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From aliens to the Wild West and back out to space!

New Mexico day fifteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

The Rosswell Day’s Inn where we had spent the night included breakfast in its room rate. This was described by the motel in its publicity material as ‘luxurious’, but ‘adequate’ would have been a much better choice of word. The buffet offered eggs and grits, biscuits, mini muffins, make-your-own waffles, brown water masquerading as coffee, and juice.

We then drove into the centre of town for a final look round before hitting the road again.

On the streets of Roswell

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Street art in Roswell

Whatever the truth about the 1947 Roswell Incident, one thing is certain – today, Roswell is a town obsessed. It’s impossible to spend any time here without encountering a large number of aliens and it is clear that whatever you want to promote or sell in Roswell (t-shirts, ice cream, burgers, souvenirs) the best way to do it is to attach an alien to it!

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Shop windows in Roswell

One other thing is clear too; the Roswell Incident (which in fact took place 70 miles away!) has elevated a fairly ordinary town into a major destination for visitors looking for the unusual or quirky, like ourselves, as well as for die-hard UFO aficionados. So we had a good time this morning exploring the downtown streets, photographing our own ‘alien encounters’.

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Building detail

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'Spaceship' McDonalds

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Bus shelter

It was all rather fun, and added to our very positive impression of New Mexico as a state with a huge variety of sights and experiences.

Pioneer Plaza, Roswell

As a break from photographing the aliens, the central Pioneer Plaza proved a pleasant place to hang out for a short while. At its centre is an attractive sculpture, entitled ‘Cattle King of the Pecos’. It shows John Simpson Chisum, a cattle baron who owned a ranch (South Spring Ranch) four miles southeast of downtown Roswell in the mid 19th century. Chisum was involved in the Lincoln County War and initially helped Billy the Kid who was one of his ranch hands, before falling out with him and losing cattle to his raids. He was involved in getting Pat Garrett, who later went on to shoot the Kid elected as sheriff. He was played by John Wayne in the 1970 film of the same name.

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Cattle King of the Pecos

The two most notable buildings in the vicinity of the plaza are rather a contrast in scale and style. One is the Chaves County Courthouse, built in 1911 in the Beaux Arts Classical style popular at that time, and showing the sort of grandeur thought necessary to strike fear into any criminal to be tried here. The other is the modest Conoco service station built in the 1920s. I had read that this was one of the few remaining intact early gasoline stations in the state, so I expected it to be a gas station, complete with photogenic old pumps, and was a little disappointed to discover that it’s now an office.

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Former Conoco service station

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Zia symbol
(free to use clip-art)

The square was constructed in 1997 on the site of what was known as Roswell’s Pioneer Block, hence the name. The first adobe building in Roswell once stood on this site, but is long gone, although a square of brown paving tiles containing the red Zia sun sign (the symbol of New Mexico), on the Main Street side of the square, shows its former location. A cement square with park benches on the corner of 4th and Main Streets marks the location of the store where Sheriff Pat Garrett bought the ammunition he used to shoot Billy the Kid.

Unfortunately when the city authorities developed the square they demolished almost all the buildings then standing here, and nothing was saved for posterity apart from these marks on the ground. And although it’s a very pleasant town square, and apparently well used by residents for all sorts of events, it’s a shame that nothing now remains from Roswell’s early days.

So we left Roswell and its aliens behind us and drove west on Highway 380 to a place where a sense of history was guaranteed.

Lincoln: the town that started a war

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Ammunition for sale in the Tunstall Store, Lincoln

Lincoln is a very small place to have started a war, but that is just what it did. In the late 19th century the Lincoln County War led to the deaths of at least 19 people and terrorised settlers throughout the county, which at that time included all of south-eastern New Mexico. Not for nothing did President Rutherford B. Hayes once call Lincoln’s main street ‘the most dangerous street in America.’

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In Lincoln

Today Lincoln is a pretty sleepy place, although I imagine it gets busy with visitors at the height of the season. The whole town is operated, unusually, as a state monument. Its one street is lined with historic homes and buildings – some museums, others still private homes. There are no gas stations or convenience stores in Lincoln, and only one public telephone.

