“The main reason people came to El Paso was to cross over to Mexico. And now Mexico is too dangerous, so no one comes anymore.”
The sad statement from the kindly gentleman working at the hotel desk fit the atmosphere of downtown El Paso like you wouldn’t believe. The streets were deserted, most of the buildings – which once must have been architectural masterpieces – were neglected and falling into decay. The “Golden Horseshoe”, which, according to my walking tour pamphlet, was once a bustling market, was now a disheveled collection of uninteresting shops, populated by shady characters and teenagers wearing sweatpants.
But don’t let that fool you. While downtown El Paso has a deep, melancholic feel of has been glory to it, and maybe BECAUSE of that nostalgia, the city is a wonderful backpacking destination. Most of the attractions are free, the locals are excited to help you out and the food is surprisingly good. Definitely my coup de coeur, as we say where I’m from, and I may even go as far as to say that it was my favorite stop along this trip.
As far as I can tell, El Paso only has one hostel, the Gardener Hotel. And it’s not really a hostel, just a few rooms in a hotel that happen to have bunk beds. The Hotel belongs in the downtown El Paso scenery: a historical landmark that no doubt remembers many significant moments of El Paso’s past, but that has clearly seen better days. Nonetheless, the rooms are clean and comfortable, the staff is friendly and super helpful, the location near the Greyhound and Amtrak is convenient and the prices are comparable to most other North American hostels.
If you’re passing through, it’s worth staying a night or two here to really feel the city.
By American standards, El Paso has a fantastic public transit system. The routes are convenient, the fares are cheap, the bus drivers are the nicest people ever and the busses come frequently.
However, and you will see me repeat it in this post, El Paso doesn’t bank on tourism these days. So the bus system is great for locals to go about their daily business, but all the things you’d like to see as a tourist (historical landmarks, museums, scenery, famous restaurants) are either in walking distance of the hostel, or so far out of town that you will need a vehicle.
I rented a car on my second day in town. It ended up being pretty cheap and it let me visit some of the attractions in the surrounding area. Driving in El Paso, like most Western cities I presume, was pretty easy. The highways are huge so traffic, even at rush hour, wasn’t bad at all. I also had no problem finding my way around. Don’t bother wasting money to rent a GPS. Everything you want to see will be indicated by many, many signs along the way.
El Paso in a Nutshell
As I mentioned earlier, El Paso doesn’t bank on tourism. Which makes the city kind of the opposite of a tourist trap. Local attractions are intended for locals, to teach them about their history, or make them love their city. In other words, pretty much all the museums are free, the not-free attractions are very reasonably priced and the restaurants have excellent quality-value. And the locals…they’re so happy to see someone take interest in their city that they’ll go far out of their way to make you feel at home. Everyone was so helpful and kind, and I ended up with more advice, tips and sightseeing suggestions that I could handle.
I did a self-guided walking tour on the first day with the help of a pamphlet that I picked up at the tourism bureau. (I ❤ tourism bureaus! They’re a godsent to the nomadic traveler.) I found it a good way to orient myself in the city and get a glimpse of its history. You can feel the ghosts here all the time, so it’s worth acquainting yourself with them.
My favorite story was of a tree by the Downtown Plaza. For a long time, it was used as a newspaper board. Most of the “news” posted was by politicians, businessmen and social figures calling each other names.
I visited some of the museums in town (like any good historical city, El Paso has tons and tons of museums, and unique to El Paso, most of them are free or by donation), notably the El Paso Museum of History, the Border Patrol Museum (an unusual theme, but since El Paso is a border town, the Border Patrol is natural part of daily life) and the Archeology Museum. All three were excellent and I totally recommend visiting them. I didn’t get a chance to visit the El Paso Museum of Art, but I’ve heard a lot of good about it, from both tourism guides and locals.
Around the north part of town, Transmountain Rd (where you can also find the Border Patrol and Archeology Museums) offers some amazing views of the city and desert. There are even sheltered picnic tables if you want admire those views over lunch. Another great way to admire views is the Wyler Aerial Tramway, a gondola that takes you to the top of a mountain in the city. There’s also some hiking around it if you get there early enough in the day and have a buddy to look out for you. Usually sight-enhancers like this are terribly overpriced, but again, El Paso is all about local love, so the Wyler Aerial Tramway is very, very reasonable.
