On a hot day, when the church bells are ringing and you're wandering the brick streets of Mesilla, you may for a moment slip back into the late 16th century -- or certainly feel as though you have. This village on Las Cruces's southwestern flank was established in the late 1500s by Mexican colonists. It became the crossroads of El Camino Real and the Butterfield Overland Mail route. The Gadsden Purchase, which annexed Mesilla to the United States and fixed the current international boundaries of New Mexico and Arizona, was signed here in 1854.
Mesilla's most notorious resident, William Bonney, otherwise known as Billy the Kid, was sentenced to death at the county courthouse here. He was sent back to Lincoln, New Mexico, to be hanged, but escaped before the sentence was carried out. Legendary hero Pat Garrett eventually tracked down and killed the Kid at Fort Sumner; later, Garrett was mysteriously murdered in an arroyo just outside Las Cruces. He is buried in the local Masonic cemetery.
Thick-walled adobe buildings, which once protected residents against Apache attacks, now house art galleries, restaurants, museums, and gift shops. Throughout Mesilla, colorful red chile ristras decorate homes and businesses. On Thursday and Sunday afternoons year-round locals sell crafts and baked goods.
For a fun and easy jaunt that will familiarize you with the history and architecture of this interesting village, purchase the booklet A Walking Tour of Mesilla, NM, sold at shops around the plaza and at the J. Paul Taylor Visitor Center in the Mesilla Town Hall, 2231 Avenida de Mesilla (tel. 575/524-3262, ext. 117), where you'll find period photos and plenty of brochures on the area, as well as clean public restrooms. A good source for Mesilla events is www.oldmesilla.org.
Some places of note on the area include the San Albino Church, from which you can get a view of the plaza and even peek down the side streets, where some of the old adobe houses have been restored and painted bold pinks and greens. East on Calle de Santiago is Silver Assets (tel. 575/523-8747). Set in the old Valles Gallegos building (1850s), it was once a carpentry shop and now sells jewelry, native crafts, and hats to block the harsh Southwestern sun. On Calle de Parian look for the Purple Lizard (tel. 575/523-1419), which sells ethnic clothing and accessories to dress your wild side. Across the street is the William Bonney Gallery (tel. 575/526-8275). Here you'll find some nice local paintings as well as lovely pottery and katsinas. On the plaza, the Nambe Showroom (tel. 575/527-4623; www.nambe.com) displays handcrafted tableware by Nambe Mills in Santa Fe. It's a great place to shop for gifts. On the southwest corner of the plaza is the oldest documented brick building in New Mexico, built by Augustin Maurin in 1860. It has a sad history of its proprietors being murdered by robbers.
If you'd like a treat, head to Stahmann's on the Plaza (tel. 575/527-0667), which shares a space with a jewelry store. A retail outlet for the notable Stahmann Farms, Stahmann's sells cookies, pecan candy, and just plain, but delicious, pecans. Chocolate lovers will find chocolate-dipped frozen strawberries and homemade ice cream at the Chocolate Lady, 2379 Calle de Guadalupe (tel. 575/526-2744). If you get thirsty for a caffeine fix, head to the Bean, 2011 Ave. de Mesilla (tel. 575/523-0560). As well as a full array of coffees, the cafe offers scones and muffins. Breakfast brings such delicacies as French toast made with homemade bread; and lunch, a turkey, Swiss cheese, and avocado sandwich. This is a good place to meet locals. It's open Sunday to Wednesday 7:30am to 6pm, and Thursday to Saturday 7:30am to 9pm. Live music plays on weekends.
If you prefer a guided historic walking tour, contact Preciliana Sandoval, 2488 Calle Principal, P.O. Box 981, Mesilla, NM 88046 (behind El Patio Bar; tel. 575/647-2639). This bold artist/historian, a fifth-generation Mesilla Valley native, will regale you with stories of ghosts and historic battles in the area. Tours cost $10 per person and take about an hour, and group discounts are available.
Places of Note in Historic Las Cruces
Though it has a much less romantic atmosphere than Mesilla, downtown Las Cruces has a few historical buildings, which make visiting it worthwhile. If you'd like to do a walking tour of the area, pick up a map at the Las Cruces Convention and Visitors Bureau at 211 N. Water St.
