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Cultural Crossroads - Tucson Celebrates Its Intriguing Mix Of Immigrant Influences

Published: Feb 24, 2011
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DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun.
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB
By Josephine Matyas

In Tucson, the romance of the rough and tumble Wild West intersects with rich Native American culture and the bright lights of a world-class cosmopolitan city. Its rich, cultural roots run deep – first as a Tohono O’odham Indian settlement, then as an outpost for Spanish colonial explorers, and finally as home to the ranchers and cowboys who turned to the American Southwest for a new life. Today, the intermingling of these cultures – Native American, Mexican and Spanish, independent-minded settlers – is felt and seen in all parts of Tucson life, from gastronomy to a deep appreciation for the outdoors to the preservation of history and culture.

Add 350 days of sunshine each year to the mix of natural and historical sights, and you have a destination with activities and opportunities to fill any length stay. Tucson makes the grade, whether for a short visit (think: golfing weekend or girlfriend getaway) or for a longer stay (snowbirds flock here, and it makes the perfect family spring break vacation).

Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB
History & Culture
For many millennia, ancient civilizations have left their marks on this part of the country. An excellent way to trace their history is to visit the area’s museums, markets and attractions. The Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum (in Topawa, west of Tucson) tells the history of the tribe, explains their traditional way of life, and provides a chance to shop for traditional crafts like pottery and intricate baskets. Closer to downtown Tucson, on the lands of the Tohono O’odham reservation, is the Mission San Xavier del Bac (White Dove of the Desert), a fine example of Spanish colonial architecture and the oldest intact European structure in Arizona. The small museum, filled with artifacts, imparts a sense of the way people lived at the Mission.

Each year, on New Year’s weekend, the Indian America Competition Pow Wow and Indian Craft Market attracts dancers, drummers and singers from dozens of tribes, and vendors who sell traditional Indian foods and authentic handmade crafts.

In February, Tucson celebrates rodeo and the history of the cowboy at the annual La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. The nine-day festival includes the Tucson Rodeo, one of the top 25 professional rodeos in North America, where visitors can watch bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping, team roping and women’s barrel racing events.

There is no better way to hold onto the cowboy spirit than with a stay at an authentic western ranch. Bordered by the scenic Saguaro National Park and the Coronado National Forest, the Tanque Verde Ranch offers visitors the rough ‘n’ tumble side of a historic working ranch and the pampering of four-star amenities like tennis, golf and spa. Horseback riders will feel at home at White Stallion Ranch, where they offer themed rides for all skill levels, including “wine and cheese” rides, “beer and cheetos” rides, mountain rides and desert rides through the pristine Sonoran landscape.

A different kind of cultural vibe can be found at the weekly ArtWalk in Tucson’s prestigious Gallery Row district. Every Thursday evening, visitors stroll the fine art galleries and enjoy wine tastings and live music.

One of the most intriguing – and delicious – parts of Tucson culture happens on the dinner plate. Native American, Old West and Mexican influences are served from mom ’n’ pop eateries to top-notch restaurants. About 90-minutes outside of town a collection of small Mexican restaurants, a family owned tortilla factory and a chili farmer have joined together to create the Salsa Trail. Another culinary road trip is to the wineries and vineyards of southern Arizona wine country (the area between Nogales and Tucson). The rolling desert grasslands provide soil and climate conditions that favour such popular varietals as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The city’s premiere food and wine event is the annual Tucson Culinary Festival (held in October) featuring signature dishes from dozens of Tucson’s best chefs, a reserve tasting event for wine lovers and the World Margarita Championship.

Step Outside
If there is one truth about Tucson, it is surely this: nature has smiled on this land of lush desert, rugged mountain ranges and rolling ranchland. No other region on the continent offers as large a spectrum of plants and animals as the Sonoran Desert, the landscape that covers all of southwest Arizona. This life-filled world is explained at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the world-renowned zoo, living natural history museum and botanical garden on the outskirts of Tucson. Interpretive trails through desert settings, wildlife exhibits, a walk-in aviary and bird of prey flight demonstrations are some of the highlights.

Hikers, birders and nature lovers are steps away from miles of scenic trails. The Arizona National Scenic Trail passes through the cacti-studded desert of Saguaro National Park. Catalina State Park’s Nature Trail is an interpretive, signed route explaining the desert ecosystem and wildlife. Tucson Mountain Park is a natural desert preserve encompassing a virtual forest of the magnificent saguaro cacti, the towering multi-armed trademark of the Sonoran Desert. The park has 100 kilometres of trails for hikers, horseback riders, and non-motorized mountain bikers. Tucsonites love Sabino Canyon in the nearby foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The desert oasis can be explored by bicycle, on one of the many trails or on the educational, narrated tram tour.

The mix of desert and riparian ecosystems make the land around Tucson a birder’s paradise, especially during the migration season when it’s possible to see 150 different species in a single day. The Saguaro National Park, Sweetwater Wetland, Madera Canyon and Las Cienegas National Conservation Area are just a few of the excellent birding sites close to the city.

Tucson’s clear nighttime skies are world-famous for stargazing – with 350 nights of viewing a year. Premiere facilities attract professional astronomers and stargazing dabblers, to the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter (at the summit of Mt. Lemmon) and the renowned Kitt Peak National Observatory, which houses the world’s largest concentration of telescopes for stellar, solar, and planetary research.
Blessed with a mild climate and a range of scenic landscapes, Tucson is a favourite destination for year-round golf. Resorts feature layouts designed by Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio and offer special packages including accommodation and green fees.

In 2011, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain will be hosting the world’s top 64 golfers at the PGA TOUR Accenture Match Play Championship tournament for the second year in a row.
After a day in the great outdoors, Tucson’s popular spa resort vacations are all about rejuvenating the mind, body and spirit. Because of its clear skies and dry mountain air, Tucson has held a long reputation as a place for health, recuperation and renewal.

For more information, visit www.visittucson.org

Must-Do Tucson

Tohono Chul Park
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB

Tohono Chul Park is a scenic desert preserve and centre of nature, arts and culture.

Pima Air and Space Museum
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB






















Pima Air and Space Museum houses hundreds of aircraft that display more than a century of aerospace history.

Old Tucson Studios
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB

Old Tucson Studios, a Western movie studio and theme park features live shows, dramatic gunfights, thrilling stunts and saloon musicals.

Biosphere 2
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB
Biosphere 2 is a sealed glass biosphere developed as a research facility to study Earth’s living systems. The ecosystems on display include an ocean coral reef, mangroves, rainforest, savannah grassland and fog desert.









National Historic District
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB
Designated as a National Historic District, DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun’s permanent collections of paintings by the late Arizona artist Ted DeGrazia trace the history and culture of native people in the Sonoran Desert.







Colossal Cave Mountain Park
Credit: Metropolitan Tucson CVB


Families love to visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park to explore the underground geology of this “dry” cave and its crystal stalactites and stalagmites.

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