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Looking Westward: Tucson
Thomas R. Fletcher
The broad valley stretching below Westward Look Resort sparkles with a million twinkling lights as darkness settles over the growing city of 800,000. The resort’s 80-acre location in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers an expansive view. A very different site greeted Jesuit Missionary Eusebio Francisco Kino in 1692 when he visited the Native American village known as Stjukshon ( "village of the spring at the foot of the black mountain"). Long known to Native Americans, evidence indicates the region was inhabited before the time of Christ. Stjukshon became Tucson, in Kino’s native Spanish tongue.
Kino went on to found Mission San Xavier del Bac in 1700. Located 15 miles from today’s city, the mission still serves the people of the Tohono O’Odham Native American tribe for whom it was established. Often referred to as the white dove of the desert, the structure represents one of the best examples of Spanish mission architecture in the United States.
(Mission San Xavier del Bac)
Located in a high valley (2410 feet in elevation), Tucson is ringed by five mountain ranges. The dry, warm, desert climate features 350 days of sunshine each year, making it a natural winter getaway. The sprawling metropolis has much to attract today’s traveler, including the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Pima Air and Space Museum, Saguaro National Park, Kartchner Caverns State Park, and Mission San Xavier del Bac.
The Pima Air and Space Museum is for anyone with a fascination of air travel–or for those which a connection to air travel. Personally, I had worked on the US Navy’s last P-2 aircraft more than twenty years ago. I was told the plane was headed to the museum when my composite squadron retired it from use. I wanted to see if it was there.
The museum chronicles the history of manned flight, with more than 250 aircraft on display, ranging from a replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer, to John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One, to the "Bumblebee," the smallest manned aircraft with a wingspan of only six and half feet. Here one finds civilian and military aircraft, with planes from every branch of the armed services. I found a plane from my old squadron, and I found a P-2, but apparently not the P-2 I worked on, for this one has US Army insignia. The oddest looking aircraft displayed could very well be the Boeing B-377SG "Super Guppy," designed and used by NASA to haul oversized loads. The plane looks like a cartoon-drawing of a beached whale with wings. The fastest plane on display would be the SR-71 "Blackbird" spy plane. The museum’s exhibits are scattered over a 65-acre site and among five hangars of indoor displays. Fifty-minute tram tours of the site are available for an additional charge, for those not up to walking the expansive grounds.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, established in 1952, is located 14 miles west of Tucson in the Tucson Mountains. The museum sits on 98 acres of ground leased from Pima County (exhibits only cover 21 acres). Established in 1952, the museum’s name reflects the natural connection between the US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora and the vast Sonoran Desert ecosystem shared by both. More zoo than museum, the museum seeks to interpret the natural history of the Sonoran Desert. Exhibits, both indoors and out, include plants (more than 1200 species), animals (more than 300 species), rocks, and minerals. Desert animals and plants are displayed together in re-created desert landscapes. Almost close enough to touch, I watched a couple of cute prairie dogs as they busily gathered straw in their mouths, then carried it into their burrows. The docent displaying the tarantula, held out on her palm, gave several people the willies. Picnic lunches are not permitted at the museum, but there are two restaurants on the premises.
The hulking Saguaro cactus, the largest cacti species in the US, is one of the Southwest’s best known icons. What few people realize is that these old giants, which often tower of 50 feet high and may weigh up to eight tons, are endemic to the Sonoran Desert (they grow nowhere else). Native Americans long ago learned to make jelly, syrup, and wine from the fig-like summer fruit of the Saguaro. Much of nature makes use of these towering, silent sentinels of the desert. Birds nest in the trunks, foxes, coyotes, squirrels and other rodents feast on the fruit and seeds. Saguaro National Park is the place to see forests of these and many other cacti species. The Sonoran is the most lush (if one may use such a term to describe a desert) desert within the US, with the greatest species variety.
