Hugging close to the border, tourists may not think of visiting the communities of Tubac and Tumacácori. But given the chance, the two sites north of Nogales on Interstate 19 can make for a historical and colorful day trip.
History at the Park
The entrance of Tumacácori is bland and walled off, making it easy to drive past it multiple times before realizing those bare walls are the “grand entrance” to the Tumacácori National Historical Park. The visitor center describes a life more than 300 years ago of a community of Jesuits and later on Franciscans. On the vast, and now deserted, grounds is the Mission San José de Tumacácori, established by Jesuit Padre Eusebio Kino. Originally, Jesuits had occupied this mission until they were expelled in 1767. Later on, it was adopted by Franciscans for some time. It was not until 1848 that the mission was completely abandoned, and only in 1908 was it the site named a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt.
After some restoration, the site is now a glimpse into the past. The landmark instantly is entrancing as it towers over the grounds. The adobe walls of the church have pillars that protrude from the smooth surface. The ruins of a bellower are perched at the top, where the bell dangles still and silent.
The opening into the church is black, but it tugs at guests as they become submissive to a sacred place. The ceilings rise and light shoots in from gaping windows. The church is narrow, bordered by new wooded benches placed ironically next to the remnants of decomposing altars that people had knelt beside and prayed hundreds of years ago. Today, the altars are guarded behind ropes waiting to turn to dust. The walls resemble Dalmatian spots, with smooth, white areas from recent restoration and the original rough dark structure uncovered by time.
At the end of the room is a raised platform that hosts a cross made of colorful flowers, the only source of bright color in the room. This is the sanctuary. Walking up the ramp toward the flourishing cross, one can see faint outlines of decoration carefully coated on the walls from centuries earlier, now fading away.
Surrounding the mission are adobe buildings that once flourished with an active civilization. Ruins now rest on the dying grass.
A cemented path guides tourists into a previous life. With the help of a self-guided tour pamphlet, provided by the park, there are 19 stops to observe and learn about society that used to call this place home. The stops include a storehouse, convento ruin, an orchard, a lime kiln and even a cemetary.
A Grave Reminder
Hidden from view, behind the mission in the back corner, is a small cemetery. The land has spurts of bright green grass attempting to poke through the dry earth. Mounds of rocks, each marked by a jagged wooded cross, fill up the area. The crosses stand crooked, pushed sideways by time and erosion. The graves all look the same, more or less, except for one. This grave is not a mound, but rather an adobe coffin that resembles an enclosed crib.
Carefully placed on top of the “crib” are smooth pebbles, quarters and a few rusty pennies. Carved into the head of the grave are letters spelling out Juanita Alegria — the only one marked with a name. Who is Juanita? A mother? A daughter? A friend? What was her life like? What were her accomplishments? What were her heartbreaks? Today she is a stranger to most who glance at her grave, but she also serves as a reminder. A reminder that although this place is barren of life now, besides the daily tourists and park rangers that roam the grounds, it once was a real civilization with real people who lived real lives.
A Hidden River
Beyond the historical path surrounding the mission lies another path, the Anza Trail, that is worth every bit of dirt that creeps into your shoes.
The trailhead is shaded with overhanging mesquite trees. Squirrels and birds rustle in the brush, occasionally running across the trail, frightened at the stomping of hikers’ boots. The wind swerves through the barren branches and birds chirp in conversation to each other.
About a half-mile from the start is the gentle sound of gliding water cutting through the riparian habitat — the Santa Cruz River, stretching from Arizona to Mexico. The sun that bounces off of the water makes it look as if diamonds are floating on the surface.
The water is frigid but refreshing under the hot sun. It is easy to lose track of time and distance on the Anza Trail because it entices you with nature.
Be warned, the trail does not simply stop after a few miles but travels throughout Arizona, California and Mexico. It is a optimal spot to explore nature and work up an appetite.
Tubac Village: Exceeding Expectations
Only a 15-minute drive north on I-19 is the artists’ colony of Tubac, a village where creative minds come together and form incomparable art. TripAdvisor lists only about 15 shops and galleries, but that is misleading. The village is composed of multiple plazas with more than 100 shops and galleries, comprised of artists’ work from all over the region as well as a work place for local artists.
Cars pour into the village in pursuit of a makeshift parking spot. People walk through the street holding their colorful treasures. Families wander in and out of shops and galleries while others explore the outside of the Mexican art shops.
The rows of adobe buildings are not the main focus, although eyes are instantly drawn to the sea of bright red, green, yellow, blue and orange colors of painted Mexican ceramic.
