Tuesday, August 17, 2010

El Paso & Surrounding Areas on A Tank of Gas

I was recently in El Paso cheering a few friends in their bowling tournament. Of course it would be a waste to fly that distance without some sightseeing.

This is the story of how my rental Toyota Corolla used up its 1 tank of gas. 

I stayed at the Holiday Inn near the airport, on the east side of downtown. The hotel was quite old, and the swimming pool is an odd configuration of half indoors & half outdoors. It does have a courtyard that is good for chillaxing at night when there is no blazing hot sun shining down.

El Paso is not that big, probably a 20-min drive to pretty much everywhere. I would highly recommend having a car as it is definitely a low density sprawl type city. There are several places to eat and a club within walking distance of the hotel.  One of the places is Jaxon's Restaurant and Brewing Company - They don't offer beer flights so I was only able to try out their Borderland Lager and Cactus Jack Amber Ale.  I wouldn't say it's exceptionally good, but it is refreshing to have some microbrew while out in the boonies.
Mexican Lager
Amber Ale
First stop was downtown. There is a free city hall parking right next to the convention center and various museums. The signage is very confusing as it says free city hall parking after 6pm on weeknights and all day on weekends. But it also says parking for Insights Museum only. In any case, I parked there on Fri night and Sat all day with no problem. Street parking is generally free on Sundays and holidays. If you cannot stand heat, I would highly recommend spending the $3-5 for indoor parking at the convention center or across the street in the parkade.

If you are the cultural type, there are 3 museums right next to each other. Mind you they are not the scale of any museums in major cities, but can't beat free general admission either.  A group of us toured the El Paso Museum of Art one afternoon.  They have an eclectic collection of classical and modern art.

Of all the exhibits, I actually found something in the gift shop the most intriguing - a bracelet made with twist ties!  How ingenious!  

For the shopping type, there is the Golden Horseshoe extending from the convention center to the border with Juarez, Mexico. If you are on the hunt for cheap socks and underwear, football [soccer] jerseys, brand name sneakers and women's clothing that is way too tight for anyone who eats more than 500 calories a day, you will find yourself in paradise here!

For the rest of us, this Mexican "Magnificent Mile" is an amusing way to sweat off at least 10lb. I did manage to gain some pounds back from the yummy pistachio paleta I got from a "street vendor" - i.e. a woman with a rolling cooler standing on the side of the street. True Mexican spirit!

[BTW, from all the research I have done and people I have talked to, there is no real reason to go shopping in Juarez ... Your life is worth a lot more than some cheap merchandise!] 

The majority of the tank of gas was spent on a road trip to the White Sands National Monument. The trip is about an hour and a half from El Paso. I would recommend starting early, and stopping by the Little Diner on the way for brunch. According to the advertising in tourist books, George W Bush has eaten here; I didn't know he's considered a gourmet? For those who have time, there is also a relatively large outlet mall at the same exit.  After this section, there are not many selection for decent food on the deserted highway.

As I started late on the trip, I drove directly to White Sands. I also bypassed White Sands Missile Range Museum on the way. This is the site where the atomic bomb used in World War 2 was tested, so it should be a good stop for military buffs. I did stop on the way of the scenic drive to take in the landscape a bit.

White Sands is a very unique place. It almost look like a snow covered ground in the middle of a desert. The whole place is blindingly bright thanks to the reflection of the sun by the sand. Seeing such vast coverage of white sand, and without being by an ocean, is a strange feeling. It feels lonely, like a companion is missing.

On the way back, I took a detour to Mesilla in New Mexico. It is a quaint old town square with a church and some shops in old Southwestern style buildings. I only had time for a whirlwind walk-around and to pick up some locally produced pistachio as gift for my friends back home.

Continuing down NM-28S, the drive suddenly turned into a lush green path through the Stahmanns pecan farms. It is such contrast to the White Sands scenery that I just visited hours ago.

I was not able to bring some pecans back, as they are only available in either fresh form that requires refrigeration, or candied forms that will melt in the car within a minute.

I took Woodrow Bean Transmountain Road back to El Paso. This route passes through the Franklin Mountains State Park. I like the feeling of driving through a mountain pass - climbing in between the rocks, then the sight opening to a vast space. In this case, the sight opened to El Paso and extending into Juarez, Mexico.

I drove to the Wyler Aerial Tramway hoping to get a view of El Paso from the mountain. The drive up to the base station was very steep - I had to drive in first gear of the Corolla to get enough power for the incline. Unfortunately the tram was closed by the time I got there. For those planning to follow this itinerary and want to be a bit more leisurely, I would recommend reversing the route and start with the cable cars. I took in the city view from the base station before heading to some dinner.

After all the sightseeing, I was thirsty at this point. I stopped by Flautas y Paleteria Tepalca, an unassuming restaurant in what seems to be suburbia strip mall. This place sells a large selection of agua fresca (Mexican fruit juices) and paletas (Mexican popsicles). I have not had these many agua fresca flavors to select from since working in Los Angeles years ago - it took me almost 5 minutes to look through all the choices and decided on a mango one in a gianormous styrofoam cup. While sipping the refreshing juice, I checked out their wide paleta selection, wishing for a place like this in Toronto some day.

Last stop of the day is the famous Cattlemen's Steakhouse in Fabens, about half hour Southeast of El Paso. I got there in time for sunset, which is an amazing view, even though it was a cloudy day.

The restaurant is part of a ranch, with live animals around. Aside from the usual suspects like dogs and horses, I got a glimpse of a peacock on the roof of one of the buildings. And while having dinner, a pack of coyotes also showed up to eat some of the fresh meat left outside for them. It was a rare treat having dinner with coyotes indeed!

And the food? My 12oz ribeye was aged to perfection - juicy and buttery without being too fatty! The baked bean side dish has just the right hint of smokiness, although a bit on the sweet side.

The evening concluded with the night view at the hotel and some desperately needed rest after a long day of driving.

Of course, my El Paso trip had to conclude with more food! On the way to the airport, I made a pit stop at a local favorite Chico's Taco. Chico's has a very limited menu. Their El Paso style tacos are more like taquitos with beef filling served in tomato soup then topped with shredded cheese and green chili salsa. It may sound odd, but the tacos were quite tasty in its own way. They also serve "round" hot dog, with a halved sausage in a hamburger bun. I couldn't take more food after 3 tacos, but it did look tasty.

The gas tank warning light came on, so it's time to fill up the tank, return the car, and say adiós!

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