THREE YEARS AGO, JUAN ALBERT AND Claudia Gonzalez were scouting locations for a coffee shop and artisan market when they found an 1850s adobe along Calle de Guadalupe. A half block south of Mesilla Plaza, the property offered more than a place to serve a cortado and a house-made guava-and-cheese pastry—it created a connection to Mesilla’s rich past.

“It’s a beautiful, historical building,” Albert says of the structure that was once part of Mesilla’s transportation block. From 1858 to 1861, stagecoaches traveling from St. Louis to San Francisco along the Butterfield Overland Trail stopped there to exchange mail and travelers. Today, their restaurant Rincón de Mesilla—located at the block’s southern corner, or rincón, in Spanish—embraces that history.

“Mesilla is one of the most unique towns in the entire country,” says Albert. “Very few towns can talk about having that Mexican historical flavor. It’s the overall historical context of what Mesilla was and what Mesilla is.”

Claudia Gonzalez, who owns the Rincón de Mesilla with her husband, Juan Albert, teaches Spanish classes at the restaurant.

When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican–American War in 1848, Mexico ceded most of the land from California to southwestern Wyoming and through the New Mexico Territory to the United States. Some families, determined to remain in Mexico, packed up and headed across the new border to a mesilla (a little mesa, or table) and established a settlement out of the floodplain. The little mesa and its people remained a part of Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, when the United States, aiming to settle a boundary dispute and provide land for a southern transcontinental railroad line, paid $10 million to acquire an additional 29,670 square miles from Mexico and move the border farther south.

One hundred and seventy years later, the original settlers and their descendants are more than echoes in Mesilla—they are its heartbeat, filling the shops, restaurants, streets, and nearby hills with vitality, inspiring entrepreneurs, drawing visitors from across the world, and instilling pride in those who call Mesilla home.

At Rincón de Mesilla’s entrance, handwritten signs announcing posole compete with colorful Mexican pottery to lure visitors inside. “We’re a cultural mecca,” says Albert, as we sit at a wooden table draped with a Mexican serape table runner in a section of the building that dates to 1856.

Try the tamales at Rincon de Mesilla.

Last fall, Rincón unveiled a new menu featuring cuisine from the couple’s home countries, including picadillo from Albert’s native Cuba and asado from Gonzalez’s Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. I order a pineapple tamale, something I’m trying for the first time, prepared in a corn husk and slightly sweet. “Our goal is to bring a little more of a cultural element to the world and give our visitors more exposure to things they may not have seen before,” Albert says.

Elsewhere on this block, Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain Sr., who came to Mesilla with the Union’s California Column during the Civil War, ran a newspaper and printed two editions, one in Spanish and the other in English. Today, the room we’re sitting in serves as Gonzalez’s classroom, where she teaches Spanish-language classes to local professionals. “We want to be part of that Mesilla experience,” Albert says.

Guide Preciliana Sandoval gets in character as a Mexican revolutionary.

ON A SATURDAY MORNING, I MEET TOUR GUIDE Preciliana Sandoval in front of the Mesilla Plaza gazebo to learn more. A fifth-generation Mesilla resident, retablo artist, and soon-to-be ordained minister, Sandoval explains that younger locals refer to the landmark, which depicts the U.S. and Mexico flags crossed at the poles above the number “54” for the year of the Gadsden Purchase, as the gazebo, but older generations still refer to it as the kiosko.

In a nod to Mesilla’s Mexican culture, Sandoval wears the long skirt, flowing shirt, and cross-bullet belt of an Adelita, the moniker for a woman soldier of the Mexican Revolution. Sandoval studied history at New Mexico State University and intended to become a schoolteacher, but instead opted to share Mesilla’s rich heritage as owner of La Morena Walking Tours. “I still get groups of kids,” she says. “I teach and make history fun.”

As we walk the perimeter of the Plaza, Sandoval tells stories of Mesilla’s pioneering families, its past role as a vibrant trade center, and its former reputation as a rough-and-tumble outpost—building by building, ghost by ghost. She pauses near the Billy the Kid Gift Shop, once a courthouse where the outlaw was tried and sentenced to hang for the murder of Lincoln County Sheriff William J. Brady. When he was not getting in trouble with the law, the Kid enjoyed having a good time, she says. In particular, he really loved dancing with the local ladies. “Maybe I was one of his dancing girls,” she says with the wry smile of her character.

The Romanesque Basilica de San Albino, built in 1906 on the foundation of the original adobe, is home to one of the oldest parishes in the Mesilla Valley, founded in 1851 by order of the Mexican government.

After 24 years of sharing Mesilla’s history, Sandoval still takes great pride in one building on the north side of the Plaza: the Basilica of San Albino. “Standing in front of it makes me happy,” she says. “It feels like I’m giving honor to the church.”

The Romanesque structure, built in 1906 on the foundation of the original adobe, is home to one of the oldest parishes in the Mesilla Valley, founded in 1851 by order of the Mexican government. “The heart of Mesilla is the church,” says Sandoval. “It’s where we go to celebrate everything.”