A local artist sits in his shop creating unique pieces as tourists watch in awe. Wind chimes sharply hum as a breeze brushes through the hanging bells. Plazas and courtyards are shaded by canopies as people sit, eating sandwiches, sharing appetizers or even sipping on an early and enormous margarita. The village is Arizona’s own Hispanic-inspired Venice, Italy. It is easy to get mixed up in the alleyways and streets, but part of the fun is being lost in this colorful and unique place and stumbling upon a tucked-away store.
In Tubac, it is easy to spend a $100 on trinkets or $500 on one irreplaceable art piece. This makes it essential to set a budget, or else you will quickly become broke.
With so many stores in a compact area, it can be difficult to shop, unless you have something you know you want. Need a new ceramic pot with hand-painted flowers for your yard? Great! There are thousands to choose from, but be sure to compare prices. Even if you find the perfect pot, you may miss out on a deal at one of the other 60 stores that sell a similar one for half the price.
The main pieces found in the village are handcrafted tin creations, furniture, jewelry, home decorations and one-of-a-kind artwork. But the dominating pieces are hand-painted Mexican ceramic that line the stores inside and out with every shape and object you can think of: pots, birds, butterflies, plates, bowels, utensils, Christmas ornaments, cowboy boot, tiles, flowers, skulls, cactuses and more.
One shop that many find themselves engulfed in for hours is La Paloma de Tubac, which carries one of the largest and most extensive collections of Mexican ceramics and art. It is a bit off the beaten path, but the prices are arguably unbeatable.
It is nearly impossible to leave Tubac without buying some piece of Mexican ceramic, but there are other treasures around every corner. At the Red Door Gallery, shoppers can buy a gourd that has been transformed into a flourishing bonsai tree with a black hummingbird perched on top through cutting, painting and patience. In the Cloud Dancer Jewelry Studios, a local artist creates original pieces inspired by native American culture. The Clay Hands gallery contains Southern Arizona’s largest selection of handmade pottery.
Shoppers may find that these hand-molded bowls, mugs and plates are essential to have in their kitchen. And with so many stores and galleries displaying original and imaginative pieces, it is hard not to fill up your car trunk.
Refresh the Day with a Bite to Eat
Ask locals where to eat, and chances are the answer is: “You have to go to Elvira’s.” Praised for its modern Mexican cuisine, the restaurant is so popular that the line to be seated usually lingers out of the door.
People nibble on mole dishes with hints of chocolate surrounded by a quick of chili covering chicken. Even if you don’t eat there, it’s worth stepping inside Elvira’s to admire its beauty. Clutching onto the branches that loom over the dining area are dangling glass globes filled with light. Shades of soft purple, blue and pink brighten up the restaurant.
There are eateries scattered throughout the village. If you are looking for a casual bite, there are numerous options, including Shelby’s Bistro or ¡DOS!
Both offer a chance to eat while enjoying the sunshine on the patio. ¡DOS! has shareable appetizers and large cocktails to enjoy with friends and chat about the day. Shelby’s Bistro is a great spot to get a fresh wrap, sandwich or salad while you sip on wine and watch shoppers parade in and out of stores.
For an even quicker bite to eat or a small snack, stop at the Tubac Market, which has an excellent selection of freshly made dishes and delectable treats at its little bakery. A great option for the ride home.
Tubac and Tumacácori offer something for everyone to do whether you want to learn a bit more about Arizona’s history and see how people once lived, wander off the beaten path to discover nature, get lost in the colorful ally ways of an Artist colony, shop for the perfect new decoration for home or have a relaxed meal and mingle with friends, these two communities have something for everyone.
• Bring water. It is easy to immerse yourself in the nature on the Anza Trail and walk farther than you realized.
• The entrance fee to the park is $5, unless you have an annual state park pass.
• Look at the website before going, which lists the daily tour times. There are occasionally events or demonstrations going on, such as people making tortillas.
• Grab a map. It is very easy to get lost. There are map pamphlets all over, or ask a friendly shop owner for a spare.
• Do not buy the first thing you see. Chances are you can find the same thing for cheaper at another store. Do your research on what you want to buy.
• Don’t know where to go, where to eat or what to do next? Ask the locals and employees. They are friendly and have lots of advice on exploring the community.
• If you want to eat at Elvira’s or Shelby’s Bistro, lunch prices are significantly cheaper than dinnertime.
Sara Cline is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at email@example.com.