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Experiencing El Paso: 3 Days in Sun City

I had visited El Paso in the late 1990s on a cross country road trip with my parents.  My father wanted to step foot in Mexico and El Paso gave us the perfect opportunity to walk over to Juarez.  Returning to the city had been on my travel list for a while, especially because I wanted to hike in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  On a three-day visit to El Paso what I found surprised me as I explored ancient and religious history, outdoor adventure and a vibrant culinary scene in a city at the crossroads of cultures.

I took the first United direct flight from Denver and got to El Paso about 10 a.m.  For my rental car, I chose Enterprise, but found the one at 1210 Airway Boulevard to be about 50% cheaper than the one at the airport.  It’s about a mile from the airport so I took an Uber over and saved myself a lot of money (and they took me back to the airport for free when I returned car).  As I was renting my car, I asked for a great spot to get a Mexican breakfast.  The two people in Enterprise immediately said El Taquito by the laundromat just a couple of blocks away.  I had just missed the breakfast when I got to El Taquito, but they made a special exception for me, since the lunch crowd hadn’t quite picked up at 10:45 a.m.  The Enterprise folks were right – the food is wonderful at this no-frills small restaurant.  My huevos a la Mexican were the perfect welcome back to Texas.   

Faith on the Frontier

El Paso is home to the oldest mission in Texas.  Between 1632 and 1793, dozens of missions were started by Spanish friars moving north out of Mexico.  About twenty minutes from downtown, the nine-mile stretch of the El Paso Mission Trail along the El Camino Real, takes you along the path Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate once traveled.  There are three historic missions:  Ysleta, Socorro and San Elizario Presidio and Chapel.  They uniquely blend Mexican, Spanish, and Native American cultures intertwined into centuries of spiritual and historic traditions along the Rio Grande River. 

Before 1829, the three churches were actually on the south bank of the Rio Grande, which was much wider then than it is now.  The Ysleta and Socorro missions were severely damaged in floods in 1740 and 1829.  Chapel at San Elizario was also destroyed in the 1829 flood, which cut a new channel to the southwest putting the three towns on the northern bank after the water receded.  All three of the churches were constructed of sun-dried adobe bricks covered with white stucco, yet each is vastly different from the other two.

I was visiting on a Tuesday morning and found it to be very quiet along the Mission Trail.  That gave me time to enjoy each mission in solitude.  I decided to drive to the farthest point and work my way back.  I quickly found Spanish is more commonly spoken than English in the small towns of Yseleta, Socorro and San Elizario.  Even though I was less than 1.5 miles from what can be a volatile section of the border, I felt very safe.  El Paso has a reputation as one of the safest cities in the country.  I did not take my passport to cross the border on this trip, but I did cross into Juarez on an organized excursion with a convention I attended a few months after this visit.  Especially along the Mission Trail, I found folks to be very friendly and willing to chat with this inquisitive tourist.

San Elizario was built in 1789 as a Spanish Fort.  It was named after San Elcear, the French patron saint of soldiers.  When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 the presidio was abandoned.  The present-day chapel was completed in 1882.  It was never built as a mission, instead as a military chapel.  It’s the only one with a plaza and is much larger than the other two.  As I walked up to the chapel, I admired how it blends earlier European architecture styles with the white adobe box-like structure I have seen throughout West Texas and New Mexico.  I entered through the oversized wooden doors.  Inside there are beautiful stained-glass windows.  My eyes were drawn to the turquoise and gold pressed-tin ceiling.  It was put in to cover the original ceiling beams and decorative posts encapsulate the original plain wood columns after a fire in 1935 damaged the inside of the chapel.  I sat in one of the pews in the back and took in the religious symbols of the chapel including a white dove on the ceiling in pulpit alcove, angels painted over arches and Stations of the Cross paintings in wood frames aligning the walls. 

I walked over to see the old cemetery, now fenced off, then sat in the shade of the plaza before exploring the presidio.  I walked along Los Portales, used by Gregorio N. Garcia as a residence in the 1850s.  The streets of the presidio were designed in a formal rectangular grid pattern common in Spanish colonial town planning.  The oldest Main Street in the United States is in the San Elizario Historic District.  It is also where the first horses entered in the American West, was a rest area for the Butterfield Stagecoach Route and the site of the Salt War riot of 1877, which was the biggest gunfight of the Old West.