In Mesilla, the past and present are joined as if in a religious rite. Across Avenida de Mesilla, Keith Bird owns and operates the 93-year-old Gadsden Museum. A descendant of Albert Jennings Fountain, Bird is the sixth generation of his family to live in the 1861 Territorial Style home on West Boutz Road, which has been open for limited tours due to ongoing renovations. The house displays the possessions of ancestors and other Mesilla residents close to the family—a late-19th-century barber’s chair, a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, chandeliers that once hung in San Albino, a Western Electric telephone, the original doors from Billy the Kid’s jail cell at the courthouse (Colonel Fountain was the Kid’s lawyer). Oil paintings by Bird’s great-great-grandfather Albert Jennings Fountain Jr., a self-taught artist, are showcased throughout the home.

The Basilica of San Albino was founded in 1851.

“Grandpa Fountain painted the only painting of the Gadsden Purchase [ceremony] that’s in existence,” Bird says, leading me to the 1924 original near the museum’s entrance (the Smithsonian Institution has a replica in its collection). He points to the U.S. and Mexico flags, poles crossed, displayed in a large tree between two columns of soldiers at the center of the image. “That is where the kiosko is in the Plaza,” he notes, citing oral history. “The flags are exactly the same as in this picture.”

Bird recites generation after generation of family members who have lived in the house, all the way back to his great-great-great-grandfather Antonio Garcia. “I want visitors to walk away with the significance of this family and significance of the families from Mesilla,” he says, “and to know how we, the Mesilleros, actually molded and melded our communities.”

Take the nearby Fountain Theatre, for example. Fountain Jr. purchased the building and entertainment venue in 1905. As the oldest movie house in New Mexico, the Fountain once featured vaudeville acts, plays, light operas, and eventually silent films. Fountain also adorned its walls with more of his artwork, including two murals that depict scenes of the artist’s father entering the Mesilla Valley on horseback.

Albert Jennings Fountain Jr. painted the Fountain Theatre murals.

Over the years, artists have lent a hand and restored the murals, which Fountain Jr. completed in 1924, almost 30 years after his father and younger brother famously disappeared near White Sands National Park and were presumed murdered. “Someone came in, knew how to clean it up, and found [the colonel’s] face underneath,” says Carol McCall, president of the Mesilla Valley Film Society, which operates the Fountain.

These days, the 100-seat theater shows foreign and independent films and documentaries, including a partnership with Rincón de Mesilla to show Becoming Frida Kahlo and host a contest in which folks ages six to 80 dressed up as the artist. The film society, which is currently raising $20,000 for a new sound system, asked patrons to submit comments about why the theater is important to them. “Everybody said it’s a place where people who like film can come together and be a community,” says McCall.

Souheir and John Rawlings felt that connection from the beginning. Souheir, an abstract portrait artist, and John, a sculptor originally from Australia, had been living in Whitefish, Montana, and spending winters operating artist retreats outside Truth or Consequences. When they needed a break, the couple would often stay at Josefina’s historic inn in Mesilla.

It wasn’t long before the Rawlingses decided that the snowbird life just wasn’t for them and that permanently relocating to Mesilla was the right next step. When the inn was put up for sale in 2022, they purchased it from the daughter of the property’s namesake, Josefina Gamboa-Biel-Emerson.

“We’ve found that Mesilla’s been very welcoming and supportive,” Souheir says. “People connect with other artists here.”

The Fountain Theatre is the oldest movie house in New Mexico,

ALEX MARES, INTERPRETIVE PARK RANGER AT Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, stands at the park’s Pond Overlook and points to a cottonwood tree, its leaves vibrant yellow against a partly cloudy blue sky. “That big cottonwood is a good icon for bosque,” he says, noting that the word means “forest” in Spanish.

Looking northeast across the floodplain toward the Organ Mountains, our view of Las Cruces is nearly obscured by a pecan grove, taking us back centuries. “This is one of those places that is the closest in our lifetime to the landscape that the Spanish saw upon arriving here and what the Native people knew for thousands of years,” Mares says.

Interpretive ranger Alex Mares leads hikes at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.

The 400-acre park, a five-minute drive from Mesilla Plaza, provides outdoor and history enthusiasts with more than two miles of hiking trails and an overview of the Río Grande ecosystem. It’s home to bobcat, mule deer, javelina, and more than 200 recorded bird species. Visitors can observe those birds and animals from a new viewing blind built and gifted to the park by the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society in 2021; a second viewing blind and an owl nesting box are currently in the planning stages, Mares notes.

“We’re not the Grand Canyon, we’re not Yosemite, so what’s the lure?” he asks. “You don’t have to go far or drive a long distance to get here, but once you are here, you feel like you’re somewhere far away.”

One of Mesilla Valley’s original staffers back in 2006, Mares moved on to work in other parks but eventually returned in 2020. “I have a connection to the place,” he says, noting that his father’s family lived in the area during the Great Depression. “It feels like I’m back home.”

The Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park is home to bobcat, mule deer, javelina, and more than 200 recorded bird species.

As we walk the Upland Trail, Mares explains that the area is an ecotone, where two different environments make contact, in this case the bosque and Chihuahuan Desert. “We just literally walked a few feet, and the vegetation has changed to wetland,” he says, pointing to the slender, leafy arrowweed plant. “You’re not going to find this arrowweed up in the hills.”

Ancestral Puebloans and Apache peoples would make arrow shafts out of long, straight stalks, he explains. “Even before they made stone arrowheads, they could sharpen this wood and heat it up over the fire,” he says. “It would get almost as hard as a rock.”

One of the park’s missions is to tell the story of the Río Grande and how the river and its course shaped not only the surrounding landscape but also the valley’s history and culture, Mares says.

He recalls the story of how Mesilla’s early settlers first sought out that little mesa to build their new village, still in Mexico. “Everything you see has a history going back if not thousands of years, at least hundreds of years,” he says.

Legacy Pecans are a must-try.

ON SUNDAY MORNING I’M AWAKENED FROM MY room at Josefina’s by the bells of the Basilica. I walk to The Bean at Josefina’s to pick up a Danish with fresh fruit and bring it back to the inn’s lush greenhouse. Random splashes of color pop from the foliage where Talavera pottery creatures—a butterfly, a lizard, a cat perched on a ledge—peek out along the walls.

I grab a bistro table under the lemon tree, where Souheir Rawlings joins me. “It’s still a discovery,” she says about the greenhouse, giving credit to her 10-year-old granddaughter for placing the ceramic figures throughout the space. “This is what I fell in love with.”

The Rawlingses are joining the Artforms Artists Association of New Mexico’s For the Love of Art Month studio tour in February, when they welcome visitors into their studio. “We’re going to be brave and put ourselves on the art map,” she says.

Find Calle de Santiago in the historic plaza.

Keith Bird also continues preparing his family home for future visitors. Once he wraps up renovations, he plans to have every room blessed by a priest from San Albino. “Everything in this house is representative of the people in Mesilla, and everything we do is for Mesilla,” says Bird. “That is why I do it. It’s truly an absolute privilege for me to be able to share it with my people—mi gente.”

Before I leave, I find one of Sandoval’s retablos, a Virgin of Guadalupe in green, pink, yellow, and sky blue, painted on the remains of a tree trunk in a sandy lot off Calle de Santiago, located a few blocks southwest of the Basilica. She painted it in 2005; since then, she tells me, locals have been stopping there to pray.

“People watch after you and watch over you,” Sandoval says about her community. And when the colors of her Guadalupe start to fade, they ask her to give it a fresh coat of paint.

Read more: Perched on mesas in the Jemez Mountains, Los Alamos embraces winter with easy access to skiing, snowshoeing, and other outdoor recreation. (But don’t tell, or you’ll spoil it!)

Anita Rivard sells New Mexico arts and crafts at Mi Corazón Encantado gift shop.



STAY. In addition to The Suites at Josefina’s, there are a handful of Airbnbs off the Mesilla Plaza. On Avenida de Mesilla, Hacienda de Mesilla features rooms, an onsite restaurant, and a pool. Farther north are several chain hotels.

EAT. At Rincón de Mesilla, Juan Albert and Claudia Gonzalez serve traditional New Mexican, Mexican, Cuban, and Spanish dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Come to see La Posta de Mesilla’s live parrots, stay for the expansive New Mexican restaurant’s posole. Double Eagle Restaurant offers a classic white tablecloth dining experience. FARMesilla, a farm-to-table market and café, dishes out breakfast, brunch, and lunch, as well as a menu of cocktails made with local wines and spirits.

LEARN. Preciliana Sandoval, owner of La Morena Walking Tours, can help you get your bearings and fill you in on the history of the Plaza and those who are said to still haunt the buildings. Take in even more local history and walk through four centuries of artifacts and family stories at the Gadsden Museum. Schedule a free tour with a docent and roam the 116-year-old Basilica of San Albino. The church gift store also houses a history room. For a thorough overview of the area’s landscape and natural history, take a self-guided hike or a free ranger-led tour at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.

WATCH. Opened in 1905, the Fountain Theatre is the oldest movie house in the state. More than a century ago, the theater entertained locals with plays, vaudeville acts, and silent films. Today, the Mesilla Valley Film Society screens independent, foreign, and alternative films and documentaries.

SHOP. Mi Corazón Encantado, one of Mesilla’s newest arts-and-crafts boutiques, sells jewelry, crafts, and home goods made by New Mexico artisans. Old Mesilla’s Mercado, held Fridays and Sundays on the Plaza, is touted as one of America’s oldest markets. Several galleries including Agave Artists, a cooperative gallery, showcase paintings, jewelry, ceramics, and photography by local and regional artists. Before you hit the road, stock up on bags of chocolate-covered pecans or jalapeño brittle from Legacy Pecans.