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Years before the birth of the White Dove, early Arizona settlers made a nest down south in Tumacácori. This pastoral area off the Santa Cruz River shows the beginnings of colonial Arizona history ... and it makes an excellent day trip.
Located just an hour south down the I-19 freeway, the Santa Cruz River Valley is full of interesting stories, lush landscapes and tasty Mexican food. Unlike its sister the Mission San Xavier del Bac, the Mission San José de Tumacacori offers a calm and minimalist experience. The ruins of the sun-dried adobe church built in the early 1800s, feel closer to the desert and its mysteries.
While it seems like it's off the beaten path, the Tubac-Tumacácori area is actually a quick and unfussy day-trip for family and friends during the holidays. Here are some fun things to do when you get there!
Oh, and also watch your step! We legitimately saw a rattlesnake while reporting this story.
Crack into a fruit burro at Wisdom’s Cafe
This 74-year-old restaurant just down the street from the Tumacácori mission is a local treasure. The cavernous dining room at Wisdom’s Cafe is filled with old murals and antiques, which give the place a homey vibe that sets it apart from the newer restaurants in neighboring Tubac. The lunch menu here is nothing too spicy, but they’re known for a Mexican pastry hybrid that’s half hand-pie, half sopapilla.
The origin story of this border creation is similar to the chimichanga: Somebody accidentally dropped a tortilla laced with jam into some cooking oil and voila, the fruit burro was born! Wisdom’s makes half a dozen varieties including cherry, peach and coconut cream, which you’re instructed to order at the same time as your meal. Dip some of that sugary cinnamon tortilla into the homemade vanilla ice cream on the side, and you’ll be happy to be alive.
Info: Wisdom's Cafe / 1931 I-19 Frontage Road, Tumacácori / Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5-8 p.m., closed Sunday
Visit Tumacácori National Historical Park
With open air and a view of a vast desert landscape all around you, the Tumacácori National Historic Park is as peaceful as it is historical.
The settlement was established by Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1691 as part of Spain’s West Coast colonization plans, according to the National Park Service.
The mission was originally located on the east bank of the Santa Cruz River until 1751, when the Pima Tribe of Altar Valley attacked the Spanish settlement. The mission then moved to the west side of the river and soon after Franciscans took it over.
In the early 1800s, Fray Narciso Gutiérrez commissioned the construction of Mission San José de Tumacacori, which is the the large church we see today in the baroque architecture style seen at the nearby San Xavier mission. However, the Tumacacori church was never fully finished due to the lack of funds and constant conflicts in the area.
Today, more than 40,000 people visit the National Historic Park every year, which now includes 310 acres of land and the sites of nearby Guevavi and Calabazas missions.
This place is pretty stunning if you ask us. There’s a self-guided tour of the grounds where guests are able to walk around the ruins of the church and get a sense of its deep history.
There’s also a museum, courtyard garden and orchard to explore. And during winter months, park rangers offer a number of guided tours, including bird walks and tours at night by candlelight.
Every year on the first full weekend of December, the park hosts La Fiesta de Tumacácori, a free event where visitors are able to experience the many cultures that make up the Santa Cruz Valley.
The celebration features fun performances by Apache Crown Dancers, Wa:k Tab Basket Dancers, folklorico groups, bands and so much more.
Find more information about the event here.
Info: Tumacácori National Historic Park / 1891 I-19 Frontage Road, Tumacácori / Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Thanksgiving day and Christmas
Walk part of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail
After soaking in the the serene mission grounds, it’s time to get the blood flowing and take a hike.
Tumacácori's Historic Park is located on the De Anza Trail, a 1,200 mile journey that stretches from Nogales to San Francisco. It commemorates the long trip taken by Spanish Lt. Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza and more than 240 men, women and children, who walked this trail to reach Alta California in 1770s.
Spend an afternoon strolling just a small section of the trail and explore some funky spots along the way.
Parts of the path run along the Santa Cruz River, so you’ll get the chance to be engulfed below the branches of southwest cottonwood willows as you watch for wildlife.
Plus, if you sign up for the “I Hike for Health” challenge at the Tumacácori visitor center, you get a cute button after hiking four miles of the trail.
Find more info about De Anza here.
Stop by the Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Co.
This little spice store has 75 years of history, and may be responsible for the enchiladas of your childhood. The Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Co. produces the iconic chile powder your parents may have used for enchilada sauce or red chile meat. Today the company also makes a variety of pastes and salsas, which you’ll see in Tumacácori restaurants like Wisdom’s Cafe. The chiles now come from New Mexico, but owner Jean England Neubauer oversees all aspects of production, staying true to the preservative-free recipe that made her family business a success.
You’ll find all of their products, plus a large variety of spices and hot sauces in the small storefront down the street from the mission. Many of the spices and salsas are available for sample while you browse the local cookbooks and historical artifacts on display. These people are seriously passionate about spices, and they’re an excellent resource for the kitchen. They’re even working on a new cookbook!
Info: Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Co / 1868 I-19 Frontage Road, Tumacacori / Open Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Sunday
At Elvira's in Tubac, feast on fine chile rellenos
Head back north for about five minutes and you’ll hit the larger town of Tubac, a well-heeled artist community with Santa Fe-style galleries and lots of shopping. It’s also home to Elvira’s original U.S. location, which opened in 2009 after relocating from Nogales, Sonora. If you’ve walked by the downtown Tucson location you’re probably familiar with the restaurant’s glitzy ambiance.
Stop staring at the hanging glass sculptures for a second and check out the drink list, which features 10 types of margaritas including a purple hibiscus prosecco and a fruity blended mango with Tajín rim. Elvira’s kitchen is known for its complex chicken moles with as many as 34 ingredients. But on our latest visit, we dove hard into the chile relleno category, and came out in a spicy daze.
If you’ve never a Central Mexican “Chile en Nogada” with pomegranate seeds and sweet walnut sauce, you’ve gotta fix that. But the art-lover in me fell hard for the chile Poblano “Frida Kahlo,” which featured a fat pepper oozing with melted Oaxaca and Menonita cheeses. Yeah it’s $28, but it’s got a spider web made out of chipotle beans and cream. What can I say?
Info: Elvira's / 2221 I-19 Frontage Road, Tubac / Open Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Monday