Arriving in the town we went first to the Visitor Centre, to pay the $5.00 admission fee, which included entry to the six historical properties then open at this time of year (nowadays the website says seven buildings are open to the public, but between November 1st and March 31st only five can be visited). We also spent some time looking at the exhibits here. I had seen many references to the Lincoln County War while travelling around New Mexico, and especially in our encounters with Billy the Kid, but it was only on this next to last day of our trip, when we came here to Lincoln and to this very informative Visitor Centre, that I was able to put together the pieces and understand the full story.

The war started in November 1876, when Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween opened a store in Lincoln, setting themselves up in competition with existing store owners Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan. The latter had had a monopoly on selling goods not just in the town but also supplying beef to nearby Ft. Stanton and the Mescalero Indian Reservation. When Murphy and Dolan challenged the newcomers, Tunstall was killed, forming the catalyst for all-out battle between the two sides. Tunstall’s cowhands (who included Billy the Kid) and some other local citizens formed a group known as the Regulators to avenge his murder, knowing that they could not rely on the official criminal justice system which was controlled by allies of Murphy and Dolan.

A whole series of killings on either side ensued, culminating in a three day battle here in Lincoln in July 1878. Tunstall’s Regulators were surrounded in two different positions, the McSween house and the Ellis store. Many of the key figures in the war died in this battle, including McSween himself. It was eventually halted by the intervention of the US Army. Those not already killed scattered, including Billy the Kid and other Regulators, who turned to a life of cattle rustling and other crimes. It would be December 1880 before Billy was tracked down by Sherriff Pat Garrett, arrested, and tried in Mesilla (where we were to go the next day).

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In Lincoln

In April 1881 the Kid was convicted of killing Sheriff Brady, the only conviction ever secured against any of the combatants in the Lincoln County War. He was sentenced to be executed, and held under guard at Lincoln Courthouse to await his fate. But he escaped from there, only to be tracked down again by Garrett, in Fort Sumner, and shot dead.

The Visitor Centre told us this story in a series of informative panels. It also covered other aspects of the history of this area. Chris and I were especially interested in the display about the Buffalo Soldiers. We know the Bob Marley song, of course, but didn’t really know much about who they were, until our visit here. The name was a nickname given to African-American troops by the Native Americans they were fighting against in the Indian Wars. The name may have originated in the Indian’s respect for the fierce fighting ability of these soldiers, or perhaps because their dark curly hair resembled a buffalo's coat.

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Model of Indian Scout

Other exhibits showed pueblo culture and life in Lincoln County during the early years of settlement, with items of furniture and household goods. It was all very well done, and just the right size for us to be able to take it in without feeling overwhelmed with facts.

Equipped with all this knowledge we set off to explore the town.

The Montaño Store

The first of the historic buildings we went into was the Montaño Store, almost opposite the Visitor Centre. I confess I was a little disappointed, as it had not been restored as a store but instead houses display panels relating to the history of the building, the store’s owner at the time of the Lincoln County War, José Montaño, and describing adobe construction and the Hispanic way of life. It was all fairly interesting, and there were some fascinating old photos, but I had hoped for more in the way of exhibits and was concerned that Lincoln would prove less absorbing than I had thought. I need not have worried however, as some of the other buildings had more to offer.

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Old stove in the Montaño Store, and sign outside

Meanwhile though we enjoyed getting to know a bit about Montaño. He tried to stay neutral during the War, but the store was used as a shelter by McSween gunmen during the battle that took place here. It was here that one of the most famous examples of marksmanship in Western lore took place. Fernando Herrera, using a Sharps 45-120-555 rifle, fired a shot 756 yards from the roof of the store, fatally wounding Charlie ‘Lallacooler’ Crawford. Crawford’s belt buckle deflected the bullet, but he died from the wound a week later. Eventually the US Army forced the gunmen who were holed up here to abandon the store, which led in part to the killing of McSween himself and burning of his house and store just up the street.

At the height of Lincoln’s prosperity as a town Montaño’s was one of four stores here. It sold tools, whiskey, calico, seeds, nails and everything else that was needed in a mid 19th century Western town. It hosted weekend dances and was probably also used as a bar. Governor Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, spent time socialising here.

Montaño died in 1903 and his wife sold the business to family members, who in turn sold it to another family, the Romeros. It was they that sold it to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, in 1967, to be operated as museum.

