Disclosure: I was a guest at the Sonoran Desert Inn for a night. As always and forever, all opinions are my own.
I’ve been on this planet long enough and seen a good chunk of its geography to have witnessed my fair share of towns that through a twist of fate, a curve in the road, a closing of a business is set on a path of bad luck and circumstance. Historically, take a look at some of the towns that thrived on Route 66, or for those familiar with France, National 6. These once-vibrant areas now suffer and are oftentimes abandoned. It takes a very dedicated person or people to stick around and people with hearts of gold to have faith in the future. In Ajo Arizona, those people gather around the Sonoran Desert Inn.
Before I dive into more detail, if you’ve been reading Misadventures with Andi for a while you will know that I am a movie buff (and if you haven’t been reading for a long time, just take my word for it) and there is a film that I think about when I think about Ajo. It is a French movie with an actor I enjoy (Lorànt Deutsch) called “Un village presque parfait” which means, an almost perfect village. It is the story of a small village in France that is seeing hard times because it’s main employer, a smoked salmon factory, shut down and moved out of the country. For them to attract a new company, the village must have a doctor. So the mayor of the village, along with a few other rascally characters trick a Parisian doctor into falling in love with their town…and the story goes on.
I don’t think the co-directors of the Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center, Stuart, and Emily Siegel, are tricking anyone, but they are trying to work a miracle and I, for one am rooting for them and the entire Ajo community who have dedicated their blood, sweat and tears to this endeavor.
Ajo Arizona was once a bustling little town on the Southern Arizona and Mexico border. For multiple generations, there had been a copper mine and the town was built to support the miners. It was a model planned community with pretty pre-fab houses and a Spanish colonial town square. The town planners sought to keep the miners and their families happy and satisfied. But in 1985, union disputes broke out, copper prices plummeted and the mine closed overnight leaving 1000s of people without work. Families moved away and the town was practically abandoned.
So why isn’t Ajo Arizona one of those ghost towns that people drive through on the way to somewhere else? Two words.
People and Arts.
A community of people wanting to fight to change the future of Ajo through art.
Truth be told, they have only started. They do have a ways to go. But the heart is there and stories like this help raise visibility to why you should visit Ajo. Why you should Stay in the Sonoran Desert Inn and why you should spend some of your hard-earned money there. If you are interested in learning more about Ajo Arizona, here is a great article from The Atlantic about its history. The Sonoran Desert Inn also has a great page on their site that weaves their story with the town of Ajo’s and it is very well written, I recommend checking it out.
Mr. Misadventures and I enjoy visiting places in the off-season. Full transparency, summer is NOT the best time to visit Ajo Arizona. BUT I find rainbows in the clouds wherever I go and I believe everything happens for a reason. We had some rainbows on our trip.
Why visit Ajo?
To be clear, I am not going to say that Ajo is a destination spot. But I do think it is a great stopover, a nice weekend or a cool spot for a small conference. Ajo is 2 hours from Phoenix. Take Highway 85, avoid Interstate 10 and see lovely Sonoran desert landscape. Ajo is just a notch over 2 hours from Tucson. Take Highway 86, avoid Interstate 10 and see the Tohono O’odham Nation and one of my favorite spots right in the middle between Ajo and Tucson, Kitt Peak National Observatory. The space geek in you will love it.
Most people pass through Ajo to visit the Organ Pipe National Monument. We did ourselves when we spent a long weekend in Tucson last year. Organ pipe cacti are unique and are only found in the Sonoran Desert. They look like pipe organs and the park has tons of them!
There is also the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (the visitor center is located in Ajo) with 275 different species of wildlife. You are also 2 hours south from Puerto Peñasco, also known as Rocky Point on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. It is a fishing and resort town and quite popular for its beaches.
So that’s some of the why you might find yourself close to Ajo. The Sonoran Desert Inn has also partnered with REI Adventures for hikes in the Sonoran desert, check out the inn’s events page for more information. The inn is host to lots of community events including culinary, spiritual and plain old business conferences. The property is an old school known as the Curley School Campus and I love the sense of nostalgia I got while walking down the hall, not to the principal’s office or to the school nurse, but to our room. They call the decor “Southwestern industrial” and I dig it. I would also call it very clean!
Our room had a nice bathroom and a kitchen to prepare food and beverages. It did not have a television (that scores points in my book!) but did have wireless. Notice the cute javelina pillow? That’s kind of the town’s mascot and we will come back to that in a minute. The rooms are converted schoolrooms and I love the vibe! Also, notice the industrial art hanging from the ceiling built with old mining equipment. And P.S. I have those striped pillows on my guest couch at home – true story!