Central to the area is Downtown Mall (tel. 575/541-2155), an open-air arcade which hosts the Las Cruces Farmers' & Crafts Market, which specializes in locally hand-crafted items and seasonal local produce, on Wednesday and Saturday from 8am to noon. Established in 1888, New Mexico State University, University Avenue and Locust Street (tel. 575/646-0111; www.nmsu.edu), has an enrollment of 24,000 students and is especially noted for its schools of engineering and agriculture. It has a museum and two galleries.
Exploring the Area
North of Las Cruces -- The town of Hatch, 39 miles north via I-25 or 34 miles north via NM 185, calls itself the "chile capital of the world." It's the center of a 22,000-acre agricultural belt that grows and processes more chile than anywhere else in the world. The annual Hatch Chile Festival over Labor Day weekend celebrates the harvest. For information, call the Hatch Chamber of Commerce (tel. 575/267-5050).
Fort Selden State Monument is 15 miles north of Las Cruces between I-25 (exit 19) and NM 185. Founded in 1865, Fort Selden housed the famous Black Cavalry, the "Buffalo Soldiers" who protected settlers from marauding natives. It was subsequently the boyhood home of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose father, Arthur, was in charge of troops patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1880s. The fort closed permanently in 1891. Today, elegantly eroded ruins remain and are worth. Displays in the visitor center tell Fort Selden's story, including photos of young Douglas and his family. The monument is open from 8:30am to 5pm Wednesday to Monday; admission is $3 for adults and free for children age 16 and under. For more information, call tel. 575/526-8911 or visit www.nmmonuments.org. Adjacent to the state monument, Leasburg Dam State Park (tel. 575/524-4068) offers picnicking, camping, canoeing, and fishing.
South of Las Cruces -- Stahmann Farms, 10 miles south of La Mesilla on NM 28, is one of the world's largest single producers of pecans. Several million pounds are harvested, mostly during November, from orchards in the bed of an ancient lake. Stahmann's Country Store (tel. 800/654-6887 or 575/525-3470; www.stahmanns.com) sells pecans, pecan candy, ice cream, and other specialty foods, and it has a small cafe. It's open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 6pm, Sunday from 11am to 5pm. If you'd like to stay south of Las Cruces, book a night or two at Casa de Sueños, 405 Mountain Vista Rd., La Union, NM 88021 (tel. 575/874-9166; www.casaofdreams.com). Set high on a plain overlooking the Rio Grande River Valley, with the Franklin Mountains in the distance, it offers atmospheric Southwest-style rooms about a half-hour south of Las Cruces, with good access to El Paso.
War Eagles Air Museum (tel. 575/589-2000; www.war-eagles-air-museum.com), at the Santa Teresa Airport, about 35 miles south of Las Cruces via I-10 (call or check the website for directions), has an extensive collection of historic aircraft from World War II and the Korean War, plus automobiles and a tank. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am to 4pm; admission is $5 for adults, $4 for senior citizens age 65 and over; free for children age 11 and under.
East of Las Cruces -- The Organ Mountains, so-called because they resemble the pipes of a church organ, draw inevitable comparisons to Wyoming's Grand Tetons. Organ Peak, at 9,119 feet, is the highest point in Doña Ana County.
The Aguirre Springs Recreation Area (tel. 575/525-4300; www.blm.gov.nm), off US 70 on the western slope of the Organ Mountains, is one of the most spectacular places I've ever camped. Operated by the Bureau of Land Management, the camping and picnic sites sit at the base of the jagged Organ Mountains. Visitors to the area can hike, camp, picnic, or ride horseback (no horse rentals on-site). If you'd like to hike, don't miss the Baylor Pass trail, which crosses along the base of the Organ peaks, up through a pass, and over to the Las Cruces side. Though the hike is 6 miles one-way, just over 2 miles will get you to the pass, where there's a meadow with amazing views.
Weaving Dreams -- One day after enchiladas at Chope's Café in La Mesa, I wandered down a dirt road nearby and found a little adobe garden house, the studio of weaver Rosie Chavarria-Jones. "I use whatever I have around and let the yarn solar dye," she says. That might include marigolds, prickly pear cactus, purple cabbage, or pomegranates. Once the wool is dyed, she spins it and weaves it into scarves and shawls, which she sells from her shop. Her "A Mano Weaving Workshop" is at 216 E. Bellman in La Mesa, (tel. 575/233-4363). Call to be sure she's in.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.