San Juan Mission Church

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San Juan Church

Walking westwards along the main road the next historic building we came to was the mission church, dedicated to San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist). This Roman Catholic church was built in 1887, of adobe made on site and vigas from the Capitan Mountains, and is still in use today. It is one of the buildings to which our ticket provided admission, although that admission was restricted to the first few yards inside the door, after which there was a barrier. A shame, as I would have liked to have looked around properly.

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Inside San Juan

The church was restored by the New Mexico State Monuments in 1984, hence its good condition. I wasn’t able to find out much else about the building, but I felt that it couldn’t be a coincidence that it was built soon after the Lincoln County War and the battle that took place here on the main street of the town. Maybe an earlier church was damaged or destroyed at that time? Or maybe there was no church, and that contributed to the lawlessness of the community?

The Torreon

Opposite the church is the Torreon, one of the oldest structures still standing in Lincoln. It was built in the 1850s to protect the Spanish settlers here during Apache raids. In the three-day Lincoln County War battle that took place in the town, this tower was used as a base for Murphy’s sharpshooters. It was restored in 1937, and I couldn’t see that it was possible to go inside at all.

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The Torreon

Next door to the tower we found a spinning and weaving shop, La Placita (no longer there, as far as I can tell). Inside we met a lady who was demonstrating the technique of spinning by hand, and there were several looms set up. The shop sold the wool, which is all dyed with natural dyes such as those that would have been used by early settlers – browns from the leaves of walnut trees, yellow from wood shavings, green from avocado skins, and so on.

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In La Placita

The Tunstall Store

Of all the old buildings in Lincoln, this is one of two (the other being the Courthouse) that must rate as the most historically significant and I found them by far the most interesting to visit. It was the opening of this store by Henry Tunstall and Alexander McSween, in November 1876, which triggered the Lincoln County War, as they were seen as a threat by the owners of what was until then the only store in the area, Lawrence Murphy and J. J. Dolan.

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In the Tunstall Store

Today the store is set out just as it would have been back in the 1870s. You could happily peer around here for some time, as all the shelves are stacked with everything a settler would have wanted for daily life in the home and on the land: tools, china and glass for the house, seeds, fabrics, flour and sugar, biscuits, tea, clothing and hats, and of course ammunition. These are displayed in the original shelving and cases, which are incredibly well-preserved considering their age and all that has happened here.

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In the Tunstall Store

I also loved the old cash register and rather battered safe. Photography is allowed in all the buildings, by the way, but no flash. And we were able to wander all over the shop, although visitors are asked to stay on the areas of floor laid for the purpose and not to stray on to the original floorboards, in order to help preserve them.

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Old safe

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Cash register

This is one of only two places where were asked to show our admission ticket. The lady on duty was very friendly and full of information about the store, pointing out several details that we had missed.

Next door to the Tunstall Store is the Thomas W Watson House, which was under restoration at the time of our visit. It was built in the 1880s and served as Doctor Watson’s home and drug store from 1903-1920, hence the name. It is thought to have been built either on the site of the west wing of the McSween house, or just adjacent to it.

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The Thomas W Watson House, Lincoln

The shack opposite the store, and the blue door in the wall next to it, are part of the Dolan Outpost property. The house was built in 1883 and 1884 by Elijah Dow, carpenter, and George Peppin, stonemason, who also built the San Juan Church and the Court House. During the 1920s and 1930s the house was known as the Bonito Inn and it is claimed that Lew Wallace wrote some of Ben-Hur on its porch.

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Dolan Outpost land

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Dolan Outpost land

The Courthouse

The Courthouse was the last building we visited in Lincoln and was one of the most interesting. It was once the Murphy-Dolan store, holding a monopoly in the area until Tunstall and McSween arrived to set up their rival business, and was also Dolan’s home, but was later converted into the courthouse.

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Old sherriff's uniform

Ironically, given the animosity between him and Dolan, this is where Billy the Kid was imprisoned, on the upper floor, while awaiting execution for the murder of Sheriff Brady. Pat Garrett knew that the Kid would find it easy to escape from the regular town jail, so he kept him shackled hand and foot and guarded around the clock in the room behind his own office at the county courthouse, which had been the old Murphy-Dolan store. He was guarded by two deputies, and yet escape he did.

You might wonder how he managed that, and the answer is that he pulled one of the oldest tricks in the book – the ‘I need to go to the lavatory’ one! It helped that only one of his guards was present at the time – the other having taken the remaining, less dangerous prisoners, out to dinner. Yes, you read that correctly – apparently they were in the habit of taking their meals in the Wortley Hotel almost opposite the Courthouse, and were there at the time of Billy’s break for freedom.

