Tucson, Arizona: Exploring Saguaro National Park, San Xavier Del Bac Mission, and enjoying some of the best Mexican food Tucson has to offer.
Ever since my parents moved to Arizona to enjoy their retirement in the sunshine, they have been wanting to explore more of their new state. This year, instead of visiting them at their home, we decided to meet up with them and both explore Tucson, Arizona. We rented a VRBO house just outside of the city in the Oro Valley area–a very nice area if you are looking for some peace and quiet but still want to be close to all the main attractions. We visiting in April, one of the best times for weather in Arizona and around the time that we Seattlites are in desperate need of some sun.
Day 1: Road trip from San Diego to Tucson
After spending three nights in San Diego (click to read more about our time there), we rented a car to drive to Tucson to meet up with my parents. I’m a pretty big fan of road trips, an the drive was about 6 hours through the desert. However, there wasn’t much to see along the way and it was honestly a pretty boring drive. When we arrived at our rental house, we just ordered some delivery dinner and spent some time enjoying the evening with my parents.
The sunsets in Tucson are fantastic, particularly when accompanied by a prickly pear margarita.
Day 2: Saguaro National Park and some fantastic tacos
Saguaro National Park surrounds Tucson, and there are actually two separate parts to the park–one to the east of the city and one to the west. I had a few short and easy hikes on my list, but even though it was a cooler time of year to visit Tucson, it was already 85 degrees by the time we arrived at the park. We also had my parents with us who have some mobility limitations, so we opted for a short, half mile stroll on an easy paved path through the Saguaros.
There is no toll booth for entry to Saguaro National Park West, you can pay at the visitor’s center. The fee is $25.00 per vehicle. Rangers at the visitor’s center and gift shop are happy to help answer questions about hiking trails, wildlife, and any other inquiries you may have about the park.
The short easy trail we did was the Desert Discovery Trail, which is all level and paved and includes several shaded benches along the way. It is a perfect way to see the saguaros up close if it’s too hot to hike, or if you or your family have mobility challenges.
Note: Always stay on the trail as rattlesnakes and scorpions are often hiding under rocks. Always be sure to take water with you as well, no matter how short of a hike you are doing.
The huge saguaros are really impressive in person. It takes them about 70 years to reach 6 feet tall, and 200 years to reach their full height of around 45 feet. It seems that not one saguaro is identical, they all had unique shapes and varied amounts of arms.
After the little Desert Discovery Trail loop, we took a drive around the rest of the park and enjoyed the scenery.
We said goodbye to the Saguaros and headed into Tucson for some lunch at Top Chef finalist Maria Mazon’s restaurant, Boca Tacos y Tequila.
We enjoy watching Top Chef (it’s pretty much the only reality TV show we watch) and were excited to try Maria Mazon’s food after cheering her on while watching the show. We were surprised and delighted to see that she was actually running food out to customers at her restaurant! She even posed for a photo with Paddy, who was fanboy giddy with excitement. I think she enjoys interacting with her patrons.
As for the food, it was just as delicious as we expected it to be. We had to go with the Boca Balls (fried chipotle mashed potato balls), and the Pulpo Asado (octopus tentacles with ancho chile and lime butter and grilled green onions). We also tried a selection of the tacos, which were all fantastic. My favorite was the salmon taco.
Boca Tacos y Tequila is open for lunch and dinner, and has a full bar. They take reservations for parties of 4 or more. Don’t miss this place while visiting Tucson!
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool and ordered pizza delivery for dinner. Our VRBO rental in the Catalina Foothills was just too relaxing to leave.
Day 3: Downtown Tucson and a Disappointing Tiki Bar
We began our third day in Tucson by doing a driving/walking tour of Barrio Viejo, the old historic part of downtown Tucson. In Barrio Viejo, you can find some historic buildings from the 1800’s that are still standing from when Tucson used to be part of Mexico. Many of the old adobe houses and buildings are painted bright colors.
Don’t miss the El Tiradito Wishing Shrine, dedicated to a tragic love affair gone awry in the 19th century.
Per the Tucson Museum website, “The ‘Curse of The Wishing Shrine’ centers predominately on its visitors motives for their visit, and their own lives. It is said that if one visits with a clear open heart that forgives, they will pass, and they may even get their wish fulfilled. For others, it may just be the beginning of history repeating itself depending on what they themselves bring to the shrine. Also, it is said that if you light a candle at the shrine and it remains burning all night long without going out by sunrise, your wish may be granted depending on your motivations.”
Read more about the story of this intriguing historical site here.
After enjoying the historical buildings in Barrio Viejo, we ventured over to North 4th Ave, a neighborhood area in between downtown and the University of Arizona with a lot of fun shops and restaurants. We recommend visiting Pop Cycle, a shop with a lot of unique locally made art and gifts, Generation Cool vintage clothing, the Tucson Thrift Shop (more vintage clothing and costumes), Wooden Tooth Records, and Jellywink (a sex-positive adult boutique).
