Mountains, border, mix of cultures draw tourists to El Paso

The craziest things get swirled together in El Paso, Texas – horned lizards and chihuahuas, baseball diamonds and city offices, tiny shops selling pants designed to “lift your butt” and sprawling stores stuffed with cowboy boots.

That’s the border, and every now and then I need a fix.

I spent seven years living in McAllen, Texas, and love the cultural mashup that erupts where Mexico and Texas collide. It’s sun-baked and blistered, and a little worn around the edges, but chock full of character you don’t find farther inland.

About 700,000 people live in El Paso proper. About twice that many live across the border in Juarez. Some speak English, some speak Spanish, and most speak a combination of both. It’s the same way with the food, the architecture and just about every other element of life.

I stayed at the Camino Real Hotel downtown, just a few blocks from the international bridge, where a drink beneath the beautiful blue stained-glass ceiling in the Dome Bar helps settle the dust after a day of exploring. It’s a block from the city’s new minor league ballpark and museums, and a short stroll to a funky retail district packed with mom-and-pop shops selling cheap imported toys, $2 sunglasses and those booty-enhancing trousers.

I didn’t head across the bridge this trip, but people were eager to tell me that tourism in Juarez is picking up after years of drug-cartel skirmishes. If you decide to go, remember you’ll need a passport – and a guided tour isn’t a bad option.

Rich Wright, who offers two-hour tours of both cities, showed me around the El Paso side of the Rio Grande. We wandered into an old neighborhood called Chihuahuita near the bridge that dates to the days of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. You can walk right up to the border fence.

“It’s one of the most culturally unique cities in the United States – like San Francisco, New Orleans or Miami. It’s that distinctive,” Wright says of El Paso.

From downtown, you can’t help but notice the Franklin Mountains, which bisect the city. At night, the outline of a huge star illuminates one hillside. During the day, Franklin Mountains State Park is a playground for mountain bikers and hikers. During the summer, arrive early, carry plenty of water and keep an eye out for prehistoric-looking Texas horned lizards and rattlesnakes.

It’s an easy jaunt from the park’s headquarters to the Wyler Aerial Tramway, which looks like it should be whisking skiers up snowy slopes. El Paso’s slopes are studded with cactuses instead, and the four-minute ride takes you to the top of Ranger Peak, where you can peer all the way to the shimmering Samalayuca Sand Dunes, south of Juarez.

Back downtown, stop by the Plaza Theatre, a Spanish Renaissance-themed show palace modeled after a 1700-era Spanish hacienda. The 2,000-seat “atmospheric theater” was El Paso’s only public building with air-conditioning and chilled water fountains when it opened in the 1930s. It was nearly demolished in the 1980s, but a $42.1 million public-private renovation in 2006 saved the space. Today you can still watch projected clouds skim across the ceiling and stars twinkle in the sky at the theater, which hosts a classic film festival, concerts and other special events.

“(The renovation) launched a sense that El Paso can do good projects well,” says Gary Williams, who gave a tour and told me that the city also is working to bring back its pre-World War II art deco trolleys.

Other downtown spaces don’t look anything like they once did. The old Greyhound bus station has been converted into an art museum, and this summer marks the inaugural season for the El Paso Chihuahuas – the Triple A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. They play in a brand-new ballpark built on land occupied just two years ago by City Hall.

I wanted to brush up on El Paso’s Wild West background, too, so I headed to Concordia Cemetery, dubbed “the Boot Hill of El Paso.”

Some 60,000 people are buried in the cemetery, just off of Interstate 10. Albert Burnham, an associate professor of history at El Paso Community College and grave researcher, likes to dress up in Old West attire and talk about some of its most famous residents. Among them? John Wesley Hardin, a notorious gunslinger who supposedly killed 26 people, including one man just for snoring. The constable who shot him is buried here too, along with Chinese railroad workers, Buffalo soldiers, Texas Rangers and a 7-foot, 7.5-inch sideshow star named Jake Ehrlich who once reigned as the world’s tallest man.

“It’s my contention you can’t take a step in here without stepping on someone’s grave,” Burnham says as we roam among the crumbling tombstones.

After the tour, we stop at nearby L&J Cafe, an El Paso landmark that draws huge crowds. We nab a spot at the bar and I order what the waitress tells me to — green chicken enchiladas. They are the best I’ve ever eaten, honest.

Speaking of food, there’s lots of good food around here.

At the Little Diner in the neighboring town of Canutillo, a 10-minute drive from the Camino Real Hotel, Lourdes Gallegos-Pearson holds court over a hole-in-the-wall restaurant her mother opened in 1977. Twice a week, employees grind corn to make tortillas and masa. That – along with some chopped red chile pods – makes the tamales and the fat, Colorado chile-filled gorditas special. (Regulars argue over which is better, the red or green sauce. I vote red.)

If you’re not in the mood for Mexican, head to Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, a funky blend of an old speakeasy and a 1950s diner, where Patsy Cline once performed on a stage built over a now-dilapidated pool. You’ll actually be in New Mexico, but still within an easy drive of downtown El Paso. Arrive early, spend some time watching trains rumble past and take in the sunset. The restaurant hosts a farmers market on Saturdays and live music on weekend nights.

Once the sun sets and the air cools, you’ll have just enough time for a quick trip along Scenic Drive, which traces a ridge of the Franklin Mountains above the city. Savor the border’s eclectic flavor.