When you’re thinking of where to plan your next family vacation, El Paso, Texas is totally at the top of the list, right? It’s not? Huh. Well, over the last couple years, I’ve learned that this border town in the middle of nowhere has more to offer than you’d expect. My sister and her family have been living there for her husband’s job and it’s been fun exploring this city with them.
A few things I’ve learned:
– It is quite literally a border town. Juarez, Mexico is just a stone’s throw away across the Rio Grande. Much of the highway runs along “the fence” and you can walk over a number of bridges into Mexico.
– El Paso is hard to get to – it’s far from everywhere (except Mexico). It’s a 7-8 hour drive to any major city and there are few direct flights.
– I have heard that the rest of Texas doesn’t really claim El Paso – the culture, landscape, and feel of the city is much more Southwest/New Mexico than Texas.
– It’s an eater’s city. There’s really great food, ranging from fancy burgers to Mexican street food to high end tacos. We mostly just go from restaurant to restaurant while we’re there.
– It’s expected that you speak Spanish. I don’t, at least not well, so that’s an adventure.
– The border is far more fluid than I expected. People commute both directions daily to work, shop, and recreate.
– El Paso has great sunsets.
So, to our trip. My sister is suddenly moving back to Colorado in two weeks, and my friends Lindsay and Matt planned to visit her before she moved. The visit got bumped up to last weekend and flights were surprisingly affordable from NY, so TimTheFarmer and I hopped on a plane (with the antlers and advent calendars) to join them. We packed a lot into three days!
What We Did
You can drive or walk into Juarez. It’s my understanding that when you drive in, you can go to the fancier parts of town, but we walked over the Paso Del Norte bridge which puts you a few blocks away from traditional Mexican marketplaces. To cross into Mexico, you just pay a few cents ($.30, I think) and walk across the Rio Grande over the bridge. We were immediately greeted by many options for dental care and these traveling musicians.
My BIL took us to the main square with a 300 year old church watching over all the action, including multiple photo opportunities with Santa and his plastic reindeer (think deer yard ornaments adorned with Santa hats) and tinsel, lots of tinsel.
We then walked to the market area with amazing fresh produce, lots of sweets and piñatas, and anything else you might need to purchase. We sampled cajeta (dulce de leche made from goat’s milk), some fruity gelatin candy thing, and chicharrones. You can’t bring any produce or spices back across the border, which was a huge bummer because I’m low on cinnamon sticks and everyone was selling them (along with cigarettes, which I didn’t need).
We bought a few gifts and then headed back to El Paso. To get back into the US, you need to pay another $.30 and then show your passport at the US border crossing.
White Sands National Monument
White Sands is about 90 minutes from El Paso, in the New Mexican desert, surrounded by mountains. It’s an absolutely amazing natural formation. All the sudden, you leave the sagebrush/yucca desert and arrive in these rolling white hills of shifting sand. It looks like you’re in snow, but you know you’re not and it totally messes with your mind. We packed a lunch, borrowed sleds from friends (you can also purchase them in the Visitor’s Center), bought some wax, and headed into the dunes. There are roads plowed throughout the dunes and you can drive to a variety of parking areas to explore the dunes and sled. There may have been a pants-less Benjamin incident.
We seriously sledded for hours. The adults and kids had equal amounts of fun, and crashes.
By the end of the day, Benjamin was riding down from the top and going off jumps and after some initial concerns, Oliver made it about a third of the way up.
On the way out, we stopped at the boardwalk which allows you to walk out over the dunes and look for critters. The boardwalk seemed to function as a race track for most visitors’ kids, and all the noise from the running on metal made spotting critters tricky, but Uncle Timmy and Benjamin sure looked hard.
We left with sand everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. That’s all I’ll say about that. White Sands is really an amazing place. I highly recommend it. Make sure to check the website for closures due to missile tests before driving all the way there. Yes, missile tests.
The Wyler Aerial Tram takes you to the top of the Franklin Mountains which sit in center of El Paso. We’ve tried to ride it the last two times I was there, but it’s been closed due to high winds. The winds were (relatively) calm this time, so we headed out!
