’s Ranch Bed & Breakfast (1490 AZ Hwy 83, Elgin, 520-455-9246, whispersranch.com), a B&B founded by Toni Leo and her late husband on the property adjacent to Whisper’s Sanctuary, a nonprofit animal sanctuary they created to provide permanent homes for abused, abandoned and retired animals. The sanctuary is currently home to about 14 horses, a pack of geese, goats, burros and dogs, including a retired Border Patrol dog. Guests of the five-room B&B can tour the sanctuary and spend time with the animals. Leo also operates Sparky’s Cantina, a gourmet vegetarian, vegan and allergy-free food mobile to benefit the sanctuary, and, as a food allergy sufferer herself, she is passionate about accommodating guests’ special dietary needs. The B&B is a bit off the beaten path, but the rolling dirt roads, untouched meadows and opportunity to connect with animals make it a unique destination worth seeking out.
After a restorative pause in Elgin, we fueled up on burgers and fries at The Cafe (3280 AZ Hwy 82, Sonoita, 520-455-5044, cafesonoita.com) and got back on the I-10. The hour-long drive to the New Mexico border whizzed by uneventfully, save for billboards incessantly trumpeting The Thing, a roadside attraction on the way. We passed on that one. The flat road seemed infinite as saguaros gave way to Joshua trees and eventually scrub-brush. After crossing the border, we beelined to Las Cruces – only two hours away.
Las Cruces Country Music Festival
Kenny Rogers and Dustin Lynch headline this emerging powerhouse festival, with workshops and meet-and-greets with the stars.
Southern New Mexico Wine Festival
New Mexico’s thriving wine industry is showcased at this fest, complete with arts and crafts vendors, live music and, of course, chiles.
Hatch Chile Festival
Celebrate the chile harvest with a carnival, parades, chile eating contests, cook-offs and more. hatchchilefest.com
History and Mystery
Las Cruces, the second-largest city in New Mexico after Albuquerque, was first colonized by the Spanish in 1598. The “City of the Crosses” maintains that historical spirit today, with Spanish colonial-inspired architecture and remnants of early settlements. We stayed at Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces (705 E. Telshor Blvd., Las Cruces, 575-522-4300, hotelencanto.com), designed to evoke Spanish and Mexican colonial history. It works – it felt more like someone’s historical hacienda than a modern hotel, with custom stone statues imported from Mexico and wooden santos crafted by New Mexican artisans.
Truly historical buildings abound in Old Mesilla, Las Cruces’ historical quarter. New shops have popped up among the charmingly ramshackle old homes and dusty streets, but the epicenter is La Posta de Mesilla (2410 Calle de San Albino, Mesilla, 575-524-3524, laposta-de-mesilla.com), a restaurant housed in an 1850s stagecoach stop that became a hotel and restaurant. The hotel part is gone, but the restaurant has expanded to include several rooms, a piranha tank, an aviary and a tequileria.
Another historical restaurant in Mesilla has a more sordid past. The Double Eagle (2355 Calle de Guadalupe, Las Cruces, 575-523-6700, double-eagle-mesilla.com) is located in a hacienda-style home that was owned by an affluent Mexican family in the 1840s. The high-end Double Eagle operates in several historical rooms, while the center of the hacienda houses the casual Peppers Café. Each Double Eagle room has art or artifacts from its original owners and nearly every one has a ghost story. The most scandalous is the tale of the Carlotta Room. Legend has it the son of the wealthy Mexican family fell in love with one of the family’s maids, much to his disapproving mother’s chagrin. After discovering the lovers trysting in the Carlotta Room, the mother stabbed the maid to death with a pair of sewing shears. In the bloody struggle, she accidentally killed her son as well. The Double Eagle staff maintains the thwarted lovers haunt the room to this day, with each favoring a specific chair. Guests who sit in the chairs report bad luck, illness and ominous feelings the next day. We sat in them and felt nothing. Is there a statute of limitations on hauntings? We’ll remain vigilant just in case.
Spicy and Spacey
No trip to New Mexico would be complete without paying proper respect to its signature crop, the chile pepper. Las Cruces is home to New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute (1780 E. University Ave., Las Cruces, Gerald Thomas Hall, Room 265, 575-646-3028, chilepepperinstitute.org), where we whiled away an afternoon learning about capsicum, cultivars and bhut jolokia, the world’s hottest known pepper. A sampling of the gift shop’s pepper-infused hot sauces left this gringa with a scorched tongue and tsunami eyes, but heat-seekers will be in chile heaven: The institute’s Fabián García Horticultural Center is home to more than 150 chile varieties from around the world, tended by NMSU students and the Chile Pepper Institute staff.
Of course, chile peppers aren’t just for studying – they’re also for eating in New Mexico’s famed green and red chiles, thin sauces redolent with the vibrant vegetables. Almost every restaurant in Las Cruces has chile on the menu, available to douse any dish that needs a kick, from enchiladas to burritos. Breakfast burritos at Rosie’s Cafe (420 Avenida de Mesilla, Las Cruces, 575-526-1256) and The Shed (810 S. Valley Dr., Las Cruces, 575-525-2636, ompctheshed.com) come drowned in red or green chile, or with both, “Christmas style.” It was tongue-tingling homework for me as I built my heat tolerance, but the smoky, deep flavor of the roasted chiles kept me coming back.
Pepper souvenirs can be found at the Las Cruces Farmers’ & Crafts Market (125 N. Main St., Las Cruces, 575-201-3853, lascrucesfarmersmarket.org), where we perused roasted and dried chiles, pepper spreads and salsas, tamales and pepper-inspired crafts, from ceramic ristras (drying chile garlands) to Christmas angel ornaments with dried-pepper bodies and corn-husk wings.
If all the color and spice is overstimulating, seek respite as we did at White Sands National Monument (19955 Hwy 70 West, Alamogordo, 575-479-6124, nps.gov/whsa), the world’s largest gypsum dune field. The pure white dunes felt otherworldly, like we’d been transported to Tattooine or a post-apocalyptic landscape. Picnic tables and sand sleds are available for family fun on the dunes, but we felt more contemplative than playful as we surveyed the white abyss. Learn from our mistake and be sure to bring sunglasses – the sun’s reflection on the white sand is nearly blinding.
To keep feeling the space fascination, take a Spaceport America Bus Tour of Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo launch site (901 E. University Ave., Las Cruces, 575-267-8500, spaceportamerica.com). We didn’t make it there, but a group of Aussies we met at White Sands said it’s a must for our next trip to Las Cruces. We’ll be back for more road-trip enchantment some day.
From here, it’s choose-your-own adventure:
Head north to Albuquerque or the arts communities of Santa Fe and Taos, or head east to Roswell for more extraterrestrial experiences.
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