The center hosts a community garden, local artists and a meditation center among many other things I did not have time to discover.
So remember those rainbows I mentioned? When we arrived at the Sonoran Desert Inn we were a bit tired. It was hot, we had spent 3 hours outside touring Kitt Peak and we were hungry. There is not a lot (read practically zero) options for food in the summer. But there are tamales! Yes. You read that right. Tamales. One of the employees of the inn makes fabulous tamales and she sells them in the office. So when you check-in, ask about them and buy a dozen! We got 1/2 a dozen and wished we bought more. They even provide you all the instructions you need for heating them in your room. Rainbows and little bundles of heaven I tell ya!
The next morning we rose as early (as we always do!) and went to check out Ajo’s Artist Alley. The Sonoran Desert Inn and the town of Ajo itself are very committed to supporting local, regional, heck, any artist. There is an artist in residence program and there is Artist Alley.
Everywhere we turned there were amazing pieces on the walls covering all types of topics: Native American culture, spirituality, education, Sonoran life, culture. Beautiful work.
We were all alone so we didn’t have to fight people for photos: off-season and early risers for the win!
Plenty of talented artist in Ajo!
After taking in all the different murals, we decided we were hungry, but the restaurants offering breakfast were not open until 7:00 and it was 6:15 so we decided to drive through some of the residential areas to look at the homes that were built to house miner families. There is a movement to restore some of these older homes, but they still need a lot of work. There aren’t a ton of people that live in Ajo year-round, most of them are border patrol and their families as there is a large border patrol facility between Ajo and Pipe Organ park. There are also a lot of retirees as well (and a ton of RVing snow birders in the winter). Quite frankly it is like a ghost town. I know because where we live in the northwest of Phoenix is practically the same!
We had the streets to ourselves. That is until a gang of javelinas showed up. That is not the official scientific name for a group or family of javelinas, but you don’t want to mess around with these animals so I like the gang reference. Except I just looked it up and it is a squadron and that is totally cool! They have a squadron of javelina’s at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (one of my favorite things to do in Tucson) but I have only seen the shape of them under the bridge or in the bushes. This badass squadron was in the wild. Well sort of. If you call a neighborhood of homes in a small town the wild! You get my point. Hopefully.
I was driving and rolling super slow so that we could keep up with them and so that Mr. Misadventures could get a photo.
There must have been about 30 of them wandering around and it was hard to get them!
Then a coyote rolled onto the scene. A small guy. The squadron decided to cross the road and the coyote stopped, sat, and waited until they all crossed. Also smart enough to know that you don’t mess with these guys!
By the time we finished chasing them around the neighborhood, it was 7:00 am. Time for breakfast. The restaurant we were going to (there was only one choice on a Sunday morning in the summer) was right around the corner from where we were so I pulled into the parking lot and noticed that there was nobody home. Sunday morning, people might get to work a little late, so we waited until 7:15. I doubled-checked their Google business listing, it said they were open. I checked the photo I had taken with my phone from the information book in our room that said it was open, but nada.
[Update: the kind of owners of the above-mentioned restaurant actually reached out after and offered us a gift card as a means to apologize for not being open. Can you believe how awesome this town is? Of course, I turned it down because only a restaurant is hard, owning a restaurant in a town as small as Ajo, harder. But I will gladly return in the autumn try have a [paid] meal.]
Enter rainbow number 2.
After a quick check on the interwebs, we found that the closest spot for breakfast was in the next town over. I personally wouldn’t call it a town. It is heading the direction of the Organ Pipe National Monument and it is a corner with a 2-way stop sign, a gas station, a Mexican insurance office (you need to buy car insurance for driving in Mexico if you head to someplace like Puerto Peñasco) and one single restaurant called Grannymac’s Kitchen. I don’t know who Grannymac is but I love her. This restaurant run by 3 generations of fierce women is dah-li-cious!!! We had a great breakfast with probably the best just-made-right-from-the-top-of the-oven tortillas.
There is no reason why I would ever stop in Why. If it hadn’t been for our off-season stay where most of the restaurants were closed we would not have experienced those tantalizing tamales or tortillas. There is always sunshine on a rainy day.
And wild burros when you leave town.
And now, on my next visit to the Sonoran Desert Inn in the autumn, I know I will be seeing Ajo at its best. But you know what? I already think it is pretty darn good.
How about you? Have you been to Ajo? Have you heard of it? Do you want to come to visit the Sonoran Desert Inn? Do tell! Have you been to a town that has been struck by an economic downfall that’s trying to turn itself around? Do share!