On the day in question Billy asked the one deputy left on duty, James Bell, if he could use the bathroom, which of course in those days was outside behind the main building. The guard agreed, allowing him to do so though still in his leg-irons and chains and with handcuffs still on.

When they returned to the Courthouse Billy made his move, shooting the deputy as he followed him up the stairs (it is not clear how he managed to get his hands on the gun, which probably came from the Courthouse’s own stock). Bell staggered outside but died from his wounds as soon as he got there. The other deputy, Bob Olinger, heard the shots from the saloon across the road and came running, to see the Kid at an upstairs window. That deputy too was killed, and Billy was free to make his escape, aided by some of the townsfolk sympathetic to his cause. Today you can still see the damage said to have been made by one of the bullets on the wall at the foot of the stairs, while plaques outside mark the spots where Bell and Olinger fell.

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Staircase down which Billy the Kid escaped, and bullet hole in the wall

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The Curry Saloon

As well as all this history directly associated with the Lincoln County War, one ground floor room here is dedicated to the former lawmen of Lincoln County, including Pat Garrett, and models show how the uniform has changed over the years. Personally though I found this much less interesting than the material on Billy the Kid, whose trail we had been following all over the state.

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Old safe in the Courthouse

Opposite the Courthouse is the former Curry Saloon, where, like the Wortley Hotel next door, the judges from the Courthouse opposite used to dine. The saloon takes its name from George Curry, a Territorial Governor of New Mexico and later Congressman, who ran the saloon in the late 1880s. It is now a deli serving light meals and cold drinks, but despite the open sign was closed when we tried it. Luckily the Wortley was not …

The Wortley Hotel

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Sign outside Wortley Hotel

The official Lincoln website said that there were four restaurants operating in the historical district at the time of our visit, but we only saw two, and only one of these was open. Luckily the Wortley Hotel proved to be a good choice for a light lunch. The décor was suitably old-fashioned for such a historic location, the service friendly and the sandwiches tasty and reasonably priced. We sat in the conservatory area at the front, which was lighter and pleasanter than the rather dark main room, but did make service a little slower as we weren’t in the direct eye of the one lady serving. Still, we weren’t in a hurry, and rather enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation of the couple at the next table, who were evidently locals and having a good gossip about various neighbours!

Chris chose the ‘Captain Jack’s’ grilled cheese sandwich with green chilli and bacon, which he enjoyed, and I had a BBQ pork sandwich, which was packed with moist well-flavoured meat. Both came with a pickle and potato chips. We also had a large orange juice each. The meal was not at all expensive, especially considering the fact that they seemed to have a monopoly, albeit temporary, in the middle of a tourist destination.

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My BBQ pork sandwich

As well as a good meal, you are experiencing a part of Lincoln’s history when you eat here. The Wortley (albeit an earlier building) is where Deputy Olinger had brought the other prisoners for dinner one evening, giving Billy the Kid the opportunity he was looking for to shoot his way out of his Courthouse imprisonment. As the hotel’s website said back then:
~ We no longer feed prisoners.
~ The food is much better these days.
~ Carnage of this sort rarely occurs in modern day Lincoln, thus our motto, ‘No Guests Gunned Down in Over 100 Years’.

After lunch we continued our journey west through the Capitan Mountains and then south on Highway 54 to our planned base for the night, Alamogordo.

Alamogordo

One of the main sights that had brought us to New Mexico in the first place was the White Sands, and it was these that brought us in turn to Alamogordo, saving it for now, towards the end of our trip. The sands themselves were on tomorrow’s itinerary, as we wanted to be there early in the morning, so for now the priority was to find somewhere to stay for the night (I hadn’t pre-booked) and to see what else the town had to offer.

The first was soon sorted. On arriving in town we found that most places were fairly basic non-chain motels, several of which had been recommended in our Moon Handbook. So we chose one of these which looked reasonable, the Alamo Inn. It proved to be just as described – nothing fancy but clean and good value. We secured a room with a queen size bed, fridge, microwave and TV.