As we were driving up to the parking area, we had a hard time spotting the tram – we’re used to ski area gondolas with large towers along the route. This tram runs along a cable with no towers between the top and bottom – it’s a long, lonely line that makes you momentarily question your decision. Then, you remember you’re a Colorado girl 🙂 and hop on the tram. It’s a quick 4 minute ride to the top and you get some awesome views of the cacti and rock formations (and cement quarry) along the way. The platform at the top offers a 360* view where you can see El Paso, Mexico, New Mexico. According to the website you can see a third state from there, but I can’t figure out what state that might be. This is a great way to get a true sense of the vastness of the deserts of the Southwest.
We went to this throwback arcade-bar for my BIL’s birthday. It’s full of every 1980s arcade video game you can imagine. The boys were all in heaven and TimTheFarmer took me on a tour of his childhood. It was a pretty classic gender breakdown here as the girls were all hoping for skee-ball or air hockey (which they didn’t have) and the boys were geeking out on all the throwback games. The girls sat at the table for a couple hours while the boys relived their mall-arcade glory days. Also, it should be noted that they have these
horrific huge blended drinks full of sugar, fruity booze, and candy. Carolyn got the Talk Nerdy To Me … full of nerds. She loved it. I thought it was awful. And the server (who was really sweet, just a bit green), didn’t think they had silver tequila … um, we’re in El Paso, of course you do! The music was way too loud and the drinks were too sweet, but the boys had fun, so we’ll call it a win.
Where We Ate
We’ve eaten at Crave every time I visit El Paso. They use fresh, sustainably sourced ingredients and make simple, awesome food. All their burgers are great and their sweet potato waffle fries come with a legendary cinnamon marshmallow cream sauce which is ridiculous (I actually recommend the garlic aioli for dipping). I was heartbroken to be trying to stick to my nutritional therapist’s mold-detox guidelines i.e. stricter than paleo, which meant I had to pass on the new menu item: green chile chicken and waffles. The table shared tuna ceviche and crispy artichokes – yum! There were lots of burgers ordered and I enjoyed the roasted chicken and asparagus (and sweet potato fries…duh). They have an amazing brunch too. Only complaint: green chile mac and cheese is a total let down. It has so much potential and is completely boring. Our whole table agreed.
This is an upscale Mexican restaurant with great tacos and is a favorite of my sister and her friends. They all say they go for the food, not the service which is notoriously slow and erroneous. We went to celebrate my BIL’s birthday and despite having a reservation, they crammed 10 of us into a booth meant for 6 people and then filled it with unnecessarily giant plates. There was no room on the table and I couldn’t eat with my right hand because my plate was balancing 1/2 off the table and blocking my arm. It was the most claustrophobic dining experience I’ve ever had and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. The table shared chips with salsa and guacamole and chicharrones and I sampled the pork belly, coconut shrimp, and fish tacos – all of which was fantastic. Unfortunately TimTheFarmer’s crispy red snapper came out 15 minutes after everyone else’s food. The food was delicious – it always is. The company was great. The service and seating was less than optimal. Oh, and there was an unnecessarily strong eau de tannenbaum wafting through the restaurant … it messed with the atmosphere, Mexican restaurants shouldn’t smell like a Christmas tree lot. #justsayin
L & J Cafe
Known as the “old place by the cemetery,” this is an El Paso landmark with classic Mexican food. They’re known for their queso, but I can’t report on that since I’m staying away from dairy. I can’t remember the name of what I ordered (it’s the kind of place without an online menu), it was some sort of shredded beef, and it was delicious. Everyone enjoyed their meal. My only complaint is that they don’t have a liquor license, so their margaritas are made with wine, which tasted fine but gave me a headache. Definitely check this place out while you’re in town. It’s real-deal El Paso.
Crisostomo is my sister’s go-to lunch joint, so much so that they know and love her kids there. It’s simple, authentic Juarez street food with tortillas like my grandma’s. Literally. There are grandmas rolling out fresh tortillas behind the counter. They’re amazing – the grandmas and the tortillas. Both the quesadilla and burrito options are delicious. I’m a big fan of any of the shredded meats mixed with peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes, and the lengua (tongue) isn’t bad either. On this trip, we were trying to stick to our mold-detox protocol, so we went with the barbacoa burrito with avocado, no beans or cheese. With some salt and salsas added, it was delicious! My sister’s boys love the beanie weenie burritos. Apparently there is a strong love affair with weenies in Juarez, so hot dog filled tortillas are totally a thing. Weenies in Juarez. That has to be a title for something.
It was a fantastic trip all around – so fun to explore El Paso with friends and family!
And, Carolyn is the amazing photographer behind any of the sledding photos I’m in.