More than the calendar or even the thermometer, the aroma of roasting green chile announces the end of summer here in Las Cruces and its environs. When left in the field to ripen, the green peppers mature to scarlet pods that resurface in red-chile sauce and decorative, hand-strung ristras. Like spicy bookends, two popular festivals devoted to these two shades of our beloved state vegetable—the Hatch Chile Festival and the Whole Enchilada Fiesta—begin and conclude September’s nonstop festivities. In between, avid locals like me (and our guests, of course) find plenty to celebrate as we toast the state’s grape harvest, thrill to hot-air balloons suspended above pure white dunes, and celebrate the region’s history and cultural heritage. This festival frenzy winds down but doesn’t stop completely, especially with Día de los Muertos just around the corner (on November 1).
The Hatch Chile Festival
Famous worldwide for its chile, the small agricultural village of Hatch expands on the Saturday and Sunday of each Labor Day weekend. Charros (traditional horsemen from Mexico) on horseback, simple floats, and musicians join some hometown lowrider owners who perform car tricks in the parade that kicks off the Hatch Chile Festival Saturday morning. Chile fans arrive at the airport grounds for acres of entertainment, but many of us immediately head for local farmers’ booths and portable roasters to claim sacks of still-hot, roasted green chile or fresh red, along with the prettiest of multicolored ristras on display. “You can do it!” encourages Rocio Bustillos, suppressing a laugh as I attempt to tie the knots she so expertly executes in a demonstration of ristra making. Acknowledging defeat, I buy one that’s perfect. August 31–September 1. Hatch Municipal Airport; (575) 267-5050; hatchchilefest.com The Franciscan Festival of Fine Arts
Wandering though artists’ offerings in a pastoral setting appeals to those who faithfully attend the Franciscan Festival of Fine Arts. A pecan orchard on the Holy Cross Retreat Center acreage surrounds this juried show of 75 artists, whose work often reflects a connection to Catholicism. I always visit Paula Gonzalez, who creates planters decorated with intricate tile mosaics. August 31–September 1. Holy Cross Retreat Center, Mesilla Park; (575) 524-3688; franciscanfestival.org
The New Mexico Wine Harvest Festival
“It’s usually hot, sometimes dusty, but this festival is always fun,” says my new acquaintance at the St. Clair Winery booth, where we sample splashes of its Meritage (a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot) and discuss other varietals we like. The band drowns out further conversation, so I weave through groups of dancers to watch vats of grapes being pulverized under purple-stained feet, and drop in on a “University of Wine” workshop, where experts discuss the nuances of winemaking and tasting. My take-home? Along with some wine, learning that I’m attracted to the flavors of oak, white pepper, and fruit. August 31–September 2. Las Cruces State Fairgrounds. (575) 522-1232; nmwine.com
White Sands International Film Festival
This four-day fest September 4–8.
Diez y Seis de Septiembre Fiesta
This fiesta, which commemorates Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain, in 1810, begins in earnest when a parade with Mexican bands and floats arrives at the historic Mesilla Plaza. Tacos and gorditas sizzle, accompanied by rancheras and corridos played by mariachi bands. I never miss performances by the Ballet Folklórico de la Tierra del Encanto, headed by artistic director Jose Tena, whose bold productions go beyond traditional Jalisco dances. Tena, who has visited villages throughout Mexico, also presents regional folk dances, including heart-stopping choreography that features men performing intricate moves with cleavers.
Kids enjoy bashing piñatas and climbing greased poles while visitors browse amid Casas Grandes pottery, hand-embroidered dresses, and Lucha Libre wrestling masks. September 14–15. (575) 524-3262; mesilla-nm.org »
Frontier Days, Fort Selden State Monument
Check out an 1880s encampment and watch a cannon being prepped and fired before listening to a cavalryman explain his saddle and gear. Wander the paths among eroding adobe walls and bump into characters from the past: a train conductor who explains the hardships of travel in the Wild West, women in Victorian dress, soldiers in Civil War uniforms. Hungry? Check in with campfire cook Dave Harkness, who’s happy to share his made-from-scratch chow, cooked in a camp kitchen complete with horno. Contests for children are inspired by the period during which the fort operated, 1865–1891. “Kids especially like the hoop toss,” says Nathan Stone, monument manager. September 14. (575) 526-8911; nmstatemonuments.org
White Sands Balloon Invitational
The annual White Sands Balloon Invitational (September 21–22) brings a collage of floating colors to the surreal dunes of this popular southern New Mexico destination. More than 50 balloons launch Saturday and Sunday from the White Sands National Monument and Alamogordo’s 24-acre Balloon Park, which was built to accommodate larger community events and the growing number of balloonists attending the festival. Savvy spectators bring sun protection, chairs, blankets, drinking water, and picnics. September 21–22. (575) 437-6120; alamogordo.com
The Whole Enchilada Fiesta
Chile chef Roberto Estrada will re-create his gargantuan dish for the 31st year in 2013. Preparing this three-layered monster, which measures 10.5 feet in diameter, requires 40 sous chefs and Herculean effort.
“My son tells me I could have a heart attack out there in the hot sun,” Estrada grins. “But then, I will die a happy man!” This three-day street party attracts about 40,000 people and takes 500 volunteers to pull off. Races, horseshoes, and huachas (a bocce-like sport that involves the precision tossing of metal washers) recruit all types of competitors, including contestants who vie for first, second, and third place in the Fire in the Whole enchilada-eating contest. Don’t miss headliners Al Hurricane, Al Hurricane Jr., and the Texas Tornados. September 27–29. (575) 526-1938; enchiladafiesta.com ✜
Pamela Porter is a journalist who teaches at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.