What brought me to Las Cruces was the Las Cruces Country Music Festival. What makes me want to go back is the unique southwestern culture of New Mexico and its people. Here are the highlights of my trip:
Las Cruces Country Music Festival
What a lineup: Tanya Tucker, the Marshall Tucker Band and Travis Tritt among talented country up-and-comers like Kacey Musgraves, Eli Young Band and Bri Bagwell.
The crowd was upbeat and neighborly and there is a selection of food stands offering everything from turkey legs to chili and plenty of local sweet treats—so bring an appetite. If you’re up for an adult beverage there are the usual drink options throughout the grounds.
The festival would make an ideal event destination for groups of friends, but it’s also family-friendly during the day, with activities for kids of all ages. Neighboring El Paso, TX, has an active airport with several direct flights coming in from major cities. My trip from LA took under two hours and the drive from El Paso was a straight 40-minute shot up the highway to Las Cruces.
Old Mesilla is a touristy but quirky and fun part of town where you can shop for Native American goods, check out the local history and find some delicious treats. It seems not much has changed in the small dusty square that was once a stagecoach stop and. It’s now flanked by trinket shops and carts where the locals sell handmade crafts.
Take some time to check out the Basilica of San Albino in which the remaining foundation was built out of adobe in 1851. The interior is of Mexican influence and Catholic mass is held in both English and Spanish.
White Sands National Monument
The 224 square miles of shimmering hills that make up White Sands National Monument will give you the feeling that you’re on another planet. The landscape glows like acres of pristine snow and the overwhelming beauty will make you reach for your camera. The visitor center complex is located at the entrance of the park and well-worth checking out. There is a small but well-curated museum as well as a short film that provides fascinating insight into the unusual landscape. And bring your sled: Local New Mexicans use the sand park as a year-round sledding facility.
Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum
The name doesn’t do the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Museum—and adjacent working ranch—justice. The curation is outstanding and the displays draw you into another space and time, when the many cultures of the area collided and became what is now New Mexico. The exhibits are interactive and there are goats, steer and sheep, and even an owl that hangs out in the front rafters of the main building. The museum calendar is full of events, so check out what’s going on and find a favorite.
Las Cruces Farmers Market
If you’re seeking an authentic all-around local experience, head to the Las Cruces Farmers Market. Walking the market will bring you face to face with the locals, who are warm and welcoming and happy to chat about their city. I wandered up a flight stairs in a building near the market and found a studio with a trove of western art, and had a long conversation about Las Cruces and local art with renowned western artist Robert Shufelt.
La Posta de Mesilla
An absolute foodie highlight in Las Cruces is La Posta de Mesilla. In my opinion, there’s nothing like it. If you have one night in New Mexico, this is the place you want to eat and enjoy a beautifully composed margarita or unique cocktail. Chili peppers thrive in the arid climate of Las Cruces and give the local food a variety of punches, not to be found anywhere else. La Posta is an excellent place to start your pepper-infused taste test in this unique western town. The jalapeño cucumber margarita is by far the best I ever had.
The Chili Pepper Institute
The Chili Pepper Institute on Mexico State University’s campus not only is a world-renowned research institute, but also offers an area open to the public where you can find informed staff and a store full of pepper-influenced souvenirs. The staff are well-versed in the heat indexes of every pepper in the world—as well as just about anything else related to peppers.
For New Mexican cuisine with an up-market twist, head straight to the Pecan Grill. There is a palpable high energy that resonates throughout this modern representation of Las Cruces culture—from the ownership to the staff to the artful chef, Arturo Tovar. This is what a shared meal is all about. Oh, the margaritas…don’t even get me started on the exotic choices. Delicious! For those looking for music, dancing and a younger crowd, the Pecan Grill clears its floors later in the evening and brings in a DJ.
Where To Stay
The Townplace Suites Las Cruces is well-located and offers clean, spacious, studio-style rooms that include a full kitchenette. Breakfast is served in the dining area of the hotel. The staff went above and beyond to guide me to local shops and offered up all the help I needed. There are several shopping areas within a 20-minute walk or a few minutes by taxi/Uber/Lyft.
One last treasure…
Used book store COAS Books is full of treasures. Pick a favorite topic or specific book and the staff will find it for you. On a whim, I asked if they had a used church recipe book and walked away with five—most of which were 50-70 years old.
Las Cruces is one of America’s many gorgeous little secrets. If you are after a hidden jewel with a completely unique culture and vibe, this is a destination to put on your list. Explore the history, take in the laid-back, artful lifestyle, and enjoy a great depth of natural beauty at every turn.
For more on Las Cruces, New Mexico, visitlascruces.org.