Mesilla, New Mexico: Discovering A Different Side Of The Southwest

mesilla
Alex Briseño, Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso on short notice for a magazine assignment. I found it enjoyable, but on my final day, I was itching to get out of the city limits and explore before my evening flight. Every local I talked to gave me the same response: go for a scenic drive out to Mesilla.

Located just 44 miles northwest of El Paso on the fringes of Las Cruces, Mesilla is a historic village established in 1848. Perhaps best known as the location for Billy the Kid’s trial, Mesilla has also played an integral role in the development of the Southwest, in part because it was along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. I’m obsessed with all things New Mexico, but despite numerous visits to the northern part of the state, I’d never been south of Albuquerque. I was an easy sell.

The drive to Mesilla presents a dramatic contrast in topography. About 30 miles past the arid plains and stark Franklin Mountain range of El Paso, the Rio Grande grows from a trickle to substantial enough to support lush vegetation. I’d never seen a pecan tree before, and suddenly I was passing thousands of acres of them, in all their towering, leafy glory (after Texas, this region – Dona Ana County – is the nation’s largest producer). There were fields of onions and chiles (Mesilla is just 42 miles away from Hatch), and vast dairy farms. As a former ranch kid, I instantly felt at home.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Cisco Photography

As you enter Mesilla off of Highway 10 West, there are indications you’re approaching someplace special. Walk a couple of blocks down to the historic Plaza, and it’s impossible not to be charmed. Despite the inevitable souvenir shops, of which there are only a few, a number of buildings are on the historic register. The vibe isn’t one of touristy kitsch, but rather, small-town Southwest. There are coffee houses, cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, wine tasting rooms and museums. A chocolate shop sells small bags of dipped pecans, while Solamente!, a specialty food boutique, offers tastes of the region in the form of green chile-spiked pecan brittle and salsas.

I whiled away a few hours by strolling the Plaza and talking to the handful of vendors who sell their wares from tables around its perimeter. This is the place to buy a bag of pecans and homemade bizcochos (buttery little cookies), or a pair of earrings. The Basilica of San Albino dominates the north end of the Plaza, and is open to visitors from 1 to 3 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. Afterward, I sipped an icy horchata and read on the shady patio of a coffee house. It’s unthinkable (to me, at least) to be in New Mexico and not eat. The region’s most famous restaurant, La Posta, is around the corner from the Plaza. This stunning 19th-century compound was once part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, but today it’s better known for its green chile enchiladas and signature Tostada Compuesta.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Ken Stinnet

Before heading to the airport, I drove the few miles down a back road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Unfortunately, it was still closed for the season, but the drive meanders past pecan orchards, crumbling adobe homesteads and tranquil farmhouses. Horses graze in verdant pasture, and fields of onion with their flowering lavender heads intersperse the orchards. It’s lovely, and a side of New Mexico I’ve never seen, used as I am to the dramatic ochre landscape, canyons and severe mesas of the north.

At the end of a business trip, I’m often content to just get to the airport early, and spend the time people watching and reading. My jaunt to Mesilla was a reminder that sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to hit the road instead.