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Real talk! Your big-city best friends are in town and you really want to show off your love of Tucson. Because it's the best place ever. (Duh🌵)
They've eaten a Sonoran hot dog, have made the morning trek of Tumamoc Hill for that #FitLife selfie, and soaked up all the funky vibes of 4th Avenue. But now it's time to stretch your tour guide legs and head southwest till you spot "the White Dove of the Desert." Just 15 minutes outside of town on the Tohono O'Odham reservation, The Mission San Xavier del Bac is a national historic landmark that's treasured by tourists and locals alike.
First founded in 1692 by Jesuit missionary Father Kino to introduce Catholicism to indigenous people of the area, the San Xavier Mission is considered one of the finest examples of Mexican Baroque architecture in the country. People from all over the world travel here to experience this colonial gem in the middle of the Sonoran desert.
But you probably know that. What you don't know is that this entire area is filled with interesting, offbeat activities that you can only find in Southern Arizona.
So to help you out, we spent the week sniffing out all the fun things there are to do on your mission ... to the mission.
Let's get to trippin'
You can spot the elegant white domes from the I-19 freeway south of town, but we decided to skip the freeway and take the scenic route through Tucson's southwest side. You can follow Starr Pass down to Mission Road, which takes you past rocky cliffs and kitschy buildings all the way down to your destination. (Turn left on West San Xavier Road and drive past the cemetery and you'll see the mission on your left.)
You're here. You're hungry ...
Before you make a b-line to the church, maybe you wanna get some grub. After all, you brought company who probably haven't eaten a decent tortilla in months.
You can grab an Indian fry bread taco from one of the smoky stalls that set up outside in the dirt parking lot. During the weekends, this spot is full of local families preparing puffy popovers covered in honey and sugar or smothered in cheesy beans.
If you're in a search of a full meal, the popular Cafe Santa Rosa has recently opened a second location inside the colonial San Xavier Plaza just south of the mission. Surrounded by red brick and ocotillo, we enjoyed a hearty breakfast of sunny-side eggs and a velvety red chile beef, which we spooned up with cemait, or O’Odham flour tortillas.
On weekend mornings, I enjoy hitting up the Tohono O'Odham Swapmeet at 5721 S. Westover Ave. for Salvadorian pupusas and spit-roasted tacos al pastor. (Also there's an awesome pork chicharron place called Carnitas Los Equipales that cooks their meat in giant copper pots.) But unfortunately the swapmeet was closed during our visit, so for dinner we hit up nearby Karichimaka, 5252 S. Mission Road, a hidden-gem that's been serving old-school Mexican dishes since 1949.
Visiting Mission San Xavier del Bac
Now that you've had an amazing meal that Father Kino would be proud of, it's time to see the Mission San Xavier. Mission grounds are open daily from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and free for the public to explore.
Inside the church you will find beautiful and elaborate presentations of religious iconography that date back to the 1700s. Learn more about this unique place by taking a free docent-lead tour; they're available Mondays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
If you miss the tour, don't fret. The mission also has a museum you can visit that discusses the construction, history and preservation on the San Xavier. That's free too! Treat yourself to some postcards and saint candles at the gift shop.
Before you head back to the car to do some more adventuring, visit Grotto Hill. It's a short walking path to the east of the mission that leads to up a small rocky hill. Here you can get a great view of the mission grounds, the San Xavier Co-op Farm, and the cactus-filled vistas beyond. You'll also be able to find more religious shrines tucked into the hill.
Other things to do while you're out there
Now that you've seen a beautiful church, it's time to enjoy the beauty of nature.
One of San Xavier's neighbors is the Tucson Mountain Park. Just take Mission Road north to Ajo Way and head west till you see the tall saguaros. Because we are all about maximizing our time we visited Robles Pass, a 16-mile trail system located on the outskirts of the park and a 15-minute drive from the mission.
This is the perfect place for your BFFs to hang out with cactus and take in the charm of the Sonoran Desert, just be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring water. We heard rumors you might be able to find a crested saguaro on the Bittersweet Sunset Loop Trail, that would be cool to show your friends, right?
Heading south again from the Robles trail system, you'll come up on the Pascua Yaqui reservation, neighbors to the Tohono O'Odham. The Yaqui draw their heritage from uto-Aztecan people of Mexico and are known for their iconic deer dancers, which honor the natural world and the white tail deer that's central to their culture.
You can see representations of the deer dancers in the elaborate tile mosaics that span across Calle Tatakusim and South Camino de Oeste. If you're thirsty, drop in for a soda or some saladitos at Los Acres Grocery, 4141 W. Tetakusim Road. (Check out the awesome mural on the side of the building.)
Afterwards, hit the slots at the Vegas-style resort Casino del Sol, 5655 W Valencia Road. Or just grab a cocktail and sit by the pool. 🍹 Their notable bar program is run by Aaron DeFeo, president of the Tucson bartender's guild who's long been considered one of the best in town.
On our latest visit, we sipped on a French Cowboy with pear-infused cognac that had been hit with the slightest savory touch of black truffles. And of course, next door is Tucson's crown jewel of cow, PY Steakhouse. No explanation required. 🐮
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