Cacti, Hummingbirds and Tacos in Tucson

With Tucson being a UNESCO designated creative city of gastronomy, famous for giant cacti and boasting a desert museum with a walk through hummingbird aviary – it seemed like our perfect destination! Sure enough, we had a great long weekend and one of our favourite short breaks in the US.

Day 1

After a quick flight, mercifully on time from the notoriously bad IAH, we arrived in Tucson and headed for lunch at Seis Kitchen. Inspired by the six culinary regions of Mexico, there was a nice courtyard area where we enjoyed Tacos Grande Platters and a very pink prickly pear drink. The tacos were tasty with my favourite being Al Pastor (chile-marinated grilled pork, queso fresco, red pepper and pineapple salsa).

Next on the itinerary was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. To get here we drove through Tuscon Mountain Park and I was amazed to see cacti everywhere. It was truly a cacti forest dominated by the majestic saguaro, with much of the low scrub being other species of cacti.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was really more of a zoo crossed with botanic garden and the part I wanted to see the most was the hummingbird aviary. So we set off against the directions on the map (hard for me) and headed there first. Initially it was difficult to spot the little critters, but after a while it became easier and they started whizzing past our heads! The museum has been successful in breeding hummingbirds and even knew to have lots of spiders in the exhibit as their web is crucial for nest making.

With the gardens home to agaves, cacti and special pollinator areas; there were also lots of birds flitting around outside (including cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers and Verdun). We met a local who pointed out some birds and chatted about how he wanted to come to Australia to see a pardalote! We laughed and he thought that meant that pardalotes were ‘junk birds’, but we were just surprised that even though they are beautiful, that they would get any attention over some of the more hyped Australian birds.

We walked around the animal enclosures and saw beaver, otters and big horn sheep in the Riparian Corridor; ocelot, bobcat and grey wolf in Cat Canyon and bears and mountain lion in the Mountain Woodland. It was interesting to learn that at higher elevation the moisture increases, so the pine oak woodlands and ponderosa pine forest at higher elevations supports all kinds of species that you wouldn’t have expected in a desert. (Cacti only grow below the snow line).

As it was getting late we skipped the museum part about the minerals and had a last experience with the hummingbirds. We also didn’t pay extra for the stingray feeding which seemed a very strange thing for a desert museum, but then we realised that we were not so far from the Californian Gulf.

On our way back into town we stopped at the Gates Pass Scenic Lookout and admired the cacti in the afternoon glow. It was good to get up a close to the cacti in their native habitat. Some looked fake – like props from a movie or a cartoon cactus!

For dinner we dined at BOCA Tacos Y Tequila. For starters we enjoyed a salsa flight, BOCA balls (chipotle mashed potatoes dipped in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried) and elote. I was concerned that we hadn’t ordered tacos as everyone around us was enjoying them. However, when our mains arrived we had several envious diners ask us what it was! We tucked into delicious roasted short ribs in a piloncillo and guajillo adobo, served with slaw, beans and tortillas.

Day 2

On Saturday, we ran along the Santa Cruz river park. There was not much water, but there were art works and lots of birds including very noisy hummingbirds. They were chirping from dead branches at the tops of trees and sparkling in the sun so they could be seen even when running past! 

The important next stop was Barrio Bread. Don Guerra won the 2022 Outstanding Baker James Beard award and we were excited to try some decent bread after not finding much in Houston. There was quite a line up, and we were surprised to see Don serving the customers. We told him how we were looking forward eating some tasty sour dough and explained how in Australia we lived down the road from a place that milled their own flour from specific farmers…he said he knew Miller + Baker!

After buying a few more provision for lunch we drove to the eastern part of Saguaro National Park – Rincon Mountain District. We drove around the Cactus Forest Loop stopping to walk along the Mica View Trail. It was lots of fun walking through the cacti, big and small. It takes around 70 years for a Saguaro to grow their first arm, and the tall specimens are about 150 years old. There were cacti with very small arm buds, some with a huge amount of arms and many with flowers growing at the top. I liked the new white spines and the seeing how they grew with extra ribs every so often.

There were also lots of other cacti including barrel cacti with big yellow fruit, cholla and prickly pear cacti. It wasn’t hard to get some photos with four or five types of cacti in them, great for a cacti lover! We ate our tasty lunch and continued to the look-outs on the driving loop.

We didn’t really know how long we’d spend in the park and as we still had some free time so we headed across to the Sabino Canyon. The scenery here was great and if we’d done more research we’d probably have done a longer hike here. We asked at the information centre for a good short walk and set off with highlighting on our map. However, not long into our hike, someone approached us when I pulled out my map and explained how they had gotten lost. We suspected they had parked outside of the park to avoid paying a parking fee and were using Alltrails and had a dead phone… Nothing beats a hard copy map, though I gave ours up so that they could attempt to find where they had parked their car.

After completing our hike, we had a cheeky beverage at Borderland brewery which was fun.

We enjoyed dinner at Coronet in an old building with another lovely courtyard area. As it was pretty chilly, each table had an individual gas heater to keep them warm! We indulged in butternut kolrabhi, radicchio salad, coffee roasted carrots and turnips (I was able to eat it as not too coffee), artichoke hearts and NY strip steak with mushrooms. There was a gem show in town, and a lot of people at the restaurant were part of that scene.

Day 3

As I was training for the hilly Boston marathon, I stupidly decided it would be a good idea to run up Tumamoc Hill as part of my morning run (around 220m elevation gain in 1.5km). There were steady streams of people walking up and down, but only a handful of other runners. Some sections were incredibly steep and I had to do some walking but it was actually the downhill which I think destroyed my legs… The views were great though and there were lots of catci to admire on the climb.

After breakfast we visited Tucson Botanic Garden, which although quite small was very nicely maintained with herb gardens, native American gardens, a butterfly & orchid house and of course cacti and succulent gardens. The growing tips of the cacti were still protected from the cold with paper cups! There was a traveling lego exhibition with lots of brick sculptures around the place but the best part was more lovely hummingbirds.

Our final destination was the Saguaro National Park – West Tucson Mountain district. This was back tracking through Gates Head Pass but I didn’t mind admiring the stunning cacti views from the passenger seat.

The cacti are more densely packed in the western side compared with the eastern side and we had lunch at the visitor centre just taking in the vista. We did a couple of short walks starting with the Desert Discovery Nature Trail. This trail had interpretative signs and explained the ecology of the park and facts about the Saguaro. We learnt about nursery trees which shade baby cacti and offer protection from the elements. As it was hard to get parking for some of the other walks, we headed to the Signal Hill petroglyphs and then back to the airport.

All in all, a great weekend break!


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