Time-honored holiday traditions and year-round fun light up one of the oldest towns in southern New Mexico.
Mesilla’s historic plaza, the heart of this welcoming community, shines brightly during the holidays. A tree lighting ceremony, the songs of joyful carolers, evergreen garlands, and thousands of Christmas Eve luminarias light up the age-old streets of this festive town.
“It’s a time of joy and happiness” says Nora Barraza, Mesilla’s mayor since 2010. “It brings gratitude and contentment to my heart to be part of this community.” Many Mesilla residents who join in the traditional holiday festivities are descendants of the settlers who founded the town in 1848. Their deep connection to the town’s long and significant history contributes to Mesilla’s charm.
Vibrant shops, restaurants, and other local businesses that line the streets around the Old Mesilla Plaza, a National Historic Landmark, add to the town’s appeal. Housed in adobe buildings that have hardly changed in the last 150 years, many businesses are owned by people whose families have been here for generations. “I was born here in Mesilla Plaza,” Barraza says. “My great-grandparents on my mother’s and father’s side were living here in the 1850s. The Mesilleros who are born and raised here make the town what it is today because of the history that they carry and the stories that they have.”
Some of those stories flow, along with the cocktails and ale, at El Patio Cantina, housed in one of Mesilla’s oldest buildings. Since 1934, the popular bar on the Plaza has been run by descendants of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain, a legendary soldier, politician, newspaperman, and lawyer. Fountain famously defended Billy the Kid in 1881 in the Mesilla courthouse—and lost. Built circa 1854, El Patio’s adobe walls have, across the decades, housed the Butterfield Overland Mail offices, Fountain’s Mesilla Times newspaper, Sam Bean’s Saloon, and the Albert Fountain Mercantile.
More stories are on tap at Palacio Bar, another longtime hangout. “El Patio and Palacio are two of the oldest bars in our community,” Barraza says. “If you want an old-fashioned atmosphere, where you feel like you step back in time, these are friendly bars where people go to socialize.”
Mesilla has plenty of popular dining options, including Andele Restaurant. What started as a takeout window in 1996 has grown into one of the town’s treasured eateries, known for homemade tortillas and tempting tacos. “My favorite dish is the red enchiladas, with a very tasty homemade red chile,” Barraza confides. Chala’s Wood Fire Grill draws crowds with meats that are cut and smoked in-house, including its signature bacon. “I like the pastor tacos and the calabacitas,” says Barraza. “But everything is so tasty.”
Seekers of treasure and souvenirs of the Southwest head to Thunderbird de la Mesilla. Housed in New Mexico’s oldest brick building, constructed in 1863, the shop is packed from floor to hand-hewn viga- ceilings with Native American jewelry, textiles, santos, pottery, and hundreds of other unique gifts.
Sweets are always in season at The Chocolate Lady, a small, beloved shop where decadent treats are “to die for,” says Barraza. “Owner Linda Jackson has the best tasting, creamiest chocolate ever. My favorites are the chocolate pecan bar, made with locally grown pecans, and chocolate-covered strawberries.”
On Fridays and Sundays, the Old Mesilla Farmers and Crafts Market transforms the Plaza with a kaleidoscope of colors. Eager shoppers browse local honey and chile products, jewelry, kitchenware, home goods, and other items, chatting with the artists and the farmers. “They all have to be handcrafted items, and everything is unique,” Barraza says.
After exploring Mesilla’s layers of history and modern-day life, hit the hiking trail at nearby Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, where the Río Grande’s riverside forest (bosque) meets the Chihuahuan Desert with glorious views of the Organ Mountains. Or find a serene spot in town to ponder the passage of time. “I love sitting and enjoying the sounds of birds and the Basilica bells ringing in the background,” Barraza says. “Mesilla is a beautiful place to live, and it’s so quiet. Sometimes people cannot believe the harmonious ambience that we have.”