One-hundred and fifty years ago, Mesilla was a major stop on the long stagecoach line between San Diego and San Antonio. The town played a key role in the Southwest’s economic, cultural, and political history, much of which has been carried into modern times. Mesilla is now considered to be one of the most visited and well-known communities in southern New Mexico, thanks to its many festivals, a growing food and drink scene, and plenty of opportunities to spend time in nature.
Here’s our list of nine of the best ways to explore this historic town.
1. The Gadsden Museum and Historic Sites
As a crossroads, Mesilla saw an influx of people from varying cultures, and its plaza is full of fascinating buildings with rich histories, most of which you can learn about at The Gadsden Museum. One popular stop in Old Town is the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, which once served as the courthouse. It’s here that one of America’s most infamous outlaws was jailed and sentenced to death by hanging.
Mesilla was originally established by those wishing to remain Mexican citizens after the Mexican-American war moved the border farther south. Following the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, though, Mesilla inhabitants were forced to become American citizens. In the 1860s the town became a major hub of activity due to its location on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, which carried passengers and mail from Tennessee to California.
La Posta Compound, another historic building, served as an important hotel on the old stagecoach line. The San Albino Basilica, which was originally built of adobe in 1855, still offers masses today in Spanish and English. Outside you’ll find a memorial to all the parishioners who died in combat in American wars.
2. Spotted Dog and Other Nightlife
Like many towns across the country, Mesilla has seen its food and drink scene evolve to include more businesses that use locally sourced ingredients. The Spotted Dog Brewery, Vintage Wine and Cigars, and St. Clair Winery are all part of the New Mexico True Certified program, which recognizes businesses whose products are 100% sourced or made in the state.
The Spotted Dog Brewery, Mesilla’s most popular hot spot, is a family-owned business with a pet-friendly patio where you’ll find an eclectic crowd of all ages listening to live music, throwing peanuts on the floor, and socializing over flights and pints of the valley’s finest craft beer. The menu offers everything from po’ boys and duck drumsticks to burgers and chicken ‘n waffles. For those more interested in local wines, Vintage Wine and Cigars has a patio and offers cheese plates, wine flights from all over The Land of Enchantment, cigars, and occasional live music. St. Clair Winery and Bistro offers sample wine flights and an impressive menu. For those craving a dive bar with live entertainment, check out El Patio Cantina.
3. Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
Although Día de los Muertos originated in Mexico, it’s observed in cultures throughout the world, and the celebration in Mesilla is considered one of the best. Taking place on the first weekend in November in both 2018 and 2019, the gathering draws hundreds of people who celebrate the lives of lost relatives and loved ones. Family members erect altars all over Mesilla’s historic plaza and decorate them with favorite items of the deceased, as well as pictures, ceramic figures, paintings or drawings of saints, woven baskets, colorful tissue paper and flowers, foods such as pan de muerto (day of the dead bread), clothing, and even sugar skulls.
The festival features activities including folklorico dancing, face-painting, and a big procession on the last day. This impressive parade includes costumes — some colorful, others black and white (or skeleton-patterned) — singing, dancing, and people carrying objects once belonging to their loved ones. While festive by nature, this celebration is profoundly intimate and touching for many, as everyone shares their grief through beauty.
4. Diez y Seis de Septiembre (The 16th of September) Fiesta
Much like the Fourth of July for Americans, September 16th marks a critical day in Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain. Mesilla’s festival attracts tourists from around the world to honor the holiday. Kicking off with a parade through town, the celebration includes folk dances, mariachi music, flamenco dancers, amusement rides, piñatas, a traditional greased-pole climb, authentic Mexican dishes, and vendor booths featuring arts, crafts, and games.
5. Mariachi Sundays and the International Mariachi Conference
The Annual Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference is a four-day event celebrating 150 years of cultural traditions through educational workshops in mariachi music and folk dances. Although the conference only happens annually, Mesilla hosts Mariachi Sundays every week in autumn, featuring talent from the region, including mariachis, vocalists, and dancers.
6. Christmas Eve on the Plaza
Mesilla’s Christmas Eve on the Plaza is a favorite for visitors and locals alike. The historic plaza glows from the light of thousands of luminarias (brown paper bags containing candles). Plus, there’s caroling, an impressive nativity scene on top of the famous gift shop, a huge lit Christmas tree, handcrafted Mexican artwork and ornaments for sale, and an abundance of hot cocoa.
7. Mesilla’s Native American Market
In early November, Native American artists from all over the Southwest come together for a weekend to share their work and celebrate Native heritage, culture, and history. This includes performances by the Jemez Pueblo, a tribe that has lived in Northern New Mexico for at least a thousand years. You’ll also find staple foods such as Indian tacos and frybread at the market.
8. The Rio Grande’s Many Adventures
While more daring travelers can venture farther north to Taos for whitewater raft trips, those seeking a family-friendly stretch of river can stay in the Mesilla area. Local guides offer guided float trips, stand-up paddleboarding, and canoeing on the Middle Rio Grande. Fishing and fly fishing are also popular on the river and surrounding lakes.
9. The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument
Although the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument is known as an area with rich Native and Spanish history, it also boasts an impressive ecosystem that draws people who love the outdoors. With landscapes of old lava flows, rugged peaks, dramatic canyons, and grasslands, this wilderness area has hundreds of thousands of acres to explore, whether you prefer horseback riding, hunting, camping, mountain biking, rock climbing, or hiking.
For more than a century, Mesilla has served as a crossroads, bringing together Native people, famous Western figures, and travelers from Mexico and many regions of the United States. This melting pot has made Mesilla a unique destination where a variety of cultures are celebrated. With its beautiful natural landscapes, rich traditions, a full calendar of events, and relaxed nightlife, it’s no wonder that Mesilla has become a favorite destination for those visiting the Land of Enchantment.
Written by Melanie Hamlett for RootsRated Media in partnership with New Mexico.