Tucson, Heart of the Southwest: A Photo Tour
Photos and Words by Norie Quintos
With its famous dark skies, giant cacti, alternative vibe, destination spas, and its newest badge—a UNESCO designation as a city of gastronomy—Tucson, Arizona, is riding high. It’s easy to get to this Southwestern city (fly direct or drive two hours southeast from Phoenix), but it feels blissfully removed from the rest of the world.
Based in Washington, D.C., Norie Quintos is a writer, editor, photographer, and travel expert.
Land of the Saguaro
Well, hi back atcha, Tucson! The Saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States, and are only found in the Sonoran Desert. These particular cacti are faux, but they strike the same pose as the desert plant you'll find all over the landscape.
In the '30s and '40s, it was a prep school for girls from moneyed families such as the Vanderbilts and Westinghouses, the Kelloggs and Campbells. In the '50s and '60s, it was a hideaway for the Hollywood likes of Clark Gable, John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, and Spencer Tracy. Today, the Hacienda del Sol, an oasis of adobe walls and handcrafted antique furniture set against the backdrop of the Catalina foothills, is a ranch resort embracing its storied past and attracting a luxe but low-key clientele temporarily escaping the world.
Huevos rancheros makes everything better, especially at an authentic dive like Frank's, in Tucson's central Palo Verde neighborhood. The family-run diner turns into Francisco's at night, serving reasonably priced Michoacán Mexican specialties.
Desert to Table
The region around Tucson, Arizona, has been farmed continuously for some 4,000 years. Surprising sustenance can be gleaned from the desert, including mesquite flour, bolita beans, peppers, honey from desert flowers, and cactus pear jams (these from We B' Jamin Farm). People here have been organic since before it was trendy. Such unique ingredients and preparations are why UNESCO designated Tucson as a World City of Gastronomy—the first city in the United States to be so honored. If you want to taste why, on Sundays, the farmers market at Rillito Park is the place to go to buy straight from the farmers.
To understand how nature works in this region, you need to stop at Tucson's Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This barn owl is part of an educational program in which visitors can watch raptors in free flight—those happen at 10am and 2pm, October to April.
Just 7 miles west of Tucson, this scenic byway takes you through the twisty and narrow Gates Pass, lined with mesquite and saguaro, which grows in the Sonoran Desert and nowhere else. Try to keep eyes on the road; luckily there are overlooks to pull into. Locals say the some of the world's best sunset views are from here.
Whiskey del Bac
The story of Whiskey del Bac is a lesson in following one's dreams. Musing once about what to do with leftover pieces of mesquite wood, Tucson furniture maker Stephan Paul wondered whether he could make a good whiskey using mesquite for smoking instead of the traditional peat. Years later, and against all odds, he has an authentic Sonoran whiskey that has garnered rave reviews (though probably not from the exacting Scotch or Irish). You can decide for yourself: Visitors can make reservations with its maker, Hamilton Distillers, for a tour and a tasting.
Some sites are better experienced at night. On a night tour with Jimmy Bultman of Tucson Bike Tours, we visited El Tiradito, a shrine which he credits with saving the Barrio Viejo neighborhood from being destroyed by freeway construction—locals pushed to ensure it historical status before the wrecking ball came. Says Jimmy, "The shrine was built in memory of a ranch hand who was killed due to a romantic involvement with his mother-in-law." Today, people stick paper messages into the wall and burn votive candles to make prayer requests.
The Tucson area is rich territory for photographers. Here, mailboxes line a rural road in the Catalina foothills of southern Arizona. Tucson's light can be overly harsh in the middle of the day, so if you're taking photos, avoid that time period and aim for early morning or late afternoon. The adobe architecture tends to be low to the ground, so get close and look for the colorful details, sharp angles, and granular textures.
Many guests at Miraval Resort & Spa have come to decompress from worldly woes, so the resort has a spiritual labyrinth to help them take advantage of the centering silence of the desert. There is more to walking a labyrinth than meets the skeptical eye. I happened to get there just before sunrise, and watching the commencement of a clean new day while walking in the meditative manner of the ancients stirred something in me that was unexpected.