By the two historic buildings housing galleries like Escamilla Fine Art Gallery and Studio, I giggled when I saw a chicken crossing the street sign, then saw a chicken strutting along the sidewalk by Saldaña Gallery and Studio.  I tried to go the Old El Paso Country Jail, but it was closed that morning.  It dates back to 1821 and according to legend, in 1876, famed outlaw Billy the Kid broke in and freed Melquiades Segura, the only man to escape the jail.  Ruben, the owner of Shooters Smokin BBQ, happened to be outside.  We chatted for a bit before I grabbed an iced latte at Café Arte Mi Admore.  I walked around the presidio a little more before going in search of lunch on the way back to Socorro.

I decided on Celia’s Restaurant between a barber shop and a dulcería.  The owner doesn’t speak English but in my broken Spanish I ordered a bean and cheese gordita and a lemonade.  I savored every morsel, especially the charred marks on the homemade tortilla, in this tiny café.  It was also here that I realized cash is preferred in the smaller shops and eateries along the mission trail. 

I was the only visitor at Socorro Mission.  The word “socorro” means help.  Socorro was a refuge for Spaniards and Indians, mainly Piro, fleeing from the Pueblo Indian revolt of 1680 in what is now northern New Mexico.  Socorro Mission was established only one day after Ysleta Mission in 1682.   It is the second oldest continually active parish in the United States.  A permanent structure was completed in 1691 but flooding waters of the Rio Grande destroyed it twice.  The present-day church was completed in 1843.  As I drove up, I was struck by how the front façade of the white adobe mission with a bell tower in the center was similar to structures of Pueblo Indian tribes I have seen in New Mexico.  Inside there are only two rows of pews on a simple cement floor.  Along the long adobe walls are plain paned glass windows and the Stations of the Cross are depicted by simple wood crosses illuminated by scones.  Socorro has the least ornate alter nave of the three churches, but it is the most vividly colored part of the church.  As I walked towards the front, I couldn’t help but notice the intricate design on the ceiling.  A woman in the gift shop to tell me about Socorro’s Spanish mission architecture with distinctive Indian influences.  She told me the carved cottonwood and cypress beams called vigas date back to 1691 and were salvaged from Socorro’s first mission after flood waters receded.  She then told me the pattern of diamond and circle is believed to be painted by Piro people using plant-based pigments with the diamond represents the four directions with the sun in the middle.

Before leaving the town of Socorro, I found the historic home Casa Ortiz, Sombra del Posado which was a stagecoach stop dating back 1852 and popped into Bowie Bakery to get a cuello and apple empanada for my hike the next day.  Like lunch, I paid cash and spoke Spanish to order pasteles, or Mexican pastries.

The afternoon was quickly waning as I arrived at Ysleta Mission.  Ysleta is the oldest town in Texas.  It’s believed the first mass was held on October 12, 1680, in a church was made of mud chinked logs and willow reeds.  The word “ysleta” means “little island” and was named after the Tigua Pueblo of La Isleta in New Mexico.  The permanent mission was dedicated on October 19, 1682.  As I was driving in, I wasn’t expecting the mission to be adjacent to Speaking Rock, a large entertainment center run by the Tigua tribe.  I did find parking specific for the mission and walked up to the church with a large bell tower.  The mission was destroyed twice in the floods of 1740 and 1829.  The church that was finished in 1851 was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1907; however, the sacristy was unscathed, and the present-day church was built around it.  The church had just closed as I arrived.  Unable to go inside, I spent time look at its exterior.  In the gable above the door is a statue of San Antonio de Padua, patron saint of the Tiguas.  In the late afternoon sun, the silvery-white bell tower dome glittered.  There’s a large bell just outside the church door.  It was restored from the 1907 fire.   

From the missions, I headed into the Franklin Mountains.  I drove up Scenic Drive, a popular winding road on the southern side of this mountain range that runs from El Paso northward to New Mexico.  I pulled off at Murchison Rogers Park.  From this overlook you get a panoramic view of El Paso and Juarez.  On the west side I admired the stately homes of some of El Paso’s most prestigious addresses.

I stayed downtown at Hotel Indigo.  The hip hotel is housed in a 1960s building.  Just like the city is a blend of cultures, Hotel Indigo blends mid-century architecture with contemporary design infused with Mexican and American flavors. 