While I was there, I met a traveling musician named Daniel Park who records videos of his music in every city he plays in. (He actually took that picture of me at the top.) I didn’t get to see him perform on stage, but I did get to listen to him play at the top of the mountain. His blog is a lot of fun to follow and this post has the video he recorded the day I met him.
And finally, while I was near New Mexico, I ventured to a historical neighborhood just outside of Las Cruces, named Old Mesilla.
This was probably the most touristy thing I did on my trip, but it was a lot of fun. I browsed through the quaint shops and ate at one of the elegantly decorated restaurants. (The food and service were average, but the atmosphere was well worth it.) As I was looking for a café praised in my “Explore Old Mesilla” handbook, I stumbled into a health food club. The friendly girls there informed me that the café had sadly shut down and then offered me a free smoothie. It was a very good smoothie and I desperately tried to find a website for the club (or even a name!) but no luck. But if you’re in Old Mesilla and find the health food club, tell them I say hi.
Along the way between El Paso and Old Mesilla, I took the back road through the gorgeous New Mexican countryside.
I stopped at Stahmann’s, which must be a very significant landmark since there were signs for the store EVERYWHERE. I bought about 50$ worth of peacan products. Thanks to Stahmann’s, I didn’t go hungry at all during my train rides! What peacans I had left over, I left with Fannon‘s family when I got back to Edmonton. They were pretty delicious, but I don’t think I’ll be able to eat another peacan again as long as I live.
Their peacan coffee, however, is amazing. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.
I gotta give props to the kind folk at the New Mexico Tourism Bureau for pointing me toward the backroad and to Old Mesilla. (See! Again the Tourism Bureau has contributed to making my trip a success!)
I was very impressed by the food in El Paso. But maybe I shouldn’t have been. After all, it was the “Old El Paso” brand of pseudo-Mexican food that made me want to visit the city in the first place. (I don’t know if I’ve even ever eaten anything by Old El Paso, but I’ve heard the name lots and it had made me curious.)
Two places really stood out to me.
1)Avila’s: I’m not usually a fan of Mexican cuisine, but you can’t visit the South West without sampling local food. And oh, how I was served! I ordered a sampling dish and I ate until I really couldn’t fit anything else down. And I drank a gigantic margarita. (I was traveling by city bus, so drinking was ok!) The service was also fantastic. So fast and so friendly!
2)Cattleman’s Steakhouse: I had to drive 20 miles during rush hour to get here, but oh, dear sweet, sweet Light, was it ever worth it! This place is a total experience. Cattleman’s is actually a ranch. I didn’t get there until dusk, but if you go in the afternoon, you can visit the property, take a hayride, see where some movies were filmed and chase the birds.
The steak here is…there are no words for it. I had the biggest, juiciest, deliciousiest T-Bone steak in my life. I still dream of it at night. I started off with a fantastic shrimp cocktail appetizer and even at that, my bill was for under 30$. How can you beat that?
Also gotta give props to the service. I had a great time and I promise I’ll visit again when I have more time to spend on the ranch grounds.
When crossing the border to the US, my customs agent happened to be from El Paso. His advice to me? “Stay out of Mexico.”
The drug violence in Mexico seems to stop at the border, but the repercussions are felt all along the South West. Every time I mentioned going to El Paso, I was answered with a comment on the Mexican drugs wars. Since I was traveling at the end of October, a few days before El Día de Los Muertos, I came across several shrines in Phoenix and El Paso (and even San Antonio) dedicated to the women and/or children murdered in the crossfire.
It was heartbreaking and sobering. You can easily tell how much the violence touches everyone in the region, whether they are directly affected or not.
I’m usually pretty fearless, but I chose not to go to Mexico.
In the end, I think going to Mexico would have been a waste of time, at best. I was on such a tight schedule and El Paso is such an interesting city that I would have missed out on a lot had I took my chances and crossed the border.
Conclusion: El Paso
I knew this post would be long, but I didn’t expect 2000 words! It’s just that I can’t find a shorter way to express how much I loved this city. As I was planning my trip, I was asked over and over again why I wanted to go to El Paso. Originally I was just curious. And when I saw how deserted the city was, I did feel a little discouraged. But when I took a closer look, I discovered a gem of a backpacking destination.
There are so many stories here, so many beautiful sites to admire, so much to learn, and, the icing on the cake of every backpacking trip, so many warm, helpful, kind locals to meet.
And if you’d like to see more pictures of the El Paso portion of my trip, my Facebook album should be viewable by all.