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Our room at
the Alamo Inn

Most motels in the town are strung out along this busy main road and traffic noise is just about inevitable wherever you stay, as are the occasional whistles from passing trains – although personally I rather like the latter and never mind being woken by them. So although you could get larger fancier rooms in one of the pricier places, to be honest if you’re just crashing for one night to get an early start at the White Sands, as we were, a no-frills place like this should suit you just fine, as it did us. And in the event I slept well, despite the traffic, as the bed was comfortable and the sheets fresh and clean, which is all you really need. Since our visit, however, the motel has acquired a new name, the Classic, and a new owner, and reviews suggest that it is no longer as welcoming and pleasant as we found it to be – what a shame!

The motel had a small pool, which had already been drained for the winter when we were there, and a continental breakfast was included in the room rates, but we were leaving early to get to the White Sands as soon as the park opened so we made use of the fridge to store our picnic breakfast overnight instead.

Now, with somewhere to lay our heads for the night sorted, we could turn to the next priority, fitting in a bit of sightseeing. And there was one obvious sight in town that was sure to appeal to us both!

The New Mexico Museum of Space History

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Rocket to the moon?

Both Chris and I grew up with the Space Race, and both of us have a clear memory of the Moon Landings, especially the first, so a visit to a museum that documents it all was a must! The museum sits on a hill on the east side of Alamogordo, and it was a very windy day so we really felt the force of it up here. We could see the effect of the wind too – it was whipping up the white sand (or more accurately gypsum) from the White Sands National Monument some miles to the south and creating a bizarre sort of sandstorm on the far side of town. We were a bit concerned about our planned visit there the next day when we saw this, although in the event the wind dropped overnight and we were to have perfect weather for it – but that’s a story for my next entry ...

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Alamogordo from the Museum of Space History
- you can see the haze caused by the 'sandstorm' on the horizon

Despite the wind we spent a little while looking at the exhibits outside the museum, and if you’re short of time and don’t want to pay the admission for a hurried visit it’s worth knowing that these can be seen for free, as well as that good view of the town and beyond. These exhibits include a Mercury capsule, which you can climb into and experience just how cramped it would have been for the astronauts who flew in it.

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Mercury capsule

I also liked seeing the Little Joe II rocket. This was used to test the Apollo launch escape system, as it could boost a spacecraft on a path which duplicated an Apollo-Saturn in-flight emergency. During this ‘emergency’, the Launch Escape system fired and pulled the Command Module containing the astronauts safely away from the booster. At 86 feet tall, Little Joe II is the largest rocket ever launched from New Mexico. Five of these Little Joe II tests were flown from the nearby White Sands Missile Range between August 1963 and January 1966.

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Little Joe

Having finished looking at these and other exhibits we headed inside and paid the (then) $5 admission fee. T thought the museum was very well-organised. We started by taking a lift up to the top floor and from there worked our way down a series of ramps passing all the displays and exhibits. There was so much to see! The displays cover the history of rocket science from early rocket experiments to the NASA programme. One display offered the opportunity to ‘land’ a space shuttle with a simulator (I was very pleased to land it safely at my first attempt!) and another to go inside a mock-up of the Space Lab (my photo shows Chris pretending he knows which knobs to twiddle!)

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Chris in the 'Space Lab'

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Memorial to Ham, the first monkey in space

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Satellite

There was information on meteorites, satellites, commercial space flights and much more. The exhibits were arranged thematically rather than chronologically, so it did seem a little haphazard at times, but most of it was very interesting and I didn’t think you needed to know a lot about the subject matter to be able to appreciate and take it all in.

As we walked down the ramps, we saw that the walls were lined with photos of all those who have been inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame, which commemorates the achievements of men and women who have furthered humanity's exploration of space. I was interested to see that this is truly international – there may once have been great rivalry between the US and the then-USSR, but today the achievements of both nations, and many others, are celebrated here. And I was pleased to see five Brits here, including Arthur C Clarke whose science fiction novels I read avidly as a teenager.

Dinner at Tia Lupes

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Tia Lupes

When we had first arrived in town, one reason for our choice of the Alamo Inn was the proximity of a couple of possible eating places within a block or so. We had planned to try Si Senor, just next door, but when I looked online after checking-in I found several poor reviews – and some very good ones for a place a couple of blocks away, Tia Lupes. So in the evening we walked down there (yes, walked – we’re odd, or so the drivers in the US seem to think when we walk a few blocks along a busy road rather than get out the car to drive so short a distance!)