After checking in, I headed over to the fifth story for dinner at Circa 1963 outside by the pool.  The Sun City Refresher was a perfect sipper as the sunset over the city.  I nibbled on setas (mushroom) tacos for dinner before retiring to my room for a great night’s sleep.

From a Gunslinger’s Grave to highest peak in Texas

Early the morning, I walked over to El Paso Coffee Box for a latte.  The cool coffeeshop near San Jacinto Plaza is made out of recycled shipping containers.  Coffee fueled I drove over to Concordia Cemetery shortly after it opened at 8 a.m.  The historic cemetery was known as Rancho Concordia in the 1840s and gained widespread use in the 1880s.  Today there are over 60,000 graves including pioneers, Civil War veterans including Buffalo Soldiers, Texas Rangers and civil leaders.  There are some unusual graves here like John Wesley Hardin, a famous gunslinger of the Wild West.  It also has a Chinese cemetery with an estimated 300-400 graves of railroad workers. 

After walking around the cemetery, I walked over to L and J Café.  The owners of this iconic café are Lydia and John, hence the name.  I started with cinnamon coffee and devoured huevos a la Mexicana, my favorite Mexican breakfast.  Don’t be surprised if you see a famous face here.  Celebrities from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Martha Stewart have chowed down on the authentic Mexican food at “the old place by the graveyard.”

It’s a little under two hours to drive from El Paso to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.  It’s mainly ranchland.  You do pass the salt flats, which are a remnant of an ancient shallow lake and reason for the El Paso Salt War of 1877-1878. 

The Guadalupe Mountains tower over the surrounding flat desert terrain. 

It was already late morning, so I knew I wasn’t going to tackle the highest peak in Texas.  Instead, I stopped in the visitor center and chatted with a ranger on where to go in the national park.  My first hike was an easy one on the Pinery Nature Trail from the visitor center.  The hike is only three-quarters of a mile round trip.  The old Pinery mail station was a stop along the Butterfield Overland stagecoach route. 

Next I drove about a mile down the road, then another half mile down a dirt road to see the historic Frijole Ranch. 

Itching to get on the trail, I drove a few more miles to McKittrick Canyon, named after Captain Felix McKittrick, who settled in the area in 1869.  As I got close to the trailhead parking lot, I noticed something crossing the road.  I slowed down and saw it was a rattlesnake.  You do have to watch out for those here.  I decided to hike to the McKittrick Canyon Trail to Pratt Cabin.  The trail follows an intermittent stream and takes you through desert, transition and canyon woodlands landscapes.  Pratt Cabin was built by a geologist named Wallace E. Pratt in the 1920s.  The house built of only stone and wood, was his part-time home and summer retreat.  In 1957, he donated his property to the U.S. Government to create a national park.  The cabin is a great spot for a picnic, to explore the shady oasis, or just relax for a bit before hiking back out of the canyon.

Knowing the afternoon was quickly waning, I decided to pick up my pace through the dense forest to the Grotto, changing a 4.8-mile round trip to one that’s 6.8 miles.  The Grotto is a small cave-like feature with stalagmites and stalagmites formed from dripping water percolating through the limestone.  Since I was solo hiking, as I returned to the parking lot, I was grateful to see a couple with two boys from San Antonio that I met right when I started the trail.  Since the dad encouraged me to go on to the grotto from Pratt Cabin, they wanted to make sure I made it out of the desolate landscape.  I was quick on the hike back so luckily, they only waited for about fifteen minutes.

I got back to Hotel Indigo about 7:30 p.m.  I quickly got ready and walked over Elemi Restaurant for a late dinner.  First up a margarita made with tequila, natural cane sugar, orange juice and squeeze of lime.  While sipping my well-earned margarita, I devoured the pepinos appetizer of cucumbers with a spicy kick.  I also ordered the aquachile callo de hacha appetizer.  The traditional Mexican dish is normally made with shrimp, and the scallops added an outstanding twist.  After hiking all day, I was really hungry, so I ordered a fish taco and a cauliflower one.  I couldn’t finish them, but both were delicious, especially paired with a glass of wine from their extensive Mexican wine list.

Discovering Ancient Rock Paintings

I grabbed an early breakfast of avocado toast in the Downtowner, the street-level restaurant in Hotel Indigo, before heading out to Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site. 