Kartchner Caverns State Park, 49 miles southeast of Tucson, boasts itself as "Arizona’s Newest Natural Wonder." The cave was only discovered in 1974 by spelunkers Randy Tufts and Gary Tenen, while cave-hinting in the Whetstone Mountains. By all indications, they were the first humans to discover this wet, living cave– it is continuing to grow, as water continues to drip, forming and shaping the growing calcium carbonate features. Wanting to protect their find, they kept it secret from the Kartchner family, who owned the land for four years. Long story short: the family felt it couldn’t adequately protect the cave, so the state was approached (the whole while keeping it secret). The state took on the project of protecting the cave, while developing it as a state park, opening its doors to the public November 12, 1999. The cave has been a gold mine for paleontologists, who have found an 86,000 year record of the local fauna within the cave. A major find was the remains of a Shasta ground sloth, estimated to be 80,000 years old. The limestone cave is a storehouse of information on the local fossil record. April through September it becomes a migratory nursery for 1,000 or more Cave bats (Myotis velifer). The bats provide the only link between the cave and the outside world (precautions the state took in preparing the cave for visitors was to install air-lock chambers to prevent the cave from drying out). Nightly, the bats gorge on insects, returning to the cave to make their guano deposit. The guano becomes a primary food source for other cave-dwellers, an important first link in the cave’s food chain for the 28 species of invertebrates known to inhabit the cave. Cave formations include the world’s second longest "soda straw" (a hollow stalactite only one quarter inch in diameter, but an amazing 21 feet long), and the beautiful Throne Room which is 150 feet long, 140 feet wide, and 60 feet high. The cave has a surveyed length of 2.4 miles, but only a small section of that length is open to the public. Before touring the cave, a stop at the Discovery Center is a must. A scale, topographical model of the 550-acre park puts things in perspective, showing the surrounding terrain and location of the cave. The Artistry of Water exhibits includes photos and text outlining how water is the tool that shapes cave formations.
With so many natural attractions, no wonder Tucson promotes itself as "Arizona’s Other Natural Wonder."
If You Go:
The US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora–which share a border–have teamed up in marketing regional travel. Together these two offers some magnificent scenery and excellent beaches to the vacation traveler. The states have chosen "From the Grand Canyon to the Sea of Cortez" as their theme. The two states have some extraordinary cultural and natural treasures to offer the traveling public from desert to sea, mountains to canyons. The partnership has designed several suggested tour itineraries covering locations in both states for nature-based, cultural, Old West, sun and fun, or family adventure tours. Contact the Center for Arizona-Sonora Regional Tourism Development in either state for more information.
Phone/Fax: 011 52-62 13 1861
The Mexican city of Alamos, tucked in the Southeast corner of Sonora, is a cultural treasure. Within Alamos is the romantic treasure of Hacienda de los Santos.
Hacienda de los Santos
Tucked within the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains is the historic Spanish-colonial city of Alamos, Mexico. Within Alamos is Hacienda de los Santos. Alamos is a city of walled properties and Hacienda de los Santos is no different. Situated on a walled, seven-acre plot of ground only two blocks from the main plaza, the Hacienda makes exploring this historic city on foot a snap.
The Conquistador Coronado passed through the area of Alamos on his way north in 1531. It wasn’t long before the Jesuit Missionaries followed, starting an area mission in 1613. The mission wasn’t completed until 1630. Discovery of silver in 1683 is what placed Alamos on the map. It was during that year the core of the town was built. Alamos boomed with a maximum population of 30,000 around 1780. Alamos was the richest town in the state of Sonora, and one of the largest silver producers in the world.
Several events conspired to change the gleaming prospects for the town; the silver playing out, Native American raids, floods and a plague, dwindled the population to a low of 300. During the Mexican Revolution, in 1915, Pancho Villa entered the city but spared it, considering it might make a nice place to retire. The city remained virtually deserted after the revolution until the 1960's, when the area began a period of rediscovery. Today’s population hovers around 8,000, with 250 of those residents being from the US and Canada. This romantic city is a Mexican Historical Monument and a Sonora State Historical Site. Some Alamos homes have remained within the same family for 300 tears. Alamos experiences a pleasant climate with plenty of rain in July and August.
Hacienda de los Santos, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, bills itself as a "hotel/resort/spa." It is all that...and more. The Hacienda could double as a religious art museum covering a period of four centuries. The collection dates from 1565 through the1800's. Truly an "estate of the saints," the collection of retablos alone is jaw-dropping, representing one of the finest collections anywhere. Retablos are pieces of religious art usually painted on tin because it was inexpensive and available, often by local artists, but sometimes by monks or nuns to be sold to support their monastery or convent. Retablos were pieces of religious are for the common man. They were designed primarily for use in home altars. The collection of Hacienda de los Santos is unique in that most of the pieces were housed in a Mexico City monastery. The collection dates from 1850 to 1875. Jim and Nancy Swickard began their collection in 1965. A room adjoining the collection of retablos features a wall filled with carved, wooden Guatemalan crucifixes dating around 1750. Santos, carved wooden saints, are found throughout the property.
The layout of the grounds and wonderful art collection promote quiet reflection. The wood-burning fireplaces in the portals and rooms add to the romantic ambiance, inviting cozy interaction. The Hacienda’s adult-client policy ensures that screaming children do not shatter those reflective, romantic moments.
Hacienda de los Santos represents the restoration of a formerly vacant property, the main house of which was built in the 1680's, with 27 rooms available (each named for a Saint). The full-service spa offers everything from a French facial to a full-body massage, with very reasonable rates.