The reviews had said that Tia Lupes had no liquor license, so we were surprised on arrival to see beers and wines on display in a cold cabinet. Our waiter proudly explained that they had got their license just a few weeks before, so we promptly ordered two beers, only to be asked for ID. This had happened to us earlier in the trip, in Albuquerque, so we had been carefully carrying our passports each evening when going out to eat or drink, but with no license at Tia Lupes, as we had thought, we hadn’t bothered that evening. Luckily the owner here was more flexible than in the Flying Star and a quick check with her got the waiter the permission needed to serve us our beers.

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Chicken chimichanga
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Chilli Relleno Plate

Drinks sorted, we turned to the food. From a long menu I chose the ‘Chilli Relleno Plate’ – green chillies stuffed with cheese and served with a corn tortilla, rice, beans and a choice of green or red chilli sauce. I chose the latter, which the menu warned was ‘HOT’. The waiter offered to bring it on the side, to which I agreed, but although pretty hot it was fine for someone used to Indian food in the UK, so I tipped it on! I found the chillies a little over-cooked but the rice and beans were among the best I’d had on the trip. Chris had a good chicken chimichanga, which also came with rice and beans and some of the same hot red sauce.

We wouldn’t normally have dessert after a meal like that, but we were persuaded by the friendly owner to try that evening’s special, ‘sopapilla swirl’. So we shared one and it was very good, though filling – a plate of small sopapillas (the traditional puffed up breads) served with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream (almost like a New Mexican version of profiteroles).

Our bill for the two mains, two beers and the shared dessert was really reasonable. Tia Lupes had won several awards locally and I could see why – it was a good, simple family-run place producing decent food at good prices in a welcoming setting. Unfortunately however, it seems now to have closed down – I guess this sort of place doesn’t always stay established for long. Still, it had given us a good evening out, before we turned in for an early night as we planned a prompt get-away the next morning – the White Sands were calling us!

Posted by ToonSarah 02:30 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture road_trip restaurant history hotel museum space new_mexico Comments (7)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (13)

Farewell to Cuenca

Ecuador day ten


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Museo de Las Conceptas

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On our last morning in Cuenca we had plenty of time before our drive to Guayaquil to do a bit more sightseeing, so we headed for a museum not far from our hotel which we hadn’t had time for the previous day, the Museo de Las Conceptas. This is located in the former infirmary of the convent of Las Conceptas, the oldest religious cloister in Cuenca, built only two years after the Spanish founded the city. The building was restored in 1980 and provides an attractive setting for this interesting collection. Even if you’re not especially interested in religious art a visit here gives you an opportunity to see inside one of Cuenca’s loveliest old buildings.

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Little statue

The collection is spread over a series of rooms opening off the cloisters, on two levels, and the rooms are numbered – visitors are asked to follow the numbers, and not to take photos of any of the art in the rooms, although pictures taken out in the open, of the cloister itself, are permitted. I bent the rules a little and took one photo of a small statue in a niche on an outside staircase.

A couple of the rooms contain one big piece (the pride of the collection appeared to be a beautiful altar in the small central chapel of the old infirmary) while others are themed, e.g. statues of the Holy Family, nativities, crucifixes or saints. I found this more interesting than a purely historical arrangement as you could see how the ways of representing a particular scene or individual changed over time (the collection covers the period from the 17th – 19th centuries).

As well as the religious art, there are rooms containing various items brought to the convent by the nuns as part of their dowries – some mere trinkets, brought by those from poor families, and some rather beautiful – ornaments, religious figures and china, for instance. A few rooms towards the end of the series have been used to recreate a typical nun’s cell and show what the kitchen would have looked like, and there are displays about life in the convent, with photos of nuns carrying out their daily chores. The embroidery of priests’ robes was a particular skill cultivated by the nuns here and there are some examples on display.

In addition to the exhibition rooms you can see the courtyard that was used by the nuns as an outdoor kitchen, with the old oven still in place, and the “indoor cemetery” with the walls lined with rows of (empty) cubby holes for burials. We spent much longer here than we had expected, as there was so much to see and the building itself so lovely!

