Road Trip: 36 Hours in Tucson, Arizona.

Friday 4 pm: I check into the Marriott University Park, unload the bags, and head out for a leisurely stroll around the University of Arizona campus. After an eight hour drive from San Diego, walking was needed to work out all the kinks. Classes over for the week, the students were all heading over to Main Gate Square for drinks and food. Seemed like a good idea, so I followed the pack, ending up at Starbucks for a well deserved latte. Two hours later, the square was in full force, with live music blasting from the bar and cars full of students cruising the boulevard. Time to move on.

Friday 6pm: Spying a electric trolley coming down the boulevard, I hop on board with the idea of finding somewhere to eat. Running commentary from the driver of the Old Pueblo Trolley fills me in on our destination. We were heading for the historic 4th Avenue district, a tree-lined avenue featuring over 100 restaurants and shops.

Starting at the very end of 4th Avenue, I walk my way back. Shops full of Mexican imports, arts, and vintage clothing slow my progress. Loaded down with purchases, I just manage to catch the last trolley back to Main Gate Square. Back at the hotel, I suddenly realise I had forgot to eat. Thankfully, room service is 24/7.

Saturday 7am: Up early to head out to Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. But first the mandatory stop at Starbucks (my home away from home). On the 30 minute drive out to the museum I try to spot a perfect Saguaro cactus, but like a perfect man, they are few and far between. The Desert Museum, however, is perfect. Part zoo, part museum, and part botanical garden, it provided hours of entertainment.

I had planned on checking out Old Tucson Studio on the way back to town, but had left it too late. By the time I arrive, the car park was empty except for two forlorn looking coyotes scavenging amongst the trash cans and picnic tables. Just me and the coyotes. Time to move on.

Saturday 6 pm: Arriving back in Tucson, I stop at the Hotel Congress for a quick meal at the Cup Café and a look around. This hotel, built in 1919, gained fame in 1934 as the place where gangster John Dillenger and his gang were apprehended. Looking like something out of a Cohn Brothers film, the hotel has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. An old wild west style bar (The Tap Room) sits along side the neon-lit night club (Club Congress). Rooms here are cheap, but not quiet.

Sunday 7:30 am: Starbucks coffee on board, I drive downtown to St Augustine Cathedral. The cathedral, built in 1896, is one of Tucson’s most striking buildings. An imposing Spanish-style building of white and beige sandstone, the entrance way features a bronze statue of St. Augustine (patron saint of Tucson) and intricate carvings of yucca, saguaro, and horned toads. But magnificent as it is, I’m not here for the architecture. I’m here for a uniquely southwestern experience – the weekly Spanish mass accompanied by a mariachi band.

Following mass, I walk several blocks to El Tiradito, a shrine dedicated to a sinner, that, according to local legend, was killed by a lover’s jealous husband in the 1880s. The shrine has evolved into a wall forever alight with votive candles. People come to make a wish and light a candle – it is believed that the wish will come true if the candle burns all night. I light a candle. After all, who am I to dispute local beliefs. (note to self: must come back in morning to see if candle still lit.)

Sunday 11am: After wandering around downtown Tucson, I end up in an area once known as El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson. These days its called the El Presidio district. Here I find the Old Town Artisans and inside I discover pottery, rugs, jewellery, and paintings. This place is the next best thing to heading down to Mexico to shop. And past the shops, there is a courtyard that houses the La Cocina Restaurant & Cantina. First shopping, then margaritas and mariachis.

Sunday 5pm: I’m back at Main Gate Square, sipping on a latte, watching the world go by. I think I’ll head over to the University tomorrow and enrol. This is my kind of town. I wonder if my candle is still lit.

(notes from my Nov/Dec 2005 Southwest Road Trip)

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