- By Pam LeBlanc American-Statesman Staff
Twenty-four hours in El Paso?
That’s not nearly enough, but a proper day in this sun-bleached, cactus-prickled city of blended cultures can serve up some excellent hiking, funky art, hip accommodations and the best pan dulce this side of the border.
Frankly, I can’t wait to go back for more.
I booked a room at the hip and trendy Indigo Hotel downtown, once home of the 1960s-era Downtowner Motor Inn. As I checked in at the lobby on the fifth floor, I caught a glimpse of an outdoor swimming pool, where patrons sipped cocktails and dangled toes languidly in the water as the sun sunk in the sky.
I managed a quick dip of my own before I had to go clean up for an evening out. First stop? The Plaza Theatre, a beautifully restored downtown performance house, to catch a screening of “Dr. Strangelove,” one of the featured films during this year’s 10-day Plaza Classic Film Festival.
I’m not exaggerating when I say the Plaza ranks as the most beautiful theater I’ve ever experienced. (Sorry, Paramount Theatre in Austin and Civic Opera House in Chicago.) Built in 1929, it was almost demolished in 1986 to make room for a parking lot. Thankfully, the community rallied to raise money to renovate it, and the theater reopened in 2006. Walking into the main auditorium feels like strolling through an outdoor plaza at night, with wrought-iron balconies, mosaic-tiled floors and ceilings painted with twinkling stars. A musician played live organ music before the screening began.
After the show, I grabbed dinner back at the hotel (sleek surroundings, solid food), then hit the hay. I had a full day of sightseeing ahead of me, before boarding an afternoon flight back to Austin.
The next morning, I met Don Baumgardt of GeoBetty Tours for a hike into the Franklin Mountains that cradle the city. We started early, crunching our way up the Palisades Canyon trailhead before the heat cranked up, dodging cactuses and one tiny snake. The Thousand Steps Trail swept us toward the ridgeline, where we took in panoramic views of El Paso, Ciudad Juarez and parts of New Mexico along the way.
After our hike, we motored to the Substation shopping center, 145 West Sunset, to pose for pictures in front of the new “Greetings from El Paso” mural, which looks like a giant postcard (a la our own “Greetings from Austin” mural) and makes the perfect introduction to this sunny city.
From there, we ventured to Chihuahuita, considered the city’s oldest neighborhood. This little neighborhood has suffered extreme poverty, but it’s friendly and tidy, and listed on the Trust for Historic Preservation’s Most Endangered Historic Places list. A pocket park overlooks the border wall, where you can zip down a slide just a few feet from the fence. Around the corner, someone has painted the likeness of a man and woman on the side of one home.
You’ll want lunch by now, so drop by Cafe Mayapan for a healthy and traditional lunch at a restaurant operated by La Mujer Obrera, a nonprofit organization that works to empower women. My recommendation? Sip a prickly pear and pineapple agua fresca, nibble an appetizer of grilled nopalitos and slurp up some tasty sopa Azteca with a side of flour tortillas. The whole meal will set you back less than $10, and it helps the community.
For dessert, make haste to Bowie Bakery in the historic Segundo Barrio. This corner shop sells the best coconut-frosted sugar cookies on the planet, and the wedding cookies and rest of the pan dulce are drool-worthy, too. Just don’t time your visit with the dismissal bell at the nearby school, or you’ll get caught in a swarm of students grabbing a cookie for the walk home.
Thus fortified, you can now proceed to nearby East Third Street to take in even more murals adorning downtown warehouses. Each June during Street Fest, artists armed with cans of spray paint, rollers and brushes cover hundreds of feet of building-sized canvases with their work, creating an ever-evolving display of art. My current favorite? A sprawling, brightly hued depiction of a Hispanic man in a pair of blue jeans slipping through a barbed-wire fence.
Don’t miss a visit to Chamizal National Memorial, either. We spent an hour and a half at the 55-acre park and museum, which occupies part of the land awarded to the United States after the 1963 settlement of a 100-year border dispute that developed after the Rio Grande changed courses between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. (A similar park occupies land on the Mexican side of the river.)
If you timed it right, you might have a few extra minutes before you head to the airport. I did, and I squeezed in a visit to the Lucchese factory warehouse, 6601 Montana Ave., to drool over some finely crafted cowboy boots before heading back to Austin.
Next time, I’m blocking out more than 24 hours in this city.