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The Museo de Las Conceptas

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Eiskaffee

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When we left the museum, coffee called. I usually like to eat and drink mainly local treats when travelling, but I can’t resist a good cup of coffee, so the presence in Cuenca of a supposedly Viennese-style coffee-house was enough to tempt me to break that admittedly very flexible rule! When we got to the Café Austria I felt that it was in practice more like a French bistro in style than an Austrian coffee-house, but it was no less pleasant for that, and the coffee was as good as I’d hoped.

This is the sort of place you can sit over a drink or a snack for a while. The décor is pleasant, there are newspapers to read from around the world, and free wifi. I have read mixed reviews of the food (though people around us were tucking into late breakfasts very happily) but the coffee is widely praised and with good reason. I really enjoyed my Eiskaffee and Chris his cappuccino, and we thought the prices were reasonable. The service was perhaps a little slow, but this probably isn’t somewhere you would come if in a hurry.

Although we had spent a fair amount of time in and around the Parque Calderón over the previous few days, we hadn’t got around to visiting the city’s old cathedral, which stands on the east side of the square facing its replacement. So we settled on that as our final “sight” in Cuenca.

Iglesia del Sagrario

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This is the city’s original cathedral, built in 1557 using stones from the ruins of nearby Inca Tomebamba, and restored in both 19th and 20th centuries. It was the main focus for worship in the city for the Spanish during colonial times and became a cathedral in 1787.

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It is no longer consecrated as a place of worship however, having been superseded by the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1880 when this one became too small to hold the city’s entire population, and is now a museum of religious art and a venue for occasional concerts.

Visiting here I got a strong sense of it being neither one thing nor another – neither church nor museum. It retains so much of its ecclesiastical structure and features that you are left in doubt as to its original purpose, but has an emptiness of soul that is no less obvious than its lack of pews for being invisible. But that is not to say that it is not worth seeing. It is an impressive building, and it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered too small, as its present day emptiness makes it seem vast. There are three naves with central altar, in front which are life-size statues of Jesus and apostles arranged as if at the Last Supper.

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To either side of the naves are chapels with some beautiful altarpieces, religious statuary, and in one some wonderful illuminated manuscripts. Labelling though is all in Spanish so I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at – but it was still mostly very lovely. The ceiling of the main structure is also noteworthy, ornamented with paintings of flowers and leaves as well as religious symbols and saints.

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In the Iglesia del Sagrario

We were charged just $1 to go in although signs said $2 for foreigners – we didn’t question the unexpected discount, naturally, but I wondered afterwards whether it was a special price for the Independence holiday (surely we can’t have been taken for locals?!). The ticket seller told us we could take photos if we didn’t use flash, so I did, despite the several signs inside indicating otherwise. Most people in fact were doing so, and many of them even using flash.

By now it was time for lunch and it made sense to have this near our hotel as we would need to be back there soon afterwards for our transfer to Guayaquil. So we headed back to the Coffee Tree café where we had enjoyed breakfast on our first morning. Given that it was the Saturday of the holiday weekend we were very lucky to again get an outside table and enjoy the buzz on the street and the live music playing nearby. I enjoyed a spinach and cheese crepe and a fresh passionfruit juice, and Chris had the “pitta Arabe” topped with chicken, olives, peppers and cheese. A tasty finale to our wonderful few days in Cuenca!

Journey to Guayaquil

We had originally planned to fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil and to connect there with our flight to the Galápagos. But when Tame altered their schedules we had to change our plans to include an overnight stay in the city, meaning an afternoon departure from Cuenca. We were sorry to have leave early a city we had quickly grown to love, but we would have been even more sorry to miss that flight to the Galápagos! And the bonus was the journey there by car rather than plane – how much better to be driven through the countryside than fly over it! And what wonderful countryside ...

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On the road to Guayquil

We started our journey a little late, as our driver got caught up in the festivities marking Cuenca’s anniversary weekend, and also had to park some distance from our hotel for the same reason – there was a fun run going on outside. We drove out of the city through a western suburb where we were told a lot of expat Americans have settled – so much so that locals call it “little America”! We were soon in El Cajas National Park, an incredibly scenic if rather bleak area, with a large number of lakes set in a rather stark landscape of paramo, and rocky outcrops. Cajas means boxes in Spanish, and one explanation that is given for the name of the park is that it refers to this distinctive landscape, sometimes called knob and kettle geomorphology, where the outcrops alternate with lakes. Another possible explanation for the name is linked to the Quichua word "cassa" meaning "gateway to the snowy mountains”. The highest point in the park is Cerro Arquitectos, at 4,450 metres, although the highest point on the road was just over 4,000 metres. We only stopped briefly for photos but if you have more time there are lots of hiking routes. It would make a wonderful day out from Cuenca.