It takes about 50 minutes to get to Hueco Tanks from downtown, but I allotted an hour for rush hour traffic, which I found was virtually non-existent El Paso.  Rising out of the desert floor are four huge hills of jumbled and squished together boulders.  Erosion on the massive granite-like formations caused hollows, called huecos in Spanish. The rock basins capture and retain water.  The natural oasis is filled with lush vegetation.  Hueco Tanks is one of the premiere places in the world for rock-climbing, in particular bouldering.  It’s also a mecca for archeological research since this island in the desert once sheltered the Jornada Mogollan People, Mescalero Apaches and Tigua Indians. 

There are more than 3,000 pictographs (rock paintings), including the largest number of ceremonial mask paintings in North America.  Most of them are hidden in the rocks or caves.  The best way to see them is on a guided tour, which are offered Wednesday through Sunday.  You need to make a reservation in advance.  I was thrilled when I found out I was the only one on the morning tour.  My guide Bob has been guiding at Hueco Tanks for over fifteen years and has lived in El Paso since 1963.  As we started walking along the trail, he said with the water pools, Mesquite trees with edible berries and prickly pear, the area was “like Walmart of 1000s years ago.” 

As I slid on my back to see the pictographs in what is called the umbrella shelter, all I could think was what if there’s a rattlesnake in there, but I trusted Bob and did it. Boy, was I glad I did when I saw the pictographs.

As we climbed and crawled, I was thankful I was dressed for hiking and wearing shoes with good traction, especially as we bouldered up to see some mask pictographs painted in Mescalero Canyon.  In Comanche Cave, I was fascinated by white paintings done by Apache Indians, name carvings by the Tiguas and how a water hole was marked.  I was amazed how well the cave has preserved the pictographs. 

I decided to do a quick hike and headed up the Chain Trail, aptly named with a handrail chain snaking up the slickrock.  The view from the top was worth the effort.

I had a few more hours before my flight so I headed over to Rocketbuster Boots, an El Paso institution.  El Paso is home to over twelve of the world’s best boot manufacturers and is dubbed the “Boot Capital of the World.”  I couldn’t get over the intricately designed handmade custom boots lining the walls of Rocketbuster’s eclectic brick warehouse in the historic Union Plaza District.  The colorful extravagant boots sought after by ranchers to celebrities are truly pieces of art.  I even went on an impromptu tour and saw some employees hand-tooling leather in different stages of the boot making process.

Since Ysleta Mission was closed when I first visited, I decided to try again.  As I walked inside, I was struck by its simplistic beauty.  Natural light streams in through a few plain windows.  The two statues done in light pastel hues near the back of the church are Santa Monica and San Isidro Labrador.  The Stations are of the Cross are depicted in paintings in simple wooden frames on the walls of the narthex.  About halfway down, an Our Lady of the Guadalupe shrine is tucked away in a nook.  The alter nave is more ornate with a dramatic crucifixion, gold accented wood, a painted ceiling and more vividly colored statues.  To the left of the alter nave is a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  Just below her is a Santo Entierro (Christ in the Coffin) statue.  I saw date stamp of 1722 on one of the feet.  The Santo Entierro is believed to have been brought from Mexico and ferried across the much wider Rio Grande back then.

I drove back over to San Elizario to see if more of the galleries and shops were open.  They were along with the Old El Paso County Jail, which has limited hours Tuesday-Sunday.  It was a hot and sunny afternoon, so I grabbed a lavender lemonade and sat out on the shady patio of Café Arte Mi Admore before seeing the inside of the old El Paso County Jail and wandering through several of the galleries admiring the works of local artisans. 

Bert, owner and artist Saldaña Gallery and Studio, was painting outside so I struck up a conservation.  On his recommendation, I headed over to Sofia’s on Glorietta Street for authentic Mexican food.  I chowed down on tostadas as a late lunch before catching my evening flight. 

Had to get in one last meal of authentic Mexican food before leaving El Paso.  I look forward to more time in the friendly Sun City with its vibrant culinary scenes, history and outdoor adventures galore when I return to hike Guadalupe Peak and explore other places in West Texas.

Author Jennifer Broome followed this trip with another one to El Paso for Society of American Travel Writers conference. On that trip she did go into Juarez on an organized and highly policed dinner in the stunning Samalayuca Dune Fields. Check out that blog, One Night in Marfa or Girls Weekend in Big Bend to explore West Texas even more.