We were pretty hungry after exploring, and were ready to try some more local food. One of the foods Tucson is famous for is the Sonoran Hot Dog, a hot dog wrapped in bacon and dressed with pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, mayo, mustard, and jalepenos. We were told one of the best places to get these is at El Guero Canelo.
At El Guero Canelo, they bake the hot dog buns themselves. After ordering at the counter, your Sonoran dog arrives on a paper plate in a soft, pillowy bed of fresh baked bread with beans and all the fixings. An economical meal that is delicious and uniquely Tucson, a lunch stop at El Guero Canelo is a must. There are several locations to choose from.
Later that evening, we were excited to check out Tucson’s only Tiki bar, Kon Tiki. A historical hold-out from the mid-century Tiki heyday, Kon Tiki has been in swing since 1963, with much of the original decor and signs.
The Tiki decor and atmosphere in Kon Tiki is well-preserved, but they seem to have added some TVs and made it into a sports bar, which was disappointing. We were seated in a section away from the main TV area so we were content there. Overall, the vintage Tiki vibe is thriving here.
The biggest disappointment however, was the food and drinks. The drinks were sugary 1970’s or 1980’s era tropical. My Mai Tai was mediocre and sweet. The food left even more to be desired. I made the mistake of trying the macadamia crusted mahi, expecting something similar to macadamia mahi dish I’d tried at Duke’s in Waikiki. What I got was a piece of fish drowned in a very sweet, gray sauce with flavors that should never be paired with fish. We all agreed that the cook seems to be afraid of salt, and I had to ask for salt to try and make the meal edible (it was not on the tables). Paddy tried the katsu chicken and waffles (also a mistake), which was bizarrely prepared with a questionable bechamel sauce.
I really wanted to like Kon Tiki, as it is a historical relic of the Tiki era. However, I can’t recommend it and we definitely won’t be back. If you are a Tiki fan and want to go just to see it, I recommend sticking to beer and maybe just try some of their potstickers. Good luck.
Day 4: San Xavier del Bac Mission
A trip to Tucson isn’t complete without a visit to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. I had been once before with a friend on a three week road trip around the southwest in my early 20’s, and the second visit was just as magical as the first. Just a 30 minute drive south of Tucson, it’s an easy day tour.
Tucson and San Xavier were part of Mexico up until the Gadsden purchase of 1854. The Catholic mission of San Xavier dates back to 1692, with the current church building dating back to the 1700’s. It feels like something you would see in Europe due to it’s age and Spanish architecture.
The outside grounds are beautiful, but the inside is shockingly elaborate. Entrance is free, but check the website to avoid mass times as the church is still in active operation.
After touring the mission in the morning, we went a little further south to the tiny town of Amado to visit the iconic Longhorn Grill and Saloon for lunch. We were there for food, but the food is not the draw to this establishment. It’s because it looks like this:
The building dates back to the 1970’s, and has been the site of a bait shop, a roofing company, and a clothing store before becoming a restaurant. It seems to have had a recent remodel inside, and the atmosphere was nice. Menu serves decent pub grub and southwest fare. It really doesn’t get much more Arizona than a restaurant with a giant cow skull in the middle of the desert. It’s worth the stop for the photo-op alone, but the food isn’t bad. Just don’t come in a hurry–service is a little slow.
We spend the rest of our last day in Tucson enjoying our pool and relaxing.
For dinner, I had read that some of the most legendary Mexican fare in Tucson is served at the El Charro Cafe. It is at El Charro that the chimichanga was invented, and it is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the US.
As we were staying in Oro Valley, we opted for the Oro Valley location nearby, instead of the flagship downtown location. The Oro Valley El Charro was disappointingly in a strip mall, and we sat outside with a view of the parking lot and a Kohl’s. The food however, did not disappoint. Service was quick and the meals were delicious.
A food that is traditionally Sonoran is Carne Seca, which is dried beef that is then shredded and cooked as a filling for tacos, burritos, enchiladas, etc. El Charro has many dishes featuring Carne Seca. Paddy tried the El Charro Carne Seca Burro, “elegante style,” and I tried the Sinaloa Shrimp Culchi (shrimp cooked in a creamy garlic verde sauce). My shrimp dish came with a side of nopalitos, or cooked nopal/prickly pear cactus.
El Charro is a must for a visit to Tucson, but maybe try and visit the downtown flagship location for better atmosphere. The downtown location is on our list for a return trip.
Overall, Oro Valley was a nice place outside of downtown to get a house with a pool and relax. Pro tip for searching for a house with a pool: If coming during a cooler time of year, check to see if the pool is heated or has a heating option (often for an additional fee) before booking. Many Arizona pools are not heated at all, and are a little too chilly to use during the spring and fall.
I would love to come back to Tucson in March when it is a little cooler and try some easy day hikes in the Saguaro National Park. We didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, and I have a dream of watching the sunset over a hill of Saguaros. We really liked Tucson and would like to spend more time there someday.