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In Cajas National Park

A striking feature of the road from Cuenca to Guayaquil is the dramatic change in height along a relatively short stretch of road. Cuenca lies at around 2,500 metres above sea level, while Guayaquil, being on the coast, is naturally at sea level. This is a considerable drop in just a couple of hours, and it leads to some very varied landscapes and a mini-lesson in climatic zones. When we left the national park, we were on the western fringes of the Andes, and below us was cloud forest. At this height we could look down onto the clouds that filled all the valleys, almost as if they were flooded. We stopped again for photos, and to use the toilet at a little snack bar.

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Looking down at the cloud forest

Then we plunged down into the clouds! The road twisted and turned, and the landscape around us (or what we could see of it – we were now in a thick fog) became lush with plants and trees, their branches dripping in the damp air. Every now and then the cloud would break and we would see that we were still pretty high – and hope that our driver knew the road as well as he seemed to, since there was quite a drop on one side!

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Cloud forest scenery

After a while we emerged fully from the cloud, dropping down below it to reach the plains. The mountains we had left so recently were totally invisible as the thick blanket hid them from view. And again the landscape changed, now becoming intensely arable in nature. We drove between fields of bananas, sugar-cane and rice paddies. In the small villages stalls were piled high with fruits and dusk was falling (it was now about 6.00 pm). Local people were riding their bikes, stopping to chat to friends, buy a few provisions for the evening meal or have a beer at a roadside bar. The air was warm and had that unmistakable tropical dampness. It was such a different world to highland Cuenca, yet only three hours away!

By the time we reached the outskirts of Guayaquil it was dark. Although not the capital, this is the largest city in the country and it was a bit of a culture shock – neon lights shone above US-style shopping malls that lined the road as we approached, and the traffic was heavy. By the time we reached our hotel in the centre we had been driving for about 3.5 hours and plans to do a little sightseeing while searching for dinner were abandoned in favour of a quiet night in the hotel. The sights of Guayaquil would have to wait for another visit!

The Grand Hotel

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In the hotel grounds

When a night in Guayaquil became unavoidably added to our itinerary Surtrek reserved a room for us at the Grand Hotel. This is as the name suggests a large hotel, very well located near the city’s cathedral – so near in fact that the wall of the apse forms the outer wall of the hotel’s small pool area (which is also watched over by a colourful giant sculpture of an iguana).

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Our bedroom

The lobby here sets the tone for the hotel – large, bustling, and rather lacking in character. You could be anywhere in the world. But that’s not a criticism – Guayaquil is a very different city from, say, Quito or Cuenca, and it’s not surprising to find a more international style of hotel perhaps (though I’m sure there are places with character to be found as well). As we were only here one night it suited us just fine, and we had a comfortable night’s sleep in our large room, with its queen-size bed, lots of storage and some comfortable seats. There was a TV too, and the bathroom was also a generous size with a tub / shower combination, hairdryer and plenty of towels. Everything we needed for a quiet night before the big Galápagos adventure would begin the next day!

There are two places to eat in the hotel, the smart 1822 Restaurant and the more casual La Pepa de Oro coffee shop. We had decided to eat in the former but when we went to check it out it was deserted so we opted for the friendly buzz in the coffee shop. We had expected that this might have a limited dinner-time menu but in fact there was plenty to choose from.

Our waitress was, to be polite, not “in the first flush of youth” and seemed to find managing the orders a bit of a challenge but she was so eager to please and agreeable that we didn’t mind. Unfortunately though the food was a little disappointing, but served in very generous portions. We shared empanadas to start with but these were not as good as those we’d had elsewhere, lacking flavour and being a little greasy. My main course of fajitas suffered from the same problem, although Chris’s club sandwich was better. We were too full for dessert, so finished the evening in the hotel’s cosy bar instead, which had a very good selection of drinks at reasonable prices.

Tomorrow our Galápagos adventure would begin …

Posted by ToonSarah 05:41 Archived in Ecuador Tagged landscapes churches art road_trip museum cathedral national_park cuenca guayquil Comments (10)

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